Warning for spoilers ahead!
Dune is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. As its back cover proudly proclaims, it shares the same legendary status as – and even predates – Star Wars, The Matrix, Neuromancer, and Ender’s Game (all stories which no self-proclaimed nerd such as myself should be without, and all of which I have neither seen nor read, but those are for another time). A friend very kindly leant me his copy back in November and I have finally finished it in June. This will give a good insight into my initial feelings for the novel; it has a very slow start, with nothing really happening until about 100 pages in. For a book that’s nearly six-hundred pages, that is actually a fairly reasonable place for the plot to get started, but I found it quite a hard slog to get through that much info-dumping before anything interesting occurs. However, if you’re willing to ride out a lot of terminology and exposition, I think it’s worth continuing.
One of the major themes of this novel is the persistence and toughness of people, explored through both the Fremen and the later revelation about the Sardauker. The exploration of how people might live with the scarcity of one of the materials most fundamental for life is very well-done. There is a marked contrast between the life Paul lives on Caladan (a world rich in water), the life he lives as nobility on Arrakis (where his father is expected to waste water as a symbol of his power), and the life he later leads in the desert as one of the Fremen (where every drop of moisture, from sweat down to the particles released in breath, is precious). The religious and ritualistic significance leant to water in these circumstances is also very believable. This kind of world-building is ever so much more enjoyable than the clunky exposition the novel is guilty of at the start of the book, and occasionally later on, and helps to create a very rich universe in which the characters and settings really come alive.
Speaking of religion, this is another very prominent theme in the book. Not only does Paul become a religious figure himself, fulfilling all the usual prophesied chosen-one criteria (though the novel uses this to criticise the religious fervour into which this puts the masses), but the Bene Gesserit are shown to use religion greatly to their advantage through the Missionaria Protectiva, a nurturing of superstition so that they will be safe in any backwater community in which they might end up. It is the Fremen religion, however, that is most interesting to me, with the sandworms being referred to as ‘makers’ and revered as if they were deities. The repeated idea, both through events and description, of the power that a mixture of religion and politics might have is also very interesting.
One of the reasons Paul is revered is for his god-like powers of prescience, brought about by a mixture of the mystical Melange spice, and both Bene Gesserit and Mentat training, the Bene Gesserit offering great understanding and control over oneself and others and the Mentats a way of calculating the outcome of future events. Add in incredible combat training and he’s nearly invincible. Talk about an over-powered main character. This could have been very annoying as a plot point, with Paul able to predict everything and thus never facing any problems, but thankfully he is not omniscient. The story does a good job of making him unable to predict things at the right moments. There’s always a chance that things could go unfavourably, and it even helps to build tension when Paul knows that there will likely be a negative outcome to actions he must take. I also liked the fact that he tried to change some of the things to come, a very human thing to do, such as the tiny variation of adding ‘Paul’ to the adopted moniker ‘Muad’Dib’ which he rightly predicts will be revered by the Fremen. This is all in aid of his attempts to avoid the jihad (an interesting choice of wording) marching in that name for generations to come. He realises at the end that this cannot be avoided and that it will happen whether or not he survives the fight that is the climax of the novel.
A sense of failure pervaded him…
This is the climax, Paul thought. From here, the future will open, the clouds part onto a kind of glory. And if I die here, they’ll say I sacrificed myself that my spirit might lead them. And if I live, they’ll say nothing can oppose Muad’Dib.
This realisation marks a big change for Paul’s character, as it in fact shows his failure, despite his apparent success. The plot itself leaves one to wonder what the point all was. Paul has opened the way to his sitting on the imperial throne, as we knew was his aim from fairly early on, and Arrakis is slowly being terraformed, but what was the real thrust of the plot? It was essentially all about a young Duke taking back his dukedom and becoming a religious leader and emperor of the universe. I’m sure this is great for those who believe in the (divine) rights of the nobility to rule. Sure, Paul is nobility who roughed it for a while, but he does complain about it and makes sure everyone knows he has a claim to the dukedom. The book’s seeming advocacy for both imperialism and the class system is a little bit of a let-down, I have to say, when it could have been about the Fremen taking back control of Arrakis (and not just through Paul). Ethics aside, I’m also just not a huge fan of politics being the biggest part of a plot, unless it’s used for character work to great effect.
Paul himself is a bit of a distant character. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice because of the way his powers make him distant from those around him, but it did mean that it was difficult to empathise with him at times. This combined with the above unfortunately had the effect that I didn’t feel very invested in either Paul or his mission. He is characterised mostly through contrast to Feyd-Rautha, Paul’s cousin and enemy, who fights using trickery and has killed a hundred drugged slaves by his seventeenth birthday, while we get to witness Paul’s first killing and the difficulty he has in going through with it. As Paul’s time goes on amongst the Fremen, his views on killing become more like theirs; he sees its necessity, but never goes so far as to take pleasure in it.
