The problem with Frank Herbert's Dune

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uneasy
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The problem with Frank Herbert's Dune

Post by uneasy »

I started rereading Frank Herbert's Dune books, but I've always seen one big problem with them.

Spice is the most valuble substance in the galaxy. It's like if petroleum ALSO increased lifespan AND let people tell the future AND had some narcotic effects. That's some pretty darn valuble stuff.

They have artificial eyes, clones, elaborate poisons and anti-poisons. However, no one ever talks about finding a substitute for the most valuble substance in the galaxy, or even looking into its chemical composition.

Nope. They just mine the stuff out of the ground and spend all their time trying to assassinate one another.

These books just defy belief that anything is so valuble doesn't have an entire industry trying to find the source of it, study it, reproduce it, conserve it, enhance it, and increase its production.

I do find the books entertaining, but before I gave up after book four because things like this just got on my nerves after a while.

Am I the only one who thinks this is a problem?
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Post by Grammatron »

You forgot to add that it also allows for space travel.

I guess that's the price that society paid when they stopped using computers and switched to Mentats.

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Re: The problem with Frank Herbert's Dune

Post by bjornart »

uneasy wrote:I started rereading Frank Herbert's Dune books, but I've always seen one big problem with them.

Spice is the most valuble substance in the galaxy. It's like if petroleum ALSO increased lifespan AND let people tell the future AND had some narcotic effects. That's some pretty darn valuble stuff.

They have artificial eyes, clones, elaborate poisons and anti-poisons. However, no one ever talks about finding a substitute for the most valuble substance in the galaxy, or even looking into its chemical composition.

Nope. They just mine the stuff out of the ground and spend all their time trying to assassinate one another.

These books just defy belief that anything is so valuble doesn't have an entire industry trying to find the source of it, study it, reproduce it, conserve it, enhance it, and increase its production.

I do find the books entertaining, but before I gave up after book four because things like this just got on my nerves after a while.

Am I the only one who thinks this is a problem?
It allows people to see into the future, hence it's magic, not of this world and not possible to synthesize. They probably tried, and failed outside the pages of the book. Besides it's insanely expensive, so those who mine it don't want it synthesized cause that will bring down the prize. Those who use it for their profession don't want it synthesized cause that will break their monopoly. And God doesn't want it synthesized cause that will fuck the whole premise of the books.

Basically it's the kind of thing you have to overlook, or you have to put down the books.

In fact I'm glad I became a rabid, cynical skeptic _after_ I'd read many of these books, cause I find more and more that I can't tolerate holes in the fabric of imaginary worlds.

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Post by Reginald »

Well..........yes and no.

To start with there is too much vested interest and as such there is pressure applied NOT to find an artificial substitute. The whole idea is that it is a power bringing monopoly. In the Dune universe it is THE power bringing monopoly, controlled by commerce, factions and the ruling elite. Those that hold the power wish to retain the power. As for the subject of artificial spice, the whole subject is explored and explained in later volumes.

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Post by uneasy »

Reginald wrote:To start with there is too much vested interest and as such there is pressure applied NOT to find an artificial substitute. The whole idea is that it is a power bringing monopoly. In the Dune universe it is THE power bringing monopoly, controlled by commerce, factions and the ruling elite. Those that hold the power wish to retain the power. As for the subject of artificial spice, the whole subject is explored and explained in later volumes.
I'm not sure if I buy the reasoning that there was pressure not to find a substitute. Those who did not have it would love to find a substitute. Like anyone with with lots of chemical/biological skills. But no, instead of working on a substitute spice, they make a complicated plot involving dwarf and Duncan clones instead. As far as plots go, this goes against Ocham's razor.

Also, the characters seem to have just poor reasoning about anything related to spice. They know spice comes from worms. They know water kills worms. And yet they want to increase the water in Dune's ecosystem without drawing the obvious conclusion that this would hurt spice production. No one realizes this until the THIRD book. I figured that out, and I was in high school.

Just think of silk trade in our own history. If this was like Dune, the Chinese would have been happily making silk from stuff they found on leaves without bothering to find out where it came from or how they could make it faster. And they might kill all those pesky worms while they were at it.


I've heard there's more about spice on other planets in later books, but I don't know if it explains why characters in the first books that are supposed to be practically human computers are so willfully ignorant of spice. Answer: Herbert was not a human computer and has a few holes in his plots.
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Re: The problem with Frank Herbert's Dune

Post by Occasional Chemist »

uneasy wrote: I do find the books entertaining, but before I gave up after book four because things like this just got on my nerves after a while.

Am I the only one who thinks this is a problem?
Like others have said, it's kinda the basic premise of the book. Herbert needed the spice to be the way it was in the first book so he'd have a story - period.

(Spoiler - but we're talking about OLD books here) Besides, in the last couple of books, the spice IS manufactured artificially. So Herbert finally gets around to addressing your question.

