Most science fiction of the 1950s and 60s contain a few standard ingredients: starships, advanced computers, interstellar travel and intelligent robots. One of the most popular examples of this was Isaac Asimov’s novel ‘I, Robot’ which was published as a compellation of short stories in 1950. It contains intriguing and downright disturbing of stories of mind-reading robots, humorous robots and robots gone mad.
Frank Herbert bucked this trend with the release of his classic sci-fi novel ‘Dune’ in 1965. In ‘Dune’ there are no thinking robots or computers. This was caused by a galactic conflict that took place 10,000 years before the events of ‘Dune.’ Known as the Butlerian Jihad, this revolution resulted in the total destruction of all forms of computers, thinking machines and conscious robots. Any machine “in the likeness of the human mind” down to the simplest intelligent device was forbidden.
What kind of sci-fi worldbuilding, thousands of years in the future, doesn’t have artificial intelligence? Imagine life with no computers, smartphones, smartpads or even digital clocks. Without such technology life would be inconvenient and aggravating.
Yet, this may point to the reason Herbert’s ‘Dune’ has remained so popular. Unlike most sci-fi of his time, Herbert pulls our attention away from technology and focuses on the human condition. He built a universe in the far future that may have more in common with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ than ‘Star Trek.’
How do humans function without thinking machines? Herbert’s answer is to train humans to do the work of computers and other digital technology. Humans are trained to to perform computer-like mathematical and logical computations. These people known as Mentats are more than calculators, they have extraordinary memory and perception that enable them to process and analyze large amounts of data.
Mentats are trained from a young age without their knowledge, but are later made aware and given the choice to continue their education. Like the native Fremen of Dune, mentats are addicted to the spice melange, which saturates the blood vessels of their eyes and turns the sclera and irises a deep blue color. Mentat’s abilities are also enhanced by taking sapho juice, an addictive drug that permanentsly stains their lips a cranberry color. This mark clearly identifes a person as a mentat.
Mentats may have enhanced logic and reasoning, but they retain their human nature. They have all the emotions, ethical boundaries (or lack thereof) and weaknesses as other humans. In ‘Dune,’ Herbert focuses on two mentat characters, each within one of the feuding Great Houses: House Atreides and House Harkonnen. They have similar abilities but their ethical alignments are polar opposite.
At the outset of ‘Dune,’ Duke Leto Atreides has become popular among the Great Houses of the Imperium. Emperor Shaddam IV feels threatened by Leto’s support so he transfers management of Dune, from the brutal House Harkonnen to House Atreides. The desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, is the only source of the most valuable substance in the universe: the spice melange. Everyone knows this transfer is a plot to bring down House Atreides, but the Duke is confident he can outwit the Emperor and his sworn enemy the Harkonnens.
Duke Leto’s mentat is Thufir Hawat, holding the omnious title of Master of Assassins. He is known as one of the finest mentats of his time. Hawat has served House Atreides for generations and is a loyal and competent member of Leto’s leadership council. When Duke Leto is killed during the surprise attack by the Harkonnens and Imperial shock troops known as Sardaukar, Hawat becomes a prisoner of the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.
Hawat proves his loyalty to Duke Leto and his son, Paul Atreides. At the conclusion of ‘Dune,’ the Baron coerces Hawat to assassinate Paul. The plan fails, but Paul gives Hawat the option to take anything he wants, including Paul’s life. Thufir demonstrates his loyalty to House Atreides once again, and chooses death rather than betray Paul.
The Baron has his own sinister breed of mentat known as Piter DeVries. A competent computational instrument, Piter is rotten to the core. He is a brutal manipulator and a twisted sociopath. Piter, referred to as a “twisted mentat,” is less of a counselor and more of a co-dependent yes-man to the Baron. Their relationship is deeply dysfunctional. Piter serves his master with enthusiastic loyalty even though he knows the Baron ultimately plans to kill him.
Piter uses his advanced intelligence to develop tools of torture and death. One example is a type of toxin called “residual poison” which stays in the body for years and requires an antidote to be administered regularly. When Thufir Hawat is captured by the Harkonnens, this fatal poison is secretly given to him. He is held captive because only the Harkonnens posses the life-prolonging antidote.
Piter uses these methods of torture for other evil designs. Dr. Wellington Yueh, the House Atreides physician, becomes a pawn in the Harkonnen’s plot to destroy the Atreides. Dr. Yueh has undergone Imperial Suk conditioning which renders him incapable of harming his patients. However, Piter breaks this conditioning through physical and psychological torture, and Yueh betrays Duke Leto Atreides.
In a strange twist of fate, Piter unknowingly saves his master’s life. The Baron’s life is spared when Piter is killed by Dr. Yueh’s plan to enact vengence on the Baron for torturing and murdering Yeuh’s wife, Wanna.
Herbert uses the mentat profession to fill the technology gap created by the Butlerian Jihad. Mentats are central characters and critical tools for both the Atreides and the Harkonnens. More importantly, the mentat training makes the concept of the Kwisatz Haderach plausible. This concept is that a universal super-being could be developed through training and genetic manipulation.
‘Dune’ offers the idea that Duke Leto’s teenaged son, Paul Atreides, could be the Kwisatz Haderach. However, Paul is young and inexperienced, it’s quite a stretch to believe that Paul has the makings of a formidable military chief and political leader. However, Paul is trained as a mentat by Thufir Hawat. He is also trained by his mother, the Lady Jessica, in the “weirding way” of the Bene Gesserit which gives extraordinary mind control, perception and fighting skills. This combination makes the scenario more believable that young Paul could become this super-being.
Mentats are a fascinating piece of the ‘Dune” tapestry. Herbert gives us a character role that both satisfies the need for technology and layers the story with human drama and intrigue. In the genre of science fiction, this is not easily done. Add this to the long list of reasons why ‘Dune’ is still considered one of the greatest sci-fi novels of all time.
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