RogerBW's Blog

Dune, Frank Herbert 28 January 2017

1965 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science fiction. In the distant future, plots whirl within plots, and the control of the most valuable planet in the universe is a poisoned chalice.

To me this book prefigures much that is right and much that is wrong with soft science fiction. The reader is thrown into this very alien culture with little explanation: what matters about starships ("Heighliners") is that they go from A to B and you need Melange to make them go, and that's all you're going to learn, so they remain as strange to the reader as they do to the characters. The excuse for the absence of computers is the "Butlerian Jihad", and since everybody in the world of the book knows what that was nobody sees any need to explain it further. (That Herbert's heirs and assigns did, eventually, write the novel that explained it further shows how much they missed the point. Or wanted the money.)

But while the setting is clearly decadent and decaying, and Herbert does his best to show the weight of over ten thousand years of civilisation pressing down on everyone, it's perversely thin. If you poke it with a finger, you may find that that particular spot was only made of soggy cardboard. Take the personal shields, for example, which are clearly here to give an excuse for mêlée combat in a high-tech age and prevent people from simply settling their differences with lasers:

The white-hot beams of disruptive light could cut through any known substance, provided that substance was not shielded. The fact that feedback from a shield would explode both lasgun and shield did not bother the Harkonnens. Why? A lasgun-shield explosion was a dangerous variable, could be more powerful than atomics, could kill only the gunner and his shielded target.

…yes, and so with all these fanatical people about (some of whom are most definitely suicide bombers), they don't build a bunch of boxes each with a laser and a shield and a timer, and leave them around somewhere they want blown up; and they don't issue lasers to their most suicidal fanatics with instructions to shoot shielded people; because… because…?

It's a pity the writing is so heavy-handed and stuffy. We learn that there's going to be a Big Betrayal from the people who are plotting it, from the traitor himself, and from everyone who's going to be betrayed, who can work out that there's something bad coming… all well before it actually happens. It's trying to be lush but there's never much human connection.

(And the one homosexual character is apparently portrayed as such, and as a pæderast, only because he would otherwise be missing some traits that Herbert regarded as negative, and he has to have all of them.)

In some ways the best-developed character is the planet Arrakis itself (inspired by Herbert's visits to the Oregon Dunes) and the Fremen who have learned to live with it rather than copying their home environment within it. Yes, all right, there's a lot of noble savagery and primitive meaning simple (especially in the matter of the carefully-seeded messiah legend), but there's still a great deal of interest here.

It all comes to feel as though it's been set up to make the particular story Herbert wants to tell not only possible, as would be the case in any novel, but inevitable. (What can psi powers do? Whatever the plot needs them to.) And with some of the players running a multi-generational breeding programme in order to produce just the right sort of human mutant, inevitability is almost a theme: someone broke the rules of that programme, but all she did was bring the endgame on early.

The main redeeming feature, in the end, is the end: when all is done, and Paul Atreides has not only kept the planet but made himself Emperor, he has lost, in that he's now such a hero to the Fremen of Arrakis that they will inevitably go out into the universe pillaging and burning in his name even if he tells them not to. (Somehow. Oh, right, the Spacing Guild suddenly doesn't control all the starships. Or something.) Was it worth nearly 200,000 words of hero's journey to get to that final break-away? I'm not convinced.

Followed by Dune Messiah, but I'm inclined to regard this book most favourably when it stands alone.

Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

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