Dune – Frank Herbert – first published – 1966 FIVE minus TWO stars. (different to THREE stars )
Dune has been labelled by many as the best science fiction book ever, has a starry eyed fan following, and was first recommended to me by a primary school teacher who has an intense interest in science, science fiction and teaching. In spite of that, and the fact that the book has been on my bookshelf for around ten years, I never read it. For one thing, I am wary of reading books which have an indiscriminate fandom. Fans who seem to like things because they are “just so great!” Or “amazing!” or any other things that define a following but not the followed. Other than the long ago met teacher, those who recommended Dune to me seemed to me to be more of the starry eyed kind rather than the nerd. Nerds are great because they can defend and discuss their background research and solidify their appreciation in a way I understand.
I started reading Dune without any expectations, just curious. My on-his-way-out-of-adolescence son recommended (insisted) that I read it as he wishes us to continue our family tradition of watching science fiction movies together when the new Dune movie comes out in 2020. He said it would be better to read the book before we saw the movie. I am glad I did. I did end up giving it four stars. A better rating would be 5 stars minus 2 for the anti feminist shades. It is surprising, because in the 1960s feminism was a surging heard all around the world. More on this in the spoiler alerted section.
The story works within the parameters of young adult fiction, which is how I would categorise it. There are strong elements of mysticism threaded with scientific imagination, interwoven within superstition which makes the premise seem like real life. Intelligent, rebellious youth trained in martial arts, the sciences, mind and body control meets destiny to become a religious leader. It is an old story (no shame there) retold with an endeavour to unify the various arms of knowledge and wisdom mankind may gather. It is easy to fall in love with young Paul and follow his growth into a religious leader who is also a political head of government with a fanatical following. It is easy to recognise his wisdom, and understand how difficult it is for his followers to see the glitz and not the conniving and the heartbreak behind the life which Paul must lead. It is easy for the reader to root for the young, wise one who sees his own glamour and his pitfalls equally clearly, but eventually makes decisions based on what would be good for All.
The “Litany Against Fear” – perhaps holds the strongest appeal for today’s young adult reading this book. Standing on the brink of adulthood, faced with an uncertain and unseen future, expected to make choices about education and career about a life yet unseen, this would be a strong mantra to draw strength from –
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
This is not a new concept. Anyone who is familiar with ancient philosophies, has seen meditations about overcoming fear in some form or the other. It is placed perfectly in a story about an adolescent trying to bring sense to an adult world, therefore, it grips the imagination. It may even be helpful to memorise, for the so inclined.
Another quote – nothing new in itself, but good to be found in a story which grips popular imagination.
“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.”
I have taken two stars away from the perfect rating for the two following reasons.
1. According to the Bene Gesserit legend, the saviour of mankind would be “Kwisatz Haderach”. He – note the pronoun – would have powers that no woman could ever have because a woman could look into the Truth everywhere but one place. The Kwisatz Haderach would see the whole truth because he would see where woman could and more. This is a not so subtle acceptance that a man is capable of more than a woman because a woman has limitations which a man does not. I have no idea whether Frank Herbert intended to convey this message. If it is unintentional, it is worse, because it reveals a hidden belief, and thus the more dangerous.
The story has many powerful women who are pivotal to the plot, but they are secondary to the Kwisatz Haderach, by decree – of the author. The mother, without whose training Paul would not have been ready when the need arose, the lover who stood by him through the wars, the sister who was more formidable than an adult in her knowledge, understanding, and skills, the wife whom he accepted and who immortalised his story with her gift of the pen. They all exist but to advance the job and fame of the Kwisatz Haderach, not for their own brilliant space in the legend.
2. The last paragraph of the book-
“Think on it, Chani: that princess will have the name, yet she’ll live as less than a concubine—never to know a moment of tenderness from the man to whom she’s bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine—history will call us wives.”
Paul marries Irulan to ensure his position in the Imperium. He promises Chani that Irulan will never know a moment of tenderness from him, and she will be his only love. I do not know what the future books will bring, but Jessica’s comment makes my blood run cold. The idea of Jessica and Chani to be remembered as wives, not as the Reverend Mother or the woman who fought an equal battle at the side of Paul seems repugnant. The implication that Irulan is less than Chani, or Jessica, the concubines who were more beloved than wives, because she is a pawn, albeit willing, in a political game, and because she is never going to feel her man’s tenderness is so outrageous, that I nearly rated this book a zero star.
There is a subtle undercurrent of, if not precisely of misogyny, an insidious undertone of men and women being not quite equal, that is unsettling.