by Frank Herbert
544 pages, (1965)
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
What do you mean, you haven't read Dune? What the hell is the matter with you? Oh sure, you've read The Lord of the Rings, you've ploughed through Middlemarch and several old classics by Dickens. But classic science fiction, no – I can see you turning your nose up at that suggestion. Well, pull yourself together because Frank Herbert's Dune isn't just an important sci-fi novel, it's quite possibly the most fantastic piece of imaginative fiction ever written. If you haven't read it, you're missing out.
First published back in 1965, Frank Herbert's doorstop of a book won both the Hugo and Nebula awards and is frequently cited as the best-selling science-fiction novel of all time. Set ten thousand years in the future, Dune follows Paul Atreides, a young noble whose family has been entrusted with the governance of the desert planet Arrakis. This desolate planet, known informally as Dune, would be considered a bit of an intergalactic backwater if it wasn't for the fact that it is the only planet in the universe where the spice melange can be found. This spice is a serious commodity as without it, deep space travel would not be possible. The problem is, where you find spice, you also find the mile-long sand-worms that swallow everything in their path.
The Atreides family are entrusted with the care of Dune and the burden of harvesting the spice. This doesn't go down at all well with their rivals, the evil Harkonnen family who want to monopolise the spice for themselves. When Paul's family are overthrown by the Harkonnens, he goes into hiding in the barren desert and befriends the nomadic tribespeople known as the Fremen. During this time, it is revealed that Paul has inherited some rather special powers from his space-witch mother and just might be the Kwisatz Haderach, a sort of space-messiah destined to lead an intergalactic Jihad.
Bonkers? We have barely scratched the surface. The novel's plot features dozens of main characters, complex political and economic machinations as well as featuring a mind-boggling array of futuristic technologies and strange mystical forces. Though initially overwhelming, one quickly is drawn into the meticulously constructed universe of the novel. Best of all, Herbert allows the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps, we aren't given a lengthy description of what the “ornithopter” looks like, nor are we told exactly what “the weirding way” is. For this reason, one person's experience of Dune may be wholly different to another's. One's enjoyment of the book, it seems, is only limited by the scope of one's imagination.
A keen environmentalist, Herbert spends a vast amount of time on the ecology of Arrakis. Though the galaxy squabbles over melange, on the surface of the planet it is not spice but water that is really in demand. The culture of the Fremen is based around conservation of water. When Paul kills a fellow tribesman in combat, he inherits the man's wife, belongings and water. When someone in the tribe dies, the water in their body is reclaimed. Desert travellers wear still-suits which collect sweat and urine, allowing the precious water to be recycled by the wearer. As Paul is integrated into Fremen society, we learn more about their culture and the secrets that lie behind the spice.
The young Paul is a great central character. We see him grow from an awkward and pampered child of noble birth into the lean, mean fighting machine who leads a planet-wide revolt against the tyranny of the Harkonnens. More than a few people have noted the similarity between Paul's journey to that of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. There's a good reason for that, one that even George Lucas acknowledges. Yep, you got it folks: no Dune, no Star Wars. However, Paul's path is far more exciting than Luke's. Whereas the young Skywalker turned into an ass-kicking Jedi and confronted the Emperor at the end of the story-arc, Paul's powers enable him to become the galactic Emperor.
Every novel needs a good villain and Dune is no exception. Though there are a number of villainous characters within the story, the one who lingers longest in the reader's mind is the twisted, sadistic Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Utterly without any redeeming features, the Baron embodies gluttony and cruelty. Cinematic portrayals have shown him to be a disease-ridden, lecherous psycho who floats around with the aid of his suspensor-belt but none seem to capture just how truly devious and scheming he actually is. This is one bad-guy who you will definitely not find yourself rooting for at novel's epic conclusion.
Not just a great adventure, Dune is also a remarkably prescient novel. It is easy to see the battle for control of the spice as a metaphor for the dwindling supplies of oil on our own planet. Herbert also acknowledges the dangers of religious hyperbole and fanaticism. All this long before the events of 9/11 and the ensuing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is as intelligent as it is thrilling, Herbert devotes more time to the Machiavellian politics than to descriptions of physical combat. Indeed, it could be said that this is a science-fiction novel for people who don't like science-fiction.
The novel was followed by a series of inferior sequels that continue the story but add little to it. Frank Herbert's son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have released a number of prequels to Dune that whilst enjoyable enough, reach nowhere near the scope and grandeur of the original. As I write this review, Hollywood is preparing another adaptation of the classic novel (the first attempt being David Lynch's visually arresting but fatally flawed 1984 film, the second being a TV mini-series in 2000 that was hamstrung by a low budget and unconvincing special effects). With an estimated budget of $175 million dollars and French director Pierre Morel at the helm, the film will inevitably give the novel a new lease of life. Now is the perfect time to discover the wonders of Arrakis for yourself.
Hereward L.M. Proops