Spice World – the seminal Dune story

Dune trilogy covers

Everyone knows Dune (you do, don’t you? If not, why are you here?), and if you’ve even given this blog a cursory glance, you know that lately I’ve been obsessing about Dune more than a little.

I happened to chance onto a book called The Road to Dune in a local second-hand book store (I live in Malaysia. English is not the first language here, so it was a find). Within this book, along with deleted or early draft scenes from Dune and Dune Messiah, was a novella called Spice World. Continue reading “Spice World – the seminal Dune story”

The Many Levels That Dune Can Be Read At


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, the Campbell myth. 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 four: 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.”

10 Novels that have stayed with me

David Gerrold*, noted science fiction writer, had an interesting article on his website, 10 Novels that have stayed with me. One thing that amazed me is how much of a crossover there was with his list and my (then hypothetical) list. One thing that saddened me was that he gave the list (2 actually, one of books and one of authors), but no rationale for how they had impacted him. I thought I’d make my own list, but giving rationales for each.

So, let?s break it down! Ten novels that have stayed with me:

by Frank Herbert
Before we even get into this, I want to state that for me Dune and Dune Messiah should be treated as one book, perhaps titled The Rise and Fall of Paul Atreides. I?ve read Dune enough times that I have favourite editions (each edition has a slightly different edit – sometimes correcting elements, occasionally deleting scenes.) I like the earlier versions that include scenes where Count Fenring is fully explored as a failed Kwisatz Haderach. He sympathetically discusses Paul?s fate with his wife, even as he plans how to kill him.

As my knowledge of the Middle East has grown, I?ve re-read this story with very different eyes. It seems prophetic if you think draw parallels with the pre-Arab Spring Middle East and Mahgreb. I can?t help but wonder what if any inspiration T. E. Lawrence was on Frank Herbert.

Under Pressure
by Frank Herbert
Not all Frank Herbert stories were good. I?ve read a few that made me wonder how they got published (Hellstrom’s Hive anyone?). But this is one of his better. Also released as Dragon in the Sea, this is a good, suspenseful story. There are four men on a sub during wartime. One is a traitor, but who? Can the sub finish its critical mission before the traitor sabotages the sub? (Also of note, Herbert’s ConSentience books – Whipping Star and Dosadi Experiment)
The Chrysalids
by John Wyndham
This is one of those stories that throws you in and expects you to swim. You?ll discover as you read this that there has been some kind of holocaust, probably a nuclear war, and that survivors have fallen back not only on older agrarian ways, but also on a strict set of laws and guidances to ensure that humanity remains pure (it?s not stated why, but many children are born with deformities. Such children are banished to semi-arable radioactive zones.) Against this background, a generation of telepaths is born. They try to hide and fit in, but any conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest member, and one of the telepaths is only a baby and can’t comprehend the danger.
The Lord of the Rings
by J.R.R. Tolkien
I don?t have to explain the plot, but it?s the visual imagery, so adeptly captured in the first movie, that drove me to continue reading even when it meant immersing in elvish and dwarfish lore that didn?t really interest me. The man knew how to write.
The Lord of Light
by Roger Zelazny
Another story where you need to figure it out as you go? There are gods living among a pre-industrial society. But it turns out that they are all descendants from a crashed spaceship, the ?gods? from the crew, the rest from the passengers. The ?gods? hoard technology and suppress societal development (going so far as to blow up a house in which someone had built a toilet) but now one of the ?gods? wants to change all that.
by Samuel R. Delaney
Set in the far distant future, this story, partially told in flashback, deals with a feud between two very wealthy families, one of old-money and from Earth, the other nouveau riche and located in a colonized world. This is a rich story of cruelty, obsession, and wealth gone awry. It?s also a lyrical story about music, tarot cards, cyberpunk-style technology and a star about to go boom.
The Naked Sun
by Isaac Asimov
This is a sequel to Caves of Steel, and reunites the two main protagonists, an Earthling named Elijah Bailey and a robot named Daniel Olivaw. While the first story was set in the cave-like cities of a futuristic, poor, and fearful Earth, this story sees the characters solving a murder on a much richer and more sparsely populated world, one where people still go outside, much to Elijah?s horror. His agoraphobia is a constant throughout the story. This one was much more memorable than the first, and I find I come back to it. Asimov later expanded this series with a third book, Robots of Dawn, and later still even tied this series to his Foundation series.
A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge
While this story is technically a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, the stories take place 20,000 years apart and have only one character in common. Simply put in the distant future two human cultures are competing to make contact with an alien species that hibernates for centuries at a time. Vinge writes aliens as common but different people better than most, and I prefer his telling here to the first book.
The Mote in God?s Eye
by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
First contact with aliens, but we?re the spacefaring ones and they?re planetbound. The story is fun enough that I?ve read it a half dozen times. Truthfully, the aliens aren’t alien enough for me, but the strength of the story is in the world-building and the human cultures – a mixture of WWII American naval and pre-Soviet Russian cultures, with a sense of British aristocracy thrown in. And Kevin Renner, can’t forget Kevin Renner.
The Hitchhiker?s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams
There?s now five or six books in this ?trilogy? but really the first book is all you need. I?d like to call this post-modern absurdist science fiction, but I?m not even sure what that means. However there is something inherently Monty Python-esque about this story of the last human alive. If you don?t know the story, and don?t have time to read it, try to find the BBC TV series, not the movie.

David Gerrold also did a list of 10 authors, and like his, my list of authors does not completely match up with my list of books (Hello Terry Pratchett!). But that?s a post for another day.


*David Gerrold has written many good books, including A Matter for Men and When HARLIE Was One, but to my mind he is best known for his breakout TV script “The Trouble with Tribbles” for the original Star Trek TV series.

Here’s the original “Next Week on Star Trek” trailer. The episode is much better than the trailer:

As always, feel free to disagree below!