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Dune by Frank Herbert

Published by Ace Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Beside me on my desk sits a very battered paperback book. Its spine has broken and is held together entirely by tape, and many of the yellowed pages are loose and ready to fall out. This is my very first copy of Dune, and I pulled it out to remember, because to discuss Dune meaningfully requires sorting out my own personal experience of the book and separating it from the larger literary significance in the science fiction community.

I was a sophomore in high school, one of those overly bright kids who bedevilled my teachers by asking too many questions, the very sort of person who seem destined to discover fandom just to have a place where people don't treat questions they don't have answers for as personal affronts. I'd heard of Dune, but my impression had been of a desert adventure somewhat like that Tatooine parts of Star Wars. Thus I was rather unprepared for the actuality of it when I actually acquired a copy.

It wasn't just the thickness, although it was substantially thicker than most of the science fiction books I'd been reading, but I'd just finished reading two novels of historical fiction that were each over a thousand pages. But I'd never before come across a novel that included a glossary full of strange and alien words, many of which included further alien terms within their definitions. Nor had I seen a work of fiction that included appendices, essays that seemed to be written by someone within the world of the story, but maybe not.

Then I started reading the actual novel, and soon my head was filling up with so many cool ideas that I thought it was going to explode. And when I got done reading, it was such an incredible high that I started reading it all over just to have that peak experience again -- I think I read it six times in the next two or three months. I carried it with me everywhere (which is how it got so battered), and annoyed all and sundry by my oh-so-wise quotations and references to it. I even did a paper in it for my lit class, although my teacher wasn't exactly overjoyed by the idea because she considered science fiction to be "escapist trash." a typical attitude in those days.

Even after that initial headrush, I've found that Dune is one of the few books that has kept its sheen when I come back to it. So many books that I thought to be full of such gems of wisdom when I was young have proved to be trite and shallow when I returned to them with a few more years or decades of life experience. But years later, I've still found new surprises upon yet another re-reading, details that I'd previously overlooked but that suddenly raised fascinating questions.

When it first came out, readers recognized that Dune was something special, as it received both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. The Hugo is a fan award, voted upon by the membership of each year's World Science Fiction Convention, but the Nebula is a professional award given by the active membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Thus I ask myself just what it is about Dune that is so profound. There's a tendency to review a book by first summarizing the plot, but in this case a terse plot summary really doesn't do it justice. Much as some sentences are more than the sum of the dictionary definitions of their words, Dune is more than a summation of its plot points. In fact, such a summation could even do it a disservice by making it look stupid -- the dispossessed prince or heir who flees into the wild to find allies and fight the usurpers and finally comes home to win his birthright and the hand of the beautiful princess is a story that has been done many times, some successfully and some less so. It's one of the basic forms of the Hero's Journey, and Joseph Campbell made a whole career of talking about that.

So what exactly is it that sets the story of Paul Atreides and his quest for justice against the Harkonnens apart from all the other stories of the same basic template out there? To answer that question, you really have to go back and look at what the science fiction field was like in those days. Then you had two basic types of science fiction. First there was the pulpish adventure story in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which tended to be long on wild imaginings but weak on real science and careful plotting. Events followed one another like beads on a string, and co-incidence was often as important a driver of the plot as any sort of internal motivations of the characters. If you had a handsome hero, a beautiful space princess and a bug-eyed monster within a thousand miles of one another, you just knew that they'd end up together and there'd be a major fight. It was the sort of stuff that got the entire genre tarred with the "escapist trash" label.

The other kind, promoted by Analog editor John W. Campbell, was based on rigorous extrapolation of a scientific idea. The prose tended to be spare, with relatively little in the way of characterization, because you didn't want to do anything that would distract your readers from the central idea. For instance, the characterization in Isaac Asimov's original Foundation trilogy tends to be pretty minimal, and in fact all the characters tend to run together (with the exception of the Mule, who is actually one of the few memorable characters in all of Asimov's fiction). The worlds all tended to be pretty much similar, other than the world-city of Trantor which was the Galactic Empire's capital. But then you weren't reading the Foundation trilogy for memorable settings or characters, but for the development of the concept that it might actually be possible to scientifically forecast the future and write a history of things to come, not with any of the hocus-pocus divination methods tried from time immemorial, but with statistics and computers.

