Where to begin writing about this strange, amazing and above all weighty science fiction classic, my copy is 556 pages excluding the appendices, it was also the joint winner of the 1966 Hugo award and the first ever winner of the Nebular Award for Best Novel in the same year, these two awards are considered the pinnacle of Science Fiction. The breadth of Herbert’s achievement in writing this complex masterpiece is so impressive and I knew I needed to read it before the new films finally come out, after all this copy has been sitting on my shelves for a decade now so this would be the push I needed to open it at last and what a way for a book to start.
So many questions are raised right at the beginning and some, like the identity of the Princess Irulan and her significance, are not answered until almost the very end of the novel, despite extracts from her various works appearing throughout the book. These extracts provided convenient stopping points whilst reading as despite its length there are only three chapters and the sheer number of characters and the complexity of their interactions mean that you really need to stop and assimilate what you have read far more often than that.
Arrakis is a desert planet, hence its other name of Dune, and it is populated by the Fremen, a people who are supremely adapted to the conditions both by natural adaption and technology such as their clothes that preserve and recycle all moisture from their bodies. There are many dangers to the desert besides the heat though, the desert of Dune is populated by giant sandworms capable of swallowing whole vehicles and even aircraft that trespass into their domain. It is also the only source of melange, better known as spice, which is a drug which extends life and expands mental powers especially amongst those who have been trained to exploit it such as the pilots of starships, who need it to foresee dangers, and the Bene Gesserit, but more of them later. This drug is so coveted amongst the Great Houses that rule the interplanetary systems that control of Arrakis is seen as one of the great prizes and as the novel starts the House of Atreides is set to take over from the House of Harkonnen as fief rulers under the Emperor although it is also clear that this is in someway a trap. The Duke Leto Atreides arrives on Arrakis with his Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica and son Paul along with his retinue and a well equipped military right at the start of the book and the sense of danger is clear but the source of the danger is not. The various Houses are clearly based of the power structure in medieval Europe with their own armies and rule over their domains although subject to the overall power of the Emperor, right I sort of understand the structure here, a solid enough base in history to take a story set far in the future and then you hit the Bene Gesserit.
The Bene Gesserit form a sisterhood that because of their powers are much sought after as advisers and consorts to the powerful planetary rulers, who little realise the control that these women have gained over the whole empire over the millennia and that their true allegiance is to the sisterhood. Only females can survive the rituals involved in attaining full awareness as a Reverend Mother but they have been searching, and selective breeding, for a male that would gain the ultimate power of time perception and mental control over themselves and others for centuries. This quasi-religious, and political grouping adds another layer and complexity to the story. The other group that you follow through the book are the Fremen who live away from the protected settlement where off worlders can exist out in the desert. These are clearly based on the Bedouin and some words and concepts from from the Muslim faith are used in association with them, specifically jihad, or holy war, which here refers to their fight back against the controlling Houses imposed upon them. It may seem that I am providing a lot of spoilers but everything mentioned above is all laid out within the first few pages of the book and the story develops from there, it really is a well grounded world that Herbert creates and sets his characters off into.
My copy is from the Gollancz 50th Anniversary set from 2011 which also included Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, Eric by Terry Pratchett, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Hyperion by Dan Simmons, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. For their 50th anniversary, Gollancz put the call out for readers to vote on what they considered to be the top ten books to come out of the publishing company in the past 50 years. When the results were in, Gollancz announced the winners and published them in iconic retro covers reminiscent of the classic covers that first drew me to more adult science fiction. I discovered science fiction well before I hit my teens and worked my way through the child and what would now be called the young adult sections at my local library pretty rapidly but upstairs, above the children’s section of the library in the adult science fiction area I found whole shelves of hardback books all bound in yellow covers with no pictures on the cover just text in a bold standard font and they called to me…
These were the books that marked a transition from works aimed at young readers to those for adults and although I never read Dune at the time, even for a precocious young teenager this book was daunting, this was where I first came across the title and now I’ve finally read it. It’s only taken just over forty years to get there but it was well worth the wait as I doubt I would have got as much out of the book if I had tackled it in the mid 1970’s when I first picked it up and then put it back on the library shelf. If you haven’t read it, don’t take as long to get round to it as I did, now I just have to wait for the much delayed first film from Denis Villeneuve and hope that this adaptation has finally managed to capture the breadth and depth of the original novel.