Sunday 17 April 2016

Dune — the Folio Society Edition

Dune is one of the great science fiction novels. Many people would maintain it's the greatest. It's certainly one of my favourites, and I've written about it before.  What has prompted me to return to it is the release of a beautiful new version from the Folio Society.

With original first printings of the hard cover selling for $10,000, I'm always up for deluxe new editions of Dune at a more reasonable price. A few years ago the American bookstore giant Barnes & Noble added it to their range of collectible editions in a leather bound, illustrated hardback. This goes in and out of print, with the price fluctuating accordingly. But when it's available at the standard rate of about twenty bucks it's a tremendous bargain.

However, the Barnes & Noble Dune has been trumped by the gorgeous Folio Society edition, published in 2015. Far from cheap, with a retail price of seventy five quid, this is nevertheless the definitive hardcover version of Frank Herbert's 1965 masterpiece to date, and if you can afford it you ought to splash out.

The illustrations by Sam Weber are impressive — which is far from always the case with Folio Books, which suffer from wildly erratic art direction. Weber's style is sympathetic to the story and there are 12 full colour plates. The Barnes & Noble Dune had no plates, just illustrated endpapers, rather classily using the work of John Schoenherr, the greatest Dune illustrator. The endpapers of the Folio volume are devoted to some very nice maps. And Weber's embossed cover is just a beauty.

But where this edition really scores is with its excellent supplementary text. Michael Dirda has provided a notably perceptive introduction in which he talks about the sand worms surfacing in the desert "like Moby Dick rising from the depths." He correctly observes the parallels with Lawrence of Arabia and notes both are stories of "a young man caught up in a myth." And he makes a fascinating — and fresh — comparison between Dune and Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword.

Dirda is amusing on the "idiotic misjudgements" of the 23 publishers who turned down Dune, is insightful on Herbert's prose style and the way his short paragraphs drive the narrative; he sensibly equates the Bene Gesserit witches with the Jesuits (even the name is an echo) and makes an effective point about a single-product economy when he says "for 'spice' read 'oil'."

I'm seriously impressed by Dirda and I am going to seek out his Conan Doyle biography (a winner of the Edgar Award).

The Folio edition also features an afterword by Brian Herbert. I have the traditional suspicion of a son cashing in on father's writing (Brian has co-written a horde of Dune sequels) but he, too, has some compelling observations. He says his father "spent more time with Paul Atreides than he did with me", suggests that the Beast Rabban Harkonnen is "essentially a fool" archetype and finds an intriguing comparison with Beowulf.

Importantly both foreword and afterword make clear that science fiction writer Sterling Lanier is the unsung hero of the Dune saga. 

As an editor at the publishing house which finally accepted Dune, he was absolutely pivotal in the book getting into print at last
Without Sterling Lanier there might not be a Dune for us to covet in deluxe editions today.

(Image credits: The Folio images are from Gizmodo where you can find an excellent appreciation of this edition. The picture of the Barnes & Noble Dune is from a thread on NeoGAF.)

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