Duke Leto Atreides had been re-assigned from the humble rice-growing planet Caladan to desert planet Arrakis by the Emperor. He knew it was a trap by the Padishah Emperor and his enemies House Harkonnen, but was going anyway. For one thing, the spice mélange that could be harvested there was worth a fortune. But also, Arrakis was every bit as harsh as the prison planet Selusa Secundus, that produced the Emperor’s troops, unmatched in all the worlds. The native Fremen were a people who lived in a harsh climate; according to the book, the hardiest fighters are produced from the harshest situations, because only the best can survive the harshness. Currently the power of the houses of the Lansraadt were balanced by the Emperor’s Sardaukar; the Fremen could change that balance in favor of House Atreides. Plus, there is value in knowing where the trap is, instead of merely knowing that there is one.
The Duke had but one woman, a Bene Gesserit concubine named Jessica, with whom he had one son, seventeen-year-old Paul. The Duke trained Paul in the ways of statecraft (and, had arranged for him to be unknowingly trained as a mentat—a human capable of great calculation, since artifical brains were forbidden). Jessica trained him in the Bene Gesserit technique of fighting and awareness of the state of the body. A few days before they left, a Reverend Mother came and tested Paul to with a pain device and a poisoned needle to see if he was “human”, that is, able to override his pain, unlike an animal that does anything it must to get rid of pain. Paul passed, but it made Jessica nervous. Paul left with a distaste for the Reverend Mother, and an understanding that the Bene Gesserit dealt in politics and had some sort of breeding program to produce a Kwisatz Haderach. The Bene Gesserit could take a drug that would enable them to be in many places at the same time, but all the men who had tried had died; the Kwisatz Haderach would be a man who could do it.
The Reverend Mother, who at one time had been Jessica’s teacher, told her that one of the Duke’s trusted men would betray him, it was inevitable. If possible, she would arrange for Jessica and her son to be saved, although it was not clear that Paul could be saved. The Duke definitely could not be saved. Indeed, shortly after arriving on Arrakis, Paul found a bedroom that he liked and took a nap. He woke up to find a human-sensing levitating poisoned needle seeking him, and using his Bene Gesserit training from his mother, he was able to evade it. But the family was betrayed by their doctor, whose wife had been captured and tortured by the Harkonnen Baron, and he agreed in order to know for sure that she was dead. When he betrayed him, the doctor installed a poison tooth in the Duke’s mouth, with instructions to bite down and blow in the Baron’s face. It almost worked, and killed everyone else in the room, but the Baron escaped.
The Emperor’s Sardaukar troops, dressed in Harkonnen uniforms, quickly conquered Arrakis. One of the Duke’s men was able to find two stillsuits for traveling the desert, which he hid under the seat of the pilot of the ornithopter that the Harkonnens sent Paul and Jessica in to get lost in the desert. Paul and Jessica worked together to overwhelm their captors, using the Voice from the Bene Gesserit training, and Paul found the equipment. Now the Imperial Biologist, who was also a leader of the Fremen, had been impressed with Paul and Duke Leto’s respect for the arid planet, and their refusal to ostentatiously show their water-wealth, and shortly before he died, he gave instructions to the Fremen to welcome Paul.
Paul seemed to have a natural understanding of the ways of the Fremen, although he still had to learn how to navigate the landscape. He and his mother found one of the Fremen seitchs, mostly by accident. They were welcomed, except for one man who challenged Paul to single combat. Paul was trained in single combat with shields, which repel fast attacks (like projectiles) but can be passed by slowing a hand attack. On Arrakis shields were useless, since they attracted the enormous sandworms, but Paul was still habituated to shields, and it took a little time for him to adjust. However, he ultimately did win easily, thanks to the weirding fighting style Jessica had trained him in. He acquired the wife and sons and water of the slain man (which was represented by metal tokens), but he refused to sleep with the woman. He also had earned the admiration of Chani, a girl about his age, and who had been tasked with helping him learn Fremen ways. They quickly became closer.
