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!
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:
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!