Friday, July 21, 2017

Dune by Frank Herbert

Not just a sci-fi masterpiece but a masterpiece, period.
I know a lot of Star Wars nuts, Harry Potter nuts, and Lord of the Rings nuts, but I was always a Dune nut. I first read Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel as a teenager in the ‘80s, and I recently had the pleasure of reading it again for the fourth or fifth time. Like the works mentioned above, much of the attraction of Dune comes from the intricately detailed world in which it is set. In fact, I have never read another single-volume work that creates a more fully realized fictional universe. Herbert has exquisitely conceived this world in multiple dimensions: political, religious, cultural, ecological, historical, and linguistic, to name a few. Dune is more than just a pretty backdrop, however, as the wonderful world Herbert has created sets the stage for an equally epic story.

Through a diplomatic agreement, House Atreides, one of many noble families in an interplanetary feudalistic society, have been assigned and/or sentenced by the Emperor to relocate to the desert planet Arrakis, nicknamed Dune. There they will take over the management of the planet’s priceless natural resource, a spice named melange that acts as a prescience-enhancing drug. The Atreides fear the move to Arrakis may be a trap set by the Emperor in collusion with their rivals the Harkonnens. Paul Atreides, the son of the Duke, is the end result of an extensive breeding program for genetic excellence. As he reaches manhood, he begins to show signs of superhuman mental abilities. The Fremen, desert people indigenous to Arrakis, have foretold the coming of a messiah, and Paul just might be it.

Though an excellent novel, Dune is not an easy read. There is a great deal of foreshadowing to upcoming events, as well as flashbacks and references to fictional history, to the point where the lines between past, present, and future are often blurred, much like the time-spanning visions of the book’s hero. The effect can be disorienting. In addition, Herbert has crafted a unique vocabulary for Dune, enough to fill over 20 pages of appendix. While labor intensive, all these thoughtful details enhance the authenticity of the world in which the reader is immersed.

What’s never mentioned explicitly in the text (though alluded to in the appendices) is that the story takes place tens of thousands of years in our future. The characters are descendants of the human diaspora that emigrated from Earth to colonize other worlds. This is evident from the religious and linguistic artifacts that have persisted over millennia. The Fremen, for example, exhibit cultural traits that are Arabic and Islamic in origin, though mingled with elements of Christianity and Buddhism. Over 10,000 years prior to the story of Dune, a cataclysmic war between man and machine took place, known as the Butlerian Jihad. As a result, computers and robots are absent from the world of Dune. Instead, humans have developed their physical and mental abilities to the utmost through rigorous training, eugenics, and drugs. Mentats, for example, specialize as human computers, while Paul and his mother, among others, are trained in the “weirding way,” a sort of martial art combined with hypnotic suggestion.

If any of this sounds familiar from Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and so on, just remember that Dune was here first. There are very few works of science fiction created since 1965 that don’t to some degree owe a debt of gratitude to Herbert’s masterpiece. Dune is often cited as the greatest sci-fi novel ever published, and rightfully so, in my opinion. Frank Herbert would go on to add five sequels to the Dune canon before he died, and his son and other writers have published numerous ancillary works set in the Dune universe. The first is still the best, however. If you’ve never before dabbled in the Dune world, treat yourself to a fascinating and engrossing literary experience. If you’ve read it before, by all means read it again.

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