Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Dune" by Frank Herbert

Summary: 15-year-old Paul Atreides has just moved to the planet Arrakis with his father, the Duke Leto Atreides, and his mother, the Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit--a woman trained in secret skills.  Arrakis is a desert planet, valuable only for its addictive spice.  Duke Leto has been granted rulership over the planet by the Emperor, but the family is betrayed and the planet overrun by the Atreides' greatest enemy: the Harkonnens.  Paul and his mother must flee and they join a group of Fremen, the blue-eyed natives of Arrakis whose ways are largely a mystery.  But even among the Fremen Paul is special, a man with powers beyond all others as a result of training and careful breeding by the Bene Gesserit, and many believe Paul is the Lisan al-Gaib, an off-world prophet who will lead the Fremen to victory and prosperity.

Musings: Although I'm a fan of science-fiction, I rarely read "high" science-fiction, a category into which Dune clearly belongs.  But I thought I should at least be familiar with what is probably the greatest classic of the category.

Dune does have some of the trappings of high sci-fi (or fantasy) that often turn me off: numerous strange names, a focus on politics over individual stories, and excessive and rigid cultural rituals.  Compared to most of the books I read, I found it slow-moving, and it took me considerably longer to finish than most fiction.  Paul's abilities are so far beyond any human that he is impossible to identify with.  So much time is spent on his (and frequently his mother's) amazing powers (particularly their Bene Gesserit skills of observation) that I just became less impressed.  I did enjoy the stories of side characters such as Gurney Halleck and the Fremen Chani more.

Nonetheless, Herbert has created a fully-fleshed world, and the details of Arrakis are perhaps the most interesting part of the book.  In the desert planet, water is the highest commodity available, and all aspects of life, from death to marriage, revolve around the conservation of water.  The Fremen's adaptation to the harshness of the planet is particularly fascinating. 

The novel was written in 1965, but many of its themes are just as pressing today.  Although the continual politicking was not my thing, it does work to emphasize the tensions and conflicts of this planet and the way in which those who would rule well cannot gain power just by being good, but by playing the game--something that's much more true to life than most sci-fi books.  Dune also discusses the confluence of politics and religion and the way in which one can be exploited by the other; it's another very timely issue and one I found interesting.

Those who enjoy books on an epic, grand-scale nature will most appreciate Dune.  It's certainly similiar in some ways to the Lord of the Rings trilogy although Dune lacks the lovable and fallible Frodo to center the story.  However, Herbert's world building is far above many contemporary works, and I can see why this is such a classic.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Challenge.

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