The novel Dune by Frank Herbert had been appearing in discussions with my friends several times in the near past. I ended up watching the Jodorowski's Dune documentary which was insane-and-fantastic. But the announcement of a new Dune movie by Denis Villeneuve and the selection of the book for my book club finally forced me to read and finish this classic.
Dune is widely regarded as the most popular science fiction book of all time! I found it to be a fantasy rather than a sci-fi work, more like LOTR. The book introduces us to the desert planet of Arrakis, which has melange spice, the most precious commodity in the entire world. The Emperor Shaddam IV replaces the villainous Harkonnens on Arrakis with the House Atreides. Despite taking all possible precautions, the Duke Leto Atreides is assassinated and his concubine Lady Jessica and his son Paul are forced to hide in the desert among the mysterious native Fremen people. Paul and his mother end up fulfilling a long-held prophecy among the Fremen, becoming their leader and Reverend Mother respectively. Paul leads the Fremen to battle against the Harkonnens and eventually against the Emperor, defeating both and ends up as the Emperor of this fantasy world.
Fantasy is not my genre, I have tried reading LOTR and GOT and given up easily. But somehow the depth of story telling, the incredible characters and the inhospitable Arrakis, all were so compelling in Dune that I relished reading it. There was a strong GoT Season 1 vibes in the novel with a much beloved Duke Leto, like Ned Stark, moving to take on new responsibilities (becoming the King's Hand) and ends up losing his life to the shock of the reader. And his wife and children end up being fugitives, vowing to return and take the throne. The first part of the book has some incredibly emotional moments with the child-to-man transformation of Paul and the interesting assassination plot.
How the Fremen manage to survive and thrive in the desert, coexisting with monstrous sandworms, dominates part 2 of the book. Herbert borrows heavily from Bedouin culture, Islamic religion, Arabic and Persian words to fashion the Fremen. I especially loved how water is the most precious commodity for them - so much so that they capture every bit of moisture expelled from their body by wearing stillsuits and how they retake the water from any person who dies! Ecology is probably the biggest underlying theme of the book. Both the planetologist Kynes and the Fremen are involved in a centuries-long effort to squeeze out water in the desert and start a green revolution that will eventually make their lives easier.
It is easy to see why this book spawned an entire series of sequels and prequels. In just this first book, Herbert creates a vast universe of inhabited planets and space travel controlled by a mysterious Guild. The Imperial Emperor rules with an iron fist using his dreaded army of ferocious Sardaukar soldiers. Under him are the various Houses, which are in a power struggle amongst themselves. And there is a mysterious sisterhood of witches called the Bene Gesserit (and their propaganda arm Missionaria Protectiva) and human computers called Mentat. There are various space faring technologies, defense technologies like the shield and lasguns and transportation like thopters. This is an incredibly rich world, full of exciting new things, setting a stage that is ripe for many stories. The book also introduces a ton of new jargon, for which the dictionary provided in the appendix was useful.
So yes, I absolutely loved Dune. At about 500 pages, this felt like reading a Dickens classic, felt like a journey of many weeks. And to cash in the investment made into the Dune universe, I might end up reading a couple more from the series. If you have been on the fence, I would highly recommend reading Dune, there is quite simply no book like this one.
"I must not fear. Fear is the 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 I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
"Grave this on your memory, lad: A world is supported by four things ..." She held up four big-knuckled fingers. "... the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous and the valor of the brave. But all of these are as nothing ..." She closed her fingers into a fist. "... without a ruler who knows the art of ruling. Make that the science of your tradition!"
The Duke felt in this moment that his own dearest dream was to end all class distinctions and never again think of deadly order. He looked up and out of the dust at the unwinking stars, thought: Around one of those little lights circles Caladan … but I’ll never again see my home. The longing for Caladan was a sudden pain in his breast. He felt that it did not come from within himself, but that it reached out to him from Caladan. He could not bring himself to call this dry wasteland of Arrakis his home, and he doubted he ever would.
"The whole theory of warfare is calculated risk," the Duke said, "but when it comes to risking your own family, the element of calculation gets submerged in ... other things."
"There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors."
Halleck's words came back to Paul: "Mood's a thing for cattle or for making love. You fight when the necessity arises, no matter your mood."
How the mind gears itself for its environment, she thought. And she recalled a Bene Gesserit axiom: "The mind can go either direction under stress—toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training."
The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called "spannungsbogen" — which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.
She permitted herself to face fully the significance of this other child growing within her, to see her own motives in permitting the conception. She knew what it was—she had succumbed to that profound drive shared by all creatures who are faced with death—the drive to seek immortality through progeny. The fertility drive of the species had overpowered them.