Saturday, April 4, 2009

Re-Reading Report: Dune

Frank Herbert. Dune. 1965.

I listened to Dune rather than reading it, this time. I read it back in high school, but decided to revisit it when The Sword and Laser chose it for their April book discussion. It's a classic science fiction messiah story, telling the story of a boy becoming a man and a leader of people on a strange foreign planet. It's an excellent combination of adventure and politics.

That being said, the novel's excellence being commonly acknowledged, and me being who I am, I didn't love the portrayal of women in this novel. Paul's mother being a significant character in the novel is a fascinating choice and I love that, but she was more of a burden on him than a fully-fleshed character. The stigmatization of Jessica (and almost all other women in the novel) as a "Bene Gesserit witch" interested primarily in power and eugenics makes female power seem monstrous in this novel. While our hero Paul's powers are miraculous and messiah-like, his sister is an outcast and condemned as horrific because of her supernatural knowledge. It's a novel in which marriage is primarily an arrangement of political power and women seem so happy to ally themselves with powerful men that they then fall in love no matter how poorly they are treated by those men. Herbert attempts to establish Paul's alliance with Chani as a romantic relationship and to glorify this as love, even though he won't marry her because the relationship isn't politically advantageous. However, Chani is portrayed as a capable Freman equal before she meets Paul, but after they are together she must be rescued and sent away from danger because he loves her so much. She has very little character development except when it is necessary for Paul's character.

Similarly, the true bad guy is lasciviously homosexual in a way that may be vaguely pedophilic, so the novel doesn't offer much alternative to heterosexual patriarchal power. Homosexuality is just another way in which the villain, Baron Harkonnen is evil and horrific.

In addition to the gender problems, Dune is a story of colonization, in which the offworld political powers loyal to the Emperor attempt to dominate and control the Freman native population of Dune. It does reveal some of the problems with this colonization (and European involvement in the Middle East) but it still offers only the offworld ruling class Paul Atreides as the messianic solution to the oppression of the people of Arrakis.

So despite the problematic political overtones, it's a powerful, well-crafted hero story. The portrayal of Arrakis as both obstacle and strength and the development of Paul as he matures are compelling strengths of Dune as a novel. The intricate storytelling kept me interested in reading, and even re-reading (hearing) the story. Overall, I very much enjoyed the story even a second time, and it was a lovely novel to hear read; it felt as comforting as a parent reading a story to me as a child and it was a familiar enough story that it was easy to pay attention while driving and doing housework.

Now I am left with a question: do I continue reading the series? I believe in high school I read Dune Messiah, the second novel, but I believe I lost interest and didn't continue reading the series after that. I don't know if I want to get involved with the saga of the Atreides again, but there's certainly promise of future stories the end of Dune that makes me want to continue. I'm tempted to get the next one as an audiobook, but I find it hard to justify buying the audio of a novel that I could probably pick up used for a couple of dollars and that I should have a copy of somewhere already. What's a girl to do?


  1. I've heard a lot about this one but haven't ever read it. Maybe I'll check it out. Science fiction usually doesn't grab me though. I'm more of a fantasy girl. :)

  2. Em, here's a great article for why sword and sorcery fantasy readers would like Dune: