Dune

I needed some sci-fi. Just felt like it, I guess. I read this book about 15 years ago as one of my earliest forays into the genre, and I loved it. So I bought it again the other day with some Border’s bucks. The cover of the paperback reprint that I read refers to this book as “Science Fiction’s Supreme Masterpiece.” I gotta tell you, that’s an understatement.

I’m not very knowledgeable about sci-fi and the one or two books a year I read in this arena don’t give me much of insight into it. All I can do is tell you that I felt like I held a masterpiece in my hands as I was reading it. It was distinct.

I didn’t get that feeling with The Lord of the Rings or Foundation, both of which I consider in roughly the same genre. Dune just feels cooler, deeper, and more interesting. It’s tough to put my finger on it. It’s sci-fi without a bunch of really fast spaceships. It’s fantasy without a complicated mix of monster-like beings. It’s a different world with a history so detailed that you have to consult a glossary to understand some key points, yet this doesn’t impinge on it’s approachability.

The tale itself is not so groundbreaking. It’s about vengeance. The Atreides family finds itself stuck in some interplanetary politics, leading to their demise. The formula: father killed, mom and noble son left for dead on the planet that was their fiefdom (Arrakis), disenfranchised indigenous peoples team up with nobility to try and overthrow evil occupants.

So yeah, somewhat standard story, maybe even in 1965 when it was published. But that doesn’t detract from it’s coolness. Here why it’s cool:

There is an underlying theme of conservation. The story takes place on a desert planet where people wear special suits to capture bodily fluids for recycling so they don’t waste any moisture. The indigenous people, the Fremen, have a minimalistic approach to life:

The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called “spannungsbogen” – which is, the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.
— From “The Wisdom of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan

The idea permeates the book. Evil is big, fat, and excessive; good is thin, conservative, and wily. Not sure how far ahead of his time Herbert was in discussing this.

The reader gets a big payoff from a little bit of work. The preceding quote is indicative of how the reader gets a lot of history and background information – each chapter begins with a quote from a sacred text. Additionally, Herbert will use terms that are simply not defined within the standard text, assuming that the reader will consult the glossary if needed. But it’s easy and doesn’t ever seem laborious, adding to the genius of it all.

We learn about the force, before there was the force. I couldn’t help but wonder how much George Lucas was influenced by the Bene Gesserit, an “ancient school of mental and physical training established primarily for female students after the Butlerian Jihad destroyed the so-called “thinking machines” and robots.” Which also makes me wonder how much James Cameron was influenced by the Butlerian Jihad when he conceived the Terminator series.

The desert landscape makes for an original, off-world experience. You have space, the ocean, and forests that are often depicted in sci-fi and fantasy settings, but when has a desert been so re-imagined? I can’t think of any, but help me out. Add to that the idea of sandworms roaming underneath the desert sand…attracted to surface disturbances…that can be ridden by hooking onto their back. That’s just a sampling of the imagination that went into this. I was blown away at times.

Dune is part of what was originally conceived as a trilogy by Herbert, but I think it eventually expanded into six books with even more offshoots by others (I’ll read at least the original trilogy over the next few years). There was a movie and a mini-series made of it, but I haven’t see either (I may put them on the list). Oh yeah, did I mention that Iron Maiden paid homage to it on Piece of Mind with a track called To Tame a Land (great tune).

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to proclaim that if you read only one sci-fi book in your life, make it Dune. But hey, that’s coming from someone who’s only reading about one or two per year in the genre, so take it with a grain of salt my friends.