Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Book review: Dune by Frank Herbert

X-posted at Cannonball Read IV

The standalone novel Dune (first of the series of Dune novels) is, in brief, about Paul Atreides and his mother, Lady Jessica, who survive the organized massacre of the House Atreides. Initially from a lush, resource-abundant planet, the House relocates to Arrakis to take control of the spice trade. Spice, or melange spice, is an all-important substance in Dunes Universe — in some individuals it unlocks supernatural mental abilities; for most other individuals it is a psychoactive drug that also extends life. Their tenure on Arrakis is short lived, and Paul’s father, the Duke and head of House Atreides, is killed, along with the majority of his men. Both Jessica and Paul have prescient abilities and powerful physical control through training, and can use their superior understanding of human nature to influence others. Their empathy and unorthodox abilities land them securely amongst a community of Fremen — desert natives of Arrakis with valuable skills of their own. Eventually, Paul emerges as a religious leader of the Fremen, with Jessica also holding an important spiritual post in the community.

I am a fan of science fiction, and by the end of this novel I certainly was able to appreciate why Dune is a venerable classic. The world Herbert creates is at once fantastical and tangible; it’s like nowhere you’ve ever been, but you imagine it as easily as if you’d lived there yourself. His characters are also compelling. One easily pictures the Lady Jessica: regal, quietly powerful, respected, but also made vulnerable by the equal parts fear and love that she feels for her son. The Fremen are aliens, masters of the desert, with odd and potentially grotesque rituals — like harvesting bodies for water, a scare commodity on Arrakis — and at the same time, unflinchingly loyal and driven to survive, like many humans we know.

I’d recommend Dune to anyone. Newcomers to sci-fi may feel like they are being thrown into the deep end, as Herbert wastes no time diving into the mystical and metaphysical aspects of his Universe. Some editions, including the one pictured, have a glossary of terms which people may find helpful (I did.) As with truly good science fiction though, despite the oddities of the universe this novel inhabits, this novel is truly about humans, their relationships to each other, their relationships to their environments, and their roles in time.


  1. Someone once told me that spice could be thought of as a metaphor for oil, just a thought. Do you plan on reading the rest of the series?

  2. In a purely political sense, spice and oil are analogous, but I can't say that during my reading I really made the connection, since it's such a supernatural entity.

    I'm not sure about the rest of the series. I have several other books in my queue, and after those I may go back to the series. I've read synopses of the sequels though and based on plotlines alone, I'm not sure that I find them as compelling as the first novel. But we'll see; I'm open to it.