The Reverend Mother of the seitch was old, and could not make the journey that was required of them. Recognizing that Jessica was trained, she led the ceremonies in making Jessica a Reverend Mother (assuming that Jessica succeeded). A young sandworm was drowned in water, and it gave off a poison, which Jessica drank. Her body froze time, and she realized she needed to use her chemical knowledge to transform the poison into spice essence. Spice gave her a connection to all the people around her, as well as with her tiny unborn daughter that she had just recently become pregnant with before leaving Caladan. The Reverend Mother communicated (somewhat telepathically) that this was a problem, but there was no choice, and she was dying. In dying, she transferred all of her memories to Jessica, which included all the memories of the previous Reverend Mothers before her.
Paul’s exposure to the ever-present spice aroma on Arrakis had started giving him visions, where he saw the many paths of the future, most of which stretched out in a jihad in his name across the universe. He was determined to avoid this path, but the future had valleys of darkness, where he could not see the paths. The spice essence given in the ceremony that Jessica then performed, having drunk the poison and transformed it to spice essence and spit it out for the sietch to imbibe, heightened the visions in Paul, and were disorienting. But always he sought the few paths that would avoid the jihad.
In time Paul and Chani had a son, and Paul grew into a leader of the Fremen. He learned the Fremen way, and he and Jessica taught them to fight in the weirding way, as he had promised as condition of his acceptance. He learned to call a Maker, the sandworm, and to twist hooks into its segments so that it would rotate to keep them out of the sand, and could be ridden great distances. He learned that the Imperial Biologist’s father had realized that the planet could be transformed from desert into a garden planet by collecting enough water to enable certain plants to survive that would jump-start a non-desert ecosystem. He saw that they were collecting water with hidden dew-catchers, and that they knew exactly how much water they needed, and were patient in the multiple-century path to a green world. He understood that they bribed the Guild Navigators to prevent satellites from being installed over Arrakis that would reveal what they were doing.
The path to leadership among the Fremen was through single combat to the death. Stilgar, the leader who had accepted him into the sietch, was now leader of the Fremen, though Paul was the well-known de facto leader since it was clear that he could defeat any of them in combat. Paul had no desire to kill Stilgar, but there was a mounting undercurrent of pressure for him to do so. This was because, in addition to his fighting prowess, Paul fulfilled the prophecies that had been planted centuries or millennia before by the Bene Gesserit Missionaria Protectiva. Their purpose was to implant legends and prophecies into the local religions so that stranded Bene Gesserit in need could take advantage of them for protection. But Paul also fulfilled the Fremen legends, since he sometimes knew Fremen ways without being instructed, and he also knew the future (from his spice-awareness visions). This led to him becoming a sort of Fremen messiah figure to the people, which was also propelling him down the path of jihad. Paul, however, was a Duke, and there was no sense in killing his right-hand man. So when he told this to Stilgar (who had resigned to Paul challenging him), they created a situation where Paul could become the leader of the Fremen, with Stilgar as his representative in Arrakis.
The Harkonnens, having reclaimed ownership of Arrakis, initially set about extracting as much spice as they could. To the Harkonnens, people were simply resources to be used. The late Duke Leto, before his betrayal, had sent ships which attacked and destroyed the Harkonnen stockpile of spice. Since such a stockpile was illegal, they could not retaliate. But the Guild monopoly of shipping meant that the Baron had spent decade’s worth of money on the invasion, and he was eager to recoup the loss.
But eventually the Harkonnens discovered that the Fremen were much more numerous than they had though, and even worse, had discovered their terraforming beginnings in the southern regions of the planet. It was about five years after the betrayal. The late Duke and Jessica’s daughter, Alia, was a strange child, who, having received all the Reverend Mother’s memories along with Jessica, talked and understood like an adult, even though she was a child. It made people nervous. Paul had become somewhat resistant to the effects of the mélange, but he needed to know what to do. So he drowned a little maker, and drank a drop of the poison, so that he could do what the Reverend Mothers did and create spice essence. The result was that he was in a coma as if dead, although Jessica could tell that he was barely alive. She summoned Chani from the southern reaches where she was taking care of Alia and their son.
