I read the first Dune novel back when I was a teenager, drawn, as most kids are, to the idea of massive sandworms tearing across the plains and gobbling people up. But beyond that, I never really considered the significance of the novel, both in terms of what it was trying to do, and just how important it was to the science fiction genre per se.
A few weeks ago, largely on the back of seeing that another attempt to make a film of Dune was about to be released, I went ahead and bought the trilogy: Dune, Messiah, and Children of Dune. So, having read them now, at a much older age, has my appreciation of Herbert’s vision changed since those days as a kid?
Er, yes, and by quite a margin. Taken as a trilogy, Dune is a masterpiece. Maybe it’s because I am not massively steeped in sci-fi, but I can’t think of another book that integrates elements of fantasy with high tech futurism to the extent that Dune does. I can see where George Lucas and Star Wars got the influence from: laser guns and shields, incredible mechanical machines plumbing the depths of planets, imperial guards and trading guilds, interstellar pirates, and this strange, spiritual ‘force’ that permeates the universe and into which people can tap to access knowledge of the future. It’s quite the melange. And it’s brilliant.
I wasn’t a massive fan of the more spiritual elements of the books – the notion of prophecy, whilst interesting, took the heat out of all the politics and machinations that make Dune so good. But it was necessary, because by the end of Children of Dune, Leto II, son of Paul Artreides, and grandson to Duke Leto, has become what he knew he had to become, and which even Paul in the first book seems to anticipate: a half human, half monstrous worm-lord! It’s bizarre and fantastical, but also, really ambitious, and rooted in some pretty serious biblical/religious parables too.
What I really enjoyed was the Freman. I think it is clear that Herbert drew influence from the Middle East, and, given that he wrote this series in the 1970s, the Middle East was a massive concern for many political thinkers, writers, and artists in the west. I liked the fact he gave them a genuine voice, rather than the half-arsed lip service that western writers often offer towards that part of the world, and which, dare I say, the latest film Dune only reinforces. The Freman in the novels are a seriously intelligent, sophisticated tribe/race of folk who are masters of their environment, able to thrive in a desert where anyone else would perish in a few days. They are also bound by a self-imposed morality and set of laws whose stringencies and adherence most of us would fail to uphold. I was reminded of the Soviet-Afghanistan conflict when I read the set pieces where the Freman assault imperial interests or escape/evade capture: the same western arrogance about their foe, the same lack of respect afforded to people native to the land, the same belief that somehow one’s values and society is superior to another’s, only for that society to humble you again and again.
The world building is really good, but in all honesty, for all the talk of the ‘Dune universe’ we really only get to know three planets, which are the home worlds of the three factions at war: the Artreides home world of Caladan, the Corrino home world of Salusa Secundus, and the Harkonnen home world of Giedi Prime. But these worlds get only marginal treatment: of the 300,000 words I read, most of them were about Dune, or Arakis as it is formally known. I didn’t know you could describe sand in so many ways, but Herbert finds a way.
So, in all, I would totally recommend this trilogy, because even to this day it sets the standard (to my mind) as to what a great fantasy/sci-fi book should be: politicking, greed, betrayal, family, and a lot of amazing tech and abilities that truly innovate whilst retaining a sense of realism.