Dune by Frank Herbert
To borrow a line from a film adaptation of this novel: “When politics and religion ride in the same cart, the whirlwind follows.” Frank Herbert’s Dune is easily one of the most layered works of fiction produced during the twentieth century. From examining Byzantine political gambits to the human penchant for hero worship, Herbert using a far-flung future setting to examine the best and worst aspects of human nature. Dune is easily one of the primary masterpieces of science fiction despite being a dense, somewhat difficult book for the average reader.
There are two major themes that Herbert explores through the novel: ecology and religion. By utilizing the same setting for both themes he kept an already lengthy novel from becoming a weighty tome. It is not surprising that the author makes Arrakis (the desert planet that serves as the main setting) a living, breathing organism, complete with the simple creatures such as desert mice to the terrifying but awe-inspiring depictions of the great worms. Herbert uses the Fremen, a tribal, Bedouin-style society to illustrate the juxtaposition between humans’ desire to control their environment for their own benefit and the need to preserve the environment that maintains one’s culture. And it is this anachronistic culture of the Fremen which has cultivated its own messiah mythos. There can be little doubt that the author was fully aware of the parallels between the Fremen and the Judeo/Christian/Islamic (particularly Islamic) desert tribes that fashioned the three dominant religions of our world.
But religion is used as a warning, in particular a warning against humans placing too much temporal power into the hands of a charismatic, religious leader. The main character of Paul Atreides, known as Muad’Dib (the desert mouse), fits the mold of the classic hero’s journey of a character who falls from grace, experiences tribulation, and returns to conquer his enemies. The difference here (and this is a facet that only the Sci-Fi channel’s version of Dune managed to capture) is that Paul may not be the messiah figure but simply a man playing a role necessary for his own survival. There is little doubt left in the novel about the metaphysical abilities (more on that in a moment) Paul possesses. What is left ambiguous by Herbert (in a masterful stroke of storytelling) is if Paul really is this god-like figure of prophecy. The angst the character feels over taking on a mantle that leads to incalculable bloodshed and carnage is palpable and one feels for the character even as one roots for him to accomplish his goals which lead to such conflagration.
The other characters are quite capable in their own right but some of them do not receive as much development as the main character. The closest character who receives a significant arc is Jessica, Paul’s mother, a member of a secretive female order that spent generations trying to produce someone with Paul’s metasensory abilities. In the beginning, Jessica is quite clearly attached to her son but also a haughty aristocratic lady, as befits the concubine of a Duke. The later chapters where she begins to fear the power her son claims is informative of the cost such a messianic rise engenders. This is not to say that all the characters receive such treatment. The Emperor Shaddam is not really given much to do, much like the character of Duke Leto Atreides, Paul’s father. Leto’s scenes are absolutely essential to the story and he is a deftly created portrait of what the strain of diabolical politics can do to person. The most insidious character, however, is the Baron Harkonnen, a Machiavellian schemer with a streak of viciousness and a hunger for power as large as the galaxy. Herbert’s treatment of his villain is not subtle but it is not a caricature either.
Herbert’s choices to disobey certain strictures of the science fiction genre are interesting. In defiance of the standard of science fiction (mostly dealing with technological marvels that have improved life for humans), Herbert instead focuses on the acceleration of human genetics and the mental and physical potential of humans. From the characters such as Thufir Hawat and Piter de Fries, who are Mentats (humans trained to reach the processing power of supercomputers) to the Bene Gesserit sisterhood (the female order mentioned before who have such control over their bodies they can isolate individual muscle groups as well as counteract deadly poisons introduced into their bodies), humans are biologically advanced far ahead of the space ships and laser guns found in other such stories. In a way, Herbert took the neo-feudal setting and magical abilities of fantasy settings and simply advanced them thousands of years into the future, giving them proper biological and technological foundations for explanation.
The only complaint that I have heard from others that I’ve recommended this book to is that it is dense and Herbert is not easy to read. This is true, even more so in the later books of this series. Herbert’s jargon is available at the end of the book in an appendix but going through the book with no understanding of the terminology used can be a bit daunting for first-time readers. Once one gets past the author’s choice of terms, though, they find a rich and imaginative world ripe for exploration.
If you are a fan of epic fantasy or large-scale science fiction (and are not afraid to examine weighty issues such as religion and politics), then I cannot strongly recommend Dune enough. Anyone who considers themselves a fan of this genre must read it at some point in their lives.
Nicholas King 9.2/10
Dune. Arrakis. Desert Planet.
Just four words with enough weight to seize control of my imagination. This is a book written nearly 20 years before I was born, yet still strong enough to grip and consume me today. An incredible book in so many ways, forever relevant for transcendent reasons.
I don't think I can review this in my typical manner. The setting, plot, and characters should just be experienced. Suffice to say they are all fantastic, and have managed to grip readers for 50 years. The writing too is excellent and kept my interest page-to-page far better than (for example) Lord of the Rings, even though I prefer fantasy to science fiction as a general rule.
Perhaps the right question to ask is this: why is Dune the greatest selling sci fi book of all time?
First, It is a complex book with many layers. Yes, Dune is a book about Machiavellian politics. Yes, it is a book about a single resource turning the wheels of humanity, which for us might be oil, but for our ancestors might have been salt or iron, gold or silk, and who knows what it might be tomorrow. It is a book about environmentalism, ecology, technology, and religion, too.
But underneath it all is human truth - fundamental, inescapable, glorious and tragic, perhaps rooted in our genetic code. We call it 'the hero's journey', but watch it here as its evil twin, 'hero worship'. In Dune we are witness to the creation of Muad'dib. We see it coming, just as Paul Atreides does, but like him we feel powerless to stop it.
To understand Muad'dib is simultaneously to understand savior and tyrant, prophet and opportunist, supporter and slave. The critics of the book's niggling faults and historical context often miss the point entirely, much like those who say that 'all fiction is political', when in truth the great masters write philosophy and the essence of 'trope': they write archetype. The hero's journey and hero worship are not political, nor religious, though both can be abused by politicians and priests. Ideologies rise and fall, they are transitory, temperamental and cultural. Heroes, too, change from Gilgamesh to Achilles, Horus to Odin, Jesus Christ to Superman. But underneath is something deeper. Mr. Herbert understood this.
He presents it here in Dune with a complex backdrop worthy of respect all on its own. He innovates and entertains while he plumbs the depths of human truth. Dune should be required reading for any fiction writer, and certainly a better study of writing than the vast majority of works I read in university. In the end I can only recommend the book, and thank the great man for the experience.
Richard Nell 9.6/10
Have you read Dune?
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Dune reader reviews
Herb from USA
I first read Dune when it was a serial in Analog back in the 60s.I found it exciting and masterful.I have not read a science-fiction book that is better. I strongly agree with Nicolas King's review, especially his last sentence: "Anyone who considers themselves a fan of this genre must read it at some point in their lives."
Raphael from France
A timeless and elaborate universe, a dense story and a unforgettable setting with the planet Dune... And a myriad of reflections on religion, culture, power, family... and control. This is the global theme of the novel : control. Controlling the body and the mind, controlling others and oneself, a hostile environment, one's own passions and fears... This novel truly is essential and unsurpassable.
9.8/10 from 3 reviews
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