Sunday, 21 November 2021


Author: Frank Herbert
eBook Publisher: Gateway
eBook Date: Dec 2010
First Published: 1965
Pages: 592
Cover Art: Bruce Pennington

After including Dune in my list of favourite books of all time back in August, I knew I was going to have to give it a re-read. So, hot on the heels of a visit to the cinema to see the new adaptation by Denis Villeneuve (I was very impressed), I was even more keen to get stuck in. 

My overall concern with a re-read was that my first impression of the book, read as a young man in the late seventies/early eighties, might have been clouded by nostalgia. Sometimes the books you read as a young person, and are mightily impressed with at the time, don't necessarily have the same impact when visited as a more mature reader. The antagonist of Dune, Paul Atreides, is a 15 year old boy - probably the same age as myself when I first encountered it. Would that fact have had a major influence on my regard for the story? I vividly recall holding the paperback by NEL, with the classic Pennington cover, in my hands and devouring it at every opportunity - it was the biggest book I'd ever read at the time. I still remember seeing it in the bookshop, the thick blue spine looked so different next to all the other thinner science fiction novels on the same shelf. It 'felt' good to hold; it looked cool and it didn't have numbered chapters.

Unless you've been living under a stone (or alone in the desert) for the last 50 years, you'll know the general story of Dune. A family by ther name of House Atreides is tasked by ruling Emporer Padishah Shaddam IV with taking over the control of the planet Arrakis. The Royal decree also demands that Duke Leto and his family maintain the production of Arrakis's major export, the spice named Melange. Melange is a powerful drug that allows humans to attain amazing feats with just the power of their minds. One of these feats is the action of folding space across the vast exapnse of the universe, thus allowing interstellar flight between planets and systems - a momentous achievement that has literally brought about the forming of the human Imperium.

Leto is unable to refuse the request of the Emperor, but he and his advisors know that this is a doomed venture. They have been sent to an inhospitable planet entirely covered by a vast desert. The inhabitants of Arrakis are the native Fremen, a reclusive and secretive nation of wandering tribes who are able to survive on incredibly restricitve diets and very little water, whilst also hiding the true size and complexity of thier communities from thier foreign oppressors in the depths of the oceans of sand on thier planet.

Leto's concubine, Jessica, is member of the female cult named Bene Gesserit. They are an organisation determined to maipulate the universe by interferring in the breeding of high-born fmailies in order to produce a super-being capable of commanding great powers through pure mind-power.

Let and Jessica have a son, Paul, who is the sole heir to House Atreides. Jessica has been training him in the use of Bene Gesserit skills, although this goes against her sects commands. The story of Dune will centre around the growth of Paul, and how he adapts to life on Arrakis with the Fremen, despite the poltical and natural dangers that surround him and his family.

I was a little surprised by how old-fashioned some of the concepts and writing felt. For example, using old european titles such as Emporer, Baron, Princess, Duke etc. with some of the accompanying names (Vladimir?) gave a sensing of reading a much older book than something published in 1965. There were times where the prose felt very stilted and almost like a pulp sci-fi akin to Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. Perhaps Herbert still hadn't shaken off the shadows of space-opera from the forties and fifties?

Balanced against this, there are large parts of Dune that must have been very advanced upon first release. The very essence of the creation of a desert-faring tribal community cannot be read without making comparisons to an Arab-like life or an Islamic traditional setting. Many of the names that Herbert adopts for life on Arrakis have an eastern influence. Although modern readers are more used to these settings, Herbert must have been one of the very first and most successul artists to use them.

Many people find Dune a difficult book to get through. There are a lot of concepts to wrestle with from the very start, possibly too many for the casual or part-time reader who isn't already experienced in complex sciejce fiction literature. And Dune attracts a lot of new readers - it's almost a franchise without being a franchise. It's had many different spin-off merchandising products, but doesn't necessarily have the reach to support it (David Lynch's 1984 film is considered a cult, and the TV series didn't air to mass audiences.

Structurally Dune is split into three 'books', covering preparations to move to Arrakis, the arrival and settling on Arrakis and finally the developement of Paul from the son of a Duke to a prophet. Although the overall story is fantastic and full of wonderful concepts, the three books don't quite flow smoothly for me. The final part feels like a bit of a jump in time and characterisation (especially of Paul).

Now, it may just be the passage of time - or it could be due to the recent influence Villeneuve's movie version, but I found book 1 and 2 dragged on a bit more than the final book. It could be that I'm now so familair with what happens in the first two that I only find the final installment to be as exciting and memorable as I remembered. This could also be down to Herbert's plotting. He deliberately wrote the ending to be much more fast-paced - but you cannot deny that Paul's transformation from the son of a Duke, to the all-seeing prophet Maud'dib is more interesting, albeit if there are some massive leaps in his abilites over a short page length.

So, did it live up to it's reputation? Yes, very much so. Despite noticing it's few quirks that, I guess, come from my more adult knowledge base and reading experience, I still thoroughly enjoyed revisting Dune. Is it a masterpiece? Yes, I think when you consider the concepts and ideas that Herbert introduced back in 1965, it should still have that mantle attributed to it. It still invokes an atmosphere about it. The themes of God versus Man, and Man as God, still resonate with readers just as much now as they always have. It has a story that demands to be continued (as it was) and expanded (as it is being). 

I've already plunged straight into the next novel - however I've decided to read the 'sequel' to Dune called Paul of Dune written by Frank's son, Brian Herbet and Kevin J. Anderson. I'm interested to report back on their effort.

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