Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune’s cover gives it a lot to live up to. The front proudly proclaims the novel as the Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards. While on the back Arthur C. Clarke, no less, boldly claims that it is the Science Fiction equivalent of Lord of the Rings. I was certainly intrigued to see if it lived up to all the hype.

The duke of the Atreides has been sent to the desert planet of Arrakis by the emperor. His task is to oversee the mining of spice, one of the most valuable commodities in the galaxy. However the Duke is aware that the appointment is only a front for the emperor and his mortal enemy the Baron Harkonnen. The duke believes he can turn the situation to his advantage but is quickly proven wrong, his house is almost entirely wiped out and he is killed. His son Paul and his wife Jessica escape and live among the native desert dwelling people who believe Paul is a Messiah type figure. Jessica herself is a powerful member of an all women religious society and had a son against that orders wishes. But it is hinted from the very first pages that Paul could be a messiah for that order as well. Paul bides his time waiting for the opportunity to restore his house.

I can see where the comparisons with Lord of the Rings come from. The World building (or I suppose in this case universe building) is very impressive. The political and religious systems are highly elaborate and a great deal of thought as gone into the ecology of Arrakis. Interestingly character view point can change multiple times during a chapter (A style of writing that I’ve only seen echoed by Elizabeth Haydon). Rather than being jarring it is a great tool for giving the reader more of an insight into secondary characters. Each chapter begins with a quote from various books on Paul most often written by Princess Irulan, who is a minor character that only appears near the end of the book. This was quite a clever way of introducing the reader to a character obviously intended to play a larger role in subsequent books. The characters are generally well realized and convincing with one notable exception; Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He is painted far too much as a stereotypical villain to be convincing. He is so fat that he needs machinery to support his weight, he molests little boys and with the book coming out during the cold war period it is obvious that the name ‘Vladimir’ was deliberately chosen for this purpose as well. I was almost surprised there wasn't a giant sign pinned to his back saying 'I'm the evil villian so you should hate me.' What’s more is his plans don’t tend to make a great deal of sense. He invents a substantial amount of wealth into bringing down his arch-nemesis the duke but doesn’t really seem to benefit from it and it doesn’t seem to aid his ultimate goal of having one of his descendents become emperor. So all in all he comes across as a complete idiot and I seriously doubt this was the author’s intention.

Overall Dune is an enjoyable read which seems to have stood the test of time but falls short of being a masterpiece in my opinion. Perhaps I would have gotten more out of it if I had read more Science Fiction but then again who can tell? 7.25/10

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