Dune by Herbert, Frank, 1965

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"Dune is the greatest SF novel ever written." Those are the generally the first words out of my mouth whenever someone asks me about this book. I know of some places on-line where I can find a few thousand people who will readily agree with me, but if I looked a bit harder, I'm sure that I could find millions. Dune is one of those very few SF books that has enormous appeal outside of the genre. Just look around at the book blogs on the internet; you will find hundreds of bloggers who say things like "I don't really read SF, but Dune was fantastic!" Dune has also garnered in its 40+ year history some serious critical praise as well. This big book has been deconstructed and analyzed by the best of them, so I'll just repeat briefly what we all know, and then get into my ideas about it. It is the story of Paul Atreides, the unintended end-product of a genetic breeding program, as he became a man. It is the start of Herbert's rally cry against the appearance of charismatic leaders whom the masses always seem to embrace in times of trouble, although that particular theme does not get the attention it truly deserves until the next two books. Dune, more so than Dune Messiah and Children of Dune is rooted more in the adventure-focused camp of tales, though it has an incredible amount of wisdom to impart on its reader. It is a story of political intrigue, in which an emperor and a royal House plot against a rival house, defeat it in a sneak attack the ferocity and size of which took the target completely off guard, and drove its scion and his mother out into the wilderness where they encountered a race of men who were waiting for their Messiah, which the boy pretends to be to great effect. It is the story of how Paul Atreides took advantage of his genetic heritage, became a superman who was viewed by most as a god, and created a future that changed the entire galaxy.

As a journalist Herbert had a passion for the truth, and as a master story-teller he had the will to make the reader accept his subjective version of it. A literary experimentalist who had a passion outside of his vocation for scientific and cultural innovation, Herbert counter intuitively removed most technology from this story so that he could focus on the human fears that kept the byzantine and static Corrino Empire humming along. I have read this book many times in the past, and most times I have concentrated on different aspects of it. I recall reading an interview of Herbert years and years ago in which he mentioned that is what he wanted his readers to do. So I obliged him. Once I concentrated on the business and corporate management aspects of the story. Another on the governmental motifs. Once on the coming-of-age and familial elements. Still another on the mythological elements, and again for the ecological, and once even for the commentary on heightened consciousness and awareness. This time I focused on two aspects: I read it to relearn the details of the narrative, because itís been two years since I last read it and I am tired of having my internet board-mates make me look like a newbie. I also searched for elements related to fear, and for evidence that Herbert used it as a major motivational force for the characters.

Indeed, intense fear motivated almost every one of the character's choices in the entire book. The political intrigue, military action and asset and resource control were all implemented by the characters as a way to deal with their fears of what would be done to them if they failed to act first. In the first book of the novel, titled Dune, all of the royal houses were locked into a static system where the Houses collectively had enough might, possibly, to overtake the Emperor. But two Houses were locked in a War of Assassins; a system of combat that minimized the chances for death to leaders and prevented wide-spread collateral damage to infrastructure and innocent citizens. In contravention of those well-established rules, House Harkonnen enlisted the assistance of the Emperor to bulk up the Harkonnen's elite forces before moving decisively against their enemy so as to eliminate forever the "threat" of House Atreides. Since Duke Leto Atreides saw this coming, and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen knew that he saw it, the Baron's attack had to be fierce and his conquest complete, or word of the Emperor's treachery would get out and the entire governmental system would crash out of fear that the Emperor would try to pick off House after House until nobody strong enough would be left who could challenge his rule. The message taken away from all of this by Paul was that he had to overcome his fears and take affirmative action before his opponents could move against him.

The idea that fears dictates the movements of the social and political ships of state can be found in the most memorable quotation from the entire book. I am probably committing a literary offense here by quoting this language, since it has been quoted in thousands of other reviews preceding this one, but since fear is the topic of the day, I think itís appropriate:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. and when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

It is with these words echoing in his mind that Paul Atreides became a man. It is with these words that Paul overcame the memory of his father, and in fact outshined his father's legacy by embracing the fear that Leto himself could not overcome. I suppose that it is in that sense also that Herbert makes his most terrifying revelation: That any man who can overcome this almost primordial fear could become that loved-yet-destructive leader.

True, Dune is also about political systems, and some powerful groups of people with disparate agendas, but it is also about balance. The impetuousness of youth and the lust for revenge, balanced against the consequences of careful stewardship, as exemplified by the ecological concerns on Arrakis, and Paul's rule over the Fremen. Or the static nature of the Empire and its economic appendages, none of which are willing to give an inch, against the will of a super-race who fear for their own deaths in the lack of a system of change.

