Reviewed in the United States on April 13, 2020
A Bene Gesserit proverb: “When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way.”
I have to be honest, as a contemporary consumer of sci-fi film, small screen works and books, Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune starts out slow. To be clear, I’m talking about the first half of some 800 pages. The reason why I stuck it out, though, is because I know the saga gets better as it continues (with Children of Dune being arguably the favorite). Known as one of the original sci-fi novels, I approached it like I would any classic piece of literature. And you know what? I’d put Dune in my personal cannon of classic lit because of it’s heavy influence on sci-fi … everything. That’s right, not even Star Wars would exist without Dune.
Herbert, a (sometimes struggling) freelance writer with a passion for ecology and a streak of utopian futurism, wrote Dune when he was almost 40 years old. At the time, sci-fi readers generally liked their stories short but this paperback was almost 900 pages. Not surprising, Dune wasn’t an overnight success but it’s popularity grew in the 1970s and 1980s.
Dune is set in a dry, distant future, where warring noble houses are kept in line by an interstellar empire. The noble duke Leto (heir apparent Paul Atreides’ father), head of the House Atreides, is forced to move his household from their perfectly good home planet to the desert planet of Arrakis (also known as Dune). The climate on Dune is practically inhabitable to the layman. Water is so scarce that whenever its inhabitants go outside, they must wear stillsuits, which capture body moisture and recycle it for drinking (it’s beyond nasty).
In a nutshell, the whole thing is a classic you killed my father and I’m going to get revenge coming of age story. Everything else revolves around the hot commodity on Arrakis, which is basically a very powerful and desired drug: Spice (melange). This cinnamon-scented substance is made from excretions of killer 1,000-foot sand worms (yes, I had a lot of Tremors flashbacks reading this book), gas, then exposure to the sun — but to mine it is very dangerous because said worms don’t like noise. At all.
The drug is crazy addictive but it’s also everywhere in small doses, so everyone that lives on or visits the planet has to stay, or else suffer fatal dopesickness. For empathic people, it helps explore the limits of personal identity and the mind’s relationship to the body. Daily use extends the lifespan by hundreds of years. Paul’s intellectual state (already Jedi-like due to his Bene Gesserit training) is heightened by the spice, causing some pretty spot-on nuggets of wisdom. Fear is a mind-killer.
“Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain,” Paul reminds his mother at one point. While commentary on fear is serious and quite important to ponder, I’m reminded of the advice from the late Patrick Swayze’s character in Point Break: “Fear causes hesitation. And hesitation causes your greatest fear to come true.”
By 1984 we had our very own Dune movie, directed by David Lynch (I’ve yet to see it but to be fair Lynch didn’t even like the cut that was released). Critics say an even better Dune movie came out later: Star Wars. Desert planets, evil emperors, a boy with a destiny, warring noble houses and a princess guarding spice — all things borrowed from Dune. There are mental Jedi powers like the Bene Gesserit, and even moisture farming like the Freman. Academics have written entire doctoral thesis on the topic.
What’s next? Well, I’m waiting for the new Dune feature film to come out (prob not until late 2020), directed by Dennis Villeneuve. A feat that’s proven difficult today due to the original book’s heavy influence on so many well-established sci-fi classics like Star Wars. Consequently, it’s been rumored difficult to get the screenplay right. But in July 2019, Herbert’s son Brian (who co-wrote prequels to the Dune saga after his father’s death) said he’s seen and is pleased with draft four of the screenplay … in the meantime, I’m reading Dune Messiah.
And drinking a tall glass of ice water.