April 3, 2012

Time and Politics in Chapters 2 and 3 (Pg 13-27) of Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

Since this section of “Dune” is primarily dedicated to exposition and foreshadowing of all the shit that’s about to hit the fan for the Atreides family as they move to Arrakis, it’s hard to approach a discussion of these chapters.  But there are two things that really stood out to me while reading the second and third chapters of “Dune.”

The first thing that I noticed about these beginning chapters was Frank Herbert’s treatment of politics.  “Dune” takes place thousands of years in the future, and the human race has made technological advances in everything from space travel and genetic memory to building little machines that help the morbidly obese Baron Harkonnen walk by lifting his rolls of fat. It’s a highly developed society is my point.  What's ironic is that one thing has seemingly not progressed at all in the thousands of years between our time and the universe of “Dune”: politics.  Not only has politics not progressed, it has seemingly regressed to a feudal system that our society might regard as terribly antiquated.  
It’s funny (if you’re a geek, like I am) to think that a book written in 1965 can have such commentary on the current political dead-lock in Washington, especially because Herbert portrays politics as continuing in the same cluster-fuckery for thousands of years.  Essentially, the only thing that doesn’t seem to have evolved in the thousands of years that gave rise to the universe of “Dune” is human nature, as we see the Baron Harkonnen plotting the ultimate demise of his political enemy Duke Leto in order to establish some kind of dominance in government and trade.  In the book’s universe, humans aren’t even squabbling about the wording of legislation anymore; we’ve actually gone back to just outright murdering political opponents.  
It sort of makes me wonder how far our society has actually progressed from Before Common Era (that’s B.C., kids) societies, which brings me to my next observation on these chapters.
Does anyone else find it kind of funny that a book set thousands of years in the future frames its chapters with commentary that refers to the book’s events as historical (p.s. I’m aware the chapters in “Dune” are not actually numbered)?  In one way, the time-period when the book takes place is light-years into our future, but at the same time it is also presented as a cultural past, which gives Herbert’s whole portrayal of time a sort of cyclical feel.  What’s amazing about Herbert’s portrayal here is that time becomes a really complicated concept in the context of space, and Herbert not only seems to understand it, but also molds the form of the book around it.
This is one reason why science fiction can be so compelling, because more than any other genre, science fiction can dramatize the true magnitude the universe.  Science fiction shows people how kooky and bizarre our own reality can be.

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