What could I possibly say about Dune that hasn’t already been said by countless reviewers through the years? I’m not sure, but I’m going to write a review nonetheless. Now, if you don’t know Dune, you probably don’t read science fiction at all or you haven’t been at it for long. Arrakis. Dune. One of the genre-defining epics; only few SF series enjoy equal prestige and fame. Outside of realm of literature, there’s Star Wars and Star Trek, and inside the literary world Dune stands alongside Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. In the 1990s we got the British space opera revival with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series and the works of Alastair Reynolds, but other than those, I have real trouble thinking of any series with the same fame and prestige as Dune.
Written in 1965, it spawned a whole series written over the decades (which I am delighted to read for the first time after finishing this one), a movie, an abandoned movie and two TV series. Soon, director Denis Villeneuve will give his interpretation of Dune on the big screen; a good excuse to pick up the novel for a reread.
On to the novel. It is quite incredible how much information Frank Herbert tries to convey in just the first couple of pages. The amount of foreshadowing is immense. Little Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto, is our main hero. He is to travel with his parents to Arrakis, Dune, to be part of the new ruling family on the planet. Already, we learn that he has prophetic dreams and that a mysterious organization named the Bene Gesserit of which his mother is a member, has been training him with mental and physiological exercises, and they seem to see a special role for him. There are themes of training awareness and rising above animal consciousness, themes of religion, and it is all sort of set in an interstellar society of empire and fiefdoms. To convey all this in a few pages means that Herbert’s writing is very dense, polished and precise.
My memories told me that Dune was basically Lawrence of Arabia in space, with Paul being Lawrence, the Harkonnens the Ottomans, the Fremen obviously the Bedouin and the Spice was the oil. And while there are many obvious parallels, up to the point of the Fremen using Arabic words, I am selling the novel short this way.
There are strong themes of religion in the novel, but what is interesting most of all are the themes of the pliable, designable human and seeking transcendence. The Bene Gesserit sect engages in constructing societies, planting myths and even in engineering blood-lines through careful crossbreeding. And so-called Mentats are humans functioning as computers after being trained since infancy. In Paul Atreides, all these themes come together with a Messianic figure, simultaneously being the end goal of millennia of crossbreeding, societal engineering and mental training. All to “rise above the animal”, as the Reverent Mother says.
The first hundred or so pages move slowly. They mostly feature conversations with Paul or Jessica as they move into Arrakis. But Herbert wastes no words, he turns a dinner conversation into a battleground of politics, intentions and efforts of mindreading. A rich, deep universe unfolds before us without Herbert ever sacrificing the character development of Paul, Jessica and many others. It is deftly done.
When Paul and Jessica finally find themselves exiled, a most extraordinary story starts in which Paul sees himself playing out a living myth, all the while seeing all the possible branches of the future. They find themselves in the extreme Fremen society, which Herbert brings to life meticulously. A society full of ritual and meaning, where every moment is a crossroads for Paul on his journey of ascendancy.
The world of speculative fiction has changed a lot since the 1960s. Unlike many modern genre epics, full of morally gray characters, Dune is strikingly black and white. The Atreides household is all about respect, love, restraint and wholesomeness. The Harkonnens are devious, cartoonishly evil, with repulsive appetites, and they even have a contender for the part of Messiah in Feyd-Rautha, another outcome of a Bene Gesserit bloodline and therefore genetically fit to replace Paul; a satisfying symmetry in the story. Another difference with today’s novels is that the story today would have been drawn out over a trilogy with three times the page count. Instead, the story is dense, skips large time periods and the resolution is condensed to a few dozen pages at the end. And I find that I like it this way.
Dune is still a tremendous story with fully fleshed out characters, a complex backdrop and a theatrical flair. What sets this above so many other SF and fantasy epics is how it incorporates themes of transcendence and prophecy in a way that is not at all tiresome but stirring and intelligently delivered.