Thursday, May 9

Dune Review

Written by Frank Herbert
Published by Hodderscape 2023 (London)
ISBN: 978-0-340-96019-6

Note: I'd like to give a trigger warning for Dune as it features implied acts paedophilia. They are mild but also worth mentioning.

Dune is a classic within the science fiction genre. I’ve heard it described before as the starting point of modern sci-fi. Having now read the book I can see why this is. Despite having been first published in 1966 it features such modern-day staples of the genre, such as force fields, laser weaponry, interplanetary travel and intergalactic governments and more. Strangely enough despite being a fan of the sci-fi genre, that was not what this story reminded me of the most. It felt very much like a medieval fantasy story set in space. Let’s dig into this story and unravel it further.

We begin the story from the perspective of Paul Atreides, during a visit by the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit. This brings us to the first thing that struck me about this book and one of the ways that it shares more in common with the fantasy genre than the sci-fi one. Within the first chapter alone we learn of the Bene Gesserit, the Gom Jabbar, the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Muad’Dib’. That’s saying nothing of the new family and planet names. This is all within the first fourteen pages. A lot of understanding the story and universe of Dune feels like studying. It’s a very dense story. This is great in the sense that right from this first book we get a world that feels real, deep, and well lived in. It has a rich culture and history. The problem with this is that it’s not an easy read. You are expected to understand what’s going on even though most of the new words are utter nonsense to you at first.

"The figures leaping from the worm backs were men, and the blades flashing in that ominous yellow light were a thing the Sardaukar had been trained to face."

This is common within the fantasy genre as you must learn how this new world works. Within the Elder Scrolls, Game of Thrones, Forgotten Realms, and other fantasy worlds you don’t understand the rules and structure of the society. On top of the culture and society, you also must learn how magic, species, space, and so on all work. Sci-fi normally avoids this by being set within the 21st, 22nd, or 23rd centuries. You understand that Wayland-Yutani is corrupt and dangerous because you understand how modern-day companies operate. Trioptimum is easy to understand because it reminds you of companies like Apple. Fantasy doesn’t have that luxury. Dune is more like the fantasy genre in this sense than sci-fi. The Spacer’s Guild doesn’t operate like any modern travel company. Despite being set 20,000 years in the future Dune features no computers. Everything is mystical or mechanical. This is unlike the 21st century where everything runs on some form of computer. This disconnect from the modern way of thinking leaves the audience with a lot of learning to do. After all you have missed out on 20,000 years of history.

I only intend on going over the most basic framework of the story to avoid some rather fantastic spoilers. The Bene Gesserit are a respected coven of witches. They can use abilities such as ‘the voice’ to control and manipulate people. This is a power that renders the victim unable to resist following the command given to them in the voice. They can also read people with almost supernatural levels of perception allowing them to tell when a person is lying or preparing to attack. They are also masterful hand-to-hand fighters. It is believed that a male Bene Gesserit will be born with the ability to understand time, space, and the universe around him better than any human before him. This man is known to the Bene Gesserit as the Kwisatz Haderach. To bring about this Kwisatz Haderach the Bene Gesserit use eugenics. They may take a daughter from one great house and train her as a Bene Gesserit but keep her lineage a secret from her. Then marry her off to a member of a rival house or even a family member to ensure certain genetics are preserved down the line. This brings us to Paul Atreides. He has been trained, in secret, by his Bene Gesserit mother. She hopes that he will be the Kwisatz Haderach. I did mention that this world is a very deep one, right?

The great Atreides house has been at hostilities with the great Harkonnen house for generations now. The Harkonnen’s are much richer than the Atreides due to their position holding the planet Arrakis. This harsh, desert world is the only place in the universe that the spice Melange is found. Melange is the most powerful, valuable, and rarest asset in the universe. Control Arrakis and you control the spice, control the spice and you control the universe. The emperor transfers stewardship of Arrakis from the Harkonnens to the Atreides. Duke Leto Atreides is aware that this is a trap but control of Arrakis is too valuable to pass up. Their only hope at survival on Arrakis is to partner with the native people of the planet. The Fremen. These desert dwellers have their own prophecy of a great leader. This is known as the Lisan al-Gaib. It’s up to Paul and his parents to ally themselves with the Fremen if they intend on surviving the inevitable conflict with the Harkonnen and Imperial forces.

I think you can tell from the talk of prophecies, witches, great houses, and the like, why I think this story has more in common with medieval fantasy than I do modern sci-fi. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I think the combination of fantasy with interplanetary travel, laser guns, and the like works well. I mean it was the foundation of Star-Wars that came out just a few years after this book was originally published. In fact, I think the neo-genre name often given to Star-Wars fits Dune almost perfectly. Science-Fantasy.

"As he emerged from the shadows, his figure took on dimension - grossly and immensely fat."

My biggest problem with this story is its inherent prejudice. What I mean by this is how women, weight and homosexuality are used within the story. Let’s start with women. On one hand having one of the most powerful factions within this universe be a group of women-only witches is progressive. Even more so for 1966. But then you realise that the Bene Gesserit exist with the sole purpose of birthing a man that can lead them. This isn’t great but it gets worse when we look at how the story handles weight and homosexuality. Both traits are found within the villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Both traits are described as overtly negative, disgusting, things about the Baron. His weight is outright called gross while his homosexuality is paired with paedophilia. This mirrors a lot of the negative framing of gay men as paedophiles that was common within the anti-LGBT movements of the 1960’s. Think of the infamous PSA film ‘Boys Beware’ for an example of this. It’s an awful stain on an otherwise brilliant story.

That’s what I would like to emphasise within the summery of this review. Dune tells the story of the great conflict between the noble houses of Harkonnen and Atreides. It does this while introducing readers to one of the most well thought-out and storied fictional universes I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Right from this first novel Frank Herbert delivers a world with more lore and history than almost anything else in fiction. This is combined with some amazing writing that keeps readers engaged throughout a juggernaut of a book. Despite having 529 pages of the smallest font I’ve seen, I found myself unable to stop reading. But all of this is soured by its gay panic, fatphobic, and mildly misogynistic undertones. Despite this I still think that it’s worth a read. I’m so engrossed in this world that when I was within the last 100 pages I instantly went out and brought its sequel, Dune Messiah. That says all that really needs to be said.


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