Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Title: Dune (the complete series)
Author:  Frank Herbert
List:  #39 on BBC Top 100, #14 on Modern Library Reader’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading?  Yes.

Technically, the lists refer only to Dune, the novel that started the Dune saga.  Frank Herbert added five other novels to the tale, and his son continued in his footsteps with prequels, sequels, and interquels.  This post will only discuss Frank Herbert’s six Dune novels.

Dune, the first novel, is a classic work of science fiction.  It manages to effortlessly convey a future where humans have created an interstellar empire with planetary fiefdoms controlled by noble houses.  Interplanetary travel is provided by the Spacing Guild, whose Navigators rely on “the spice,” or “mélange,” to pilot ships instantaneously from planet to planet.  Mélange is found only on the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune, and is also crucial for the survival of the powerful matriarchal order of the Bene Gesserit, whose members get advanced physical and mental abilities from the spice as well as through special training and conditioning.  After going through a ritual called the “spice agony,” Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers have the ability to access the ego and memories of all their female ancestors.  The Bene Gesserit also have a secret, elaborate, and meticulously recorded breeding program that for millennia has had one goal: to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, a male equivalent of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother.  The Kwisatz Haderach would be able to access male and female “other memory” as well as be able to bridge space and time.

At the beginning of the novel, Duke Leto Atreides has been granted the fief of Arrakis and he and his family are preparing to relocate to the spice planet.  The Duke’s concubine, the Lady Jessica, is a Bene Gesserit who, in accordance with the aims of the breeding program, is ordered to produce a daughter.  This daughter would then be bred to someone else to produce the Kwisatz Haderach.  Instead, Lady Jessica gives in to Duke Leto’s desire for a male heir, and they have a son, Paul.  The Atreides do not survive long on Arrakis before their rivals attack, which forces Jessica and Paul to flee into the desert to join forces with Dune’s local population, the Fremen.  Here, it becomes evident that Paul is the Bene Gesserit’s Kwisatz Haderach, born one generation early, and his choices and the choices of his children shape the future, as detailed in the next five books.

I started reading the Dune saga almost two and a half years ago, and only just finished the final book, which takes place around five thousand years after Dune.  Usually when I read a series the author has already completed, I find myself picking up the next book instantly because I cannot wait to see what happens next.  With the Dune series, I often felt so exhausted after finishing one book that I waited months before picking up the next one.  It is not that the books aren’t exciting or that I wasn’t interested in learning what happened next, but somehow getting through each Dune book took an immense amount of effort, and each book seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to finish.  Perhaps this was because the books are packed with dialogue and philosophical discussions, but, for the most part, not many actions scenes.  This may seem like I don’t recommend reading the books, but I do.  I really do.  Especially the first one.

Not only does Dune reveal a universe in the far distant future, it offers a different take on that universe than most other science fiction novels.  Instead of the classic model where computers and artificial intelligence control daily existence, Frank Herbert created a world in an era after humans decided to destroy all computers and artificial intelligences.  Humans had to adapt and rely on themselves to perform the functions that we are already accustomed to leaving to computers.  For example, the Spacing Guild specialized in mathematics, and special training gives some humans the ability to calculate and logically reason better than any computer could.

Dune also champions environmentalism.  It explores the idea of a planet as a complex living ecosystem functioning as a whole.  The Fremen on Dune recognize that if they want to change their planet from a desert planet to a verdant one, they must alter the entire ecology of the planet.  They also realize that they must balance their desire for water and greenery with the needs of the great sandworms, which are critical to spice production and which cannot survive in or near water.  Frank Herbert also extensively details the adaptation of life to Dune’s arid conditions.  In addition to the sandworms that require arid conditions, Dune boasts kangaroo mice that have learned to live with limited water.  The Fremen too have developed methods of sealing their residences and their bodies to conserve water, and they even reclaim water from the dead.

Frank Herbert has created a fascinating world full of intrigue, philosophy, and mysticism.  He explores politics, empire building, and the advent of new religions.  Try the first one, and if it appeals to you, go on to the second.  The other four are not quite as good, but still worth the read if the world of Dune intrigues you.  For my part, I think I’ll eventually read the two sequels co-written by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson.  I’m not sure if I’ll go so far as to explore the prequels and interquels though…

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