At the climax of Frank Herbert's Dune, The Duke Paul Atreides, transformed into a Messianic figure capable of peering into time itself, has his long-telegraphed battle with the cunning Feyd-Rautha, na-Baron Harkonnen. It takes the form of a stripped-down knife fight, but Herbert manages to fill the battle with intrigue and excitement, describing feints within feints, elaborate deceptions, genuine surprises, and pervasive uncertainty about the outcome. Few writers are capable of delivering on such a climactic battle, especially as it is preceded by nearly five-hundred pages in which the two combatants never meet, but Herbert's words are hypnotic and the entire battle is a perfect microchosm of the sprawling universe he birthed.
I'll be honest; I've been putting off reviewing Dune for quite a while now, not because I lack any love for it, but because it seems unfair to hammer such an enormous and important thing down to a mere nine paragraphs. It is one of the greatest science-fiction epics ever written, and it has maintained a prominent place in popular culture ever since it was first published in the mid-sixties. On the spectrum of speculative fiction, it does fall more on the fantasy side than the science-fiction one, but it still has its roots in the science-fiction space operas that preceded it. Think of it as The Lord of the Rings by way of Flash Gordon.
Herbert very cleverly side-steps a lot of futurist science-fiction stereotypes by doing away with computers altogether, explaining that humanity will eventually renounce them and put them away as dangerous tools that can never be a match for the ingenuity of the human mind, choosing instead to rely on technologies that are bizarre and arcane, bordering on magical (in full compliance with Clarke's Third Law). In that sense, this is a post-post-apocalyptic future, one in which the robot uprising happened centuries ago and humanity triumphed.
One of the paperbacks
In this distant future, mankind is more concerned with mastering the human mind. Whether it be through the honing of mental "computer" skills by the mentats, the manipulated evolution through breeding of the Bene Gesserits, or the concentrated effort to bend space to man's will by the Spacing Guild, several factions of humanity are working on various ways to increase their own power of mind, and they all, to one degree or another, rely on the mysterious spice to further their efforts.
Herbert, however, is unambiguously skeptical of power, and everyone who seeks it is, to one degree or another, ruined by it. Even Paul, the semblant hero of the novel, has to sacrifice much in order to overcome his enemies, the Harkonnen, the Spacing Guild, and ultimately the Emperor. Though the ending feels like a happy one, Herbert has infused Paul's journey with intimations that his victory will bring ruin in the future, that no matter what he does with his power, there will be dire consequences. Even within the boundaries of the novel, Paul loses his father and his son, and it is clear in the final moments that his friends and family are now more distant from him, treating him more as a messianic leader than a fellow human being.
I'm aware of the parallels between Dune and the Middle East, between the spice melange and crude oil. I know that a lot of the story mirrors that of T.E. Lawrence. However, to reduce Dune to its most obvious allegory is to strip away its richness. Herbert was writing about more than just the charlie foxtrot that is the Middle East; he was also interested in ecology, in the human condition, in sociological gender dynamics, in Eastern religion (especially Zen Buddhism), and in the general politics of power.
The classy cover
If Dune must be about just one thing, then, it is this: power, by necessity, always corrupts. Even the Duke Leto Atreides, who is shown in the closest thing Herbert has to a perfectly noble light, has lost a touch of humanity in order to be the man he is. Unable to marry the woman he truly loves, unable to fully trust in anyone, and always having to measure his words and actions through an esoteric mental calculus, his follies are, by the end, mirrored almost exactly in Paul.
But if it were just defined by its themes, Dune would not be as enormous. Herbert also demonstrates an adeptness with plotting that is hard for even literary masters to achieve. He very carefully balances predictable plot beats with wholly subversive ones, keeping the audience on its toes to just the right amount. The closest writer I can think of to Herbert's skill in this area is William Shakespeare. (And trust me as an enormous Shakespeare nerd that I make that comparison without hyperbole.)
Distilled to its purest form, Dune is one of those timeless tales that, through a magical mixture of myth-making, storytelling, world-building, and philosophizing, has become permanently ingrained in our collective consciousness. I have no doubt that, a hundred years from now, people will be reading it alongside Moby Dick and Homer's Odyssey, treating it as the literary treasure that it is, a book that has, like Muad'Dib himself, trancended its trappings and become something far more than the sum of its parts.
I'm going to be spending the next several weeks on Dune, so come back soon for reviews of the film and television adaptations, alongside Frank Herbert's sequel novels!
-e. magill 11/28/2019
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: