Manny's Reviews > Dune

Dune by Frank Herbert
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Jan 15, 2015

really liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction, if-research-were-romance, islam-and-arabic
Read in January, 1970 , read count: 5

There's a characteristically witty essay by Borges about a man who rewrites Don Quixote, many centuries after Cervantes. He publishes a novel with the same title, containing the same words in the same order. But, as Borges shows you, the different cultural context means it's a completely new book! What was once trite and commonplace is now daring and new, and vice versa. It just happens to look like Cervantes's masterpiece.

Similarly, imagine the man who was brave or stupid enough to rewrite Dune in the early 21st century. Like many people who grew up in the 60s and 70s, I read the book in my early teens. What an amazing story! Those kick-ass Fremen! All those cool, weird-sounding names and expressions they use! (They even have a useful glossary in the back). The disgusting, corrupt, slimy Harkonnens - don't you just love to hate them! When former-aristo-turned-desert-guerilla-fighter Paul Muad'Dib rides in on a sandworm at the end to fight the evil Baron and his vicious, cruel nephew, of course you're cheering for him. Who the hell wouldn't be?

So that was the Dune we know and love, but the man who rewrote it now would get a rather different reception. Oh my God! These Fremen, who obviously speak Arabic, live on a desert planet which supplies the Universe with melange, a commodity essential to the Galactic economy, and in particular to transport. Not a very subtle way to say "oil"! They are tough, uncompromising fighters, who are quite happy to use suicide bombing as a tactic. They're led by a charismatic former rich kid (OK, we get who you mean), who inspires them to rise up against the corrupt, degenerate... um, does he mean Westerners? Or only the US? And who is Baron Harkonnen intended to be? I'm racking my brains... Dubya doesn't quite seem to fit, but surely he means someone? Unless, of course, he's just a generic stereotype who stands for the immoral, sexually obsessed West. This is frightening. What did we do to make Frank al-Herbert hate us so much? You'd have people, not even necessarily right-wingers, appearing on TV to say that the book was dangerous, and should be banned: at the very least, it incites racial hatred, and openly encourages terrorism. But translations would sell brilliantly in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and a bad movie version would soon be made in Turkey.

I honestly don't think Herbert meant any of that; but today, it's almost impossible not to wonder. If anyone reading this review is planning to rewrite The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, you'd better make sure you get your timing right. Who knows how it will be interpreted five years from now?

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Comments <span class="smallText"> (showing 1-50 of 137) </span> <span class="smallText">(137 new)</span>


message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited Mar 20, 2009 08:27AM) (new)

What a thought-provoking review. I've really never thought of the plot of Dune in those recontextualized terms before -- but now that you've brought them up, they seem so obvious. I always regarded Dune as a weird sort of acne/drug/new age/anticolonialism epic (in those few instances when I dared to think of it). But I suppose nothing in our hypercoded world is entitled to be "merely" a good story anymore; it must inevitably be weighed down with the ideological and sociological baggage of each successive generation.

An outstanding commentary, Manny.


trivialchemy Agreed.


Jackie "the Librarian" Maybe Herbert was prescient? Great review, Manny. You got me thinking.


Manny Thanks for the kind words! And if anyone is able to sell the concept to an Islamicist movie mogul, I'll be entirely satisfied with 1% of the gross.



Terence Indeed, a great review. I just recently finished listening to it on audio CD and couldn't help but think about the current ME situation.

And by the way, perhaps Vladimir Harkonnen = Rush Limbaugh? (Which would leave Bush as Shaddam and Cheney could be the Reverend Mother.)




Lori I reread Dune about 7 years ago, and was amazed at the same things as you were, Manny. Altho I stopped at trying to figure out who was who. But with the picture of Rush on the cover of Newsweek this week, looking very much like a pig, I'd say Harkonnen is Rush.

Ooooh, just saw Terence said the same thing!


Manny Of course, Harkonnen is Rush. It's completely obvious, don't know why that didn't occur to me. But doesn't that make Dubya Feyd-Rautha? You don't see it quite as easily now he's older, but think about what he was like at the relevant age...


message 8: by David (last edited Mar 22, 2009 07:48PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David Katzman This was published in 1965. Heart of the civil rights movement and the year U.S. ground troops hit Vietnam. The Cold War was in full swing. From what i have read, Herbert was a progressive...an ecologist apparently. His Fremen were supposed to be Zen communalists who lived in balance with nature--more like native American, perhaps, then Islamicist. The Empire was exactly what you think it is, American-Russian, two faces of the same coin, take your pick. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was also an influence. They battle for natural resources. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published in 1962.

I don't think he was so much prescient as paying attention.


Tatiana Hah, I found your review of Dune. Having read it in the 70s, it hadn't occurred to me to think of it in the context of the current political milieu. You're absolutely right, it's almost creepy how well it fits. Makes the whole thing look very different, doesn't it? The Borges analogy is so apt, too. Gotta get that into the movie somehow.


message 10: by MattA (last edited Dec 30, 2009 03:50PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

MattA Great review/interpretation.

