Dune

Well, here is my first book review, on a classic of Science Fiction.

Dune, by Frank Herbert, is one of the most widely read and famed science fiction books of all time. It explores topics that vary from ecology and politics to religion, sociology, and technology. It also offers a glimpse into a world that, similar to Tolkien, is complete, imaginative, and compelling.

Dune follows the ascension of Paul Atreides from a young noble boy, to his eventual installation as the religious leader of a future Jihad. He travels with his family to their new  protectorate of Arrakis, a desert world where the all important spice, melange, is harvested. It is here where his father is killed and his mother slowly driven mad through the attacks of a different noble family and the emperor. It is also here that he is recognized as the coming messiah by the native people of Arrakis, as he works to adapt himself into their culture as more than an outlander.

Dune is written in such a way as to evoke a somewhat historical feel, as if it were a memoir. Opening each chapter is a quote either from one of the characters or a religious text, offering a philosophical or religious idea which is brought into focus by the following chapter. Many of these come from a text know as the Orange Catholic Bible, an amalgamation of religious texts, some of which sound familiar to us, while others are foreign. The fundamental commandment of the Orange Catholic Bible is “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul“, a somewhat enigmatic saying, that coupled with the general technophobic underpinnings of the document, most notably in that higher level computational devices of any kind are taboo, reveal a worldview that is very different than the one in which we currently inhabit. 

The world of Dune itself, originally known as Arrakis, is a dry, desolate globe of sand and rock. Water is vanishingly scarce, sand storms lethal, and the sandy areas infested by giant  sandworms.  Aside from a protected spaceport and the surrounding town, the world is only inhabited by the mysterious Fremen, a group of zensunni wanderers, similar to the Tuareg or Bedouin groups that live in the Arabian and Saharan deserts of earth. The entire economy is based around the extrication and transport of the all important Spice.

Spice, or melange, is a brown cinnamon flavored substance that is found in the sandy areas of Dune. It has a wide number of different properties, many of which are incredibly useful, especially in a non-computational society. It can heighten awareness, induce a limited telepathy, permits the ability to traverse the space between stars nearly instantaneously, and extends life and vitality. As such, the society cannot survive without it, as it permits  a government to extend between stars.

What becomes really interesting, however, is the complex interactions between characters and their environment, as well as seeing what the constraints on computers has effected on the society. In a way, Dune is a very timely critique of our current technological society. Herbert offers us alternatives to the way we do things now. They are not all pretty, and the world that he shows us is one still dark with sin and with many of the same problems that we now face, but that also looks at the world in a vastly different way than we do now.

Dune also works to reveal some of the more interesting aspects of human religion. While Christianity is not much mentioned, and indeed all of the religions presented are either new or derivatives of older ones, religion is viewed as being something not altogether tamable. The line between explainable phenomena and supernatural experience are fuzzier, rather than clearer as society progressed.

While the story of Paul Atreides is compelling and interesting, it is the setting and the background that really catches the heart and the mind of this book. For anyone interested in sociology, ecology, or comparative theology, or who has a liking for science fiction, Dune is a must read, and well worth your time.

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  1. December 30th, 2013
  2. January 1st, 2014

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