October 2002

Michael Farrelly

fiction

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune is a desert planet, also called Arrakis, populated by nomads. No, wait, that’s not right. Dune is the brightest jewel in the crown of the “Emperor of the Universe”. Again, this is not completely accurate. Dune is the only source of an exotic mineral known as the “Spice Melenge” which expands life spans and consciousness. All these definition are still too small for Dune.

Dune is the first in a series of seven novels by Frank Herbert. There, that sounds about right.

It’s just this sort of maddening number of perspectives that make Dune such an enticing book to read. Frank Herbert wrote Dune as a commentary on quite nearly every aspect of human existence. Religion, sexuality, politics, our environment, resource allocation and the problems inherent with prophecy are just a few of Herbert’s subjects. Any one of these could fill a library easily. Herbert can fit them all into one book.

With all this philosophizing one might fear that Dune is some unreadable diatribe. Here is where Herbert proves his gifts as a storyteller are capable of weaving heavy ideas into clean simple stories. The setting is the year 10,191, humanity is ruled by an emperor sitting on the “golden lion throne” as well as a number of regal houses that fight and bicker over ancient grudges. The foremost of these houses are House Atreides and House Harkonnen. The Atredies are a line that hails back to ancient, really ancient in this setting, Greece and upholds all that is good and noble. It’s not too hard to hate the Harkonnens, with names like “The Beast Rabaan” and “Feyd” and deeds like genocide and ruthless betrayal to their credit. Herbert’s villains are a joy to behold really, so full of meaningless malignity, they put Iago to shame.

As the book opens the Atredies have been given the plum assignment of overseeing the harvesting of the spice from Dune. Spice is vital to space travel, as it allows the horribly mutated Guild Navigators to “fold space” and “travel without moving”. The Spice also allows for psychic abilities among the Bene Gesserit sisters, an order bent on breeding the ultimate human called the “Kwisatz Haderach”.

Herbert’s greatest contributions to speculative fiction are the strength of his characters and the intricacy in which they interact with a story that literally defines the fate of the universe. These aren’t cardboard stock characters. Duke Leto is a tragic figure whose betrayal and death play out in the book like a Shakespearean tragedy. His beloved concubine Jessica bore him a son, foiling the generations old breeding plan of the prescient Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Paul, who takes up the Duke’s mantle, leads the Fremen in a holy war to reclaim not only his birthright, but to reshape the whole of the universe.

If you are confused or lost, don’t despair. Herbert reveals this lush future landscape with great delicacy. Herbert never overwhelms the reader with techno-babble, but rather incorporates the hyper-technology of his far-flung era seamlessly into the narrative. Rather than rely on the tropes of the genre, rocket ships and ray guns, Herbert imagines a time when the greatest weapon in the universe is the human mind and spirit. The story is in many ways the spiritual evolution of Paul Atreides. In film adaptations of the Dune series Paul has been portrayed by men in their 20’s. In point of fact Herbert’s Paul is a young teenager, a fact that makes his rise to power among the honor bound Fremen all the more striking. Paul is to the Fremen the fulfillment of prophecy, a warrior who will lead them out of the deserts of Arrakis and into the stars beyond. The Fremen resemble the Rom and Bedouin of our time. The Fremen are religious zealots whose faith serves them well in an environment as brutal as the desert planet of Dune.

Dune is also a novel of the stark beauty a desert can possess. Survival on Arrakis is a matter of absolutes, one either lives or dies, one is consumed by the desert and the immense sandworms that prowl it or one does not. It is a world where water is beyond precious and love blossoms in hollowed out caves under the light of many moons. Herbert’s descriptions of the shifting sands of Arrakis are in turn a metaphor for the universal shifts his characters are undertaking. Can a single grain of sand, a single life, alter the course of all history? Herbert’s answer is undeniably in the affirmative.

The story of the Dune Universe continues past this book into Dune Messiah and Children of Dune (which are direct sequels) as well as God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune, which extend the story tens of thousands of years further into the future. In recent years Frank Herbert’s son Brian has partnered with renowned speculative fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson to compose a series of prequels to the original six Dune books. All of these later works, however, find their literary spirit in Herbert’s original masterpiece.

Dune by Frank Herbert
Ace Books
ISBN: 0441172717
535 pages