I'm re-reading "Dune" now for the first time in over 20 years, and I can't help wondering how much Herbert was inspired by "Lawrence of Arabia" which was released in 1962. I know that "Dune" and "Lawrence" don't really parallel each other that much, but I can imagine Herbert sitting back and thinking, just as a starting point, "What if 'Lawrence of Arabia' was set on a different planet?"


Fiver Excellent review, I think you hit the nail on the head.

Having said that, I think it's also important to note that not all stories have that inherent depth. Sometimes I here people shelve Dune off as the product of mid-century sensationalism ("Get it... they're fighting... in the desert... with worms!"), but I think the book seeps with so much cultural and ecological commentary that it can't help but have meaning.


message 12: by Pareyeah (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:42AM) (new) - added it

Pareyeah Myxios I read Dune in my early teens. It was a great adventure story and I missed anything else in it! I reread it years later and it seemed to describe corporate politics. I have reread it again am still moved by the adventure, stunned by the scope, and in awe of the man. If you read the rest of the series the intro written by Herbert describes what he was thinking as he wrote.


Manny I'm astonished that I didn't know Herbert had lived in Egypt! Where is the intro you refer to? I would like to look at it.

Also very interesting to see you linking him with Lawrence Durrell. I have read The Alexandria Quartet twice, and it never for a second occurred to me to compare with Herbert...


message 14: by C. (new) - rated it 3 stars

C. I don't think this is necessarily relevant - I suspect Herbert was making a wider point than just about the Middle East - but at one stage a Fremen says 'we are the people of Misr'. 'Misr' (مصر) means 'Egypt' in Arabic.


Manny Hi Choupette. What an interesting detail!

Are you learning Arabic then? I'm embarrassed to say I can't read the script... we have been using it a little at work, but I have been a bit lazy and left all that to our Arabic specialist.


message 16: by C. (new) - rated it 3 stars

C. Yes, I am, but I don't know enough vocabulary to recognise many of the words, and the difficulties transliterating it into English really do not help. I picked it up straight away, though, because it's just so distinctive.

I've actually formed quite a different opinion on the reasons why he uses it, but I think I'll wait until the end of the book to see if my suspicions are confirmed or not.


Catherine Jamieson Brilliant observation. I suspect he did have a thematic intention relative to the melange/oil - but the Arabic observations and political are very accurate (and funny).

Either way, your thesis is excellent. And I agree. Context - the context the *reader* supplies vis a vis his experiences and social conditioning - is a really important part of a story's meaning. It's the implied/inferred argument. A writer may suggest but ultimately it is the reader who settles the matter of meaning.

Bravo, anyway - enjoyed the post.


Manny Thank you, Catherine!

I just looked around, and discovered that Brian Herbert has written a massive biography of his father. Almost tempted to buy it. The stuff about using a lie detector on his children sounds seriously creepy.


Asif Very interesting discussion on the Arabic/Muslim theme in Dune. It remains one of my favourite novels ever since I read it as a teenager. In fact, being a bit of a swot as a schoolboy I remember doing my literary project in Grade 11 on Dune and comparing it to early Islamic history and the concept of the Mahdi (Paul MuaD'dib is clearly the Mahdi). I also recognised the Arabic phrases (I'm Muslim but not Arab) in the text. Interesting observations anyway although I think that its too easy and facile to read it as political analogy/prescience.

Other people have read the whole Dune Saga (I never got past half-way through Book 4) as a cautionary tale against destroying the environment...

It is, however you understand it, a great sci-fi novel.


Manny Ah, yes, I seem to recall that he's even called the Mahdi somewhere. Possibly in Dune Messiah? Though I know nothing about Muslim theology. I don't suppose you could put your grade 11 essay online? It sounds interesting.

I wonder if Herbert said anything about what, if anything, he intended? Though authors are often unreliable on this score.


message 21: by Alexei (last edited Aug 29, 2011 06:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alexei Averchenko I think you just got wiser with age ;) Besides, US's embroil in the Middle East did not start in 2001, and oil dependency was a hot topic at least since the end of WWII.


Asif Manny,
1. i'd have to find it first.
2. it was written by hand on paper and so i'd need to type it all and i remember it being quite lengthy...

perhaps. :)


Manny Sigh. I suppose I shouldn't have assumed that everyone already knew the story. My generic apology is here.


T-dub Thanks for point the allegory out. Totally didn't pick it on the first pass; you just made it so much better in my view.


