Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: Dune

Frank Herbert
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Dune is a complex book (and a complex world) and it is impossible to say everything I want to say about it in just a few paragraphs.

In it, Herbert creates a rich universe of worlds bound together by layer upon layer of intricate political intrigue and manipulation. It is easy to believe that their technology, religion, and governmental systems are results of thousands of years of evolution since our own time; they are all mixtures of the ancient and the futuristic. The interstellar space travel and the laser weaponry seem to come from far in our future, but the backward gender roles and hybrid combo-religions seem to come from deep in our past.

The story takes place almost entirely on Dune, one of the planets in Herbert’s universe. Dune is inhospitable, being almost completely covered by desert and populated by enormous man-eating worms. But it is also the only source of “the spice,” the universe’s most important natural resource, which is not only physically addictive but is also the source of energy for all inter-world space transportation. Noble off-world families are constantly jostling and scheming to control Dune and thereby control the supply of spice. The nobles also are cruelly repressive to the Fremen, the native desert people of Dune, who do the scut work in the spice mining operations, wear long robes, are deeply religious, and are somewhat repressive, in turn, to their women.

(Stop me if you see an allegory for anything in our own world here.)

To try to make a very long story short, the book begins with the good guys (Duke Leto Atreides, his wife Jessica, and his son Paul) taking over the management of Dune from the bad guys (their cousins, the evil Duke Harkonnen and his two nephews) following a lukewarm edict from the emperor. The Harkonnens don’t want to leave so they sabotage the Atreides’s takeover, planting booby traps all over their house. Duke Leto is killed and his wife and son flee into the desert.

All appears to be lost… except that Paul & his mother are taken in by the Fremen. It turns out that the Fremen have been living underground, concealing their numbers, training themselves in battle, and patiently preparing for hundreds of years to receive a prophesied messiah who will lead them in a great jihad against the imperium and help them to reclaim the planet. It takes a while for them to warm up to Paul and, especially, his mother, who is a powerful practitioner of the Bene Gesserit religion which they think of as witchcraft, but eventually the Fremen start to accept that Paul might just be the savior they have been waiting for.

I saw David Lynch’s film adaptation of Dune before I read the book for the first time. I don’t normally like to do that because it means I’m thinking about the movie’s actors and sets the whole time I’m reading, but in this case, it worked. Partly because the book is rich enough not to be boxed in by a single move. And partly because the movie is great. Sure, it is a bit goofy, and doesn’t stick exactly to the book, but the worms are awesome and it has excellent actors in it (Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Linda Hunt, Max Von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, and Brad Dourif, to name just my favorites) who I enjoyed mentally plugging into their roles as I was reading.

The book also explores certain plot points more deeply than a two-plus-hour movie has any hope of doing. For one thing, the book talks more about the CHOAM spice corporation and its influence over the royalty of the universe of Dune. It makes even more obvious a statement about the danger of becoming dependent on a single limited resource and how this is a situation ripe for corruption.

The book also goes deeper into the role of Jessica’s Bene Gesserit religion. If you just saw the movie, you’d think the BGs were only religious priestesses and that everything that Paul and Jessica did to prove themselves to the Fremen really was entirely supernatural. But what you learn from the book is that generations of BGs have been following a specific plan. They’ve been going around to different planets, using their roles as Reverend Mothers to deliberately plant legends and prophesies, and then attempting through selective breeding and strict training to create people to make those prophesies come true.

This is not to say that there isn’t still a very strong element of magic in Paul’s powers. He does have abilities that the Bene Gesserits didn’t plan for, which eventually makes events on Dune spiral out of their control.

This is an impressive, impressive book. There were just a couple things about Herbert’s writing that were downers for me and that separated this book from being an epic on the level of Lord of the Rings.

The main one is that all the good guys have a mystical instinct for always knowing the right thing to do in a given situation. None of the chosen people have to puzzle it out or make mistakes. Paul and his mother always get out of tight spots just by mysteriously – bing! – knowing what they have to do or exactly the right words to say. The line “Then Paul knew what he had to do” came up about two hundred times and by the one hundredth, I was pretty sick of it. Whether it was because he really was the prophesied savior or because of the BG implantation and pre-seeding of legend, it didn’t matter to me.

And then every time Paul does or says something preordained by prophesy, the Fremen around him gasp and breathlessly nod to themselves saying, “Yes, he is the one.” It gets kind of annoying with all the wonder and awe of him – especially because he can be, on occasion, a bit of a jerk.

Actually, everybody is always in awe of or enchanted by something. Paul himself is even enchanted by the simplicity of Fremen dew collectors. Really?

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