Dune by Frank Herbert

dune“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Duke Leto Atreides has been ordered by the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV, to give up his comfortable home planet of Caladan and take over the administration of the almost barren planet Arrakis, whose vast sandy deserts give it its other name – Dune. Harsh though the environment of Dune may be, it is the only planet in the Empire which can produce melange, the spice drug, which extends the life of those who use it. The financial rewards of controlling Dune are immense, so the previous rulers, the Harkonnens, don’t intend to give up their claim, and it appears the Emperor may be secretly supporting the Harkonnens in their campaign to destroy Duke Leto. But Duke Leto has a son, Paul, the offspring of Duke Leto’s concubine, Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Paul is the result of generations of selective breeding, carefully controlled by the Bene Gesserit to produce the Kwizatz Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit with unprecedented mental powers, including the ability to see possible futures. And the spice drug melange is a crucial part of the process of bringing those powers to their full potential…

Written in 1965, Dune was the first real fantasy saga set on other worlds, and has remained in the fantasy/sci-fi bestseller lists ever since. It’s often compared to The Lord of the Rings for the completeness of its world-building, but the tone of it is much more ambiguous – the dividing lines between good and evil aren’t quite so clearly drawn. It’s a grappling for power and control, set in a society that has aspects of the mediaeval – lordly families wielding ultimate power over their peoples, where marriages are made for political advantage rather than love, and where torture and death are accepted as the norm.

Lovely Kyle MacLaclan as Paul-Muad'dib in the 1984 David Lynch film.
Lovely Kyle MacLachlan as Paul-Muad’dib in the 1984 David Lynch film.

The ecological themes in Dune reflect the beginnings of the anxieties over our own earth environment, which was just starting to become a matter of public concern in the ’60s. The importance of water on this desert planet is brilliantly portrayed, as Herbert shows how its scarcity has led to it becoming part of the mythology and even religion of the planet’s inhabitants. Everything revolves round water and customs reflect that – from water being the major currency to the ritual recovery of water from the bodies of the dead. The Fremen inhabitants of the planet are trying to make their planet more habitable by careful use and cultivation of what they already have, but Herbert, who had an interest in ecology in his real life, shows how changing one aspect of an environment must be carefully controlled to prevent the destruction of others.

Yes, that is Sting playing nasty Feyd-Rautha and look! Capt Jean-Luc Picard himself appearing as Gurney Halleck!  (I've really got to watch this film again...soon!)
Yes, that is Sting playing nasty Feyd-Rautha and look! Capt Jean-Luc Picard himself appearing as Gurney Halleck!
(I’ve really got to watch this film again…soon!)

Much of the language of Dune is based on real-life Arabic languages – there is much talk of jihad, for example, and many of the names are Arabic in origin. I suspect this, combined with the desert landscape, might make the modern reader read things into the story that probably weren’t intended and certainly weren’t obvious to this reader when I first read the book sometime in the ’70s or ’80s. Our familiarity with the Middle East is so much greater now than it was then. However it’s fun to draw comparisons between spice and oil, and to see the struggle between the Fremen and their imperial overlords as a reflection of the wars of the last few decades. But in truth, the reader can only go so far down this route before the comparison begins to fall apart.

Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert

The place of women in the Dune universe is not exactly a feminist’s delight, and seems pretty backwards looking even for the ’60s. Primarily breeding machines, even the Bene Gesserit wield their power through marriage and concubinage (yes, concubines!) and it’s a bit sad that their most urgent desire is to create a male, and therefore superior, Bene Gesserit. Often called witches by the men, and mistresses of the wierding ways, the Bene Gesserit nevertheless are feared and sometimes respected, so women do play an important, if not exactly heroic, role in the stories. And despite their inferior position in society, Herbert has created some memorable female characters, not least the Lady Jessica herself who gradually develops into something much more complex than simply the mother of the Kwizatz Haderach.

