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Dune (SF) - Frank Herbert *****

According to the blurb on my 1974 edition (the book dates back to 1965), Dune is 'the finest, most widely acclaimed Science Fiction novel of the [20th] century.' I thought it would be worth re-reading it after a few decades - and found that it has held up surprisingly well. In fact, make it 'one of the finest' and I'd only quibble about one assertion in that blurb.

What we have here is an impressively wide-scale space opera, centring on the desert planet of Arrakis, known as Dune, source of a unique spice that is both anti-ageing and, in excess, supportive of a kind of prescience. The planet is occupied by a people strongly modelled on traditional Middle Eastern Arabic cultures and is the subject of political in-fighting between two 'great houses' and an Emperor. The whole thing is feudal and, though set in a high-tech future, has a shield technology that conveniently for those who like a bit of medieval atmosphere, make knives the most appropriate weapon for interpersonal combat.

With that description it could be yet another medievals-in-space tale, but what Frank Herbert did so well was to assemble a complex and rich mythos to accompany the basic plot lines with the scheming Bene Gesserit organisation attempting a long-term human breeding programme and lots of nice little details typified in the quasi-religious 'litany against fear.' And for much of the book, Herbert manages real page-turning writing - whenever there's some action going on it's difficult to put the book down.

However, it's worth saying that Dune is not without faults. There are passages where there's far too much agonising over what should happen and what path to take and general purpose philosophising. Although some of the sayings and aphorisms are surprisingly good, others come across at the fortune cookie level of sophistication. And Herbert had a lot to answer for in his central bad guy, the Baron Harkonnen, who comes across as a pantomime villain, rather than a realistic evil mastermind. He comments early on 'Is it not a magnificent thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen do?' Groan. All together now: 'Oh, no it's not.' And perhaps his worst sin is becoming a template for the evil bad guy in space operas through to the present day - I read a brand new one just a few weeks ago that had an almost identical big bad, down to being too fat to support his own weight, the same highly unpleasant tastes and general buffoonery.

The quibble about the blurb is in calling Dune science fiction. It fits better in the now mostly vanished category of science fantasy - although the book uses the conventions of science fiction, it has aspects that are deeply unscientific, particularly in the precognitive ability and 'genetic memory' the spice gives to some individuals, notably the central character Paul Atreides. What's portrayed here - along with many of the abilities apparently endowed by training, such as being able to command people with a special 'voice' or being a 'mentat' are really just magic in a science guise. It's not a problem, but like the Force in Star Wars, it  pushes the title over the boundary into fantasy.

These are observations I wouldn't have made when I first came across the book in my teens - then I was just overwhelmed by the power of it. Even now, it has few rivals for its intensity and richness of content. Dune remains one of the best of its kind - and should be recommended reading for any one who enjoys the genre - both as a book in its own right and also to see just how much influence it has had on many other books that came after it.

Dune is still solidly in print - but for entertainment's sake, the cover shown here is from my 1974 New English Library copy.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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