Saturday, 14 December 2013


Frank Herbert Dune (1965)
I advise you to read this book as soon as possible, I was once told by an individual posting on an internet forum under the name Gargamel. This came in response to my idly commenting that I'd never read Dune, apparently the best-selling science-fiction novel of all-time. I was put off by the strident tone of the suggestion, as though Dune should be considered essential reading for anyone with a brain, and everyone knew that! I was also put off by Gargamel's further insistence that once I was done with Dune I would be well advised to read Herbert's six follow up novels followed immediately by all the related books written by Herbert's son in conjunction with Kevin J. Anderson. As a rule I tend to discount the testimony of persons who describe themselves as fans, regardless of that which has inspired their devotion, because generally speaking most expressions of fandom require too great a suspension of critical faculties in order to keep the faith; besides which, I wasn't about to take advice from anyone named after an evil wizard from the Smurfs cartoon.

Still, here I am at last, and in its favour, Herbert's years of research have provided Dune with an impressively thorough and fully realised alien environment. The problem is that most of said alien environment is fully realised in the form of notes and essays in the appendix, leaving the five-hundred page novel somewhat top heavy with dynastic intrigue and people with funny names stood around in throne rooms exchanging vows regarding deeds to be done in the name of their children, and their children's children. In fact the balance is such that Dune might be viewed as having more in common with Tolkein's Lord of the Rings than the genre from which it emerged, at least as of when it was published. Possibly excepting Asimov's Foundation series, Dune might be regarded as the first definitively epic space opera in the Star Wars sense - empires rising and falling, yer ancient wisdom, chosen ones foretold by prophecy and in possession of mysterious powers, dynastic struggle, and a hell of a lot of sand.

So depending on your expectations, it's fairly readable in so much as it does what it does with conviction, and the background noise of pseudo-Islamic terminology serves to hint at a narrative with a great deal occurring off the page, so to speak. In the context of the mid-sixties, it's probably the written equivalent of the Beatles' Revolver or something, the teenbeat science-fiction of rockets, spacesuits, and little green men maturing into something more worldly, more ambitious, and which places emphasis on myth, ecological concerns, and supposedly mind-expanding drugs; which is nice, but five-hundred pages is perhaps too much, and the novel spends it's final chapters as a droning progressive rock uncle making portentous statements about civilisations waxing and waning...

'This was my father's ducal signet,' he said. 'I swore never to wear it again until I was ready to lead my troops over all of Arrakis and claim it as my rightful fief.' He put the ring on his finger, clenched his fists.

Utter stillness gripped the cavern.

'Who rules here?' Paul asked. He raised his fist. 'I rule here! I rule on every square inch of Arrakis! this is my ducal fief whether the Emperor says yea or nay! He gave it to my father and it comes to me through my father!'

Clench; declare; avenge; clench; argue; more clenching; prophecy; clench, and on and on and on...

I can see why it might be regarded as a great novel, provided you don't mind the absolute absence of a sense of humour and you haven't read much else, but Dune really outstays it's welcome on one's bedside table - a shame really, as it starts off so well.

So screw you, Gargamel. Smiley face. Smiley face.

1 comment:

  1. I had Dune on my pile of books to read for a while now, but gave it away recently thinking it wasn't going to work for me and this review's confirmed my suspicions that it's one of those books, like Lord of the Rings, that are best discovered when you're a teenager or are new to the genre. Also, I read Gene Wolfe's New Sun books a while ago and thought they were written really well, but just couldn't get into them, so I think fantasy just isn't my genre.

    That said, I can understand where Gargamel's coming from about being a fan. It's a magical feeling when you read a book that you feel was written just for you. Reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, (which should be considered essential reading for anyone with a brain!) did that for me and I'm now a pathetically devoted Stephenson fan, even making it through the Baroque cycle. In my defence I'm not dazzled enough to realise that REAMDE wasn't very good (although unusually it's got the potential to be a much better film.) but I will still read anything else he does...