Second Review (February 12, 2011)
Dune is a classic because it tells a classic story well. It combines two plots that I love: a vast political intrigue with an intimate family conflict. The Atreides and Harkonnens are related by blood; their feud is a blood feud going back generations. Yet their battles are political in scale, using vassals as soldiers and spies in an interstellar chess game where the throne of the Imperium itself is within reach.
In my first review, which I crafted hastily one day when I added this book to Goodreads, I pontificated on the role of science fiction as a setting rather than a genre. Frank Herbert chose to set Dune far into the future and across the galaxy. There are spaceships, shields, lasguns, and of course, the all-important spice. Yet, I argued, this changes nothing. Dune is not a classic work of science fiction; it is a classic, period.
I stand by this, and while I do not want this review to be a rehash of the first, I want to elaborate further. It has been at least five years since I last read Dune, and I knew going into this reading that I would see it differently, since I'm now an adult, with more experiences and more science-fiction books under my belt. Though nominally science fiction and science fiction and fantasy in its setting, at its heart Dune is an epic, a tragedy reminiscent of ancient Greece and pre-Enlightenment Europe.
House Atreides and House Harkonnen are embroiled in a bitter blood feud, and now that feud seems to be coming to an end in the form of a political gambit by the nefarious Baron Harkonnen that results in the destruction of Duke Leto Atreides, his family, and his new fiefdom on the desert planet of Arrakis. Backed by the Emperor, the Harkonnens seemingly wipe out House Atreides and re-assume control of Arrakis, the only planet known to produce spice. Spice is a panacea known for its geriatric properties, but more importantly, it is the only substance that gives Spacing Guild navigators the prescient visions required to navigate through folded space. Without the spice, interstellar travel would be limited to relativistic speeds. Hence the oft-repeated mantra: whoever controls the spice, controls the universe.
Aside from the occasional mention of sandworms and spaceships and lasguns, this could be set in Tudor England or fifteenth-century France. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV does exactly what kings of old used to do; he pits his nobles against each other so they do not succeed in uniting to depose him. His downfall comes from underestimating House Atreides and the Fremen inhabitants of Arrakis who align themselves with the fugitive Atreides scion, Paul, also known to them as Muad'Dib. He becomes a messiah for the Fremen, a dangerous figure indeed, and in so doing discovers he has triggered a revolution he cannot fully control, even with his newfound powers as the Kwisatz Haderach, the culmination of a Bene Gesserit breeding program.
I paid more attention to Paul's role as a messiah this time around. When I was younger, I didn't fully understand the ramifications of this role. (I remember rejecting Dune Messiah the first time I tried to read it because "it seemed to religious"!) Thanks to the two Sci-Fi channel miniseries that rekindled my interest in Dune, these ramifications are much more obvious. They inform the rest of the story, acting as a pivot point around which crucial events revolve. Paul's role as a messiah accords him great influence, great power—but as a role, it also restricts his choices as much as his visions of the future does.
What's amazing is how close Baron Harkonnen comes to winning. Paul might have chosen to live out his days among the Fremen rather than win back his dukedom (and more), but he doesn't. Jessica even urges him to do this at one point, but it is clear the decision is less Paul's than it is the Fremen. They were set upon this path long before the Atreides came to Arrakis, back when Pardot Kynes and his son, Liet, commenced a centuries-long ecological transformation plan. They hate the Harkonnens perhaps as much as Paul does, are eager to raid against the Harkonnen forces, so they wouldn't take "no" as an answer; if Paul were to take the safe course, he would not find acceptance among them. Finally, Paul-Muad'Dib is their messiah, the Lisan al-Gaib. There are prophecies about him, and having demonstrated his authenticity as the messiah, he must fulfil them.
Above all, Paul states several times he rejects the "temptation" to take the safer path. That's how his prescient visions manifest themselves—as potential paths the future could take, always twisting and snarling and reforming as each choice he makes changes that vision. He sees safer routes, but these, he says, lead only to stagnation. These are the routes the Guild navigators take, which has resulted in the Guild morphing into a parasite on the back of the Imperium. Having acquired prescience, Paul sees the potentialities for the human species, and he realizes he has the ability to effect change. But he has to be careful, because to know the future is to become trapped by it, even as one changes it.
