Skip to main content

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.
Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under