The Human Condition:

The Dune Ethos – October 30, 2011

I have long been a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune books. I love their incredible energy and rich technical and social detail, but mostly I have been mesmerized by their special outlook on the human condition. This is best shown in the first four books, relating to the immediate family of Paul Atreides, the rebel prophet Muad’dib, from his father Leto’s accession to the planet Arrakis to the death of his son Leto II some 3,000 years later. I’m still an avid reader, but not such a fan, of the books that followed The God-Emperor of Dune. These later books lost focus on that family and became a tangled tale of religious intrigue, hidden spice hordes, grounded no-ships, and wild-eyed faux Bene Gesserit. Good reading, but not all that insightful.1

So what did those first four books (Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God-Emperor of Dune) have that the others seem to lack? I call it the Dune ethos—in the sense of the guiding beliefs that characterize a person or institution—and it’s made up of many parts.

First, there are no fools among the major characters, no easy targets.2 All the villains are strong, wily, alert, self-aware, and motivated. The Imperium and its major players define a universe of caution and danger. It’s not enough that one take the normal human precautions against disease, accident, and a plunging stock market. Everyone in your play group is setting traps, sending assassins, and plotting your downfall. In addition to native wits and watchfulness, you need to prepare your own skills in self-defense, surround yourself with trusted, loyal, and capable friends—who are more like family members than servants and retainers—and reinforce their capabilities with weapons training, code words, battle language, and a stock of family atomics.

This is not a world I would particularly like to live in. Watching your back 24/7 and testing every bite of food for poison does not give one the leisure the think and dream. But the Dune ethos requires that in a dangerous environment, you prepare. You don’t wander about trusting to the kindness of strangers and hoping that your inherent inoffensiveness and soft answers will turn away wrath. I found this same sort of preparation in the face of adversity in the film of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. “I spent my whole life trying not to be careless,” Don Corleone says. “Women and children can afford to be careless, but not men.” It’s always inspiring to see people who take their life situation seriously.

A second part of the Dune ethos is that human skill trumps technology. In the universe of the Imperium, ever-increasing mechanization and automation have already been discovered to be a trap and discarded on religious principle. When machines replace every human function, from working to walking to thinking, then humans become soft, weak, and disposable. The people of the Imperium know that humans must be strong and alert to survive in a hostile universe. And this universe has dangers far beyond mere human interaction: coriolis storms, giant sandworms, shigawire, and inkvines. You might use simple machines in your struggles, like knives and body shields, lasguns and ornithopters, but the intelligence directing them must be human and awake. This is a society that has given human development into the hands of the “Great Schools”—the Bene Gesserit, the Bene Tleilax, the Mentats, the Spacing Guild—to teach and train human senses, responses, and intellect.

I happen to be a fan of technology and automation. I believe machines free the average human from back-breaking drudgery and repetitive tasks, enabling us to think, explore, discover, and dream. But if our machines ever become so all-encompassing that they bottle-feed us, put us to bed, and regulate our oxygen supply, then it will be time for a Butlerian Jihad against them. Until then, I treasure technology and mechanical innovation as an expression of the human mind.

What I like about the notion of the Great Schools is that human potential is limitless and largely untapped. With the proper training, any human mind can access and explore abilities of analysis and calculation usually reserved for autistic savants; any human body can access the speed, grace, endurance, and energy usually exhibited by yogis, ballerinas, and karate masters. The early Dune books were composed in the 1960s, which saw the birth of the human potential movement, and they absorbed that hopeful outlook.

The third dimension of the Dune ethos is the basic decency of the Atreides. Yes, they maintain a standing army, compose propaganda film strips, and attempt to hoodwink their enemies. But Duke Leto and the Lady Jessica understand that they must show trust and offer loyalty to their retainers and subjects if they are to expect these qualities in return. They create a place of safety and certainty amid the storm. Each of their notable retainers—the sword master Duncan Idaho, the knife wielding Gurney Halleck, and the strategist Thufir Hawat—has been raised by the family from questionable circumstances to a position of personal freedom and dignity. Life among the Atreides compares very favorably with the skulking, suspicious, fear-haunted lives of Harkonnen retainers.

As someone who has worked in business organizations for forty years, I can appreciate the management lessons available in Dune. Duke Leto warns his son to give as few orders as possible, because “once you’ve given orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject.” In place of such micromanagement, the duke adopts and disseminates a pattern of values and establishes a sense of the way he wants things done. When his employees know what he expects of them, he can leave to their judgment how they will handle any particular situation. This approach is not only more flexible and efficient, but it builds a sense of purpose and pride into the employee. It’s better to enlist the support of fully involved human beings than try to program the actions of meat puppets.

Finally, the Dune ethos explores the limits of personal power. Paul Muad’dib is able to see the future so clearly that he can predict and avoid any trap. But in the end this prescience traps him, and he must hopelessly play out the steps of a dance which he already finds tedious. His son, Leto II, not only shares this prescience but also has access to the past lives, experiences, and wisdom of his every human ancestor going back to Agamemnon; he inhabits a massive, wormlike body covered with invulnerable scales; and he commands a galactic empire maintained by the personal loyalty of an army of fanatic female warriors. Yet he treasures the surprises that one alert human mind and opposing will can create for him. In fact, he plays against this opponent to neutralize his own superior abilities and engineer a death for himself that ensures the continuity of humankind.

I believe in human abilities and the free will to exercise them against an environment of chance and chaos. And yet I know that any single human life is inherently meaningless.3 The meaning is left for each of us to take and make our own … and yet … Learn to play Mozart, write the perfect love letter, bake the most intricate pastries—then die anyway and go to dust. You might create a moment of happiness among the people within reach of your playing, your letters, your baked goods. They too will die and go to dust. The only lasting personal monument is effort that increases human understanding and compassion, raises awareness, and advances the human species.

As an author myself, I know that the richness of feeling and experience that I call the Dune ethos is actually a product of the mind of Frank Herbert. Those early books tap into an understanding, values, and insights that cannot be simulated through clever scholarship or pasted on as an afterthought in the final edit. Through reading his books, we touch the man. That’s magical. And by touching us with his understanding and insights, Herbert transcends death and creates the only monument worth having.

1. I’ll tip my hat here to the other Dune books, written by the author’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson. These sequels to the original books are admirable works of science fiction in themselves. I sometimes feel, though, that by mining and expanding on the tidbits that Herbert used artfully to suggest a backstory, they sometimes open too many doors and light too many lamps. For example, by showing Vladimir Harkonnen as a handsome, athletic, disciplined young man who only becomes bloated through a disease inflicted on him as an act of vengeance, we lose the sense of the original: that the Baron was a greedy spider whose vanity wanted to absorb the entire world into his own flesh. Because they often fail to reproduce the original Dune ethos, I sometimes find these follow-on books to be psychologically colorless.

2. Compare this robustness to the Honored Matre “Dama” in the later books. She’s so confident of her superior intellect, abilities, and personal ruthlessness that her enemies can knock her over all too easily.

3. See my blog The Meaning of Life from October 9, 2011.