Dune is a book written by Frank Herbert originally published in 1965. In view of the release of Denis Villeneuve’s film based on it, I finally decided to read it and I couldn’t have made a better decision. I literally devoured the 900 pages of Dune (of the edition you see in the photo above – and you can see that I went to the planet Dune this summer to read the book), I loved the universe created by Herbert!
I liked everything about his work. I found the omniscient storytelling style very captivating, with each character’s thoughts being revealed (in italics) along with their dialogues and the descriptions of their actions. The story is epic, tragic (in the sense of Greek tragedy) and adventurous, and it filled me with curiosity at every moment, full as it is of unforgettable characters.
But more than anything else, the world Herbert created has completely captured my attention. The skillful use of passages taken from books written by characters of the world itself to open each chapter is the way used by the author to expand the Dune universe beyond the actual story, together with a rich Appendix (of almost one hundred pages) in addition to the events narrated in the three parts into which the book is divided: Dune, Muad’Dib, and The Prophet.
Let me spend a paragraph on the plot, although I’m aware that it would be impossible to convey the grandeur of Dune in a small blog post. The spice of the planet Arrakis (also called Dune) is the most precious commodity in the Universe due to its healing properties that rejuvenate those who consume it (speaking clearly, it’s a drug to which billions of people are addicted). The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV decides to entrust the planet and the spice harvesting activities to the Atreides family led by Duke Leto who moves there together with his son Paul, the mother of his son Lady Jessica, and all his people. However, he must face Baron Vladimir Harkonnen who doesn’t accept lightly the loss of the planet that he had controlled for decades.
This is just the beginning of the first part of the book and I urge you to stop reading here in case you want to avoid spoilers about the rest of the book. This first part (which is called Dune, like the whole book) develops an announced tragedy, that of Duke Leto and his House, whose fate is marked by the machinations of the Padishah Emperor and Baron Harkonnen. This makes us understand that the characters move in a corrupt and rotten world in which both the noble Houses and the Emperor are in decline, and in which there are many other forces like the mysterious Mentat beings and the Bene Gesserit (Lady Jessica is also part of the latter) who in one way or another are trying to manipulate the fate of the world.
In this, the Atreides stand out for their strong moral values and for the enlightened and proud men working for the House such as Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho. Unfortunately, the fury of the imperial Sardaukar falls on them, assisted by the perfidious Baron Harkonnen, a despicable person whose degree of evil only partially emerges in this first part.
The second part, Muad’Dib, is where the Fremen, that is the natives of Arrakis, come into play, with all their culture rich in traditions completely different from those of the rest of the Universe. One of the most beautiful characters in the book, Stilgar, is introduced here, and Paul’s character develops at tremendous speed under the eyes of his mother.
And finally, in The Prophet, we discover the fate of the whole Universe, which remains mysterious until the very end because it depends entirely on the choices of Paul at the command of the Fremen. Only at this moment does Frank Herbert take the liberty of not anticipating to the reader what’s about to happen by leaving many avenues open, and the effect is very powerful (how many thrilling moments in the third part!).
In fact, the first two parts Dune and Muad’Dib tell the story without hiding from the beginning where it will end up. Leto has no hope, it is said immediately, and it’s clear that Paul is the protagonist of the book. And are there really doubts about who the Muad’Dib could be, and also the Kwisatz Haderach? I think not, right? But there are many ways that Paul and the Fremen can break free from Harkonnen domination, and the final resolution is surprising…
But what still makes Dune fascinating today is the fact that Herbert didn’t limit himself to re-proposing in a fantasy / science fiction key the world in which he lived characterized by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Somehow, he has instead anticipated a possible future with a decaying Empire in which many power sources are fighting each other to share what remains of value. And Arrakis can be seen as a possible future Earth destroyed by the excessive exploitation of resources and capable to return to prosperity only thanks to the patient action of its few survivors (there’s an entire Appendix on the ecology of Arrakis!) .
I think that Dune inspired a lot of things I know and love. I’m thinking of Mad Max with its desert world and its peculiar cultures and customs, and at the same time I saw in Dune a lot of The Lord of the Rings for the theme of decadence and populations and races becoming in charge of the fate of the world. As for the end of the book, it made me think a lot of Nausicaa (the graphic novel) more than Tolkien’s saga: the world has been prepared for a specific future, but both Nausicaa and Paul Atreides refuse to follow it and open up to a different future shaped by them, they don’t accept being pawns in the hands of “enlightened” ancestors. Also, sandworms are very reminiscent of the King Worms of Nausicaa, maybe Miyazaki was inspired by Herbert?
Plus, Brian Herbert (son of Frank) wrote that the Butlerian jihad against intelligent machines reminds of The Terminator (1984) and that the Mentat closely resemble the Vulcans of Star Trek… And would about Tremors (1990)?
Back to the theme of the decadence of the human beings, I liked a lot this passage towards the end of the book: “The race of humans had felt its own dormancy, sensed itself grown stale and knew now only the need to experience turmoil in which the genes would mingle and the strong new mixtures survive. All humans were alive as an unconscious single organism in this moment, experiencing a kind of sexual hear that could override any barrier.” Another interesting theme of the book is the relationship between religion and politics, especially in these days when the hot topic is the return of the Talibans to Kabul (speaking of an empire in decline…), with Herbert who chose to use Arabic terms for the Fremen culture of Arrakis.
To conclude, as always, science fiction is nothing more than a way of talking about the world we live in, and it seems to me that Dune does it very well, at the same time offering an intriguing story that I can’t wait to continue to read. The next book in my list is Dune Messiah, Ciao!