There were two major happenings in science fiction awards in 1966. The Hugos were joined for the first time by a second award, the Nebulas, whose winners are chosen by authors rather than fans. And, again for the first time, there was a tie for the Hugo for Best Novel. ...And Call Me Conrad (better known as This Immortal) by Roger Zelazny won the Hugo, but so did Frank Herbert's Dune, which also won the Nebula outright.
Dune, which will see a second feature length adaptation this very month, has been described as the best and the best-selling science fiction novel of all time. It's also one of the reasons I started this project, because I haven't previously read it and that makes for a pretty huge gap in my knowledge of science fiction. I have seen the David Lynch movie so I am at least familiar with a good chunk of the story, but I'm very happy to have finally read it.
It's an easy book to read, for all that it combines planetary ecology with a messiah story. I think what Herbert wrote was an adventure story, but he did so with such fantastic worldbuilding that it became something much more than that. Most of the book takes place on the dangerous desert planet of Arrakis but we don't start there. We journey, surprisingly slowly, to it from a more recognisable world, Caladan, with Duke Leto Atreides and his family, who are to take over.
At this point, the galaxy is in balance. There's the Emperor, supreme leader of all that's known, protected by a legendary Sardaukar army. There are some other Great Houses, wealthy and powerful families who rule planets and form the Landsraad to adjudicate on inter-house issues. And there's the Spacing Guild, with its complete monopoly on space travel. We show up right as this balance is shaken, initially by the Emperor giving rule of Arrakis to House Atreides as the first move in a chess game that will wipe them out.
But, because this is a huge book, there's a heck of a lot more going on, not least the work of the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood of eugenicists who are set on evolving their special powers through secretive breeding. Their ultimate goal, centuries in the making, is the Kwisatz Haderach, a superbeing who may now exist in the form of Duke Leto's son, Paul Atreides.
There's also the spice known as melange, the core product of Arrakis. It's a crucial substance both to the Bene Gesserit and to the Spacing Guild, as it elevates not just intelligence but other mental powers and makes their work possible. It can only be found on Arrakis, where it's mined at great risk in the desert, and it can't be synthesised, which makes it massively important and massively expensive.
And so begins the intrigue. One thing that surprised me were the excerpts of books at the beginning of chapters, given that they written after the events we're reading about and so constitute spoilers. We learn that this character will be assassinated and that character will be the betrayer, for instance, before any of that actually happens. It might steal some of the mystery out of proceedings but it doesn't strip the tension away. We might know who and what but we don't know when and there are other factors we care about.
Also, while Herbert conjures up an ensemble cast of characters, he takes his time introducing them so that we fully understand who everybody is at every moment, something that many authors have trouble with. Herbert makes it look easy and it allows him time to do his worldbuilding which is surely the most overt success of this book. We're never lost, even as we move from planet to planet, city to desert, culture to culture. We're so aware of each of these that we feel at home in them, almost immediately.
I was also surprised at how soft the science fiction was. It's hinted that a lot of trouble had come from man relying on machines, so that doesn't happen anymore. There are no robots here, just good old-fashioned dumb machines in the hands of human beings. The more complex ones, like spaceships, are given to people who use spice to increase their mental powers. Instead, the powers-that-be rely on mentats, again humans with increased intelligence and focus. The Bene Gesserit have all sorts of training that leads to results that seem mystical. This helps to keep a far future story timeless.
The real science is in planetary ecology, which appears here as a centuries long plan to bring water to the desert. It's background but it's crucial. I adored the irony that Arrakis is the one and only source of spice, the most valuable substance in the galaxy, but on its surface, it's water that's the most precious commodity. Everything about the Fremen revolved around water, from their culture to their technology. I like how Paul learns how to be one with his environment, as that's needed to survive, meaning that the book's title refers obviously to a planet and philosophically to its leading man.
Unlike many far future sf yarns, Earth is never mentioned once, but there's plenty that seems familiar. Herbert builds characters, cultures and religion from sources we recognise, even if none of them appear unchanged. This part is Scandinavian, that Greek and that one middle-eastern. While the religion of the Fremen, the sandpeople, is most obviously based in Islam, it trawls a great deal in from other religions too. What we know moved outwards and grew and changed and evolved.
Herbert has been criticised for having a baroque writing style, but I wasn't ever held back by it. He captured me immediately and kept me all the way. If there's a baroque element to his writing, it may be because the core of the story, stripped down to its elements, feels very familiar from books written by Victorians, like ‘The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire’. Again, Herbert is successful at taking what we know, in this case history, and adapting it to a galaxy far away in time and distance.
Another surprise for me is how simple that story really becomes. Herbert has intrigue everywhere, wheels within wheels within prophecies, but it's easily followed because it really boils down to the Emperor helping the Harkonnens wipe out the Atreides, with Paul escaping the massacre to follow his destiny and become the Kwisatz Haderach, who will gain his revenge. It's odd to find a legendary book of intrigue just a rise fall rise story, but there it is.
While some great and lauded classics disappoint, this one doesn't. It's both of its time and apart from it. It makes sense that it came soon after Robert Heinlein's ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, a title mentioned within the text, as it's another science fiction novel to lean away from traditional elements to mystical ones, drugs, philosophy and spirituality. The focus on water within rituals feels familiar too.
However, Dune has gone on to influence far more than Herbert drew into it. I recognised a lot of things from later works here, whether big ones like the Prize in Highlander or small ones like the semuta music influencing drummers in Alan Moore's ‘Ballad of Halo Jones’. Dune is immensely influential within a genre and without. Let's see if the new movie adaptation increases its range. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For other titles by Frank Herbert click here
For other titles in the Dune series click here
For more Hugo winners click here