Dune by Frank Herbert

I like to read all genres so you will see a wide-ranging selection of texts in my Book Review blogs and science fiction is one of those genres into which I occasionally delve. Dune is considered a classic by many and I can see why, as Herbert has effectively created a complete world with unique features, its own political tensions and power plays and range of characters.

But, by all accounts I did not find it an easy read.

I have to admit to you that I have actually had this book in my possession for some time, always with the intention of reading it but never really being drawn to it. Sometimes, the time for a book just comes and sneaks up on you and Dune‘s time has finally arrived.

I think that one of the reasons that I have been reluctant to venture into Herbert’s world is because of someone I met in university whose obsession with the Dune series was verging on unhealthy as was his attitude to laundry. There is no way that he has that many pairs of (clean) underpants.

He was also a little bit odd in addition to his personal hygiene issues: he once told me that he was going to be the Doombringer, the new ruler of the universe, and accompanying him on this journey into intergalactic domination was his best friend, Kevin.

Obviously, I was skeptical but also a little disturbed by the zeal with which he expressed these ideas – he was entirely convinced that this would come to pass. As a result, I tried not to spend a lot of time with him and as he had an array of Frank Herbert’s books on his shelf, my interest in ever reading the books in the Dune series waned.

In hindsight, reading them may have given me all the information I needed to refute his “Leader of the Universe” story, if I’d have dared, as that is pretty much what Dune is about.

However, he could be looking down on me now, viewing me through his Earth portal in his gilded robes from his intergalactic throne and be shaking his head at my ignorance.

I’ll let you know if he takes action.

A shelf of untempting books

The book begins with Duke Leto Atreides and his concubine, Jessica and their son, Paul arriving at Arrakis, the spice planet. Leto has been given this appointment by the Emperor who, by doing so, is pretty much sending the Duke to his death. The planet has previously been run by Baron Harkonnen, a grossly corpulent figure who has to suspend his layers of fat with braces so he can move around.

The Duke is fully aware of his predicament, that both the Emperor and the Harkonnens are conspiring against him, ensuring that he will fail but he continues his duties and research into ways to make Arrakis a viable home and future for him and his family with dignity and intelligence.

He has surrounded himself with good men: Gurney Halleck, the warrior and minstrel; Thufir Hawat, the Mentat, a man with the capability of analysing things dispassionately, like a human computer and with the skills of an assassin; and Duncan Idaho, the master of sword, these all being the mainstays of his troupe. All are loyal to the Atreides’ Duke and by extension, Paul.

Eventually, though, the Duke is betrayed and Jessica and Paul have to escape their certain deaths by heading out into the dangerous desolate lands of Dune.

Paul is the product of the loving relationship between the Duke and Jessica who is Bene Gesserit, an order of women with superlative powers of mind control and insight. Paul inherits these abilities from his mother and in their time on Arrakis, these become more heightened leading to him becoming some sort of messiah figure.

The book basically follows Paul’s rise to power, the Harkonnens’ fall from grace, the Emperor’s power being challenged. This is all played out on the planet of Arrakis, the Dune of the title which is a desperately arid place where water is in such short supply that when someone dies, they recoup the water from their corpse.

Arrakis is the home of more than just the Emperor’s representatives and their entourage: there are the Fremen, the desert people who have adjusted to life on their dry planet and remain a force to be reckoned with and there are giant sand worms who will devour everything in an instant, attracted by the sound of the sand being disturbed, especially if it follows a particular rhythm. It is the worms who create the spice, this being an addictive substance which has a cinnamon smell and permeates the atmosphere of the planet, meaning that the people living there become dependent on it just from breathing it in. It also turns their eyes a milky blue.

Sandworms. To be avoided.

In Paul’s case, the spice allows him to open his mind to its fullest and he is able to see through stretches of time into what the future holds for him and in time, into the past. There are an abundance of prophecies in all cultures that hint at a special one arriving: the Bene Gesserit talk of Kwisatz Haderach and the Fremen mention Lisan al Gaib. Paul himself has seen visions of himself being called Muad’Dib by crowds of acolytes.

I started this book well. The intrigues at the start of the book have all the tensions of any power struggle, the machinations of the different houses and the eagerness to control the source of the spice and associated wealth all being things that constitute the eternal struggles of mankind. Where and when the strike against Duke Leto will happen adds suspense. The good guys are likeable and bad guys are repulsive so it’s easy to know where your loyalties as a reader lie.

And then the first part ends and we’re off into the desert with Paul and Jessica. Again, it starts off well but soon, I started to find my attention wandering. I don’t know if it’s the whole mystical thing that’s going on with Paul or whether the characters are not as distinctive within the Fremen but something got lost to me along the way and I found I really had to concentrate to keep on track.

There were times that I drifted so much that I had to reread pages to obtain the thread again and I could never read it without absolute silence. This is quite unusual for me as I can read with background noise quite easily – kids screaming, radio playing, hammering downstairs – all can be fazed out. Not with Dune. Not a chance.

Even my husband said to me, “It’s taking you a long time to read that book, isn’t it?”

“It isn’t half,” I retorted with a weary sigh.

And so, what had started out as an entertaining foray into Frank Herbert’s elaborate world became a turgid read that I was willing to end.

There is no doubt that Frank Herbert’s imagination is a powerful one. The idea of the spice is unique whilst also giving a nod to the drugs that penetrate our society and create tensions of their own, dominating the lives of those who need them, want to stop them or wish to control their supply. There are also comparisons to be made to Star Wars with the whole space setting, the Emperor, Harkonnen is Jabba-esque and you have the powers of the mind shown by the Bene Gesserit. Similarities with Earthly religion are shown with its representation of a messiah and the excerpts from the teachings of Muad’Dib which open each chapter. Echoes of Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings trilogy are shown with the use of songs throughout. The lack of water and the limitations that this puts on the lives of the Fremen are cautionary warnings against the perils of taking this elixir for granted and the sand worms as a palpable threat whilst also being the source of the spice that provides Arrakis with its biggest commodity is an interesting paradox.

But despite all this, I still yearned to finish the book, mainly to say that I had read it, not with any real interest in the action or characters or what might happen. I had lost my way and I felt like Herbert had too.

And when I finally got to the end, it was so abrupt that I was annoyed, despite the fact that I had been reaching for this moment for days. It may be that Herbert knew that he was going to write a sequel and so, there was no need for any sort of rounding off of the characters’ feelings or analysis of the action but I felt a bit cheated.

However, I was not feeling cheated enough to see if there was any further explanation in the appendices at the end of the books. I was done and relieved to be so.

Difficult read notwithstanding, I am glad I’ve read it. That may not seem obvious from this review but I now have an opinion on a book which is considered a classic which can now join the realms of The Great Gatsby and Wuthering Heights* as “Books which are considered classics but I didn’t get anything from reading them”.

It’s not often that I recommend a film over a book but in this instance, it may be better to experience the world of Dune that way.

*I really wanted to like Wuthering Heights – if Kate Bush can write a song about it, it can’t be a bad book – but I struggled and I am very sad about this, as it is considered to be a classic of English Literature. I’m not sad about The Great Gatsby.

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