Classic science fiction novel about politics, scarcity and terraforming
Everyone is talking about this book at the moment because it has just been adapted into a film. I picked up a copy not long ago, and added it to my list of books to read before I see the adaptation. The film has just been released in Australia this month, so I decided to try to read it in time to be able to go (pandemic allowing, of course) and see it in cinemas.
“Dune” by Frank Herbert is a science fiction novel about a teenage boy called Paul who is the son of Duke Atreides and his Bene Gesserit concubine Jessica, who some consider a witch. When the Duke becomes steward of the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, the whole House moves to this harsh new place that is lacking in water but wealthy in an addictive substance necessary for space navigation known colloquially as “spice”. However, being granted stewardship over Arrakis is not the boon it appears to be. The previous rulers, the Harkonnens, plan to overthrow the Duke and his House as a step towards a much bigger conspiracy for power. However, after undergoing a test with a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, Paul’s destiny suddenly appears to be much greater than inheriting his father’s title.
This is science fiction in its truest sense: imagining humanity in a different space and time and pushing people to their limits. The world-building is exceptional with thousands of years of history encompassing the rise and fall of religions, the rise and fall of artificial intelligence (AI) and waves of human migration through the known universe. Herbert weaves the impact of each of these factors into present day Dune and the complexities of cultures, factions and schools form the basis of Paul’s journey towards leadership. For the reader who gets a little lost in all the information, there is a helpful glossary at the end of the book that explains things in even more detail. I think one of my favourite parts of the book were the practicalities of having to survive on such a dry planet and how that informs the behaviour and beliefs of the local Freman people in every aspect of their lives from the clothes that they were to how they handle the bodies of the dead. Herbert draws considerably from Islamic influences when writing about Fremen culture, and there has been plenty of interesting discussion about the depth of this engagement and what has been lost in the adaptation. I also really liked Herbert’s ideas about terraforming and how a planet’s natural resources and ecosystems can be learned and exploited to create a habitat better suited to support humans.
However, good ideas does not a book make. This was a really difficult book to read from a narrative point of view. Instead of chapters, the book is split up in to sections separated by quotes ostensibly from a character in the future who is writing the history of Paul’s life on Arrakis. While these were quite good goalposts when decided how long to read for, this book just took so long to get through that I found I was just reading one small section at a time before putting it aside. Herbert’s approach to plotting was to build up and build up an event, imbuing it with lots of tension, and then have Paul effortlessly overcome the obstacle without any difficulty which was not very satisfying.
Many of the minor characters were difficult to distinguish from one another and to me they served more as chess pieces with idiosyncratic appearances rather than individualised people. I thought Hawat (master assassin) and Halleck (master of arms) were the same person (they weren’t). I also got confused between Hawat and Yueh (doctor). Duncan Idaho (swordmaster) disappeared and then reappeared confusingly later on without much explanation, and the one character who I really wanted to learn more about was Liet-Kynes, the planetologist, who was not around for nearly long enough. I did really like Jessica, and it was an interesting dynamic having a teen boy coming into his power being mentored by his mother, but her relevance seemed to fade towards the second half of the book. Herbert did not really dwell much on the trauma that loss and war had on his characters, and apart from Paul’s maturation into an adult, there wasn’t a great deal of character development.
This was a difficult and frustrating book with a fully-realised universe that contemplates everything from politics to culture to economics to ecology. There are many more books in this series and I do not intend to read any of them, but I think I would like to see whether the film adaptation can draw out some more story.