For the uninitiated, Dune is a seminal piece of classic science fiction that spawned a whole series of books - but only six were written by the original author Frank Herbert. Frank's son Brian, along with author Kevin J. Anderson, is still writing and publishing books that take place in the Dune universe. Frank's books are Dune (1965), Dune Messiah (1969), Children of Dune (1976), God Emperor of Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1984), and Chapterhouse: Dune (1985) but this review will take on the first three books which Frank saw as a stand-alone trilogy at first. Frank's death in 1986 left the series off with a cliff hanger and major plot points unresolved. Two decades later Frank Herbert's son Brian and science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson worked together to pick up the series and they haven't stopped publishing since.
The new movie adaptation of Dune was set to be released in September 2020...then October...now we are looking at a release date of 2021 with a controversial release onto HBO for 30 days. This is, without a doubt, the most anticipated science fiction movie released in years, and the delay is naturally frustrating. People left with the memory of the universally panned 1984 David Lynch adaptation of Dune was hoping to see the story done proper justice, sooner rather than later. Instead, we are left to read or reread the books to tide us over.
In March of 2020, I found myself with a load of time on my hands and hadn't started a new book yet. I am a huge science fiction fan but I had never dipped a toe into Dune. It seemed, from the outside, that reading Dune was like trying to read The Lord of the Rings - a lot of work remembering names and places that made no sense. The word epic was used a lot which is an automatic turn-off. I had heard whispers about the movie adaptation, which was described to me as the only bad movie David Lynch ever made and was put off even further (the first part of the Lynch movie isn't so bad but he ran out of time and money so the second half of the movie feels like a montage). Dune was cemented as "cheesy" sci-fi in my mind, and I mostly forgot about it until I began listening to the true crime, conspiracy, and horror podcast, The Last Podcast on the Left. One of the co-hosts, Henry Zebrowski, set out to reread Dune and interviewed Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. After all the Dune exposure, I decided to give it a shot.
(An example of the cheese available in the Lynch movie. This happened, and yes, that is Patrick Stewart cradling a pug as he goes into battle. Dune 1984 - David Lynch)
Ok so we need to go over some Dune ground rules, a sum-up of the universe if you will. First off ...
And that is accurate, 8,000 years of history has passed between now and Dune. In this future humanity is one of many space-faring races spread across multiple planets and systems. You'd assume that the technology would be amazing in this universe and you'd be wrong. Machines with artificial intelligence rebelled centuries before and were eliminated and so there are no computers, enhanced humans fill that role. Space travel is possible only by using a drug called melange or spice. Spice is also used for religious purposes by the Bene Gesserit, one of the religious orders that play a large role in Dune, and is pretty much the most popular drug/food additive in the universe. Side effects include addiction, the whites of your eyes turning blue, the ability to fold space and see the future. Spice is the cornerstone of intergalactic commerce and it is only created on the poor desert planet Arrakis. Arrakis is called Dune by the Freman, the tribe of people living in the deep deserts away from the imperial city.
The Freman wear full-body stilsuits, a suit that collects all moisture that leaves the body to recycle it back into potable water. All the moisture. All of it. The dead are even recycled for their water. The Freman dream is a Dune with farmland, forests, and water. They aim to change to climate over thousands of years. Water is the most precious substance to the desert-dwelling Freman while spice, the most valuable thing in the entire universe, is more mundane. The Freman use the spice in everything, including making paper, fabrics, and ink. There are some other neat things about this universe such as the use of Arabic culture and language. It reminded me of how the crew of the Firefly uses Mandarin - not that the characters of Dune swear in Arabic, but that the culture had become so pervasive over time that large chunks were assimilated. There are also religious orders, similar to Catholic nuns but are now devoted to a centuries-long breeding program among the royalty and teaching vocal weaponry.
BEWARE! SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
Dune is the first book in the Dune series and the one the 1984 and the 2020 - I mean 2021 - movies are based on. The story is of Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, royal consort and Bene Gesserit adept. Duke Leto's entire family and royal house begin the move to Arrakis where they have been reassigned by the Padishah Emperor of the Imperium and Known Universe. The government and language in Dune is very medieval, one way to think about it is space Game of Thrones. There is a ton of royal intrigue, For instance, sending Duke Leto to Dune is very clearly a trap! Paul and his mother are tossed into the desert assumed dead when they encounter the Freman. Paul uses the Freman belief in the Bene Gesserit messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach, and places himself into a position to take Dune back from his enemies while discovering his prescient power.
Paul fits himself into the existing religious and political power structures and is able to exploit them with his abilities. He goes native and joins the Freman to plan his next moves. He is held aloft as a savior by the Fremen and Bene Gesserit but in reality, he is bitter and his motivation is born out for vengeance as much as any love and devotion to the Freman people. The first book is really about building Paul up as the Kwisatz Haderach and revealing in his victories. There is so much more to talk about when it comes to Dune. Frank Herbert really did a lot of work with his world-building of Arrakis and the Fremen. If you want to know what's going on when the movie comes out and be able to complain about it in a smug and knowledgeable fashion I highly suggest reading at least the first Dune book. Rating 10/10
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Dune Messiah picks up 12 years after the events of Dune. In that time the Fremen waged jihad across the system to spread the word of the messiah just as Paul knew they would. Though the power of prescience is impressive, it causes him untold grief as he cannot stop the future, only steer it towards what he considers the least harmful outcome. He has stepped on a path and although it will take everything from him and lead to the death of billions across different planets, he believes he can only cause the least amount of harm possible with his choices. He isn't trying to keep his followers from harm though, only his loved one's matter. We see the conflict between what is good for others and what is good for the self and how that struggle creates the unseen motivations of the leaders we follow. Paul, for his part, is seemingly driven to a horrible end while all the women in his life - his wife, his real wife, and his terrifying sister are too distracted by the business and intrigue of running the Empire while he falls apart. I was pretty annoyed with Paul about halfway through this one and almost abandoned it but I'm so glad I stayed with it. The last two chapters are ::chef's kiss:: Rating 8/10.
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Paul's kids, fraternal twins Leto II and Ghanima, were born at the end of Dune Messiah and are aware with thousands of people's memories implanted in their brains like their aunt, guardian, and regent Alia. Lady Jessica arrives back on Arrakis after escaping and abandoning her two otherworldly and unreasonably powerful children, Paul and his sister Alia, to visit her two otherworldly and unreasonably powerful grandchildren... and possibly kill her abomination daughter if she has the time. Though this one has a bit of a slow start it really picks up when a mysterious/not-so-mysterious figure called the Preacher emerges out of the desert to directly challenge the religion, government, and economy built in the name of Paul Atreides. Leto II and Ghanima, Paul's twins, discover more about their own powers and the failures of their father. The ending is, and I hate this word, truly epic. Rating 7/10
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Frank Herbert considered the first three books of Dune to be similar to a musical fugue. The first book is Paul's meteoric rise filled with victories and then Herbert pulls Paul into pieces slowly over the next two books. It's at the end of Children of Dune that you realize that Paul was powerful but not the fabled messiah if such a person could ever even exist. Instead of being the protagonist in his own story, Paul became the main plot point unable to control what his image and legend had become. The lesson is clear: Beware Charismatic Leaders. At the end of the first three Dune books you really begin to understand that Paul is not the hero, the Atreides family are not the heroes, there are no heroes when it comes to building an Empire.
Now you may have noticed the ratings went down a bit as the serious progressed, but note that the fourth book, God Emperor Dune is widely considered the best of the Dune series and you can't get there without going through the first three.
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