Paul had succeeded in transmuting the poison into Water of Life, and the intensity of the prescient spice-awareness left him in a vision for three weeks, thinking it was but a moment, when Chani recalled him from the vision by touching his lips with a finger moistened with the drowned-Maker poison. He had succeeded where all other men had failed; he was the Kwisatz Haderach, and could be in many places at once. He proved it to Jessica by going to the darkness within her that no Reverend Mother could face, but that the Kwisatz Haderach could face, because the ancient feminine Giving that was hard-coded into women’s DNA could not face the fear of the masculine Taking (and somewhat vice-versa, men’s Taking could not face the fear of pure Giving). The Bene Gesserit had, no doubt, planned to use the Kwisatz Haderach in their political machinations; Paul seemed to sense that the Bene Gesserit would have gone down the path of jihad. But Jessica had loved the Duke, and had given him a son, instead of the daughter that she had been ordered to produce, and so the Kwisatz Haderach came early, and out of Bene Gesserit control.
Now, Paul saw, there were ships from all over the galaxy orbiting Arrakis, waiting Guild permission to seek him out. Spice existed only on Arrakis, and the Guild used their limited prescience granted by the spice essence to guide the ships. Spice was created as water interacted with the excretions of Shai-hulud, the sandworm, which would explosively rise to the surface. But if Water of Life was place above a pre-spice mass, where the little makers, which were the pre-sandworm form, it would create a chain reaction that would destroy the cycle that created the sandworm, and therefore the spice. Without spice, the Guild was doomed. The Guild knew that Paul existed from the Harkonnens, but they could not see into the future, because now was a nexus. Paul could destroy the spice, or he could be destroyed, and little actions now could cause drastic changes in the future. Those little actions were so close to each other that the future was not really visible, although Paul, as the evolved Kwisatz Haderach, had a stronger ability to see it than they did.
So Paul set up a plan. The Emperor was encamped on Arrakis, at huge—and visibly so—expense, on the capital city, which was protected from sand storms (and sand worms) by the Shield Wall. Paul waited for a sand storm to arrive, and it was a big one. He blew up the shield wall with the family atomics, allowing the storm and the Shai-hulud to enter. The static from the sand grains disabled the shields. The Sardaukar were not trained to handle the situation, nor were they a match for Fremen warriors trained from both harsh Arrakis and the Bene Gesserit weirding way. Paul sent Alia to request the Emperor’s compliance, which shocked him, although not as much as his defeat almost as she spoke. As pandemonium broke out, Alia killed the Harkonnen Baron (her grandfather, as it turned out; Jessica was the daughter of the Baron and another Bene Gesserit, although she had been raised by Bene Gesserit and did not know it).
The Emperor came to talk, along with his retinue, on the condition that Paul Atreides protect them. This Paul granted. However, Fremen Paul (Muad'Dib) wanted revenge on the Harkonnens, and challenged the Baron’s nephew, who was the Baron’s nearest relative and the current ruler of Arrakis. The na-Baron invoked kanly, single comat, for this man loved single combat, and was good at it (although usually against prepared foes, and with illegal advantages). Despite his shield-training mis-timing, he almost got the better of Paul by a hidden poison needle, but Paul prevailed. Duke Paul demanded that the Emperor grant him his daughter as a (pro forma) wife—he was committed to Chani emotionally—as well as the Emperorship, the Emperor deposed to rule Selusa Secundus which would be made a comfortable garden world, ownership of the Emperor’s CHAOM spice-company holdings as dowry, the earldom of Caladan and a CHOAM directorship for Gurney Haleck, and titles for all Atreides men left. Maud'Dib had promised Arrakis to the Fremen, although some desert would be left for the sandworms (and spice) and to train fighters. Paul succeeded in getting peace and safety, but he had seen Stilgar go from friend to worshipper as the events unfolded and he realized that the winds of jihad blew through that worship.
Dune is interesting because it is a science fiction story that has religion as a central part of the story. However, true to the general character of the genre, religion in Dune is not actually true, it is left over from ancient humanity, something that the rurals believe and that Bene Gesserit shape for their own ends. No one other than the Fremen actually believe in religion (minstrel-warrior Gurney Hallack does quote from the Orange Catholic Bible a lot, but if he is a believer in something, he never states his beliefs). So while religion exists, it is simply a crutch for the non-elite. The elite ignore it (the noble Houses, the Spacing Guild) or manipulate it (Bene Gesserit).
