Dune by Frank Herbert
This was our book group choice for this month – a good lockdown read being a veritable chunkster (884 pages in the edition I read). I’ve read it twice before, as a teenager in the 1970s followed by sequels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, then again in the 1980s after the notorious David Lynch film of the first book, and Herbert’s second Dune trilogy. I had intended to just skim it, but got caught up once again in this epic of eco and geopolitics.
Published in 1965, Dune can claim to be the ‘Moby Dick of SF&F’. Once you’ve read it, you see its influence everywhere – most notably Star Wars of course, which has a desert planet as well as the mystic Jedi who owe a lot to Herbert’s ‘Bene Gesserit’ religion, although they use their voices rather than light sabres as weapons. The novel centres around young Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and Bene Gesserit mother Jessica. Leto is assigned to the planet Arrakis, to control the spice trade, ‘melange’ being an unique and most expensive and desirable condiment/drug that’s a bit like catnip for humans. The evil Harkonens, who had controlled Arrakis want it back of course – so there is the set up for much politicking, and underhand espionage. Jessica had been ordered by the Bene Gesserits only to have a girl child, but had Paul – who is special – but doesn’t know it yet, being only a young teenager. When the Harkonens attack, Jessica and Paul flee into the desert and are taken in by the fiercely independent Fremen, the Bedouin-like tribe who inhabit the canyons adjoining the sand dunes inhabited by giant worms who guard the spice. It is with the Fremen, that Paul will determine his special-Bene-Gesserit abilities fulfil the prophecy, and become leader of the rebel Fremen.
While it has dated a bit, there is so much to enjoy in this novel. The politics is complicated, and you’re thrown into things without too much explanation, there are many strange terms to assimilate, (deriving from a multitude of languages, religions and other touchstones – from Navajo to Catholicism to Islam and Lawrence of Arabia (the model for Paul), and a whole lot of ancient Greek – Leto’s house echoing that of Menelaus and Agamemnon.
Herbert’s novel was prescient too – spice equates to our fossil fuels, and climate change through precious water conservation to green the planet is one of the Fremen nation’s aims. His world-building, expanded upon in a series of appendices at the end (well worth reading in their own right), is superb. What I enjoyed this time, more than the thrills of riding the giant worms etc, was the courtliness of the politics between the emperor of the Imperium and the families whom he (barely) controls – which, as always in pre-our-technology SF is both entertaining and positively medieval at times. Herbert plays down the actual mechanics of space travel and the science, which gives a more timeless appeal to the novel.
Slightly surprisingly, the book went down well with our group. Naturally, most felt it was too long, one member wondered why Herbert had chosen such an ordinary name for his hero (sorry to any Pauls reading!), also Paul is impossibly young at around 15 to become such a pivotal leader is he not? Reservations aside, everyone recognised it as the ground-breaking classic that it now is though. The Afterword by Herbert’s son, Brian, was fascinating for giving an insight into his father’s life and influences – an ideal coda to this epic novel. As I recommend Moby Dick as a must-read classic due to its wide-reaching influence, I would add Dune as another influential classic too – much more enjoyable and easy to read though! (8/10)
PS: Looking forward to the new two-part film of which the first episode is due this Christmas. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Timothée Chalamet as Paul, with Oscar Issac as Leto, Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonen, Rachel Ferguson as Jessica, Javier Bardem as Stilgar the Fremen leader, and Charlotte Rampling as the Bene Gesserit Holy Mother.