A new edition is available for the 50th anniversary of this book which has been called ‘the greatest science fiction novel ever written’ and likened to the work of Tolkein. But how well has it withstood the test of time? I am not usually a SciFi reader but I quickly got into the story and enjoyed it – up to a point. I can see that it must have seemed very different in its day.
The Emperor gives House Atreides governance of the planet Arrakis – a desert planet also known as Dune, which is much prized for its copious supplies of a spice called melange although has little else to commend it. And no water. The current governors of Arrakis (House Harkonnen) take exception to the presence of House Atreides – avast ye cursed intruders – and unsurprisingly they are soon all killing each other.
The Atreides are initially overcome. A few survivors – including the Ducal heir, Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica – join with a desert tribe in an attempt to fight back against the evil Harkonnens. There are some semi-biblical scenes when Paul Atreides must rise to be recognised as a prophet and leader of the notoriously rough and independent ‘Fremen’ in their desert Kingdom.
The problem with a 50th anniversary is that the book is 50 years old. Things that may have seemed shocking or amazing in 1960 don’t any more. And while Dune may have been the precursor of films like Star Wars and The Matrix, others have taken these ideas and run with them.
What once might have seemed inspired, now seems well worn. In a world post 9/11 it is hard to either believe in or be shocked by giant worms. And what point do they serve? To heighten the sense of danger that the characters must face? Maybe. There must always be monsters. Here be dragons. The characters all think in this kind of exposition. Acres and acres of italics.
Other of Herbert’s ideas are depressingly realistic. For example, Dune has such a shortage of water that characters have to wear special ‘stillsuits’ to recycle their bodies own water.
The characterisation is thin, the plot not complex. The goodies are ultra good. The evildoers don’t have a redeeming cell in their bodies.
It must not be, he thought. I cannot let it happen.
One of the best literary devices in Dune is a fictional set of narratives heading each Chapter purporting to be from a ‘history of’, ‘family of’ or ‘sayings of ‘Maud’Dib’. (the name given to Paul Atreides as tribal leader). These are the writings of the Princess Irulan. She is scarcely embodied as a character, but near the end of the book we learn that she has ‘pretensions of a literary nature’ so no doubt this was how she used them. Maybe it was hard to get published on Arrakis. Especially for a woman.
The book is not exactly a hotbed of feminism. The few women characters are there to provide wives for the main characters, or to be servants or Mother Superiors.
There’s another thing, Jessica thought. Paul must be cautioned about their women. One of these desert women would not do as a wife to a Duke. As concubine, yes, but not as wife.
We are, despite everything, firmly placed in the year 1961.
Dune may have been a book which purported to be about other worlds and other times, with added gadgets, space machines and a few linguistic fireworks, but it is far from timeless. Part of the role of the best Science Fiction writing should be to glimpse other worlds but also to give us some perspective on our own. Dune was no more enlightened in its ideas than Herbert’s own world and own time. The one thing he was right about having penned 550 pages of battles with added sand, was the propensity of men to kill each other. This was fifteen years after the end of the second world war. You didn’t need to have the ‘sight’ to understand that.
I enjoyed the first half of the book for its sense of adventure. But Tolkein this is not.
Storygraph tells me I have read 39 books in 2021. I was aiming for 50 but still not bad.
2022 is another year.
I wish everyone an enjoyable festive season and a healthy New Year.