I probably should have continued on with this series sometime between now and first reading Dune about eleven or twelve years ago. There are elements here which I would have much more easily glossed over in years past, but which stick out terribly now. Still, I feel you have to read a book within the context of its time. I can much more easily overlook or ignore some of the stuff in here since it’s fifty-six years old at this point than I could in a book written even ten or fifteen years ago. But even with all of that sticking out to me this time, stuff I’m pretty sure I barely registered when I first read it, the power of Frank Herbert’s worldbuilding, and the extremely firm structure on which he built his story means that Dune remains compelling, at least for me.
To sum up a complex plot badly: Dune takes place on the desert planet of Arrakis, the only source of the incredible resource mélange—or as the characters call it, the spice—which has psychiatric powers, and provides healing and long life. It is also addictive. The Duke Leto Atreides is sent to take over the governance of the planet by the Emperor, in what is most certainly a move worthy of the Game of Houses/Game of Thrones if those two things were set in space. He brings with him his concubine Jessica, a member of the Bene Gesserit, an order of women who are trained in special arts of the mind, and whose mission focuses on selective breeding and secretive political power moves. They have a son, Paul, who you know right from the beginning of the novel is going to be Super Special.
I definitely didn’t get any of what Herbert was going for the first time around with this book. Like, any of it. I’m pretty sure I read it as shallowly as it is possible to read a book. Super special hero, long hard fought battle, defeats his enemies to become most powerful man in universe. Etc, etc. But there’s really a lot shoved in here, about planetary ecology and the dangers of messianism, about class and power structures, and even gender roles. Imagine what kind of book this might have been had it been written in 2021 instead of 1965. As it’s written now, there’s a hint of grossness about Paul being a man, and specifically being able to do what a woman could not, and being prophesied to do so by women, and there’s also some ickiness where Herbert has his characters define femininity as “taking” and masculinity as “giving,” but there’s also something neat about Paul specifically aligning himself in a gender neutral position towards the end, where he says he is neither taker nor giver. But that hint of neatness died in its infancy for me because Paul becomes so superhuman by the end of the novel, he’s utterly unrelatable.
What makes this novel so readable are the utterly original setting and a handful of characters whose humanity shines through, even as Paul becomes more and more alien. His mother Jessica watches his transformation in a sort of agony, knowing she had a hand in his fate, and all the while grieving for what she’s lost. Plus, the harsh setting makes for the ultimate conflict, and provides an incredibly fertile ground to set a story in.
I’m planning on reading the remainder of the original six Dune novels that Herbert wrote before his death throughout the rest of 2021, hopefully before the new movie comes out, so we’ll see how that goes. I am very curious to see how and if the film updates the dated elements of this story. (I am begging them to take out the homophobia and fatphobia of the main villain being an enormously fat gay man who predates on little boys.)