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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.