Gorgeous Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica.
Gorgeous Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica

Have I made this book sound impossibly boring? I hope not, because after a fairly slow start when the characters and worlds are introduced, there’s plenty of action. Treachery, intrigue, poisonings and battles, a little bit of romance, but not too much, the truly nasty Baron Harkonnen and his evil henchmen, and most of all Paul-Muad’dib and the heroic Fremen all make for a great adventure story. And the giant worms, the makers, are one of the all-time great creations of fantasy. Their role in the ecology of the planet and the way they are viewed by the Fremen, as something to be worshipped, feared and yet used, makes them central to the book. They are a force of nature that man, with all his technology, can’t defeat – indeed, mustn’t defeat, because without the worms Dune would lose the thing that gives it is unique importance. And they are terrifying in their destructive power, made worse somehow by the fact that they are driven by no intelligent purpose.

dune-sand-worm

There are several sequels to Dune, and while this one doesn’t quite end on a cliffhanger, the reader is left knowing there is much more to come. From memory the first couple of sequels are excellent, after which the series began to lose its edge somewhat – for me, at least. But I’m looking forward to re-reading the next one, Dune Messiah, in the not-too-distant future, and meantime would highly recommend Dune not just as an excellent read in itself, but as the book that has inspired so many of the later fantasy writers.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

85 thoughts on “Dune by Frank Herbert

  1. FictionFan – This is most definitely a classic of this genre. Enduring characters, fascinating themes, and a really well-crafted world, I think. I’m not fond of the way women are portrayed, but you’ve dealt with that in your excellent post. I have to confess, I didn’t enjoy the film. At all. Really. It just left too much out and left in just little fragmented pieces that didn’t mesh together. The book is so much better in my opinion.

    • No, the women thing seems odd even for the time of writing but at least they do serve an important role, I suppose. It’s mainly the stuff about the planet and the Fremen that I like – it really all hangs together so well. I can’t remember what I thought of the film, really – I think I thought it was a fairly enjoyable romp, but these sci-fi adaptations are rarely as good as the books – they just concentrate on the action and leave everything else out. Still, Kyle MacLachlan and Patrick Stewart, though… 😉

  2. Dune! This takes me back. I remember reading it as a youngster and really struggling to get into it at first and being intimidated by the strange-sounding (to me, anyway) names and language. But I persevered and was rewarded with one of the most unique reading experiences I think I have had to date. It would be interesting to read it again as an adult. And the film! I have it on VHS, somewhere. Although, I don’t have a VHS player anymore. Pah.

    • Yes, it takes a bit of time to get into, and I was surprised where this one finished actually – I thought a lot of stuff happened in this one that actually must be in the sequels. But the world, with the Fremen and the worms and all the stuff about the water, has stayed with me for decades, which shows it must have had a big impact on me at the time. Haha! Yes, I must get rid of my VHS collection sometime…

  3. I was never much of a fan of Dune, and have never felt any urge to reread it. Maybe I should give it, or some of the sequels a go – that’s this century sorted then! 🙂

  4. I read this when we lived in Portugal. My parents had come for a visit after Bethy was born, and my dad dropped off a number of SF and Fantasy novels. I should read Dune again after all these years.

  5. Well you have made it sound interesting………..though I guess I avoided it at the time due to my lip-curl about ‘genre writing’ (what a snob!) and you might, just might, have tempted me……….except that reading about giant worms made me feel distinctly queasy. Not to mention that rather wonderful picture, which got me sweaty palmed and whimpering faintly…….no that wasn’t the picture of ‘lovely Kyle MacLaclan……..not those sort of whimpers…..it was the gaping maw of the beastly worm

    • I’m not sure whether you’d like this at all, but it would be interesting to see… I should warn you those worms are not vegetarian!! But Kyle is kinda lovely, isn’t he? Virginia Madsen’s in the film too – a forerunner of the cast of Twin Peaks. Still have no idea what that show was about…

  6. Cool! I just heard about the worms, so I’m really glad they’re in it more. Imagine huge worms in the desert.

    So, that’s what Lady Jessica is…does the Duke like her at all? It said he did, but…

    But what has to wonder what Paul is doing in the snow in the first picture…and notice Herbert’s Edelman!

    • I hope the review didn’t have too many spoilery bits in – I thought about holding it back till you finished the book, but I ran out of reviews unfortunately. But the worms are very cool… they’re what I think of, when I think of you hunting worms! *awestruck face*

      He loves her! And she loves him! But they can’t marry for political reasons…

      Haha! It does look like snow! But isn’t he yummy in his dinky little stillsuit? *laughs lots and lots* It’s a great one isn’t it? He must have trained that squirrel well…

      You didn’t mention how gorgeous Lady Jessica is – I want a hood like that! Actually… I want a face like that!!

      • Not at all! It helped a bit, actually. I’m enjoying it, you should know. What with all this talk about weapons. Nice. Those worms?! *very proud face*

        That’s horrid. And he should do something about it, I think.

