Monday 24 November 2008

Book Review: Frank Herbert – Dune

Throughout my teenage years I was hooked on the books of James Herbert (I DO NOT recommend these books to fellow Muslimah’s – ahem). Right next to them on the library shelf was a fat book called Dune by Frank Herbert which looked interesting. I meant to take this book out – but I kept getting way-laid by the pulp horror of James. Until recently that is, Long-Suffering Sister had a copy and asked me if I would like to read it. As James has tried to go all high-brow and lost some of the gore-factor of his books, I decided to give Frank’s book a go. I’m glad I did.

I am not a major science fiction fan, but those sci-fi novels that I have found to be any good have often been amongst the best books I have read (The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids both by John Windham and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley amongst others)

Frank Herbert’s Dune is set some 20,000 years in the future and centres around the aristocratic House Atreides – one of many royal houses affiliated to the Imperial Emperor Shaddam. Fearing the growing popularity and power of the House Atreides, Shaddam gives the house responsibility for the hostile desert planet of Arakkis (the only known source of the spice melange that enables space travel and various religious rituals). Arrakis was previously the responsibility of House Harkonnen, the enemies of Atreides who use the inter-planetary move to plan an attack against the Atreides. The book follows the politics and intrigue of the great houses and the fate of the sole heir of the Atreides Duke Paul.

Juxtaposed with this is the story of the fierce desert-people of Arrakis called the Fremen and the women of the Bene Gesserit school who are married into all of the great houses to help preserve the royal bloodlines (Paul’s mother Lady Jessica is a Bene Gesserit). These women undergo rigorous mental and physical training in order to influence the houses they marry into and there are curious references around them relating to religion, myth-making and mind-over-matter.

Alongside these are the CHOAM corporation which manages the Imperial economy, the Spacing Guild which monopolizes space travel, Mentat’s or master assassins, the Imperial Guard called Sardaukar and the prison planet Salisa Secudus. Confused? A lot happens in this book.

One of the things I fund curious was the author’s use of Arabic and Islamic terminology: Kul Wahad, ulema, ummah, shariah, ilm, auliya, dar al-hikman, hajj, jihad, sayyidina. Today, we might be tempted to be offended due to the obvious Islamophobia that abounds, but you have to remember that this book was published in 1965 before these were buzz-words were common and are used mainly by the Fremen who are portrayed almost as noble savages of a kind.

I have read an interesting comparison of the war between Atreides and the Imperial Emperor and his allies the Harkonnen, with the Middle East and its Oil and the West. I don’t know how much truth there is in this comparison, but if that is the case, then Herbert was ahead of his time. The Fremen of Arrakis certainly often reminded me of Bedouin and the spice melange could be an analogy for oil.

In any case, this was an absorbing and enjoyable read. You certainly come to care about the fates of the main protagonists and the book is fast-paced and exciting. Occasionally I felt that the novel went off into la-la land – talking about prana-nervature, awareness spectrum narcotics, the panoplia prophetica and hypno-ligation of the psyche. At times like this, I longed for the characters to come back to earth (or their planetary equivalent) and get back to the action.

Dune has often been called the best science fiction novel ever regularly topping sci-fi book lists. I am not sure whether I agree, but Herbert certainly creates a fully-formed alternative world complete with every kind of political, social and economical system intact right from the beginning of the novel and he does so with some skill. My curiosity has certainly been piqued enough to look for the prequels and sequels to this book.

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