Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.
— Frank Herbert, "Dune" pg. 663
One of my favourite things about Dune was how Frank Hebert made a concerted effort to root each character's motivations and decisions in believable rationalizations. It was important because most characters possessed some level of "advanced" mental capabilities, therefore taking the time to describe their thought processes, involving levels of actions, reactions, and deceit made for a more believable story.
I think this style of writing is common for the sci-fi genre, where focus is given to explaining and expounding on the analysis of a situation through the mind of characters. What I think separates Dune from other sci-fi books is how Herbert has balanced this analytical subject matter, which can be dry and emotionless if over-done, with beautiful prose. In the afterword, Herbert's son Brian explains that his father would write some sections of the novel as poems first, and work out the details after. Writing in this way leads to a novel full of colourful and expressive language, such as the quote above, one of my favourites from Dune.
I decided to read Dune by Frank Herbert because of its reputation mostly. I have seen its name pop up many times before, usually in contexts such as "greatest books you have ever read" discussions. I know that it is regarded as one of the most important science-fiction novels ever written, and is essentially to SF what the Lord of the Rings is to the fantasy genre. So with that in mind, Dune became next on my hit list. I haven't read either a SF or fantasy book in quite awhile, although I used to love the genre when I was younger. My favorite book of all time is the hitchhikers guide to the galaxy, so I would say I have a bit of an affinity for SF already.
I must admit, I enjoyed Dune immensely. There is something about reading SF and fantasy novels that makes it so easy to become emotionally invested and to enjoy reading. They offer a form of escapism that no other form of fiction can really duplicate. I think it's because they are not bogged down by the details of reality and the reader's intimate knowledge of how reality works. However, a good science-fiction novel will offer reminders of humanity in different forms, and will extrapolate the possibilities of technology in realistic ways.
Additionally, when reading older science-fiction stories such as Dune (1966), it is doubly interesting to see how well the author predicted the course of technology since the story was published - especially with regards to some of the more significant advances of the past couple decades, like the internet, and how well authors may have predicted its effect on modern life. One facet of technology that Herbert touched upon in Dune was the advent, and dangers, of artificial intelligence, or "thinking machines" as they were referred to in the story. In the canonical history of Dune, thinking machines were outlawed many thousands of years ago when they had become an existential threat to humans, as evidenced in the quote by Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert's son, below.
The Butlerian Jihad, occurring ten thousand years before the events described in Dune was a war against thinking machines who at one time had cruelly enslaved humans. For this reason, computers were eventually made illegal by humans, as decreed in the Orange Catholic Bible: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”— Brian Herbert, "Afterword" pg. 985
The dangers that AI could pose to humans would not have been part of the collective zeitgeist of 1966, yet has become a prevalent issue today due to our advances in AI research. Surely this required prescient thinking and knowledge on the part of Herbert, which I find quite impressive.
As for the story itself, I found it extremely captivating, and by the time I was 100 pages in I was fully engaged and curious as to how things would play out. Of course the first 100 pages come with a bit of a learning curve, which is typical of the genre, as you are introduced to a multitude of terms and names as Herbert lets you become acquainted with his universe. But if you stick through you will find yourself immersed in a rich and complex interstellar society, with issues and conflicts that are still intrinsically human, and are analogous in many ways to issues here on earth.
Dune follows the story of a young boy named Paul Atriedes, born the son of a Duke whom controls a planetary fief on a paradisaical world of great beauty. However, the Duke's House, House Atriedes, and all the other Great Houses are under the control of a imperial overlord, Emperor Shaddam IV. Emperor Shaddam has "bestowed" upon the House Atriedes a new fiefdom - the oversight of the planet Arrakis, colloquially known as Dune.
Arrakis is an extremely important planet to the Emperor, as well as to the entire solar system, due to the presence of an valuable spice named melange. Arrakis is the only planet on which this spice is found, and as such it turns out to be the most valuable commodity in the solar system. In addition to being a mildly addictive drug, it also gives those who ingest it a small amount of prescient ability. This is especially valuable to the corporation that oversees all galactic travel, known as the Guild. Their pilots rely on the powers of the spice to assist them in guiding and navigating the ships through interstellar space. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the book, I presume its due to the large velocities these ships travel at, so large that they must take relativistic effects into account in charting their course. Therefore, having the ability to see somewhat into the future would make it easier. That's just my theory though.
The control of Arrakis was intended to be transferred from its previous overseer, the House Harkonnen, to the Duke and the House Atriedes. This transfer does in fact happen, but the House Harkonnen has more nefarious plans in mind. They stage a raid upon the planet, with the help of a traitor within the House Atriedes, not long after they have been displaced, and they kill the Duke, take back control of the capital, and they cause the death of Paul and his mother - or so they think.
The bulk of the book takes place after these events transpire. Paul and his mother, the Lady Jessica, flee to the desert in a last ditch escape. They are rescued by a group of native peoples known as the Freman. The Freman live in the harshest areas of the planet, and it is said their global population exceeds several million. Paul and Jessica, while not initially accepted by the Freman when first found, are quickly accepted into their ranks as they learn of Paul's ducal heritage, as well as his and his mother's fighting prowess.
The young Paul Leto, even from a early age, had shown glimpses of extraordinary abilities in mental reasoning and some prescience through his dreams. This aptitude blossomed into a full-blown superpower when he took control of the ducal title after his father died, and he began to eat a diet heavy with the melange spice. Paul quickly becomes a hero and religious figure of sorts amongst the Freman. He is viewed as a saviour for them and their planet, and promises to lead them into battle against the Harkonnens, who have returned to control the planet.
I've probably already spoiled a large amount of the story, so if anyone ever reads this with the intention of reading Dune afterwards, I apologize. However, I doubt anyone is ever going to read this, and if it's any consolation - the best is yet to come. The story gets better.
What Herbert did really well was building tension as the story progressed, as well as the overall pacing. I found that events and information were revealed at a calculated pace, enough to keep you intrigued and anxious to learn of the outcome of events. Herbert conveys this tension effectively in two ways. On the small scale, Herbert adjusts his prose to fit the emotions of a situation, which imparts on the reader different feelings suitable for the context. An example is during the initial raid of Arrakeen, which took the Atriedes completely off guard. The telling of the scene is done in short sentences, using simple, emotional words to reflect the intensity of the character's reactions. For example, the following is Jessica's initial reaction as she realizes what is unfolding around her:
Where is Paul? she asked herself. My son—what have they done to him? Calmness. She forced herself to it, using the ancient routines. But terror remained so near. Leto? Where are you, Leto? She sensed a diminishing in the dark. It began with shadows. Dimensions separated, became new thorns of awareness. White. A line under a door. I’m on the floor. People walking. She sensed it through the floor. Jessica squeezed back the memory of terror. I must remain calm, alert, and prepared. I may get only one chance. Again, she forced the inner calmness. The ungainly thumping of her heartbeats evened, shaping out time. She counted back. I was unconscious about an hour. She closed her eyes, focused her awareness onto the approaching footsteps. Four people. She counted the differences in their steps. I must pretend I’m still unconscious. She relaxed against the cold floor, testing her body’s readiness, heard a door open, sensed increased light through her eyelids. Feet approached: someone standing over her.
— Herbert, pg. 293
Herbert takes time to describe the immediate details of the scene, and he does a good job of conveying the inner monologue of the character so the reader can see through the eyes of the character's in these crucial and important moments.
On a larger scale, Herbert also chose the perspective from which to describe different scenes really well. For example, when the final attack against the Harkonnen ships is launched, the scene switches to the Emperor's quarters, where he and the head of Harkonnen house are analyzing the battle. Despite the rest of the battle taking place from the perspective of Paul and the Freman, the switch to the enemy's view allows the reader to feel the shock as the Freman break through the ships blast-shield and invade the Emperor's quarters. Scenes like this, coupled with beautiful prose and descriptive writing made Dune a very enjoyable story to read.
Details like these made me understand why Dune is such a popular and recognized book. The world of Dune is rich and complex, and the problems and conflicts that its inhabitants face are deeply reminiscent of those in our world. Herbert touches upon elements of religion, environmentalism, ecology, economics, and military strategy throughout Dune, yet manages to tell a concise story where every plot element supports the others. Despite the wide-breadth of subject matter that Herbert manages to include, I was able to gain some meaningful insights and lessons from all these different areas. I think this is due to Herbert's ability to boil down a complex subject like environmentalism into its essential issues, and then reinterpret them into the context of Dune. It adds a level of subtle believability to the story when you can make these connections as you read.
With this being said, it doesn't matter how creatively an author may imagine a world like Dune in their mind if they cannot convey it effectively. It would be trapped within the consciousness of the writer and could never be shared with anyone else - something which must be the tragic fate of many would-be fantastic books. Thankfully Frank Herbert is an extremely talented writer who had the capability to translate the exciting world of Dune into a series of books. I look forward to visiting it again.