Manny Thank you T-dub! I'm not sure when it hit me: definitely not the first time round :)


message 26: by Riku (new) - rated it 4 stars

Riku Sayuj Napalm.


message 27: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Many of these insights about the novel, as is demonstrated by several comments above, have been made my other readers and critics. (See the Wikipedia article on Dune.) Not Rush=Harkonnen however!
Never having seen that article before, and not having read the book in a few decades, most of it is pretty new (and interesting) to me. Thanks everyone.


message 28: by Wrey (new)

Wrey Fuentes And what if Frank did mean all those things? Does it shock and infuriate because... it's true? It's no secrete that the Dune series and the contemporaneously written Destination Void series had as their basic theme resource allocation. Perhaps Frank is just pointing at the big white, culturally-tabboo-to-recognise, elephant in the living room of Joe and Jane American in their soft little tract home. Stranger things have happened. We have a set of rules in this day and age that indicates that we are not allowed to espouse the idea that our meddling and trafficking in foreign commodities has repercussions. To even mention such an idea is heinous and unpatriotic. But that doesn't make the idea false, just offensive to cultural pride.


Manny Well, I think Herbert could have meant some of it - First World callously exploiting Third, in particular. But if he predicted Osama bin Laden, then I must say I'm seriously impressed. Though maybe Hari Seldon would just shake his head at my lack of understanding of psychohistory and demonstrate Osama's inevitability with the help of a couple of Rigelian integrals.


message 30: by Wrey (last edited Apr 03, 2012 11:06AM) (new)

Wrey Fuentes LOL :) Well said. Well said.

But I think it bears remembering that our meddling in the Middle East predates by some decades the era we think of as having started with Desert Storm.

Manny wrote: "Well, I think Herbert could have meant some of it - First World callously exploiting Third, in particular. But if he predicted Osama bin Laden, then I must say I'm seriously impressed. Though maybe..."


message 31: by Marius (new) - added it

Marius Pontmercy What a great review! You made me want to read this book, and soon!

Thank yuo very much!


message 32: by Manny (last edited May 07, 2012 07:34AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny I'll be curious to see what you think, reading it for the first time at this point in history :)


message 33: by Eve (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eve Davids Forgive me if you guys have talked about this above. But what did you guys think of all the film and tv adaptations on this? Anyone impressed? Trying to know which one to check out. Thanks.


message 34: by Thom (new) - rated it 4 stars

Thom Dunn TheDuchess wrote: "Forgive me if you guys have talked about this above. But what did you guys think of all the film and tv adaptations on this? Anyone impressed? Trying to know which one to check out. Thanks."

Well, David Lynch's film is magnificent even if, at first viewing, his depiction of evil is so visceral as to be off-putting. Have viewed it many times and, like any great work of art, it just keeps getting better.


message 35: by Ol (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ol If we take the indigenous population of "Russia-US", as it was in 1950, we will see that by 2050, it'll shrink by 80%. That's for the "evil empires". Rush Limbo is another caricature on our civilization. Nothing more. Arab societies are as corrupted by the 20th century's "progress" as anybody else. There is no place today for people who are tough, smart and have meaningful purpose. Pay attention to what is going on around, my friends.


message 36: by Josh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Josh Good review!


Manny Thank you!


Fayley Thanks Manny, this is my absolute favourite review ever ( ps I am missing your daily posts from when you were reading Tragedy And Hope: A History Of Our Time)


Manny Thank you Fayley! And if I knew of a book which could replace Tragedy and Hope in my life, I would already be reading it...


Fayley Sorry to go off topic briefly, but there is only 1 library in Perth with Tragedy and Hope (University of WA) and the librarian reports an uncharacteristic sudden popularity of the book lately - I wonder if you have other review followers in Western Australia?


Manny I would like to feel I had that much influence... but, to be honest, I must point out that I got the virus from BirdBrian, and I am sure there are many other carriers...


message 42: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert Williams Good review. Never looked at it that way before. It's been about 10 years since I read this. Thinking I might read this again.


Manny According to Ted in message #28 above, it's all been done before, but thank you!


message 44: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John Paz Manny, you're spot on. I'm reading this gem for the first time currently. As a follower of international politics, an American, and a lover of science fiction I totally concur with your evaluation of this story and its spooky relevance to current events.

My friend, you miss the blatant reference to the all-important trigger word in a dialog with our hero: "jihad." And it was about the time when the first of the Fremen sacrifice himself against a shield-less battleship, "one for three hundred. Seems like a good exchange..."

I'm paraphrasing terribly, but you get my point. I've been thinking this since they began describing the Fremens. I've been pronouncing it like it rhymed with the country Yemen... even more symbolism!


Manny Ah, the one-for-three-hundred scene! I was indeed thinking of that when I wrote the review!


message 46: by Colleen (new) - added it

Colleen Stone Confession: I only read the early comments. I just wanted to say BRAVO! A "like" didn't seem enough. A book is only partly about what the author writes. By far the largest part of it is what the reader brings to it... and boy, did you bring a lot to Dune.


Manny Thank you Colleen!


Damian Dubois That is an excellent review of the novel Dune, Manny. And you're right, so many parallels that can be interpreted as a commentary on politics, the economy and the whole West vs. East.


Manny Thank you Damian! As you can see if you read the comments higher up, some people are sure Herbert did it on purpose, and others are less convinced. I must look into this more carefully some time...


Christopher W What a fantastic review.


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