I guess I just have a soft spot for tragic heroes. I like watching heroes fall, because it reaffirms their humanity by the very fact that, despite their larger-than-life actions, they are flawed. This is important when it comes to Paul, because as the Kwisatz Haderach, he has become something posthuman, more-than-human. He is colder, slightly more divorced from his surroundings, because he is mediating both the present and the many-futures. It would be a mistaken to say he is disconnected, though, for it is clear he still loves and cares for Chani; rather, he is heavily burdened by his roles and responsibilities. We don't see his actual fall in this book, but the seeds of it are there—as Irulan says, every revolution carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. Herbert foreshadows the trials Paul will face: the uncontrollable storm of revolution; his increasing alienation from those close to him, like Gurney and Stilgar and even his mother; and of course, opposition from external forces, such as the Bene Gesserit and the former Padishah Emperor.
A great hero deserves a correspondingly great villain, and the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen certainly fits this description. He is an intriguing counterpoint to Muad'Dib. Like Paul, the Baron is depicted as somewhat inhuman, but in his case it's because of his obese figure and his profound cruelty. This guy has his nephew murder the entire house seraglio as a punishment for discovering his nephew's crude plot to murder him! He will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and his wants are many, varied, and perverse. His flaws, however, get the better of him. As a result of his overindulgence and his arrogance, the Baron ignores the real threat—the Fremen and their messiah, Muad'Dib—while spending too much time counting all the riches he'll have and plotting to make his nephew emperor. His downfall is as much his own as it is Paul's (or, as the case may be, Alia's).
So Dune has a great hero and a great villain. It also has plenty of morally-ambiguous characters who span the spectrum between. Jessica Atreides and Thufir Hawat fall into this category. Jessica was supposed to bear a daughter for the Bene Gesserit, who would in turn give birth to a Harkonnen son who might become the Kwisatz Haderach. They did not expect her, out of love for Duke Leto, to give birth to a son; they did not expect Paul's latent psychic abilities to come into full force through ingestion of spice. As a result of this act, Jessica irrevocably alters the Imperium. Though she claims she never regrets her decision, it is obvious that she struggles with her role as a Reverend Mother among the Fremen and how she influences Paul's actions. She is torn between being a mother and a Reverend Mother, between her son and her leader, her new duke.
Hawat is captured by the Harkonnens while still labouring under the false impression that Jessica is a traitor. Reluctantly, he works for the Harkonnens while seeking a way to destroy them. In this role as a captive Mentat, we see Hawat become trapped, unable to destroy his new patrons but unwilling to forgive them or abandon his desire for vengeance. His manipulations of the Baron and the Baron's nephew bely his supposedly tamed status, but he has lost some—perhaps even most—of his edge; he is broken, if not beaten.
I'm not sure what else I can say about Dune. It is a classic and a masterpiece because it takes a form and formula that are timeless and lays over this framework complex characters who struggle against each other and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Paul Atreides is a duke's son who becomes a desert fugitive, a reluctant warrior, and the figurehead of a revolution. Surrounding him are friends and family who soon begin to slip away, and enemies who underestimate him even as they plot to destroy his life and all that he holds dear. It's a story we've told time and again, but Herbert puts it in space, throws in some sandworms, and adds a little spice. Consequently, Dune stands on the shoulders of stories that have come before it, attaining its greatness because it is something both recognizable and unique.
First Review (When Added to Goodreads, Last Read Pre-Goodreads)
Many people hear the words "science fiction" and run away in terror. They labour under the erroneous idea that science fiction must some sort of fantastic space opera in which there are laser blasters, warp engines, teleportation, and all that jazz. Thanks in part to Star Wars, Star Trek, and the improvements of the special effects industry, science fiction is reduced that narrow category.
So what is science fiction? Science fiction is a setting, not a story. And no book better demonstrates this than Frank Herbert's Dune. Yes, Dune is set in the future (the distant future). Yes, there are spaceships, other planets (in fact, Earth isn't around any more), and bizarre things like prescience. But once you accept these and move on to the actual story, you'll find that it is an epic, dynastic tale of political intrigue. It's set in the future, but the environment is distinctly feudal. Frank Herbert incorporates a dazzling array of motifs, such as religion, drugs, ecology, rebellion, and prophecy.
Whenever I read Dune, I can't help but think about how big it is. The Dune universe operates on such a magnificence scope that it's hard to believe it came from the mind of one man. The story is timeless, because it is about the human condition: betrayal, love, murder, avarice--all of the characters exhibit the best and the worst of human emotions. In fact, Dune is devoid of alien intelligences. This isn't about humanity versus the Martians. It's about human versus human, one person pitting his or her intelligence against another. It's about the sacrifices necessary to achieve power or save a loved one.
Dune is a classic, a masterpiece of fiction, regardless its genre.