        Yeah…he’s okay, I’m supposing. He has a mustache, I see. He must’ve! Can’t I have one now, please?

        *laughing* She’s…okay, too! The hood makes her look like an owl…so you should get one! And, nah, your face is better.

        • See? You always thought I was laughing you to scorn over the worm-hunting, but now you know!! Wait till you get to the bit where Muad’dib… well, anyway, that’s how I imagine you!

          I felt that too, and I’m pretty sure so did the Lady J!

          Okay? Tchah! Nooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Anyway, you’d need to have a Diesel too to achieve that look…

          *laughs* Okay? Tchah!! Aww, thanks! *blushes*

            • Of course, just because it’s heroic doesn’t stop it also being cute…

              She’s tough though!

              NO!!! Good noodles! You’re such a worry to me!

              Hmm – a bit, around the eyes. She was another of the many women I wanted to look like…

            • Cute?! It can’t possibly be cute! It just can’t. *looks at desk*

              Yeah…but…she wants the Duke and he’s being mean. But I’m heartless, shouldn’t be thinking like this.

              Oh rats! *folds arms* Can’t I do anything adventurous? I’ll let all that slide, if you let me get a motorcycle.

              *laughs* Surprised you know her! Oh, FEF…

            • *laughs lots*

              True! You should be on his side! Mean and cruel!

              Hmm…well, on the one hand that would be very dangerous. But on the other… the Professor on a Harley wearing leather gear? *swoons and has palpitations* Go for it!!!

              Gone With the Wind! With that never to be forgotten line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a dadblameit!” *laughs* It’s OK – I’m not that pathetic, really…

            • Yeah…but LadyJ…is…

              There is actually this Harley place a few minutes from my home. My interest in motorcycles being what it is, I’ve never visited. But it looks cool. Wrong reasons!

              *laughs* I love that line! Especially with the ‘dadblameit’. I think I know you’re not. But still, makes me want to say something I can’t. You’re so wicked.

            • *laughs and taps foot* Is???

              (I’m secretly rather glad you’re not interested in motorbikes, C-W-W! But I’d never admit to it, ‘cos that would make me look uncool!)

              Now I’m seriously intrigued! Why can’t you say it? Me, wicked?!? You can’t leave me in suspense like that…

            • *somber face* I am sorry to tell you that the great tragedy of life is that we all die…

              (I’m glad – being cool is tricky sometimes!)

              But…but… that’s so unfair! What if I wheedle? I’ll give you my last Rolo…

            • *nods* Fly-catching…

              That’s pretty profound, you know, you know! I may have to give that some serious consideration…

              Bah! Pah! Tchah! Hurrah! Oh wait – that last one doesn’t really fit… *flounces off*

  7. I find different aspects of this book tempting, like the worms as a possible metaphor for religion, in general, but there are too many other parts that leave me somewhat cold, like the treatment of women. And if I recall, it’s fairly hefty, although nowhere near the length of more recent bricks. My husband read this a long time ago, and I know that he enjoyed it, but then he’s a sci-fi kind of guy.

    • I do think this will really only work for people who like fantasy/sci-fi – it’s not one that I feel transcends genre. The aspect about the women didn’t bother me when I first read it, but I was more aware of it this time. However the whole society structure is mediaeval so within its context it makes sense, and there are quite a lot of women amongst the main characters. The bit that really galled me a little was the idea that the Bene Gesserie felt the Kwizatz Haderach should be male…

  8. Worms as metaphor for religion?????????????? Gosh, trying to work that one out almost persuades me to try, but I think, particularly now you have pointed out that those worms eat a lot more than just the soil, I might leave this alone. The thought of possibly being a worm’s lunch, at least whilst alive, seems rather disgusting. It might be very painful, but I think I’d rather be eaten by a lion than a worm. Not sure I can face supper now……….

    • Well…a bit like worshipping the sun, I suppose – trying to avoid spoilers, but they were both revered for what they gave and feared for what they took…

      But the worms don’t have teeth so they’d just suck you to death…less painful, probably. (Actually in the book they do have teeth – I wonder why they don’t in the illustration…hmm!)

      • 😆 Aaargh! I had to google that – there’s about a zillion versions and each one’s worse than the one before… I’ll never shudder at an autopsy description again!

      • There’s an even more horrible one, which starts “Everybody hates me, nobody loves me, I think I’m going to eat worms….short fat furry ones, long thin slimy ones, gooey gooey gooey gooey worms. When the short fat furry ones stick between your teeth………….

        and I can’t continue, horrible!

      • haha I read somewhere that people are instinctively attracted to what is rare, so when most men are clean-shaven, women prefer men with beards, so more men grow beards, and then most men have beards so women are more attracted to clean-shaven ….. but I must be (per usual) outside the norm as I trend towards the clean-shaven look pretty much all the time… not sure how I feel about these burly beards all over the place!

        HOWEVER I must confess that Herbert wears it well!

        • I can just about tolerate a neat trimmed beard – like Clooney’s maybe *swoons a little* But why we’ve gone back to men looking like they’ve just crawled out of the cave beats me!! It’s so… so… unhygienic-looking!!

      • Seeing (sadly) the number of trees which have been chopped down where I was off walking today, I think the reason straggly bushy beards are coming back are because all the nesting places for birds have been eliminated with the chopping down of the trees, so eco-friendly men are offering their faces……..

            • It’s difficult with flooding – they ruined my view of the river when they built the flood defences and I’ve never really forgiven them. But the people who’ve been here long enough to have been flooded feel very differently about it. I think it was a much more frequent occurrence here though – once a decade or so.

            • The local one has been the subject of fierce (but sadly unsuccessful) appeals against it in law. All of us on the ‘damnonsense’ side suspect all sorts of chicanery. The cost, both financially and environmentally is MASSIVE and the supposed danger seems bizarre, and extraordinarily unlikely, given the water source, and the properties supposed to be in the 1 in 400,000 year danger

  9. Absolutely love this review!! The parallels to British Imperialism are obviously fascinating- and your feminist critique is spot-on. Also, could I ask you for some Scottish recommendations? History books, novels, anything. I got a job in Edinburgh! Incredibly excited, and I’m trying to shed my dumb American aura as quickly as possible.

    • I currently have one Inspector Rebus (Strip Jack) and Muriel Spark’s “Prime of Miss Brodie” and that “Scots Invented the Modern World” book that you see everywhere.

    • How exciting!! I hope you love Edinburgh – it’s a pretty unique little city, and of course the home of the Scottish Enlightenment. The books you’ve already got sound perfect – I’d have recommended all of them, especially the Scots Invented the Modern World one, which even our First Minister (head of the Scottish Govt) quotes.

      Also, since you will be passing the Scott Monument regularly, you might want to read some Sir Walter Scott – The Heart of Midlothian is set in Edinburgh. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon is considered a great novel too. And though you’ll be in Edinburgh, you must read something about Glasgow too (my city!) – it’s only 45 miles or so from Edinburgh and there’s a great rivalry between the two cities. I’d recommend Laidlaw by William McIlvanney.

      And lastly, and I’m not meaning to be cheeky, but Scottish History for Dummies gives a really quick runthrough of the whole of Scottish history. It’s not the best written book in the world and it’s a bit superficial, but the history is pretty accurate if not very in-depth.

      Oh, and I’ve just remembered! John Guy’s My Heart is My Own is a brilliant biography of Mary Queen of Scots! And you should really read some Burns poetry…

      😆 Good luck with that little list! You’ll find reviews for some of them on here, if you want to – except the Scott and the Grassic Gibbon.

      • Thanks so much!! That’s just perfect. I am marking all of those on my Goodreads TBR. Yep, I am incredibly psyched about Edinburgh. It’s only for two months, unfortunately, (college student- summer internship) but I am trying to do a lot of independent travel and get a sense for the country and culture.

        • The good thing about Scotland is that it’s so small geographically and on the whole public transport isn’t bad between places, so it’s reasonably easy to get around a lot in a short time. Hope you’ll be blogging about it! Will you be in Edinburgh when the Festival is on – the last three weeks in August usually? That can be great fun – if exhausting!

  10. I haven’t seen the film and it’s been so long since I read the book that I can’t remember much. Back then I used to read a lot more sci fi books, so I wonder what I would make of it now. Mind you, it’s been languishing on my tablet for over a year now, so I should get round to it at some point…

    • It’s so long since I last read it too that I can’t really remember what I thought about it back then, but I think I probably appreciated the environment stuff more this time, and I found I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the western interference in the middle east over oil – which I’m certain didn’t enter my head back in the day. Well worth a re-read though – definitely one of the superior fantasies.

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