I’ve just finished reading one of science-fiction’s greatest masterpieces and I’d like to share my thoughts. Dune, by Frank Herbert is considered by most sci-fi readers to be one of the greatest works of the genre ever written. After having read the book I can safely add my voice to that chorus. It does indeed earn every bit of the praise that’s been heaped upon it.
It’s an extremely long work, and that’s one of the reasons I never picked this particular book up in my voracious novel-reading adolescence. I remember seeing it in bookstores all the time, and being intimidated by its sheer mass. Didn’t think a novel that long could hold my interest. Well, I was WAY OFF!!!
The story is set in the future, the far, far future, like the year ten thousand AD or something. Humanity is now scattered all over the universe, on several different planets. They are still connected to one another by a peculiar form of space travel called “folding space.” It’s weird, and only certain people can do it, and as such they wield a great amount of authority over the whole of humanity.
The author turned a lot of science fiction staples on a sweetly ironic bent with this work. For instance, though its set in the far future, the universe is ruled by a feudal system of government, run by an Emperor with Great Houses serving under him, like the old medieval societies of western Europe in the middle ages where a king ruled and noble families pledging him loyalty. Though there are machines aplenty in this future, there are no ‘computers’. In fact, anything resembling a human mind or a thinking machine is strictly forbidden in this future due to a terrible event from the past where an AI like intelligence took over for a while.
The story itself revolves around a young man in one of these two Great Houses who gets swept up in the turmoil created by a feud between his family and another Great House. His family, the Atreides, is nearly destroyed by their rivals, the Harkonnens. The events that follow lead to great awakening in the young man, and by the end of the story he becomes literally the most powerful man in the universe.
I think that the greatest plot device used by the author in this work is what we would call ‘fortune telling’, or seeing into the future. But in the hands of this master author, it becomes more than just a device, it grows into a major part of the character and story. The author examines this phenomenon from all sides, bringing it back every so often to look at it from another angle, all from the viewpoint of this young man, who struggles with it at every turn. Early on he learns the lesson that one decision today can affect ten decisions tomorrow, and so on. Later, he gains an even greater ability to see many futures at once, but this causes him even more turmoil because these also change constantly. And at all points there are some people, places and things that he does not see in the future(s). But in most all of the futures he sees a terrible calamity, and does his best to avoid that particular future.
The machinations of the villains here are superb, though thoroughly evil. The chief culprit, one Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, is the very essence of diabolical. He kills, schemes, and kills some more, even plotting against his own family. Plans within plans within plans is a phrase that crops up more than once. The Baron is the very idea of evil in many ways, overindulging in every way imaginable. Yes, every.
The story has a good climax while sill leaving room for a sequel that the author obviously intended(and did) write. In fact, there are six more novels in this particular epic. Frank Herbert died before completing them all, so the last two were written by his son and a co-author who worked from notes Mr. Herbert left. I’m eager to read the sequel, to see what happens next in the year ten thousand and something.
I was only disappointed in a couple of things about the novel. The author concentrates on strange things sometimes, going off in directions to explain things that might better be done elsewhere. Or not explaining them at all. For instance, we get a whole chapter about what is essentially an ancillary character dying. Not that this particular person isn’t important to the story, he’s essential, but in the end the chapter’s just about his dying of thirst in the desert while a hallucination of his father talks to him about the planet. Now, it’s good information about what this character was about and what he was doing, but it seemed really anti-climactic when he died anyway. And then later, we find out in hindsight that the main character has a son, and the next time the child is even mentioned it’s to find out the child’s been killed. We the reader are never at that scene at all, it’s only mentioned in passing. An odd choice to me, but those are ultimately in the hands of the author, to be respected, and we the reader can only offer our opinion on the choices.
In all, it’s a great book, and well worth the time to read. It definitely makes you think about knowing the future. It turns out to be very much a double-edged sword for the main character here, and it’s easy to see how it might be that way for us as well should any one of us ever find ourselves with that ability.
I’d give it a four out of five stars, or whatever. After all the detailed description that comes with the first two thirds of the story, the last third seems a little rushed. The aforementioned death of the main character’s son, for instance. The climactic final battle is described in what’s about to happen, but then we jump ahead and it’s over. Not what I would have done, but then I’m not a master author(yet). All in all, a great read. Thanx Mr. Herbert!
See You in the Future,