My rating: 3 of 5 stars
‘Dune’ is a classic, which—reading this a while after it was published—can mess with the reading. A lot of the tropes explored in this book, fresh when Herbert got into them, have become pretty familiar. There is this potential layer of subversion where you have to ask, given a close reading, whether he’s really approving of the system, but it’s my firm belief that a book has to be judged on its surface as well as everything else.
So I’m not going to get into the things that were like ‘I live in 2013 and what is this’ because that’s weird and unnecessary. I mean, yeah, the whole ‘magic foreigner rescues a civilization threatened by his own fellows’ bothers me, but it is partially subverted by Paul’s constant reliance on the Fremen, not to mention that, technically, they’re not natives, either. But, you know.
Instead, let’s look at the fact that ‘Dune’ is a fantasy epic disguised as a science fiction novel. I love that we’ve got this strange blend of feudal system stylings (the main character is a hereditary duke) but, instead of it just being about territorial expansion, there’s an international business conglomerate involved. Not that there isn’t territorial expansion, but hello context.
The center of galactic trade is ‘spice’, this special hyperawareness product that cannot be synthesized and, as a result, only comes from the planet of Dune. The politics this brings into the mix, and the way it’s got everyone by the short and curlies—guess what, it’s addictive, too—are, for me, the outstanding feature of this book. (I love GRRM. You can’t imagine I don’t love politics.)
The heart of the external conflict relates to the complexity of the spice trade, and the fact that Dune itself is a very undesirable planet to live on, although there’s the whole quasi-mystical dimension relating to the title character’s Destiny. I capitalize ‘destiny’ intentionally here; there’s a very strong ‘chosen one’ element, although he’s chosen like a Biblical prophet: have fun in the desert! Your life isn’t going to be easy!
Actually, I’m not sure why I said ‘quasi-mystical.’ This book is super-mystical. It attributes a number of traits that show up in other books—and which I would consider—learnt to intrinsic qualities, especially in the case of the main character (and to a lesser, but still significant, extent, in his mother). I’m still reserving judgment there, because on the one hand I want to say you can learn those things, but on the other hand that isn’t completely true.
Also, we do have to ask if the mysticism is in the tradition of all the woogety woogety, or if the science-fiction aspect dampens it—the Bene Gesserit school, who are all about learning to be hyperaware and collective consciousness and all kinds of tricky stuff, and who are the main pushers of this Destiny mess, have had a long-running “breeding program.” So things get a bit Clarke’s Law when trying to draw a line between the science and mysticism. On the other hand, I got really confused every time he mentions future technology because in my head the story was happening about a million years ago, so I’m leaning on the mystical side.
The writing style itself is utilitarian. There weren’t any awe-inspiring passages in the vein of Bradbury, but as this book is plot-driven, I wasn’t expecting that level of literariness.
‘Dune’ is a tricky read today because its major themes are so well-recycled—I’ve even come across the desert setting before, in multiple books—but on the other hand, you can’t really know a genre until you experience elements that defined it. And, if you give him the benefit of the doubt, it does offer some good food for thought.