Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune was first published in 1965 to immediate acclaim, and it remains one of the most popular SF novels ever written. I read it several times in the late 1960s and early 1970s but not since, so when it was chosen as "book of the month" for the Classic SF discussion group, I returned to it with great interest to see how it stands up today.

At around 500 pages it is a massive tome by the standards of the time (when less than 200 pages was a typical SF novel length), space which Herbert put to good use in making his world rich and complex. Unlike so many long novels, there is no padding here. The story is set in the distant future when humanity has colonised thousands of star systems, ruled by hereditary nobles with an Emperor reigning over all. The civilisation is held together by a spaceship service monopolised by the Guild of Navigators whose pilots rely on a drug called spice or melange, which enables them to see the future and thereby guide their ships safely. Melange is highly addictive, cannot be synthesised and is only found on the desert world of Arrakis. As a result of political machinations, the House of Atreides, led by Duke Leto, is awarded custody of Arrakis and its fabulous wealth. But the previous owners, the Harkonnens, have no intention of surrendering quietly and a bitter conflict results.

This would appear to provide all of the elements of a classic space opera but, unusually, almost all of the action takes place on the surface of one planet – Arrakis. The author thoroughly worked out the details of this world. The ecology is explained, backed up by an appendix devoted to it, with the interrelationships between giant desert sandworms and melange being a key issue. So also is the long-term attempt by the independent and ferocious desert-living natives, the Fremen, to alter the climate. The psychological, cultural and technical implications of living in such a harsh environment are a major theme, including details such as the design of the "stillsuits" which enable people to survive in the desert.

The rest of the story is also filled with fascinating and original ideas. The human reliance on computers had been destroyed in a revolt thousands of years before, prompting the developed of advanced mental powers through intensive training. The most direct computer replacements are the Mentats, who are able to analyse vast reams of data and compute probable outcomes of any course of action. Most advanced of all are the Bene Gesserit, a manipulative guild of women highly trained in both physical and mental skills to achieve astonishing feats; perhaps above all the ability to analyse personalities through their speech patterns and to influence their actions via the use of "Voice", a tailored manner of speaking.

The story is full of quasi-religious issues. Although not themselves religious, the Bene Gesserit encourage the development of religions which feature their own members as revered – and feared – leaders. They are also trying to create by selective breeding over millennia the "Kwisatz Haderach"; a man who will have all of their abilities plus be capable of far more. The Fremen are religious (influenced long ago by the Bene Gesserit) and are waiting for their own "redeemer" figure; Lisan al-Gaib. These concepts combine to form a key plot element.

More conventional space-opera elements are present, particularly the existence of shields which block any high-velocity projectiles, leading to the re-establishment of knife fighting as a key battle tactic. There is much exotic communication, with battle languages, code words, hand signals and even a private humming language used by two of the characters.

Despite this richness of invention, the writing is not loaded with infodumps, the author slips in just enough information in passing (with a glossary of the terms used at the back as an aide memoire). The first two-thirds of the book consists of one almost continuous sequence, but there is then a break with the remainder of the book being more episodic as the various plot threads develop towards a climax over several years. Some unconventional approaches are taken; for instance, one person is identified as a future traitor before even making an appearance, the author deliberately sacrificing conventional surprise to achieve a sense of impending doom. There is something of the flavour of an epic classical tragedy, emphasised by a "chorus" in the form of extracts from historical accounts at the start of each chapter, looking back on the events being recounted. This deliberate myth-making reminds me somewhat of Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality series.

Very unusually for SF of the time, the characterisation is good. Space is allowed for exploring personalities, for instance a formal dinner which takes up some twenty pages of fascinating multi-level exchanges, and six pages on the slow death of one character in the desert, giving us his final hopes and fears. Such is the skill of the author that such scenes as these are just as gripping as the action sequences. The hero of the tale fights against his destiny, regretting the way in which former friends have come to regard him but knowing he has to use their devotion in the right way. The conclusion is unexpected and satisfying.

Reading the book now with an author's as well as an SF fan's eye, I am more deeply impressed than ever. Dune is a superb achievement, one of the finest SF stories ever written, not just in plot originality but in the style of its writing. As so often happens, its success prompted a production line of ever-declining sequels. I read a few but kept only the first one, Dune Messiah, for a re-read someday. I won't comment on the 1984 movie, except to say that's what you get if you try to compress a densely-plotted book, which takes me around seven hours to read, into just over two hours.

(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)