The Hugo Project: 1966 – Dune

06 May

Previously on the Hugo ProjectTHIS BOOK IS GREEK.

I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. This is our second week devoted to the Hugos of 1966. This week we’re off for an extended stay the desert planet Arrakis, better known as Dune. Yes, that Dune. We’ll be here for the entire month of May, exploring the spice-bearing sands of Frank Herbert’s harsh and deadly planet, so safety first! Please keep your stillsuits fastened tightly and your maker-hooks well seated in the scales of the Shai-halud as we journey on through sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!


Frank Herbert
serialized in Analog magazine in 1963 and 1965
expanded novel published by Chilton Books in 1965


Millennia after humankind has colonized the stars and renounced computers, galactic civilization is dependent on the spice melange, which can only be found on the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Amidst the political, religious, and genetic machinations of the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit, the Padisha Emperor, and the royal families of the Landsraad – including the fearsome House Harkonnen – the members of House Atreides travel to Dune to take control of the spice mining and rule the native Fremen. But young Paul Atreides, ducal heir, will find much more than harsh sand and political enemies. For he is the Kwisatz Haderach…


Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!

I didn’t want to like Dune. I’ve enough pointless teenage rebellion left in me that my initial reaction upon hearing something is “the world’s best-selling science fiction novel” is to think, I bet it’s not that great.

Yes, I know it’s stupid. I blame too much exposure to the iconoclastic genius that is G. B. Shaw.

Anyway, this book is really, really, good. I don’t love it the way I love Stranger in a Strange Land – it doesn’t evoke the same deep emotional feelings – but it is intricate, and well-thought-out, and there’s a lot going on here. Too much for one book, in fact, which is why I’ve now got to go read a whole bunch of other books (such a tragedy).

With so much going on, it’s hard to know what to write. My initial draft for this post read: THERE’S SAND AND STUFF. I know, I’m so deep.

I do find the world that Herbert has created fascinating, if a bit confusing in places. It takes place in the far future, so the culture developed from Earth culture. Which leads to some odd usage of familiar words and names, like jihad and prana and Idaho. Even the Bene Gesserit sound like they’re supposed to be the good (bueno, buono, bon, beneficial, beneveolent…) Jesuits. Except, you know, they’re chicks. And whored out as part of a genetic breeding program allowed to have sex.

Then again, if Herbert hadn’t been borrowing current (if occasionally obscure) terms, he would have made up even more words than he did, and the thing would just be unreadable. In the words of xkcd‘s Randall Munroe:

Alt text: Except for anything by Lewis Carroll or Tolkien, you get five made-up words per story. I’m looking at you, Anathem.

You’re walking a fine line, Herbert.

I did find the (beginnings of an) exploration of the nuances of religion vs. superstition vs. prophesy quite engaging, and will be interested to see how those themes continue to develop in the following novels. Probably the biggest surprise for me in the novel was the treatment of ecology, and the tension between the Fremen’s reverence for the great sand worms and their desire to destroy their habitat to make Arrakis more hospitable for humans. I’m not sure how they plan to drastically alter the biosphere and yet keep the worms (to whom water is poisonous) alive.

There’s just far too much in this book to talk about, and we have a whole month of sequels and film adaptations ahead of us, so let’s move on to the social equality review!

Race: Everyone seems kinda white. Which is weird. According to the appendix of the edition I read, the Fremen came from Northern Africa-ish originally, so maybe they’re non-white. And are the ‘flattened features’ of Duncan Idaho supposed to indicate Asiatic ancestry? Certainly the members of the nobility are all have characteristics which are more common among white people (fair skin, eyes). But for all of that, there’s plenty of use of terms stolen from Arabic and Persian and Sanskrit – languages primarily spoken by non-white people. I can’t decided if it’s a really clumsy attempt at global cosmopolitanism or just a bad case of “ooh that word is cool let’s steal it” cultural appropriation.

Gender/Sexuality: Hey there are chicks in this story! Well, some. More than most of the other Hugos to date can boast, at least, and we even get to read some of the novel from Jessica’s perspective. We have gender essentialism to the extreme – only male rulers, or Mentats, or Sardukar; only female Bene Gesserit. At least the Bene Gesserit are extremely powerful and generally kick-ass…except that the individual who’s even better and Bene Gesserit stuff than all the Bene Gesserits is a man. Because women are allowed to be awesome at something so long as a man is ultimately more awesome than they are.

The female characters are well-developed, and strong. The problem is that, no matter how powerful and capable they may be, they are always subject to a man, be it father, son, brother, or consort. Jessica and Chani and even Irulan are all pretty darn awesome, but they seem to have no problem with the fact that their first duty is to the men they love (or were fathered by). Even the Reverend Mother is obsessed with finding the – male – Kwisatz Haderach. Because the first thing in every woman’s mind must always be a man.

Then there’s Duke Harkonnen, who is just generally a cruel and nasty person. Oh, yeah, and he’s also the only gay character in the book. Because SUBTLETY. It’s not even like his homosexuality is mentioned once in a by-the-by sort of way; we are constantly reminded that he likes to do unspeakable things to pretty little slave boys.

