Book Review

Dune by Frank Herbert

In Dune, Duke Leto Atreides and his family (son Paul and concubine Lady Jessica) move to the desert planet of Arrakis, having been granted control of the planet by the Emperor – an opportunity that the Duke suspects is a trap, but one that can’t be refused.

Arrakis has little to offer – it is inhospitable and desolate – except that it is the only source of “spice” – a drug that is used throughout the empire, and therefore the posting is a lucrative one.

He who controls the spice controls the universe.

When the anticipated betrayal comes, Paul and Lady Jessica manage to escape, and are taken in by the “Fremen” – the native inhabitants of Arrakis, and from there Paul plans his revenge, the design and execution of which comprises the remainder of the novel.

Dune was first published in 1965, and is the most successful science fiction novel of all time.  To commemorate the 50th anniversary, various new editions have been published, including a stunning illustrated volume from the Folio Society.

I’ve not read Dune before.  I had (erroneously, as it turns out) assumed that it’s what I think of as “hard sci fi” which I often struggle to follow and usually don’t get on with.  How wrong I was!  Dune is the perfect blend of science fiction and fantasy.  For example, there is space travel, but the technology that enables this isn’t detailed at all, it’s just something that is possible.  And life on Arrakis seems relatively basic, despite the technological advancements in the universe.  Essentially, it comes across as an epic adventure that just happens to be set in a technologically advanced environment.

Being a desert planet, water is a precious commodity, and I thought that the ways in which water was used throughout the novel were extremely clever, and I could easily believe that these uses could be true of desert cultures historically, if not today.  For example, throwing water on the ground (thereby wasting it) is considered to be indicative of wealth, in that you have enough of it to spare that you can throw it away.  And spitting, using even a tiny bit of the body’s moisture, is taken as a significant mark of respect.

Given when it was written, I had some initial concerns about the treatment of women within the novel, given that females can come off badly in (science) fiction.  Whilst I can’t honestly say that there is a fair gender divide – there is a clear overruling patriarchy – women are certainly not portrayed purely as damsels in distress or merely present for the purposes of reproduction.  Whilst the women may not lead overtly, they are certainly influential in the Empire, and do hold power – more so than I expected.  Lady Jessica herself is one of the Bene Gesserit, a female-orientated political force – consider them an all-female group of Jedis and you won’t be far wrong.  This was pleasantly surprising to me – not perfect, but more balanced than I had expected.

Being written in the sixties, there are “real world” political overtones to consider.  On one side, we have the Atreides who are portrayed as being very noble  – the good guys, if you will.  The names “Paul” and “Jessica” to me sound quite Western.  Against this, you have the extremely Russian sounding “Vladimir Harkonnen” as the Duke’s opposite, and who also happens to be gay and is portrayed as being quite a depraved character.  I thought that this was extremely unsubtle, and I wonder how this was received when it was first published, given the tensions between East and West, and views on homosexuality at the time.

So, having avoided it for ages, it turns out that I really enjoyed Dune!  I don’t know what influences George R. R.  Martin states for A Song of Ice and Fire, but I’d be surprised if Dune isn’t among them – there is a comparable level of treachery and scheming within the novel.  It’s big and bold and incredibly complex, and I loved it, and I’m slightly ashamed that it’s taken me this long to read it.

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