One of my favourite characters was Liet-Kynes, whose enthusiasm for his dream of terraforming Arrakis and hard-won yet steadfast loyalty made him eminently likable, but he was unfortunately dead before the plot really got started. There were other good characters, however. Stilgar is wise and wary of Paul at first; his eventual “lessening” into yet another worshipper of Muad’Dib was an interesting and sad development. For a 1960s novel, it also has some surprisingly good female characters in Jessica, Chani, Alia, Harah, and Lady Fenring. However, it does fall foul of some misogynistic writing tropes.
I always find old sci-fi novels interesting in the way they usually predict the amazing advance of technology and yet fail to recognise the incredibly old-fashioned societies they’ve created. Although women can enjoy some social status as religious leaders in Fremen society, and the Bene Gesserit witches are not only very powerful individually but are also one of the three most powerful organisations in the universe, women in the Dune universe are essentially owned by men. Among the Fremen, women are won in combat and the winner can either choose to have them as a lover or as a servant, and it is perfectly possible for a man to have several women at once. Stilgar kindly reassures Jessica that women are not taken against their will, and then disturbingly adds that for her “that convention isn’t required”. Among the nobility, the norm is for them to select a Bene Gesserit whom they will either marry or have as a concubine (of which they again might have many). This choice is not down to the individual woman, but the organisation of Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers, who have a Plan. The Bene Gesserit are repeatedly said to exist only to serve, whether this is to serve their men or the Reverend Mothers is unclear, and neither is much better than the other. The breeding mission of the Bene Gesserit, although it puts the collective of women in charge, essentially renders them walking wombs. The purpose of this? To create a man who will join their order and, in virtue of being a man, will be twice as powerful as they are. In addition, daughters are explicitly described as a curse by the Princess Irulan, who also expresses how her life’s training has been leading up to her being married off for political gain:
We denied him a legal son. Was this not the most terrible defeat a ruler ever suffered? My mother obeyed her Sister Superiors [in only having daughters] where the Lady Jessica disobeyed. Which of them was the stronger? History already has answered.
This misogynistic and heteronormative world is archaic, and something I certainly hope the future won’t resemble, though I suppose the backwardness is in line with the rest of the Dune societies.
Speaking of heteronormativity, the queercoding of villains is another thing Dune falls foul of, and it does it in a big way. If you aren’t aware, there is a long history of villainous characters (especially male ones) being implied to be gay or generally queer, mostly by making them effeminate or implying same sex attraction, especially a threateningly-portrayed attraction towards the main male character. We are all very familiar with the flamboyant, lisping or foppish villain. Think of the Disney characters Scar and Jafar, or of Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock, or of Bond villain Raoul Silva. One example of a merely queer-coded character in this book would be the Baron Harkonnen’s Mentat Piter, who is repeatedly described as effeminate. Now it’s one thing to do this, but Dune goes the extra mile by making the odious baron Harkonnen himself explicitly gay and almost exclusively interested in young boys. The first time this is made clear, he instructs one of his guards to drug a boy for him because he doesn’t “feel like wrestling”. The baron then fantasises about this boy who apparently looks just like Paul. So we have a gay threat towards the main character, characterised through the rape of a drugged young boy. The fact that it’s the homoerotic rather than paedophilic nature of his predilections that are portrayed as an insight into his hideous character is quite uncomfortable. He later angrily replies to a suggestion that he acquire a Bene Gesserit that “you know my tastes”. (Given this, it is somewhat confusing as to how he “permitted himself to be seduced” so that he might have a secret daughter, but this is a very minor point.) Of course, this isn’t to say that there are no bad people who are also LGBT+. However, this is such a persistent trope and very often the only characters who are even hinted to be queer are villains (remind me again of how progressive Disney’s first “openly gay” character is). Thus, while it doesn’t entirely ruin a work, it is always a little disappointing. Of course, I have to give Dune the usual product-of-its-time pass for its misogyny and homophobia, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important to note, nor that they have no impact on my reaction to the book.
The way I’ve written this review makes it seem like I really disliked Dune, which isn’t true. I have a lot of criticisms and I’m afraid I don’t think it was anything truly remarkable, though it certainly deserves a lot of credit for inspiring many remarkable things, but I did enjoy it quite a bit, especially the last half or so. The world building was wonderful and shows a lot of potential for further stories, of which I know there are several. I loved the Bene Gesserit and the way their powers are described. Jessica’s ability to exactly read the emotions of others seems unbelievable at first, but as time goes on and as Paul begins to be capable of the same thing, the way their brains work becomes more clear and one can actually tell how they pick up on certain things. I don’t think I can quite justify four stars for Dune because of the flaws set out above, but it was an enjoyable book in many ways and I may well try one of the others in the series. In any case, I think this will be the longest book I read for a while!