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I've been very good this winter--I don't think I re-read a single book. (Some winters I bury myself in Jane Austen and refuse to emerge until spring.) Here's the one exception, prompted by a bookstore find. And it's not winter anymore, so it doesn't really count.
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By Frank Herbert
Ace Science Fiction, 2010
(Original: Chilton, 1965)
My household has been DUNE-free for decades, ever since my mid-Sixties paperback decayed or was lent or otherwise vanished. Last week, browsing at Bull Moose in Scarborough, I saw it: a shiny new paperback, not four months old. I was waiting for a reading to start, so after I bought it I huddled between the stacks for a dip into Frank Herbert’s world of marvels.
This was a true flashback to my first DUNE experience as a high school student in the late sixties. I was supposed to be working in the school library, but in the stacks I discovered this wonderful story, possibly my very first science fiction. I read a chapter a day, sneaking. Before I was very far in I found it in a bookstore, just as I did last week, some forty years later. I leapt on it then, as now, and took it home to wallow.
Today, with the Mideast in a constant uproar, it makes for a particularly interesting read. Herbert must have been eating the prophecy-inducing spice, melange.
In DUNE’s universe, an entire interplanetary culture and economy is addicted to the “awareness spectrum narcotic” melange. The Spacing Guild, which has the monopoly on travel between the worlds, must have it in order to navigate. The Bene Gesserit, a semi-religious order, needs it to fuel their insights and prophetic visions. Ordinary people use it to lengthen life or simply to get high, and eventually need it to live at all.
The spice comes from only one place: the desert planet Arrakis, also called Dune, inhabited by nomadic Fremen who use terms like “jihad” and “hajj” and describe themselves as “sunni.” The galactic powers view the Fremen as pawns to be persecuted and controlled in the chess game for spice monopoly.
Turns out they’re not pawns—the Fremen have secrets. And all it takes is one man, Paul Muad’Dib, the product of the Bene Gesserit’s long-term genetic maneuvering, to catapult them into their proper place in history.
DUNE was published in 1965, ten years before our first “oil crisis.” Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert had published THE PSYCHEDELIC EXPERIENCE in 1964. We’d learned the word “ecology,” which gave resonance to the Fremen’s dream of reclaiming their planet from the endless sand.
It’s definitely a book of its times, with a corresponding tunnel vision. Homosexuals are all distasteful predators. Although Fremen women are skilled warriors, and Paul’s mother, Jessica, is politically adept and powerful, it’s a man’s universe and women are the real pawns. (As I remember 1965, it would have been a revelation that any woman had any power at all. Herbert gets credit for a step in the right direction.)
The point of view is shared primarily between Paul Muad’Dib and Jessica, but we get glimpses into the heads of many others for a fascinatingly varied perspective. Interestingly, though, I can’t recall ever getting into the head of a Fremen—just the “European” types. The Arabs, while sympathetic, are still “other.”
Despite its shortcomings, however, DUNE is one hell of a good time. The action is thrilling, mystical journeyings fun. The world Herbert has built is flawless, the characters rich and varied. There’s very cool “stuff”: ornithopters, Guild space ships, ginormous sand worms, force-field shields, “family atomics.” The desert culture, complete with “stillsuits” that recycle breath, sweat, and wastes into potable water, is a fascinating blend of traditional Arab and sci fi.
Paul Maud’Dib, the hero, is a tad T.E. Lawrence-ish, and his character arc is a bit too much of a straight line for my taste. Overall, though, the characters have depth and variety and—pardon the expression—spice. Jessica may be in my top ten of all time: smart, insightful, courageous, but also deeply human.
Now I’m on to the next book DUNE MESSIAH, in a tattered 1970 paperback that makes me sneeze.