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Review: “Dune”

Books | September 17, 2007

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi epic, and a lot of things have happened in the meantime. Most significant, probably, was the release of David Lynch’s movie based on the book. As is often the case with movies — especially one so visual — readers will probably never again be able to read Herbert’s novel without thinking of the film’s baroque costumes, set design, and aesthetics.

Dune fans are deeply divided on the film. I enjoy it, myself; but on this recent re-reading of the book, I was struck by two things. First, the film does a far better job of following the storyline of the book than I expected it to. But at the same time, the book is a very different creature from the film.

Messianic figures have been a recurring theme in science fiction stories — and, since Star Wars, films. Paul Atreides is no Luke Skywalker, however. Lynch’s attempts to portray the young kwisatz haderach as a heroic rebel leader helped to make Herbert’s characters more palatable for a moviegoing audience, maybe, but this portrayal has little grounding in the original material.

What struck me most about Herbert’s novel, really, is just how cryptic and unappealing all of his characters are. Paul himself is depicted as, by turns, taciturn, arrogant, and emotionless. At the opening of the book, he’s surrounded by his father’s royal courtiers, whom Paul regards with love and respect, as if they were a kind of galactic Three Musketeers. Herbert never fails to remind us, however, that Duncan Idaho, Gurney Halleck, and the Mentat Thufir Hawat is each, in his own right, a ruthless murderer and assassin.

Paul’s mother is a scheming and manipulative power broker. His younger sister is a precocious freak of nature. His relationship with Chani, who becomes mother to his child, seems distant and half-formed. He never marries her; instead, he marries the Emperor’s daughter as part of a power-play. The child dies; Paul figures they’ll have another.

The Clan Harkonnen seems to be universally despised by the Clan Atreides, but are the Atreides really any better? Or is this just a manifestation of a kind of cosmic racism?

And speaking of racism, let’s not forget that the backdrop of the universe of Dune includes a massive eugenics program conducted over thousands of years, the aim of which was apparently to produce Paul. I’m not sure I’d have him over to dinner, but apparently he’s the one thing the universe needs most.

And about that: Is it really true? In the movie we took it as written that Paul was a conquering messiah who freed his people from oppression. In the book, however, Paul foresees the likely outcome of his own ascendancy — a bloody jihad that sweeps across the galaxy — and he secretly struggles to prevent it. Even his status as a legitimate religious figure is in question. Does such a thing as a kwisatz haderach even exist? Or is it only part of the twisted missionary work conducted by Paul’s mother’s Bene Gesserit Order, designed to sow seeds of superstition that encourage uneducated people to serve the Order’s ends?

Toward the end of the book, we’re told that the sinister Count Fenring — a character who does not appear in the movie — is actually an almost-kwisatz haderach, a product of Bene Gesserit eugenics that didn’t quite make it. How are we to interpret this fact? Imagine an also-ran Jesus, writing memoirs about what it was like to hang around with the early Christians, mad that he didn’t get invited to the Last Supper.

Dune is a ponderous book. As I mentioned before, Herbert isn’t writing about characters, as such. His scope is wider — much, much wider — to the point that the plot of the book reads like watching a chess game, one in which you’re never entirely sure of the rules. You’re never expected to sympathize with the players or even understand their moves. Sometimes you’re not even meant to know who the players are. It’s enough to know that a game is being played. As Herbert writes:

In the face of these facts, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that the inefficient Bene Gesserit behavior in this affair was a product of an even higher plan of which they were completely unaware!

Of whose plan is he speaking? We never know. That’s actually the last line of one of the last appendices of the book.

Will I read the rest of the series to see how it turns out? Maybe. I think I’ll have to give the first book a while to sink in. I am pleased to report, however, that Dune remains one of the classics of the sci-fi genre and a worthwhile read.