You don't mention the real problem with the Dune books, though. :) The writing gets worse and worse the farther you get into the series (although the beginning of the second book is probably the silliest thing in any of them). I've read the whole series once, and reread books 1, 2, and 3, but I could never make it all the way back through the series.

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Post by Blue Monk »

Has anyone found a way to synthesize oil or coal? How about silk? Has anyone produce a good fake truffle? How is the artificial honey industry doing?

The fact is it can often be extremely difficult if not impossible to create in a lab what is organically produced and often when it can it is either terribly inferior or far more expensive.

Of course we are talking about a very advanced culture but still there are some things that occur naturally that we may never be able to truly reproduce.

Just a thought.

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Post by uneasy »

Blue Monk wrote:Has anyone found a way to synthesize oil or coal? How about silk? Has anyone produce a good fake truffle? How is the artificial honey industry doing?
That is a very good point, BluMo.

I'm not sure if it answers the point about how they don't seem to understand the ecosystem of Dune or the source of spice, but that's the best argument I've heard yet.

Don't anyone get me wrong. If I were a publisher, and Herbert came to me in the 70s with that story, I would have loved to publish it. Like any novel idea, good for a few books at least.
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Post by Reginald »

I'm not sure if it answers the point about how they don't seem to understand the ecosystem of Dune or the source of spice..
I thought that was explained. The official planetologist who should have been the one to discover and report such things went native, likewise his son and conspired to keep information to a minimum.

By the by. I found it an enjoyable read and like any book (any thing for that matter) we can always find holes.

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Post by Occasional Chemist »

Reginald wrote:I thought that was explained. The official planetologist who should have been the one to discover and report such things went native, likewise his son and conspired to keep information to a minimum.
When you consider we're talking about a whole planet here, I think it's even more implausible that only one guy from the Imperium knows anything about the ecology of the planet where The Most Important Substance In The Universe is from.

But like you say, it was a fun book.

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Post by MRC_Hans »

Sure, it is full of holes, but hey, it's not SUPPOSED to be technically correct. It is fiction, not a bloody science report.

I have always understood the Dune society as a deeply degenerated society; they have a lot of technical gadgets, but they're mostly ancient. Very little new technology is developed, they just use what they have, and probably few people, if any at all, understand how it works. They are simply no longer capable of innovation (like synthetising Spice).

This also fits with the feudal system they have. Feudal systems are not interested in sharing and promoting knowledge, because that means sharing power.

I liked it. IMHO it is one of the best space operas ever written.

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Post by SkepticJ »

Blue Monk wrote:How about silk?

Of course we are talking about a very advanced culture but still there are some things that occur naturally that we may never be able to truly reproduce.
#1: Working on it http://www.nexiabiotech.com/en/03_bio/05.php
#2: Such as? And why? Because it's magic? :roll: Don't say diamonds, we are already making gem quality ones cheaper than 'natural' ones.
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Post by Skeeve »

Well, here I thought you were going tell us that it's tedious, boring, and circumloquitory, that its characters routinely act in fashions contrary to their own self-interest as puppets of plot, and that the series should have ended with the first book.

I agree that your objections are also sensible, but it seems to me that you've chosen to place emphasis on one symptom of a broadly distributed syndrome.
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Post by uneasy »

Thanks for the comments, all. I do find the books entertaining. I just have to put an image of my mind of a screwed up society and go with the flow. I'm going to try to keep reading and reach books 5+ this time.

I guess if I want a logical and consistent plot in a science fiction series, I'll have to reread Book of the New Sun. :D
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Post by Occasional Chemist »

SkepticJ wrote:#2: Such as? And why? Because it's magic? :roll: Don't say diamonds, we are already making gem quality ones cheaper than 'natural' ones.
Just wanted to add a link here to an interesting article about how good we are at making diamonds:

http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/8205 ... monds.html

The article also gives some insight on how it's done, and may surprise some of you who know how the Earth makes diamonds...

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Post by Nyarlathotep »

One thing that everyone seems to be forgetting is Dune portrays a society which is deeply distrustful of machines due to humanity's enslavement by the machines prior to the Butlerian Jihad. This is why, for example, they use Mentats and Guild Navigators for various functions rather than computers. Granted their laws only forbid "Thinking" machines (A.I.'s I assume), but I have always gotten the impression that they have a deep distrust of ALL technology which is why there is so little of it in evidence in the books. Simply put, even if a way WERE developed to synthesize the spice, the culture portrayed in the books would be reluctant to use it if as long as natural spice was available.

Not to give too much away but if you read the prequels, they are largely concerned with a plot by the Bene Tleilaxu and the Harkonnens to create an artificial spice substitute. If you accept those books as 'canon' then the events of those books could provide another reason that artificial spice is not used/accepted.

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Post by Marian »

WARNING: There might be some spoilers. I don't remember at times which book what information came from, so it might be from a new book of the series, and not the original book. I don't want to inadvertantly spoil any details for anyone. :(
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"He who controls the spice, controls the universe"

Spice is power. Spice is also heavily controlled. Stockpiles are carefully monitered. In fact, people aren't even supposed to stockpile it (but various Houses do).

