Bob R Bogle's Reviews > Dune

Dune by Frank Herbert
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May 08, 12

bookshelves: herbert

How does one begin to write an original and interesting review of Dune?

Appearing in print first in installments between December 1963 and May 1965, this is the audacious novel that forever nailed shut the coffin on pulp-style science fiction and cheesy space-operas. This does not mean that Dune is literature in the way that The Great Gatsby, say, is literature - Herbert's writing would remain generally plot-driven rather than more favorably style-conscious for another decade - but it does mean that in Dune science fiction attained a legitimacy it had never known before. The genre could no longer be so readily dismissed with a condescending wave of the hand. Author Frank Herbert successfully mated together a number of disparate elements which resulted in a compelling future-fiction which, as of 2012, still remains unequalled in scale and scope.

A substantial part of the achievement of Dune is the awesome success it achieves as a standard in world building. It is for this reason that it has been so often incongruently compared to The Lord of the Rings, a fantasy epic with which Dune otherwise has next to nothing in common. Jacques tells us that "all the world's a stage" in As You Like It, and Herbert seems to have taken the line as a literal challenge. In reading Dune we feel the physical weight of an entire planet beneath the feet of our heroes and villains: it's all there, the geography, the meteorology, the astronomy, the ecology, and all the myriad chemical and biological and physical cycles turning, turning, turning some more under the sun and pair of moons glowing in the clear desert night sky. Herbert creates the masterful illusion of having imagined it all, and we readers are merely transient visitors. The planet Arrakis, also called Dune, we feel to be an intensively real planet, whole, massive, subtle and intense. That's the first part of the unprecedented greatness of this book.

But though it's set in a future many generations removed from our own, when humanity has settled on hundreds and hundreds of planets spread throughout the galaxy and Earth is a distant, all but forgotten dream, the more important secret that keeps old readers coming back to the novel again and again, and new readers in high school encountering it for the first time and instantly falling under its spell, snapping the bait hook, line and sinker, is not a new trick or gizmo at all, but the oldest trick in the literary spell book. In Dune Herbert very deliberately and very explicitly set out to create an epic hero, following all the rules for doing so that were well known even before Homer wrote down the Odyssey, or Anonymous wrote down Beowulf. We are utterly captivated by the story of Paul Atreides because we have to be: it's written into our DNA to be bewitched by this kind of epic hero. Herbert's poured out a trail of sugar, and like helpless ants we march along in line, follow the leader, unknowing and uncaring where our fantasies and dreams of wish-fulfillment are leading us.

Which is not to disparage Frank Herbert. In Dune he is a master story-teller.

All of Dune - indeed, all of the Dune series - is predicated on one single particular which we must simply accept without question, and that is that humanity has rejected technology whensoever possible. Whether this underlying premise is rational or reasonable is never questioned. Take away this underlying proposition and Herbert's entire Duniverse collapses into a pile of rubble and dust. Reasonable and rational or no, all the drama of Dune can ultimately be traced back to this one fact.

I've mentioned that Paul is our unassailable champion because he must be: this is the nature of our response to the mythic hero. Likewise many of Herbert's other characters also perfectly fit their mythic roles. We loath the villains by reflex as we must, never stopping to ask whether they are really just straw men Herbert has created to be destroyed. Probably the most truly interesting and original characters are Paul's mother, Jessica, and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood to which she belongs. Now here are some startling characters, with an intellectual astuteness encountered nowhere else in science fiction, or in mainstream fiction, for that matter.

Shall I, in this non-review review, mention the spice?

The spice melange is fundamental to the story, its need arising directly out of the restriction on technology. If computers can't guide humanity across the gaping chasms of spacetime separating distant solar systems from each other, then somehow human minds must do so. The spice melange is the requisite McGuffin, a drug which allows interstellar pilots to navigate through higher orders of spacetime. Oh, by coincidence it's also the drug which transforms our hero, Paul Atreides, into a superhuman messiah-figure. How happy Frank Herbert must have been the day when these disparate pieces began falling into place!

Dune is one of the truly great science fiction novels of the middle of the 20th Century. It has its flaws, but I lack the space to discuss them here; nevertheless, it doesn't get too much better than this. As I consider myself a student of Frank Herbert, both the author and the man, I've come over the years to value Dune as a window into Herbert's mind and soul, and to appreciate it more in that way than for the joy it affords strictly reading it as a novel. But if you are considering reading Dune for the first time and so you decided to check out a few reviews first, I can only envy you your innocence, and for the journey you are about to take. Prepare to have your mind expanded.
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