CLASSIC Book Review: DUNE by Frank Herbert
|Mother of God! A giant moving cave with teeth!|
As the story begins, the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV grants Duke Leto Atreides, of the Great Lansraad House of Atreides, a charter to take over the spice production on the planet Dune. Concurrently, the Bene Gesserit, who have maintained a highly selective breeding program to seek out and create the perfect human ultracomputer, the Kwisatz Haderach ("the one who sees all paths", so to speak), test his son, Paul Atreides, for his qualities as a human being. As the novel begins, the Bene Gesserit believe that their eighty-generation, millennia-long breeding program is at last coming to a head. As Paul and his family leave their water-rich, peaceful homeworld of Caladan for the harsh and brutal conditions of the desert planet Arrakis, the intrigues between his family's work and their ancient enemies, House Harkonnen, begin to emerge. These eventually come to a head about halfway through the book, with Paul, his mother, and his yet-unborn sister being forced to flee into the desert to seek refuge among the Fremen, humans who have lived on Dune for generations and have specifically evolved and adapted to deal with its extreme conditions. When Paul meets the Fremen and integrates into their society, he embraces the mantle of the legend of the Lisan al-Gaib, the one who will lead the Fremen to victory over their oppressors, and transform their desert world into a paradise garden.
If that sounds complex, believe me, it is. Truth be told, though, I can't write an adequate plot summary of this book. No one can. It's that good.
The universe that Herbert created with this book was, and in my opinion still is, unparalleled in its richness and depth. The sheer number of ideas that he brought forth in this book is staggering, and it will take multiple readings to absorb them all fully. In just this one book alone, he dealt with:
- The dangers of charismatic leadership, both for the leader and the followers;
- The nature of human evolution under conditions of extreme stress;
- Ecological problems such as desertification, and how to reverse it;
- The question of eugenics, and the applied use of selective breeding programs to look for specific traits in human biology;
- The fusion of Zen Buddhism and Islam into the Zensunni and Zenshiite cults (these aren't mentioned specifically here, nor is Buddhislam; these concepts come up a bit later in the series);
- How balances of power are preserved, and how they are upset;
- How seeking the safe path at all times will eventually stunt the growth and evolution of a species;
- The growth, peak, decline, and fall of empires;
The sheer depth of imagination and skill required to make this not only believable but useful within the broader context of the story is astonishing. And that is just one part of the Dune saga.
About the only flaw that I could ever find with Herbert's writing was his odd insistence on fusing Islamic religious practices with Buddhist ones. I honestly never figured out why he did this. It makes no sense, seeing as how Islam is so completely and fundamentally hostile towards Buddhism. But, who knows, maybe in 21,000 years' time, the current incarnation of Islam will have died out (one can only hope!) or will have adapted to survive.
As good as this book is, it was in fact the pinnacle of Herbert's writing. Other books in the Dune series- most notably Children of Dune and especially God-Emperor of Dune, which explained the concept of Leto II's Golden Path- were grander in scale and scope, or more action-packed (Chapterhouse Dune). Yet Herbert never managed to reach the same peaks of grandeur and imagination that he did with the original Dune, for a variety of reasons. It's a bittersweet book in a lot of ways, because as amazing as the concepts are, there is a subtle recognition, particularly towards the end of this book, that greatness is fleeting, and that control over greatness is tenuous and illusory at best.
In summary, I simply cannot recommend this book strongly enough. It stands entirely alone as an achievement in literature. Herbert could have written just this one book and would have been forever remembered as perhaps the greatest writer in sci-fi history; instead, he continued on to write multiple sequels which, while brilliant in their own right, were never quite as good and never captured the reader's imagination to the degree that Dune did and still does. I suggest re-reading this book many times; I certainly have, and each time, I get something new and different from it. And if you happen to know an introverted sci-fi nerd who likes to read a lot, then this is quite simply the perfect gift.
Didact's Verdict: 5/5, though 10/5 would be more accurate
Buy/download Dune here.