Dune by Frank Herbert
Review by Nicholas King
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.
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