If someone COULD create artifical spice, it would threaten the power balance. The Emperor doesn't want this, unless he controls it. Obviously the other Houses would love this, but they simply have no way to realistically go about the research and design.

Everyone is isolated on their own worlds, only brought together by the Space Guild, which 'folds space' to transport ships great distances. So the Space Guild (who depends on spice to do this) knows what is being shipped, where and to whom. They keep secrets, but they have their own interests.

Technology is also limited. They don't have computers. The main source of new technology (much of it bio-technology) is out of Ix. (They manufacture clones, called ghoulas, etc.). They've been working on making a spice substitute for a long time, and that gets revealed during the saga of Dune.

There was also a revolution, which they don't get too heavily into, but it was a battle of man versus machine (in essense). And since that 'jihad' it has been forbidden to make any machine that resembles a mind. So computers are EXTREMELY limited. Instead they've resorted to training people with abilities to be 'mentats', or human computers. People with perfect recall, high mathematical ability, the ability to sort through data, and facts very rapidly, who also ingest a drug that speeds the thought. That's the closest thing to a computer they have now.

There's some technology which comes close to violating the jihad prohibitions (such as the battle machines, which are used in combat training) but they can demonstrate they don't think, merely react.

Through the subsequent books written by Frank Herbert, a lot more becomes clear on why things are the way they are. And the problems with prescience (and the whole Messiah issue raised in Dune).

The new books written by Frank Herbert's son, in conjunction with another author was based on Frank Herbert's notes. Initally they planned to do the project without any additional information, as no notes were found. Then shortly before they started they finally found all the notes he had kept, which outlined the additional history and storylines, which have influenced the novels, which are set prior to the timeline in Dune.

The spice melange isn't just analogious to oil. It's like oil, medicine, silicon, etc all wrapped up into one. Spice allows space travel, extends human life, is used in food products, is used to make mentats, is used by the Bene Gesserit 'witches'...it is the number one resource in the entire universe.

And why power is balanced the way it is, they get into that a bit in Dune. Each 'House' controls at least one world, and generally at least one major industry (if not more). Each House has its own fortunes (which at times, rise and fall) and of course there are alliances, and plots and so forth. Each House also maintains an 'atomics' stockpile. So it's like a nuclear standoff. If one House moved in to control everything, the other Houses would unite against them and destroy them. If one House used their atomic stockpile, the other Houses would move against them and destroy them.

So manufacture of a synthetic spice would have to be kept secret, or the other Houses would move against them, because it would tip the balance of power. If one House HAD such a source, they could destroy Dune with their atomics, and then stave off attack by being the ONLY remaining source of spice.

Of course that research still takes place secretly and Ix has collected funds secretly to conduct such research (fully intending to betray the people they accept money from if they ever DO find a way). But they've had absolutely no luck in doing it. Which causes some friction between the Emperor and Ix, because he's been dumping money into them. Which I *think* gets mentioned in Dune.

Anyway on Dune spice is a resource that isn't in danger. They don't know where it comes from, but there's not a shortage, its a renewable resource. The only problems lie in harvesting it, and meeting quotas. And the problems there, as mentioned in Dune, come from interferance from the Freman tribes. And again in the original Dune book we also see the Space Guild willing to cut deals with anyone, regardless of Empire issues, as long as they can pay. (Again it's shown clearly they have their own agenda, very seperate from the current power structure. And they don't give much of a damn about that, as long as the spice flows).

I really liked the series (if you can't tell) and I've really enjoyed the new books. They explain a lot of the dynamics of Dune which were left unsaid in the original series.
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Post by uneasy »

Ok then, here's another problem I have with it. :)

Everyone important has a shield permanently on around their body. This is some sort of force field. Some have these shields around whole buildings. If anyone fires a las gun at a shield, it blows up the shielded person and the attacker in spectactular fashion. It's mentioned a few times that this is the reasons it's not done, that the attacker would also die. Also, it would have political ramifications.

Let's see... in a universe full of religious fanatacism and jihads, do you think there might be ONE person out of billions who would be willing to sacrifice himself to take out someone this way regardless of his own life and political consequences? Just ONE nutball suicide attacker?

Nope. Instead of the whole Atriedes family being destroyed in an instant, a whole book is needed to describe the complicated plot as to how it was attempted. Herbert trips over his own cleverness by giving complicated rationalizations for things that human nature would resolve in a more simple manner.
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Post by Reginald »

......Would have the same effect as and would be treated as the use of atomic weapons. Theres a reason that the peoples of each fief are subjgated to the level that they are, the house is responsible for it's population. If such an incident occured the house and it's assets would be immediately destroyed by the remaining houses. The levels of espionage and things like truthsay would reveal the true source of such plots. There is a strong basis of tradition (put quite well in the books) convention if you will that is supposed to hold the whole system in check and ballance.

But you know all this, you have read the book.

I guess we could pull any book to bits if we so choose.