My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Dune, Frank Herbert's epic science fiction novel, winner of many awards and considered by some to be the best science fiction book ever written. Thus, 2015 seemed the appropriate time to once again return to Arrakis, the planet that once mesmerized my reading self.
I first read the book about 35 years ago and it completely captured my imagination.
The world described by Herbert is some 21,000 years in the future and the human race is now living on countless habitable planets. This universe is ruled by a collection of aristocratic Great Houses and they, in turn, owe their allegiance to Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV.
This society has seen fit to prohibit artificial intelligence and advanced computers, and, instead, humans have adapted their minds to effectively become those advanced computers. They are capable of extremely complex tasks, including mental computing.
The Bene Gesserit, a powerful matriarchal group, hopes to further the human race through controlled breeding. One of their number, Jessica, is the concubine and only mate of Duke Leto Atreides. The Atreideses come from a planet called Caladan, a world with plenty of water.
Arrakis is the opposite of Caladan. It is a desert planet, but it produces the most valuable commodity in the empire. That is a substance called melange, or spice. Controlling the production and trade of spice ensures power and wealth.
The Padishah Emperor grants Duke Leto control of the spice operations on Arrakis. Although Leto realizes this is probably a trap, he cannot refuse. He moves his household to Arrakis and the real action of Dune begins.
Many have remarked upon the parallels between the planet of Arrakis (Dune) and the Middle East of our Earth. Both are covered in vast areas of desert. In fact, Arrakis is practically nothing but desert. Both have a plentiful supply of a valuable commodity: Spice in the case of Arrakis and oil in the case of the Middle East. Each has a group of its population that is nomadic. In the case of Arrakis, it is the Fremen, who have adapted beautifully to living on this desert planet.
Duke Leto sees the Fremen as an asset and knows that if he can gain their loyalty, he will have the key to controlling Arrakis. He never lives to accomplish that goal, but his son, Paul, will in time become leader of the Fremen and so much more. Paul, as the foreigner who adopts the ways of the desert-dwelling Fremen and leads them to military victory has overtones of the career of T.E. Lawrence.
The parallels with the Middle East and with Arab and Persian culture continue right through to the language that Herbert gives the Fremen. So many of their words, titles, and names are derived from Persian and Arabic - words like jihad, Shaitan, Mahdi, Bashar, Hawat, and erg. Even the Fremen name that is given to Paul, Muad'Dib, sounds faintly Arabic. It gives one pause to wonder what would be the reaction of the right-wingers if this book had been written in the early 21st century instead of the middle of the 1960s. I expect they might seek to ban it at the very least. It would be called a dangerous incitement to terrorism. Context matters, and the world of the 1960s was certainly more accepting of the Middle Eastern references than many parts of our society today would be.
Dune was the first in a series. Frank Herbert went on to write five sequels. I read and loved them all. His son has carried on the franchise after Herbert's death, but I haven't read any of these later books. As is often the case, I think, the sequels never quite live up to the original. And Dune was original.
Looking at the book from today's perspective, one of the most interesting parts for me is the ecological and environmental aspects of it. The secret that the Fremen carry is that they have a grand plan to change their desert planet. They will transform it into a world more like Caladan, where humans can live in the open without special suits and where water flows on the surface of the planet. They realize that they will not live to see the culmination of their efforts but they have faith that generations to come will enjoy the benefits of their plans.
Today, we have something of the reverse transpiring, where people in power ask why we should worry about global warming. (And, of course, many even deny that it is happening.) After all, we're all right. Who cares about those generations to come? The Fremen would be appalled by such a selfish philosophy.
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