If this is the kind of science fiction you've been brought up on, Dune is like being thrown head-first into the ocean after spending all your life in a wading pool. Just read the first chapter and compare it to the typical first chapter of a book like Foundation. The wealth of sensory detail alone is a substantial break from the science fiction of its time, sucking the reader into the world Frank Herbert has created for us. He does not stop the story to discuss the technical details of the various things we see in passing, but moves us right along to the encounter between Paul and the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim, an encounter in which the byplay between the two characters delivers as much information as the actual narrative voice. It's a very sophisticated literary technique, and until that point it had rarely been used in science fiction.

The prose is rich, but it never becomes overbearing or excessive. In fact, in many places it is noteworthy for its spareness. It has been said that Frank Herbert originally wrote some key parts as haiku, a Japanese verse form with a strict limit of seventeen syllables. Only after he had perfectly encapsulated the key image or idea he wished to capture did he expand the text into regular prose, keeping the focus on the important details that would convey the image he wished to evoke within the reader's mind.

In addition to the simultaneous spareness and vividness of the prose, there is a parsimony of setting that becomes evident only when one carefully analyzes the novel. It takes place in a vast Imperium, a galactic empire of the sort that was common in space operas of the pulp era, yet almost all the action takes place on a single planet, with glimpses of two others. The sense of a vast number of planets is achieved almost entirely by references in the course of events to various items imported from them, or events taking place on them long ago. Yet the restricted setting never becomes claustrophobic, which is no small feat in itself. This is at least partly the result of the careful attention to detail the author lavishes upon each scene, making us the readers feel each moment as if we were there -- and often to supply far more detail than is actually present on the page. When I go back and re-read closely, I'm surprised at how little of Siech Tabr is actually described in detail -- yet I have the persistent feeling of having seen it in depth in my earliest readings of those scenes.

Another thing that marked Dune as a departure from previous science fiction is the careful attention to the way in which societies actually work as organic structures. Earlier science fiction tended to focus primarily upon the hardware, and had simply assumed that societies of the future would be effectively unchanged from that which was familiar to the reader of the time. Thus we have such works as Asimov's "Nightfall," in which the names may be unfamiliar, ending in numbers as they do, and the astrophysics of his world is decidedly odd, but all the characters fill social roles that matched perfectly to roles available in American society at the time it was written. Instead Frank Herbert gives us a feudal world, but not one simply lifted directly from history or fairy tale, but rather one of a far future in which computer technology has been rejected and humanity has fallen back on a more localized form of government and social structure.

And most striking of all was the way in which he took religion seriously as a social factor. In all the science fiction I had read to that point, religion had either been ignored altogether or had been regarded as foolish superstition that humanity would outgrow. But Dune has an entire appendix devoted to the religious systems of the world, and themes of religious belief and the ways in which they can be used and abused by people who would control a population are woven throughout the entire novel. That was one of the huge eye-openers for me, and it led me to change my understanding of huge sections of history.

But now that I come back to it as an older and more mature reader, I think that the real strength of Dune lies in the way in which Frank Herbert refuses to take his hero, or even the entire concept of heroism, at face value. In so much pulpish science fiction, and even a lot of the more idea-based sf, it is simply taken for granted that of course the hero is of most sterling character and that following him is a good thing. But Frank Herbert has Paul struggling with his foreknowledge of what his leadership will turn the Fremen into, and ultimately his horror and disgust as Stilgar turns from a person, a friend and trusted advisor, into a creature that would mindlessly follow him because he said so. It's not as obvious as it becomes in the later novels, but the thread is present if you know how to look.

Any one of these characteristics alone would have made Dune a very good book, but it is all of them working together that propels Dune into that very top tier, as one of the few books of science fiction that could actually lay the claim to being great books. And that is why the endless procession of prequels, sequels and interquels produced by Frank Herbert's son are so frustrating, because they take the gold of the original and turn it into dross of extruded book-product that doesn't even try to be great.

Review posted February 5, 2009.

Buy Dune, 40th Anniversary Edition (Dune Chronicles, Book 1) from Amazon.com