It's very difficult to begin to read a novel like Dune thirty-eight years after publication. Frank Herbert's first novel of intergalactic political intrigue, Religious Mysticism, and legal drug trading gained a cult following years before it's popularity spiked to the point it's at now. Because of this there have been rabid discussions and dissections of the novel and adaptations and Tributes by such diverse representatives as headbangers Iron Maiden, Techno star-jammers Eon, Walken's muse Fatboy Slim, the great David Lynch, and John Harrison for the Sci-Fi Channel (not to mention the aborted Dan O'Bannon and H.R. Giger production that eventually evolved into Alien). While these adaptations vary in textual accuracy and in quality, both these and the aforementioned rabid discussions have caused a bleed of Herbert's work into the overall zeitgeist. A number of current works (of film, television, music, and literature) have become directly or indirectly influenced by Dune! Therefore it's almost impossible to not go into a reading of the source material without having some preconceived notions of what Dune is all about. Never before have I so wanted to wipe memories clean as I did when I began this novel (well, there were six months in College that I'd love to forget, but that has nothing to do with novel adaptations, but more to do with deep, deep shame... and possibly a little morbid pride! Huzzah!).
Regardless of how many preconceived notions I had going into the pleasure of reading Frank Herbert's Dune for the first time, Dune did turn out to have a multitude of remarkable surprises within its pages. This is one of the most religious, adventurous, ambitious, and intriguing novels I have had the pleasure of reading, and deserves a valued perch on your shelf right in between The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Foundation Trilogy. It's that good. It's also (possibly) even more difficult to adequately bring to the screen. Why? Dune is in so many ways a journey of the mind. Some of the most fascinating moments of the novel come from a character's relaxed meditation. The action in the novel (including the Violence) is perfectly warranted and doesn't get in the way of the story in a gratuitous way, and the intrigue is right out of a Russian History book. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is how incredibly thorough it is. Herbert seems to have left no stone unturned, no question unanswered!
It's clear what many of Dune's influences are. In many ways Dune is a remake of Hamlet set in a far different reality than that of the Dane. Both stories surround the son of murdered Royalty (Hamlet's father the king, and Paul's father the Duke). Both end in a knife duel ostensibly for the honor of a murdered father. Both contain a younger sister who is considered psychotic (though I'd recommend against attempting to get Alia to a Nunnery). And, finally both involve giant omnivorous worms that secrete the honey upon which all galactic economics are based. Wait... Scratch that. Herbert also brings in such religious teachings as those found in Christianity, Islam, and Zen Bhuddism. There is also the European Fudal system and suggestions of Russian (or maybe even Holy Roman Empire) intrigue, as well as a hint (but only a hint) of an Asimov influence!
Dune's Influences on the other hand are interlaced into popular culture like you wouldn't believe! There are Elements of Dune in Star Wars (though that's not likely to be admitted), in Lexx, The Matrix and unquestionably in Tremors (not to mention the writings of this hack right here!).
But what of the novel itself? Can it truly stand up on its own with so much before and after to live up to! Happily the answer is yes! If one forces oneself to ignore what they think they know about Dune and go in without expectations, this novel is a beautiful tapestry of family, faith, and power! Luckily none of what I thought I knew stifled my surprise at what the Spice was, what the Worms were and how they related to each other. Herbert has created a rich world here in which he outlines the richest parts of several cultures, one Religion with mutliple facets and a caste system that (until shaken up by "Our Hero") keeps everyone in their proper place. There is indeed a lot to keep track of, so Herbert includes a Glossary of the Terminology of the Imperium. He fully explains what you need to know within the text (without ever assuming the reader is an idiot and needs a hand held), but the Glossary is there for some of the more complicated multi-lingual terms that Herbert uses. Those with Photographic memories might find the glossary about as necessary as a Bananna Splits Reunion Tour, but I welcomed it with open lids!
Dune begins as the Atreides family, one of the Major Ruling houses of the Galaxy prepares to assume the Fiefdom of Arrakis (known by the natives as the desert planet Dune) the sole provider of Spice upon which all commerce is based! Spice has been a part of the diet of the entire galaxy for its "geriatric qualities" for so long that living without the Spice would be unthinkable, and isn't even a consideration in the book. The exiting House Harkonnen led by the remarkably nasty Baron Vladimir subjugated and opressed the natives of Arrakis as a matter of course. Therefore the arch enemies of the Harkonnens are enheriting a feifdom which is ready for anything, yet hates their predecessors and is hoping for change! Arrakis holds two other distinctions besides the Spice. One is a native culture rich with religion and, due to the horrible living conditions of Dune, tougher than the Doc Marten's Leather! The second is a certain congregation of Politic Worms who will destroy anything on the sand that attracts them in any way. To harvest Spice you must be on the sand, amid people tougher than the Emperor's own shock troops who hate you, just above gigantic worms who will eat you if they notice you... and they do. The Atreides line (led peacefully by Duke Leto and his concubine Jessica) hopes to make a friend of the Fremen natives and to revolutionize Spice trading to benefit themselves as well as a greater portion of the galaxy. There are a couple of little tiny details in what I just said that raise the interest of both the Emperor and House Harkonnen (ever in vendetta against the Atreides) once again. What that is exactly takes half the novel and thousands of deaths to reveal itself.