However, the prophecies the Fremen have turn out to fit well. The prophecies seem to be have arisen from the Bene Gesserit Missionaria Protectiva prophecies, which are general in nature, and such that any Bene Gesserit would be able to engineer herself fulfilling them. It seems that the prophecies also have developed on their own, and Paul finds himself fulfilling the prophecies, sometimes with intention, but often simply because that is the only road that he can see that might not lead to jihad. The last appendix of the book, a discussion of an internal Bene Gesserit on the Arrakis affair, notes that the Bene Gesserit, whose breeding program was intended to evolve higher-order dimensional powers (already somewhat existing in the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild), and that their failure to act efficiently in the Arrakis affair was best explained because someone of higher order powers was taking control of the spice. The appendix closes by saying that “one is led to the inescapable conclusion that the inefficient Bene Gesserit behavior in this affair was a product of an even higher order plan of which they were complete unaware!” (494) But given that things had gone subtly wrong with the Bene Gesserit plan before Paul was even born, in particular, Lady Jessica’s unlikely disobedience in giving Leto Atreides a son instead of a daughter as directed for reasons even Lady Jessica was not entirely clear on, suggest that the higher order plan may not be Paul’s plan. Speculation: it might be that as the probability of the Kwisatz Haderach’s existence in the future rose, that altered events in the past to accommodate the future; however, it might also be that Paul’s plan is not the higher-order plan referred to, and is a plan of some higher-order power that is either human but currently not known, or something else, like an actual deity.
Herbert explicitly says that harsh environments produce excellent warriors, however, this is not actually true. Ancient historian Bret Devereaux has a series of articles on the “Fremen mirage”, the idea that harsh environments produce military excellence. He traces this idea to Roman sources talking about the German barbarians, but some of these sources never actually even traveled to the German regions, and in any case they were actually writing about the indolence of Roman society, not military manuals. As he demonstrates repeatedly in his other articles, in actuality, military excellence comes from a combination of good logistics and good training. The Roman army was successful in large part because their road system meant that the armies could travel quickly (meaning less time eating up prodigious supplies in Roman territory) and because their training was so good. (Also, the fact that defeated people simply had to pay taxes and provide legions gave the Romans manpower to survive disastrous defeats like with Hannibal and then raise up another army immediately afterwards.) The Mongols did live in a harsh environment, but it was their ability to travel quickly and a still supply their army, combined with highly practiced ranged tactics that were difficult to defend against (especially if this was an army’s first exposure to them) and that invited a disastrous counterattack. So idea that the Imperial Sardaukar and the Fremen were excellent because of the harsh environment is an area the reader must apply suspension of disbelief. (Although, to be fair, the Fremen—already fearsome because of the environment—became better than Sardaukar because Paul and Lady Jessica trained them in the weirding way.)
Dune has always been one of my highly ranked books, because, like Tolkien and Watership Down, it succeeds in creating culture. Or rather, and in contrast with those two, it succeeds in sketching out culture. Both the Lord of the Rings and Watership Down have a well-developed mythology and concrete cultural values and habits. In Dune, there are many cultures: the people-valuing House Atreides, the people-consuming House Harkonnen, the shadowy not-entirely-trustable Bene Gesserit witches, the monopolistic Spacing Guild, and the warlike Fremen. These cultures are given form through relating actions (and conversations) which clearly demonstrate the values of the culture. However, mythology and history are very briefly sketched, with only the Now seen clearly. The result is a world that is real and believable, but also distant and unknown. What are the Bene Gesserit up to? What were they going to do with the Kwistaz Haderach once they had bred him? How did the Spacing Guild get their monopoly? How did they prevent others from breaking it? What is the nature of the Atreides-Harkonnen feud? How was Arrakis discovered? The answers to these are simply assumed, never related. It is an interesting contrast to the much more detailed approach that I am more familiar with, but also works well with a story set 10,000 years from now. It probably also does not take twenty years to develop, like Tolkien’s did!
And one note on spice. Herbert notes early on that spice has a cinnamon small and flavor. He is clearly wrong on this: a world with cinnamon in the air would drive me nuts. Great in small quantities, with baked apples, apple pie, and cinnamon rolls. But nutmeg, now that is an intoxicating mélange—and even naturally psychedelic. The world of Dune was actually inspired by Herbet’s cultivation and use of magic mushrooms, but nutmeg, that is a spice that could intoxicate you into visions of the future!