Book review: Dune by Frank Herbert

“I must not fear

Fear is the mind-killer

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration”

It’s a cliché at this point but I don’t need to explain what an odd and stressful year this has been. The uncertain and constantly shifting times have occasionally turned many of us into zombies staring at our phones waiting for a fix from the news cycle. In the early days of the second lockdown, I decided sometimes that the best antidote to my anxiety was to put down my phone or turn off the TV or radio and instead take refuge in the desert planet of Arrakis.

I decided to read Dune after finally finishing the Harry Potter series at age 30. I had never seen the David Lynch film adaptation but as a fan of director Denis Vilenevue, I was excited for his new film and tackling a text that has been described as “difficult” and “unfilmable” seemed like an intriguingly unorthodox choice for the director.

I find it always easier to read the source text before viewing an adaptation rather than the other way around, so I borrowed a lovely looking 50th Anniversary copy of the book Fingal Libraries recently acquired and endeavoured to finish the book before the film’s release in December. And then the film was delayed until next winter. Like I said 2020 has been unpredictable.

However, I decided to persist, and I am so glad I did because Dune was one of the most pleasurable reads I’ve ever had.

The book has a complicated set up and plot, but I will try to explain it in the most straightforward way possible. In the far future the galaxy is run in a feudal system by the Padishah Emperor. The most sought-after commodity is the spice Melanage. It increases people’s lifespan, is a hallucinogenic and is essential to interstellar space travel. It can only be found on one planet- the harsh desert planet of Arrakis, the titular Dune.

The planet is populated by the indigenous population- the desert people called Fremen. Stewardship of the planet is being transferred to house Atreides led by the Duke Leto.  Our main character is the Duke’s son Paul. Paul is becoming aware of his psychic abilities which he may have inherited from his mother the Lady Jessica. However, they will have to contend with attacks from the incumbent stewards of Arrakis- the villainous house Harkonnen led by the Baron.

In short, imagine a power struggle between warring families like Game of Thrones set against a high science fiction backdrop.

Originally published in 1965 Dune became an essential text in the countercultural zeitgeist. However, it does not feel dated at all. Aside from the fact that military briefings are viewed on a kind of film reel, none of the technology feels out of place. The book is incredibly prescient with mentions of drone technology. The descriptions are fantastic because they introduce concepts like the “thopters” by giving you just enough information to let your imagination go wild.

The book's themes have been examined and dissected so many times during its half century lifetime. The book focuses on falling empires and in its concept of superpowers fighting over a natural resource in a desert setting it can be compared to the later Gulf Wars. The book's themes can be applied to any recent example of 'late stage capitalism' and its focus on ecology was prophetic of our modern environmental concerns.

The books draw from Islamic culture and on a negative side by modern standards the book could be read as a 'white saviour' narrative. It must be said however that the Fremen are not portrayed as any particular ethnicity or colour. The depiction of The Baron's incestual desires could also be seen as “queer coding” the villain.

If I have to sound any note of caution it would be that the book is dense. The book introduces so many words and concepts by simply dropping them in the text with no explanation. The edition that I read features a glossary at the back and it will be necessary whilst reading when you discover Paul is simultaneously “Usul”, “Muad'Dib” and “Kwisatz Haderach” or you get confused between the “weirding” and “Bene Gesserit” way. Despite this it was not a difficult read for me because I found it so addicting.

So, I strongly recommend this book. I'm now deep in to the sequel Dune Messiah and I feel like I will continue the series for a while after.

Patrick Thompson