The hope of the Atreides line, as well as that of the Bene Gesserit (an order of female clerics described as "witches" more often than not) is Paul Atreides, heir apparent to the Dukedom, and the feifdom of Dune. Paul's mother (a Bene Gesserit herself) has attempted to guide his life correctly in her philosphical way whole his father has attempted to guide him in the ways of politics and war. Though Leto is a Man of Peace he is aware of the world of machinations he has brought his son into and wants to make sure he is prepared. And prepared he is... when the inevitable happens and the Atreides line is splintered, Paul and Jessica are taken in by the Fremen locals (grudgingly at first) and Paul (now known as Muad'Dib... named after a constellation of a desert mouse) becomes a desert power (which his father was searching for throughout their Arrakeen residence). A Desert Power! He is that and so much more we discover... a power greater than that of the Imperium itself... well, potentially!
The canvass upon which Herbert paints this mindscape is rich with metaphor of our own time. (Could this be an Allegory? Verily, but I'm not here to write an English Paper, I'm here to write a review!) Herbert(intentionally) never graduated from College, instead taking only those courses that interested him. Though Dune is written very well, and certainly isn't the work of a novice writer, that well-rounded educational sensibility is seen throughout this novel. From his use of Metaphor to his knowledge of comparative religions and philosophical mysticism to his detaling of ecology and terraforming, to his commentary on government and economics, Herbert shows that each detail of the universe he constructed is covered, researched and well thought out!
Ever read one of those books where you got to the last page and wanted more, more, more? Good news here... with Dune there is more! At the end Herbert appends essays, biographies and maps all relating to the story and enriching the depths to which we understand his vision. These are not simple "freebies" that can be read or ignored as the reader chooses, but well-written peices from the Point of View of the Scholar collecting data for research purposes. For example, the Religion of Dune is a Mosaic patchwork of Religions we all know of... but how did they become one? Herbert adds an entire essay on the Eccumentical conferences which created the Orange Catholic Bible! The relationship of Spice to the Worm, and of the Fremen to the harsh land (so dry that water is used as currency) is also covered by a history of Dune's changing Ecology (and the man whose hope was to have it changed). Such background and supporting material show to what depths Herbert was willing to go to create a great novel. I finished the book READY to read the first sequel Dune Messiah (alas, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is next, True Believers... then it's back into Tolkein).
Those who read my reviews know that here comes the part where I find and expose the bad parts of the reviewee! Let me tell you, Pilgrim... this is the hard part! There wasn't much wrong with this novel anywhere. Sure there are parts that are fast paced and you might have to read a paragraph over again, but that's because his writing is so rich. Here goes: Toward the beginning as the family acclimates to Arrakeen life, the locals are already chanting his messianic name as if they knew who he was immediately (which seemed a little soon to me) and then upon escaping death some Fremen seem cold to the idea of accepting the man who... is... their Messiah! Also, later on because of Paul-Muad'Dib's precognitive abilities (there are only a few blank spots in time that he cannot see) there is a lot of confusion for the reader about what has and has not happened yet. It's very disconcerting, however, that might have been the intention... Paul is very confused as well! There is also one moment when a certain character potentially vital to the future dies during an attack. This could have been a very touching, emotional moment, and I felt that it should have been. Due to a lack of character development and mood surrounding that character, I couldn't help but wonder what my feelings were supposed to be about the death. It didn't bear the impact I expected. All in all, however, there were no Gregory Benford Moments and no insults to our intelligence! Thank you, Frank for caring enough to not talk down to us!
Four and One Half Stars for Frank Herbert's Dune! This is a prime case in which the Zeitgeist could have damaged the enjoyment of the source material... luckily, no one has successfully translated this work in film or music (though there have been some Valiant efforts), so there were enough surprises and plot to fascinate even the most staunch David Lynch fan (myself included)! I also give Mad props to Herbert for sharing his vision of a united faith balancing equally (usually) with an agnostic front. Too often today it's one or the other... Herbert took the plate and hit a homer with both! God (or Higher Power) bless him for that!