The Many Levels That Dune Can Be Read At

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Hey, if you haven’t already read Frank Herbert’s Dune, then a) Shame on you. And b) I’m going to spoil the crap out of it for you.

Go read it now.

Then come back here.

I believe that there are at least four ways that you can interpret Dune as you read it (I have a fifth, but it’s kind of trite).

The first, and easiest way to read Dune is as a traditional coming of age story. Young Paul Atreides must grow into manhood when his family is attacked and his house scattered. Paul grows from a soft young boy to a militant leader, and eventually the emperor of all humanity. It’s a long story arc and it necessitates a long book length.

The second common interpretation of Dune is the environmental one. Dune is ravaged by harsh deserts in an age where we can control the weather. Why is Dune left that way? So that the local natural resource, Melange*, can be exploited. Do the locals have any say in this? No they do not. Their colonizers have decided their fate and will continue to to do so…

Which takes us to the third interpretation - the nascent Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s. The Arab nations of the Middle East were discovering that if they took control of their local resource, petroleum, then they could control the world’s economy.

Which leads us to interpreting it through religious extremism. I’m not sure that Herbert comes down against this, not in its totality. On the one hand, he gives us the Bene Gesserit - secretive, extreme, pushing their own agenda throughout history towards the goal of creating a Kwisatz Haderach**, a male supreme leader of their order. Supposedly this man will put humanity on ‘the golden path’ and ensure our future, but within the structure of the story, there is no real threat to our future that needs to be overcome. On the other hand, Paul taps into the Fremen’s religious belief in a saviour and uses that to give himself a power base and get revenge upon his enemies. There are points in the story when Paul regrets his actions (more so in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune) but by then it’s too late - he’s started something that he can’t stop. his only hope is to ride it out and guide it where he can.

There is at least one final way to interpret Dune, a cautionary tale about using drugs or medicine for performance enhancement. The Guild Navigators pay an incredibly high price for their use of the spice, transforming from a human form into one that is not only not compatible with us, but not compatible with our environment. The whole human society has become reliant upon this one drug (again the petroleum oil analogy) for their economy to function. Bene Gesserit pay an incredibly high price, as to become a full member (Reverend Mother) one must drink a poisonous form of the drug and survive.

There are probably others: Human capacity for specialization versus reliance on AI; Fear of innovation (fear of IX and its products); Racism (The lack of acceptance of the Fremen, the Bene Tleilax, forcing them into poor economies or dangerous power plays); Classism/Feudalism (Chani can never be Paul’s wife, only his concubine).

What do you think? How else can that story be interpreted? (Or should readers just shut up and read the book without forcing an interpretation?)

* Melange is the French word for Cinnamon, FYI.
** Kwisatz Haderach is awfully close to Kefitzat Haderech, which Wikipedia calls “a Jewish Kabbalistic term that literally means contracting the path.”