Other: Which brings me to the other part of Duke Harkonnen’s characterization that bothered me. Duke Harkonnen is fat. Like, really fat. So fat he needs anti-gravity suspensors to help him move around. There’s nothing wrong with having a villain who happens to be fat – but there is a problem when he’s the only fat person in the book. Because GAY PEOPLE AND FAT PEOPLE ARE SCARY AND BAD AND GAY FAT PEOPLE ARE EVEN SCARIER AND BADDER. The Duke might even have been a good villain, but every single scene mentioned either his gayness or his fatness (usually both) to the point where I wasn’t even paying attention to the rest of his character. Even now, just thinking about him makes me want to smack Frank Herbert across the face. Repeatedly.

Epic stereotyping fails of epicness aside, it really is a good book, and definitely worth reading. We’ll see how far I get in the rest of the series before my righteous anger overpowers my curiosity and respect for Herbert’s worldbuilding.

OVERALL RANKING: 10 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).


Don’t forget to tune in next Monday for the 1984 theatrical take on this novel…featuring Sting in a metal bikini! You don’t want to miss it!


Posted by on 6.5.2013 in Books


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8 responses to “The Hugo Project: 1966 – Dune

  1. Joe

    7.5.2013 at 8:10 am

    I enjoyed the review- but I have a few comments in defense of Frank.

    “Everyone seems kinda white.”
    I disagree. Although the Atreides are Greek and the Harkonnen are Russian, the Fremen (arguably the focus of the book) are Arab. Practically all of the “made-up” words in the Dune series are taken from Arabic (most are miss-spelled versions of Islamic words).

    About the Baron being fat and gay-
    In interviews, Frank stated that his decision on the Baron’s characteristics were to create a negative connotation to his audience. The reason he made them Russian was because of the Cold War. At the time homosexuality was still a very undiscussed subject (this was pre-AIDS) and made most people uncomfortable. Keep in mind that the Baron wasn’t just gay- he was a pedophile. The Baron’s fatness communicated to the reader that he was a hedonist. So, these traits were a time-appropriate way to make the ‘bad-guy’ seem bad and probably greatly added to the book’s success at the time.

    “Even now, just thinking about him makes me want to smack Frank Herbert across the face. Repeatedly.”
    You should read the rest of the series. In later books, Frank emphasizes that the Harkonnens were not evil at all but acted as they did as a manner of circumstance. To quote God Emperor, Leto II thinks:
    “How like a Duncan. They measure all evil against the Harkonnens. How little they know of evil.”
    Later in the same book, Frank explores homosexuality, specifically in the military. The book deals with both gay men and lesbians- as the ‘good-guys!’ I think Frank deserves some credit for back-tracking on using stereotypes in that manner.


    • Myriad

      7.5.2013 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks for the counterpoint! I appreciate the different point of view, and the opportunity to think a little more about mine.

      I’m only partway through Dune Messiah at this point, and you can be sure I’m paying attention to how these things develop. I hope that Herbert evolves as both a writer and a person on these issues, and will certainly applaud him for it if and when he does.

      But it doesn’t change or excuse the incredibly offensive nature of his characterization of Duke Harkonnen. Fatness and heterosexuality may have been ‘time-appropriate’ indicators of evilness, but brown skin and practicing Islam are ‘time-appropriate’ indicators of evilness today, and the use of these stereotypes in fiction* frustrates me just as much as this character does. Aside from the fact that it’s just weak storytelling, it is incredibly damaging to individuals who happen to share the ‘evil’ characteristics.

      Herbert has done a lot of awesome things in Dune, and I hope he will do even MORE awesome things as the series progresses. But I’m still going to hold him accountable when he deserves it.

      Once again, thank you for the reply! If you haven’t noticed, I enjoy discussing this sort of thing 😉

  2. dawnofthenerds

    9.5.2013 at 3:38 am

    I really really wish I could enjoy Dune more than I do. I’ve tried to read it twice, and I have made it all the way through the first book, but I just get bored. And the gender essentialism and *mysterious mystical women* ideas kinda grate on my nerves. I want to try it again though. You mentioned the intricate worldbuilding and exploration of how religions form and how that can be manipulated and stuff, but may I ask what it was that made you love the book? I want to try to look for that myself and see if I can finally see what I’m missing.

    • Myriad

      12.5.2013 at 7:49 pm

      I’ve been trying to explain it to myself and coming up short. Obviously the gender essentialism and overuse of the word ‘witch’ are super-annoying, but the fact that I like Jessica helps mitigate that. I also really like the world that Herbert has built; the first part was not so intriguing, but once the action got to Arrakis I was hooked. I love that he’s thought deeply about and built an entire culture around the extreme lack of moisture on the planet. And I think it’s interesting to watch the unfolding of prophesy through the eyes of the chosen one. The awareness of Paul and Jessica, and their perspectives on the prophecy/destiny/superstition as they come to life around them was really fascinating for me. Going along with that, the juxtaposition of Irulan’s histories (clearly written well after the story takes place) with the action itself was an clever touch. I like the way Herbert manages to make the events seem like things-that-are-happening-now and things-that-happened-before/things-of-myth/things-that-were-always-meant-to-happen all at the same time. Kind of like the good old BSG quote: “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again…” The way Herbert plays with time/history/myth really adds to other themes and ideas in book – at least for me.

      Also, I managed to read this one in a few large chunks – I don’t think it’s a good ‘chapter-before-bed’ read. There’s too much going on and too many intrigues to keep track of; better to just let yourself get lost in the story for a hundred or two hundred pages at a time.

      …I don’t know if that’s any help at all; I was just very impressed with the feeling I got of the depth of the book, if that makes any sense. At WisCon this year there’s a panel about trying to explain why your favorite books are your favorites…clearly I should attend since my skills in this area are lacking.


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