39. Dune, Frank Herbert

Dune“I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings” thrills Arthur C. Clarke on the front cover of my copy of Dune.

Coming from one of the heroes of sci-fi writing this is quite an accolade so I was expecting great things from this novel which I chose to read next in an attempt to lighten the mood after Love in the Time of Cholera. That perhaps wasn’t the wisest idea since there is nothing particularly light or uplifting about Dune, which tells the story of  a young man facing his destiny by fighting to reclaim his father’s rightful title as ruler of the planet Arrakis.

Unlike some fantasy novels, there is no easing the reader into the world Herbert has created; no gentle explanation of unfamiliar terms and no real description of the people or planets involved to help you orientate yourself. Instead within the first few pages we are thrown into a world of Harkonnens, the Kwisatz Halderach and the Gom Jabbar.

I have to admit that although I’m no stranger to science-fiction novels I struggled to get my head around these new terms and properly visualise the planets of Arrakis and Caladan. After persevering for a few chapters I found myself relaxing and I was able to follow what was going on a bit better but it was still a struggle at times.  At the end of the book there were still terms I was unsure of although reading the appendices afterwards cleared up some of my confusion (the realisation that there was a glossary at the back of the book made things a lot easier).

In contrast, about half way through the book I came across the word ‘jihad’ being used to describe, as you might expect, a religious crusade. A little further on was the word ‘Hajj’ referring to a pilgrimage. The usage of these familiar words (there were others and all were associated with Islam) really threw me as there appeared to be no real reason to choose these words and they made me wonder about Herbert’s motive for using them. In fact if you were to get political about it the whole story could be seen as a bit of a social commentary in which the apparently Islamic Fremen rise up against those who keep them beaten down in order to use them to harvest the planet’s main resource (for ‘spice’ read ‘oil’) and fight back. I’m not saying that is what it’s about, Dune  was published in 1965 and I have no idea what the general feeling towards Islam was then or what Herbert’s own views are, it’s just that there a lot of coincidences in his use of language and theme.

The story itself follows Paul Atreides who is heir to his father’s role as Duke of Arrakis, a desert planet where life revolves around the conservation of water. However there is an evil plan afoot by the Harkonnens, a family who have a long feud with House Atreides to overthrow Paul’s father and take possession of Arrakis. The plan succeeds and Paul and his mother are forced to go into hiding among the native Fremen people who believe Paul to be the legendary figure they have been waiting for to lead them into battle against their oppressors.

The story was told mostly from Paul’s perspective with occasional forays into the viewpoint of the Baron Harkonnen which he invariably used to enlighten us as to his next cunning plan. I enjoyed these insights into the other side – as we all know, evil characters are almost always the most entertaining and this holds true with Dune.

With Arrakis being a desert planet, water is in short supply and a large part of the story revolves around the importance of water to the Fremen people. This was my favourite element of the story, from the descriptions of the stillsuits worn to conserve water while out in the desert to the ingenious windtraps and the ceremonial uses of water.

Arrakis for the 1984 film

Arrakis from the 1984 film

Once I got my head around the writing style and accepted the fact that I was probably not going to understand everything that was going on I came to enjoy Arrakis and I really liked the Fremen; they’re a very traditional people and I loved discovering elements of their culture and beliefs. The only thing that did annoy me a little bit was the repeated description of their eyes as being completely blue. This was a fact that was ascertained early on and didn’t need repeating every time someone looked at a Fremen face.

Other than water, the main theme is destiny; due to the combination of his breeding and training, Paul has a number of, shall we say, special talents and is destined to become someone he doesn’t want to be. He spends the book trying to change the course of his future but whether he succeeds or not is of course down to you to find out. It makes for some interesting character development but I felt that Herbert often got a bit bogged down in descriptions of possible versions of the future and the visions Paul experiences and I for one tended to get a bit confused between the certain and the hypothetical.

So I found Dune a hard read but it is undeniably a work of incredible imagination and a masterclass in how to create a rich, multi-layered universe (the story extends far beyond the planet of Arrakis) with deep history and intricately crafted cultures and beliefs. Once I got into it I enjoyed it and I really felt for Paul and his wish for an easier life. Dune is heralded as an incomparable work of ecological fiction which is no understatement and is certainly its most interesting theme.

I’m glad I saw it through to the end but I think it will be a while before I get round to trying out the other titles in the series, I might have managed to enjoy this one but I’m in no hurry to return to Arrakis!

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One response to “39. Dune, Frank Herbert

  1. Pingback: 2013 storified. | Books on the Tube

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