Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dune, by Frank Herbert

Book cover, featuring the worm of Arrakis Dune, a mega-classic of sci-fi books, written in 1965 by the ecology obsessed Frank Herbert, tells the story of a future world that is dependent on the substance known as spice, of a vast stellar empire led by an emperor and the noble houses and shaped by religion. Dune is the first in a series of six books, each one increasing the level of "epicness" of the story. There is no way I can do justice to the book in my review, it is that good and that complex. All I can say is that I've read it every ten years from the time I was 15, and every time I read it, I interpret it differently. This also shows how different we are at various ages.

Anyway, I was saying that Frank Herbert was obsessed by ecology. I am saying this after reading all of his books a while ago and noticing the pattern. The Dune Wikipedia article claims that this book was the result of events that started Herbert's interest in ecology, while he was working for the Department of Agriculture, trying to stabilize sand dunes using plants. Herbert is also the author of brilliant books like the Pandora series or like Hellstrom's Hive, which for many reasons, I consider a masterpiece as well. However most of his books and short novels feature some interest in ecological systems.

The story is set twenty millennia into the future. As it was written in the sixties, it had to solve the problem of exponential technological advancement that was obvious even then. How can one write a book about the future, when the future moves so fast? Herbert solved it in a simple way: he imagined a world where humans rebelled against the use of intelligent machines, for religious reasons, thus removing computer advancements from the equation. Also, in order to solve the issue of ever evolving weaponry, he imagined a world where energy shields were cheap and small and could be used personally or on buildings or ships; these shields would stop any object or energy moving fast enough. This reduces battles to hand to hand combat, with knives and slow needles that can penetrate the shield. It's not like Herbert had all the answers: there are obvious technological devices that would have rendered this version of a shield useless, as well as clear reasons while perfect control over technology could not have been enforced. But the way he envisioned this future world, where everything important was the human being - as a thinking, feeling, believing creature - made it close to timeless.

Now, the plot is vast and the beauty of the book is in its minutiae, not in the overall story. This has been proved, I think, by the way people have received the 1984 David Lynch film adaptation versus the 2000 version. The first took "poetic licence" to change the story and make it more script like, but preserved the feel of the book, with the interior dialogues, the epic scenes and careful attention to minor details. The 2000 adaptation was completely faithful to the book in the way of following it scene by scene, but the lack of attention to punctual details made it unappealing and bland. There is a project called Dune for 2014, maybe that will give us another point of reference. So I will not talk about the plot and let you discover it for yourself. Enough to say that it is a great book.

It is important for me to talk about the difference between my personal interpretation of the book at different ages. When I was 15 I thought it was a glorious story of personal achievement, where Paul Muad'dib and Leto II were becomes gods by the sheer power of their thoughts and feelings. At 25 I thought it was a deep analysis of human interaction, of how logic, emotions and belief clash to mould our beings. And now, at 36, I feel like the book is brilliant, but I can read between the lines, see how the structure of the story was created from various sources; a bit of the mythos has lost its power, but gained more respect. If at 15 I was identifying with Paul and at 25 I was dreaming to become Leto II, now it's easier to me to identify with the likes of Gurney Halleck or even Feyd Rautha Harkonnen. I am not saying that I like them more, I just feel I gained more insight into the other characters. I say it again: Dune is a book of details (without being boring with them).

I cannot end this review without mentioning the Dune video games. I spent many an hour playing the adventure game Dune and many a day playing Dune II, the real time strategy game that was to inspire all others in the future. The game was so primitive that the controls were not designed for ease. Each unit was controlled individually and had very little autonomy, the result being that one rarely had time to blink when many units were constructed. This prompted my father to take me to a mirror and show me my own eyes. They were red and irritated. "Oh", I said, " it's from the spice!".