Here I am following up my earlier post on Dune by Frank Herbert... I had thought, a tad optimistically, that I'd said all I needed to say about this excellent novel. After all, one post was enough to wrap up other childhood favourites like Watership Down and The Hobbit. No disrespect to those masterpieces — I'm not sure that I don't actually prefer Watership Down to Dune, in terms of pure storytelling — but Herbert's book deserves and demands further exploration.
At over 500 pages, Dune is longer than either of those novels. But that isn't why. While all three books represent detailed creations of imaginary worlds, Dune is more packed with ideas than the others. It reflects — or perhaps anticipates — such major 1960s concerns as ecology and mind expanding drugs.
The ecological aspects of the book come across in Herbert's loving description of the desert and the power and detail of his imaginary world. Everything on Arakis is detailed in terms of water and its scarcity. ("The flesh belongs to the person but his water belongs to the tribe.") I've never forgotten the stillsuits, the ingenious garments the Fremen wear to preserve and recycle the water of their bodies. And then of course there are the giant sand worms and their mysterious relationship with the hallucinogenic spice.
Which brings us to the druggy aspects of the book. At times Herbert's prose is positively trippy: after Paul drinks the Water of Life "He felt that his head had been separated from his body and restored with odd connections. His legs were remote and rubbery... Paul felt the drug begin to have its unique effect on him, opening time like a flower."
Elsewhere in the book, the elaborate political intrigues are also rather well handled — "Feints within feints within feints." In stark contrast to, say, the science fiction politics of The Star Wars movies which, to this viewer at least, made no sense at all.
And as I touched on in my last post, Dune is memorable for some beautiful descriptions, usually related to the desert landscape. When Paul is waiting tensely for an attack to commence "He felt time creeping like an insect working its way across an exposed rock." Or dawn on the desert: "A faint green-pearl luminescence etched the eastern horizon." Or this evocation of a storm: "The horsetail twistings of blown sand could be seen against the dark of the sky."
Indeed, the climactic battle of the book takes place in the same kind of eerie storm light that presided over the rabbits' escape from Efrafa in Richard Adams' Watership Down. Brilliant stuff.
But the single most striking thing about Dune on this re-reading was Frank Herbert's prescience. He anticipated certain aspects of our modern world with disturbing accuracy. When he talks of his desert warriors with their prophet, religious fervour, suicide commandos, and holy war it now gives us a chill. The fanaticism of the Fremen has taken on an unsettling new dimension. When he writes "His people scream his name as they leap into battle. The women throw their babies at us and hurl themselves onto our knives to open a wedge for their men to attack us," it has an effect on the 21st Century reader that Herbert could never have anticipated.
This both strengthens the book and undermines it — events in the real world have rendered Dune simultaneously more relevant than ever, and less pleasurable to read.
(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads. They include Polish, Spanish and French editions. The first illustration is of the rather handsome Barnes & Noble leather bound collectible edition. A couple weeks ago this was available for less than twenty dollars. Now it seems to be out of print and greedy profiteers are charging about a hundred bucks for it. So it goes...)