The noble and dutiful House Atreides must manoeuvre various political traps and intrigues set by their historic enemies, the House Harkonnen. The protagonist is Paul Atreides, a young lord destined to be a great leader of people and entire planets.
Science-fiction novel Dune is about one family’s survival amidst a web of political elites who rule over an interstellar galaxy.
The story is set primarily on the planet Dune, which looks exactly as its name suggests, a barren, dry, hostile, and uninhabitable land that offers its population little respite from harsh conditions.
It’s probably accurate to say this book is considered an epic, the vastness of the story settings, the narrative style used, the coming together of different storylines, all these and more convey to the reader that this is a meta-novel.
Science and Fiction in the 1960s
The array of over 10 books released after Dune further attest to this, with the series achieving acclaimed success as a giant amongst science fiction novels.
The book was released in 1965 when American space exploration was at its zenith and the wider public increasingly consumed ‘popular science’ made explainable by the likes of Carl Sagan, the original Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Brian Cox.
Genre wise, author Herbert moves away from ‘hard’ science fiction which characterised much of early twentieth century sci-fi writing.
‘Hard’ sci-fi are stories that generally focus on the intricate mathematics and physics of space travel, spaceship technology, spacesuit practicality etc. In other words, it’s the type of story written for actual physics know-it-alls.
These novels are a bit like Christopher Nolan films, which artfully combine heartful storytelling with legitimate physics concepts, that require consultation from physicists and academics.
Dune is more of a ‘soft’ sci-fi, which embeds social history and narratives, specifically Islamic narratives around prophecy and messiahs. Amongst the futuristic technologies and all things that make Dune a ‘sci-fi,’ Frank Herbert also developed a sophisticated anthropology complete with a historical past, cultures, religions and prophecies, an imperial ideology, social inequality and a serious climate crisis – the works!
However, where he fails is that Herbert’s writing is belied by various cultural and social assumptions that colour how ‘foreign’ societies are perceived by the hero protagonist.
Much of what is understood by Herbert of Islamic narratives is seen through a lens of cultural essentialism and racial inferiority.
The Fremen are a desert-hardy people. They are gripped by a desperate legend about the ‘Muad’ib’ (messiah), who will rescue them by launching a violent and chaotic Holy War of honour and virtue to reinstate their eminence on Dune.
Despite this regrettable framing, which seems to be drawn from American perceptions of Muslims and ‘Orientals’, I found the world created by Herbert incredibly original and intricate.
Several fictional inventions stood out as highly inventive. For example, a biotechnology called the ‘stillsuit’ designed as an adaptation to the harsh and dry climate on Dune. This bodysuit worn constantly by the Fremen essentially captures the wearer’s bodily moisture (sweat). It then filters it and made available for the wearer to re-absorb via a mouth tube.
Herbert even successfully relays the repulsiveness of the stench and staleness enveloping any Fremen that uses the mechanism.
In terms of its storytelling, parts of the writing felt dated: Dune has a cast of characters who fit very neatly into either the ‘goody’ or the ‘baddy’ category.
The lines are very defined and predictable: the obscenely fat, unctuous and salacious Baron Harkonnen is a clear-cut evil character. Whereas, Leto Atreides, father of the hero is an upright, moral character with ‘dark skin that made her [Lady Jessica] think of olive groves and golden sun on blue waters.’
The stature of the book amongst sci-fi fans had intimidated me from reading Dune for a long time. However, once I actually got into it, I was pleasantly surprised to find the writing is colloquial.
Herbert has a casual writing style, letting the poetry and force of the planet Dune affect its power on readers. A lot of light-hearted banter between characters helps remove some of the stuffiness in this ‘Lords and Ladies’ story.
Feature Film adaptation 2.0
I won’t be finishing it any time soon though, having gotten about 70% of the way through. The things I like from Dune, I enjoyed a lot. However, the lazy veneer of damaging racist tropes proved too off-putting for me.
Having said that, it will be interesting to see how the film will adapt this book for a 21st century audience who expect their Heroes to have a darker side and the Baddies to be a bit endearing. Though I don’t hold high hopes, what with Hollywood’s track record of exoticizing and fanaticising ‘Oriental’ populations… the film might nevertheless be entertaining.