This is the third essay I have written on this series of books since I started doing these things. That may seem like a bit much, but I do not see that I am done yet. Not by a long-shot. Dune has meant something different to me during practically every era of my life. It was after I read this book as a young man that I realized that those silly things that various Language Arts and English teachers had been telling me all along were true: That a book could change your life, and make it better. It was also when I realized that SF would be a calling of sorts for me. I actually became a happier person after I read the book. For an angst filled lonely pre-teen...well, I was going to say something trite and meaningless like "that's saying something." But the fact is that I should be able to put this concept into words. For two years now I have started and ended each and every day with something related to Dune on at least one SF or Herbert related web-site. And because of that for the first time in my life I call people who I have never even met before, "friend." I have tried to squeeze in the 2,500 odd pages of Herbert's masterworks each year, and I lament my failure when I do not get that done. The way I see it, this book is one of the most important novels in the English language. I do not want to get too dramatic here. My family certainly does more for me than Dune ever did. But if it were not for them, Dune certainly would be a lot higher on the list.

Stylistically this story beggars the imagination. Herbert carefully crafted all of his plot elements and set them up all very well through multiple points of view. None of the characters were preachy, they all spoke from broad and deep experience, and all of them worked to protect some thing, whether it was a secret or another person or a way of life, or even an entire race of people. Ideas were often vetted from multiple points of view, in long sequences lush with rich language. I found none of the "head hopping" that was going on to be confusing at all, but then again, I have read this thing dozens of times. Perhaps others would. The settings were adequately described, and none of them were oversold.

The world-building is simply put masterful. Herbert's ultra-parched Arrakis presents a setting so arid that saliva is considered a gift. Herbert's elements of characterization are best described as a gift to literature. The strongest relationship in the book is that between Paul and his mother, Jessica, a Bene Gesserit trained unwed concubine of Paul's father, Duke Leto Atreides. Jessica was at once a worry filled mother, a competent and deadly defender, an able and highly informed teacher, and a focus for unresolved Oedipal strains. After Duke Leto's death the two grieved in their own peculiar ways, supported each other in an escape from their conquered manor, and paid attention as mother and son to that long-heeded maxim of a different relationship, marriage, which dictates that if you are going to live a crazy life, make sure that only one of you is crazy at any given time. During their flight Jessica became Paul's sole teacher, marshaled him on the path towards manhood, and made serial sacrifices to keep him alive. Many of the other characters that surrounded Paul and Jessica served as nothing more than advanced props (often waiting for full flower in later volumes in the Dune series), but Herbert developed others well enough, often in accordance with the amount of faith his main character put into them.

Herbert's use of his themes is incredible; his use of environmental themes in SF can accurately be described as seminal. This despite the fact that many of the other themes, motifs and tropes that he employed were old hat to SF readers of the day. Things such as sword-play in an advanced space-faring civilization, nefarious space emperors, marauding legions of berserkers and psi-powers filled not only Analog's pages, but the pages of every other magazine whose editor tried to ape Campbell's style.

Last, but certainly not least, Herbert's voice is incredible. Written in the mode of heroic fantasy, much of Dune reads like a cross of a historical novel, a philosophy tome and an action-adventure story. In fact, after reading a mere collection of the epigraphs that Herbert uses at the beginning of each chapter I think most would walk away thinking "I have been given something great here, and I am better for it!" Consider:

Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife - chopping off what's incomplete and saying: "Now it's complete because it's ended here."

Or this:

How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him.

Or this:

The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future.

That last one I think best sums up the fatalistic attitude that Herbert showed with this book. It says that the future will happen no matter what we do, so to protect ourselves from whatever comes next or is over the hill and far from view, we tell ourselves that we have made the future on our own, with no help from fate, or time or nature at all. That of course is Paul's fate in this series: To realize that even with god-like powers even he cannot fix the future. I often think of how excited John W. Campbell must have been when the manuscript for the last installment of the first book, Dune came in, because I think it is hands down the best part of this story. In terms of clarity the prose is somewhat translucent, tending towards the opaque end of things, and absolutely needs to be read a few times before the whole impact can be felt. Itís the part where Jessica and Paul are sitting in the stilltent, and Paul has finally absorbed so much melange into his system that he realizes that he truly is different; that he can see some amazing things, and that he has a fearsome destiny. It is in this section that the entire Dune trilogy finds its real genesis. Paul sees that he is going to win; that he is going to get his revenge. But he also sees the terror of the future, and he realizes the terror is him. Certainly, as an outsider talking to me about this novel you could say that fatalism is not the point, because Paul has the power to choose not to defeat the Emperor, elevate the Fremen and get his revenge against the Baron. But we know that really isnít something that could happen, because this is not the zeitgeist of Herbert's world, and that the real the truth of this universe is this: Paul is not a god. God is not a god, so neither of them could be uncaring gods. The only uncaring "god" here is the universe itself, and as Paul himself notes, "the universe is always one step beyond logic."

Any flaws that this book has (and there are some such as the inane Vector of Death passage, or the ease with which the Harkonnens break the "unbreakable" conditioning of Dr. Yueh), disappear utterly before the beauty of the rest of the work. Even I, who have read this book more than a dozen times still find new things each time I read. As a frequent reader of SF and a native speaker of English, my opinion is that this great thing deserves to be remembered forever, and despite the change in tenor of the newer novels, I am certain that it will do just that. This book has a firmly entrenched place in the hearts of fans and non-fans alike. I personally make it a point to give a copy of this book to everyone in my inner circle, and urge them to read it. If only my wife would read it now.

Copyright ©, 2008, by Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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