Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews

Mar 12, 2011

DUNE CONTEST: WE HAVE A WINNER!!!

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE LAURASAURUS MACHINE!

From the moment you open the book to the instant you reluctantly put it down after melding to a chair for two days, Frank Herbert mercilessly immerses you in a world that more polite folk would call “richly textured” but that I will instead call ridiculously fucking immense. Dune is motherfucking awesome because Dune is an adventure story set in an utterly realistic sci-fi world filled with political backstabbing worthy of the Plantagenets, laced with religious themes (but not of the proselytizing variety), and with just the lightest dash of romance mixed in. By my extremely scientific calculations, there are three main reasons why Dune is motherfucking awesome. Firstly, the universe Herbert created is fascinating, diverse, and terrifying. Secondly, his characters and peoples are not just tropes or simple good guys/bad guys, and the women are capable of great acts of badassery. Thirdly, and most ingeniously of all, it is absolutely a political book with relevance to our politics. There’s intergalactic feudal shenaniganry in the old style (Who’s in with the Emperor? Whose house do you swear allegiance to?), and then there’s economic shadiness and capitalistic corruption underpinning the entire system. Frank Herbert didn’t just write a sci-fi novel – he wrote a political masterpiece through a captivating fictional lens.

I admit I only read Dune this past year. Many people in my life had told me I should read it, and I, ignorant and, at a younger age, still unwilling to dip into the “nerdy” pool of literature, did not. Having said that, here’s why you should read it. Firstly, the world itself is terrifying and enormous. Herbert created an entire universe that contains different planets of varying climates, each with their own culture and distinctive creatures. Arrakis, the planet where most of the novel takes place, has no water. Just think about that for a second. There’s no water. You have to wear this creepy inverse scuba suit that collects all your bodily water lest you waste a single drop. Even Survivorman couldn’t have created the Stillsuit. Household plants are considered deeply
wasteful, as is spitting. Herbert also created creatures to go with his worlds, like the terrifying giant sandworms of Arrakis (which are exactly what they sound like). They can be hundreds of metres long (hundreds! of! metres!), and, as immortalized by Fatboy Slim, the only way to avoid them is to “walk without rhythm so you won’t attract the worm”. Herbert’s universe is a risky one, but it’s familiar enough that the reader can relate to it. Similarly, the weirdly cult-ish Bene Gesserit is a fascinating creation too, as a women-driven and women-centric religious and political group that wields considerable political influence. Yes, their messiah-figure is a man, but it is the women who make up the backbone of what is a really menacing force in this universe (also they have superpowers. Undeniably badass).

Herbert’s characters and people are another reason why Dune is motherfucking awesome. You are supposed to root for Paul, and you do, but if you’re like me you realize halfway through that he’s also kind of a dickbag. Then there’s this one guy who does a really bad, unforgiveable thing (excuse me while I try to avoid spoilers), but you also know he does it because of a person he loves. There are a couple of truly villainous characters, and a couple of truly “good” characters, but for the most part everybody is complicated and fucked up the way real people are fucked up. Moreover the women are BAMFs, plain and simple. See Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, who is a Lady Macbeth-style calculating, powerful, and determined player in the big political games of the book (though with less blood on her hands than Lady MacB). Within the society, Herbert
also created strata and ethnic groups. For example, the native people of Arrakis, the Fremen, live barely at peace with the Imperial lords who “rule” the planet. Their society is highly structured and they work with the restraints of their climate in a way that can only be borne of centuries of adaptation. However, Herbert is careful to avoid many anthropological traps: they are neither the “noble savage” nor the “white man’s burden”, and are instead something more akin to guerilla crack troops who ride the giant sandworms because they’re just that good.

Finally, there is Dune as political metaphor. In this universe, there is a feudal system within an empire. The Emperor rules over the universe as head of the Imperium of the Padishah Empire, and beneath him are various feudal houses headed by different hereditary lords. There is plenty of sabotage, political wrangling, subterfuge, and backstabbing going on between the houses in a style that Richard III could’ve taken lessons from. We see here politics practiced feudally: by who’s in favour with the Emperor; who’s marrying whom (or even fucking whom); who’s cozy with the Bene Gesserit. A second layer of political analysis from Herbert comes in on the economic scale. CHOAM is a corporation that controls all trade within the Imperium (it’s controlled, of course, by the Padishah Emperor). Of that trade, the single most important resource is melange, or the spice, because of its untold health benefits and so forth. The catch is that it exists only on, of course, Arrakis. This is why, while Arrakis is (let’s face it) a shitty planet to live on, it is also a massively profitable fief to be in charge of. So now the question is, what does this have to do with our political world? Ah, dear reader, once you see the pun you can’t unsee it: think Iraq. Arrakis? Iraq? Access to a resource valued by greedy corporations run by a suspect empire? A resource so valuable men will literally kill to get at it? This, for me, is the cherry on top of the Dune sundae. This pun and the corresponding political universe that Herbert
created cannot be accidental. We have here a political masterpiece, a novel about resources, about capitalism, about political wrangling, about access to valuable goods and those who will colonize to get at it. Did I just blow your mind?

So there you have it. My reasons on why Dune is motherfucking awesome. It is unfortunately often pigeonholed into sci-fi, and while it is fantastic sci-fi (and while sci-fi can be fantastic), it also has broad appeal across the boundaries of that category. It is an astonishing book that is neither too esoteric nor too preachy. It is entertaining, political, fantastical, a little bit violent, and a lot awesome. Read it. It will be worth your time.