by Frank Herbert
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 30, 2019
Frank Herbert's Dune is probably the highest selling science fiction book of all time. It's hard for me to remember when I first read it. I had not yet begun my exploration of SF at the time of its first publication, but I probably got to it some time in the mid-70s. The paperback I currently own is from 1975, although I may have read another edition first. It's also hard to remember how many times I've read it. This might have been just the third, but maybe the fourth time. I am also puzzled as to why it hasn't been more than that, because every time I have been struck by how phenomenal it is. The last time was shortly after I created this site, although I didn't review it then. My emphasis in the beginning was for general information, blog-type posts, as well as biographical/bibliographical profiles of authors. I posted a short one on Herbert in December 2000, along with reviews of David Lynch's film and Sci-Fi Channel's mini-series.
Herbert began working on the story as early as 1959, having conceived the idea while researching for a science paper on the coastal Oregon Dunes, commissioned by the US Department of Agriculture. He never completed that article, or at least it was never published in his lifetime, only appearing posthumously in a book edited by his son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson. The first part of what would become the novel, under the title "Dune World," was serialized in Analog from December '63 through February '64. Either word count requirements were different then, or else it was at least 40,000 words, because that version was a finalist for a Best Novel Hugo in 1964. "Prophet of Dune" was serialized, again in Analog, from January-May 1965. The expanded and revised novel was rejected by at least twenty publishers, but an SF fan who had read the serials happened to be head of Chilton Books, up to that time known primarily for its auto repair manuals. Dune won the inaugural Nebula Award in 1966, tied for the Hugo later that year, and in 1974 won the Seiun Award for its Japanese translation. I'm not sure if the first printings included the appendices that have appeared in most later editions.
I won't go into much detail about the plot, which you can find many other places, and you may be familiar enough with it if only from the film or TV versions. I'd rather talk about what I see as Herbert's main influences. Ecology may have been his main emphasis in the beginning, but he presents that within a narrative that was influenced by many other elements, from other space operas, to history, religion, psychology, and anthropology. The rivalries between the Great Houses of the Landsraad reminded me of European royal families of centuries past, forever inter-marrying, but also forever warring against each other. The Orange Catholic Bible incorporated a multiplicity of faiths, from Christianity to Judaism, from Islam to Buddhism, along with many others. Prophecy and perceived destiny plays a major part. Since I've only read the first three novels, with little to no memory of the second and third, I know only hints about the full scope of the universe Herbert created. Thousands of years before the main action humanity had undergone the Butlerian Jihad, the result of which was the outlawing of sophisticated computers that attempted to duplicate human brain activity. In their place, segments of the population had implemented either breeding programs to produce higher intelligence, or induced forced evolution utilizing certain chemical compounds, or both.
Mentats were essentially human computers, analyzing data and formulating policy, both political and military. The Guild of Navigators became dependent on the spice melange, unique to the planet Arrakis, to mentally bend time and space for faster-that-light travel. The Bene Gesserit order worked behind the scenes to influence political leaders, maneuvering members into marriages of convenience, or merely for reproductive purposes. Their power is a bit confusing, considering that most everyone else thinks of them as malevolent witches. Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides of the planet Caladan, was the result of one such breeding experiment. Paul's mother, the Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica, is the Duke's concubine. Leto does not marry her so as to keep his options open for an alliance with another of the Great Houses. Rivals to House Atreides include House Harkonnen, as well as House Corrino, whose head is the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. One of the few things that doesn't make sense is that the emperor is fearful of the popularity of Leto, but instead of restricting Atreides activity and influence, or surreptitiously ordering an assassination, he maneuvers Leto into taking over spice production on Arrakis, previously held by the Harkonnens. Of course without that, nothing that had been prophesied by the Fremen of Arrakis concerning their liberator, the Lisan al-Gaib, nor that of the Bene Gesserit's ultimate goal of producing the Kwisatz Haderach (the "Shortening of the Way") would have come to pass. If in fact those did come to pass.
Possibly the aspect of the story I appreciate the most is its disection of political and religious fanaticism, and the mystery of how myths are created. As with a lot of prophecies down through the centuries, certain believers can accept someone as embodying that promise without it actually being a fact. Even though Paul, later given the Fremen name of Usul, as well as the title of Maud'Dib, claimed to be both the Lisan al-Gaib and the Kwisatz Haderach, it might only mean he was acknowleging he was the closest to those ideals they could ever hope to see. He was forever second-guessing himself, either worrying about something he had perceived about his future, or confused as to which events were past and which were future, of whether or not he could change a future he had already seen. Each chapter is preceded by an epigraph, the majority of them being from books written after the fact by the emperor's daughter, Princess Irulan, later Paul's bride. Some of them talk of events that had yet to occur by the end of the first book, or else the story was rewritten to either reinforce or alter previous prophecy. As with many religious or philosophical beliefs, people will accept what they want to be true while ignoring anything that contradicts what they believe.
While it may never interest those who consider SF beneath them, Dune is the equal of, if not superior to, many mainstream novels. It's complex and challenging, inspiring and insightful, a monumental achievement. In contrast to many SF novels of that era it has aged well. Its depiction of female characters, particularly the Lady Jessica and Paul's concubine, Chani, was bold and sensitive, unlike what the genre had been used to seeing. It made clear that ideas and courageous conviction was more powerful than greed and treachery, in fact more powerful than the most powerful weapons man can create. Highly recommended, a solid 5 star rating, an almost perfect 9+ on my personal scale, slightly limited by that non-sensical twist that got Paul to Arrakis in the first place, and by the fact it's not the conclusion of the story. Not sure when, but I will add comments on the other books eventually.
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