After a couple of marathon reading sessions, I finished Frank Herbert’s Dune. Frankly, I don’t know what to think of it. On the one hand, I could not put the novel down (although I am running behind in the challenge right now, so that might have played a role). On the other, there was some a lot of rolling my eyes throughout these sessions. Okay, Dune predates most mainstream contemporary sci-fi because it was published in 1967. If you’ve seen Star Wars (the old movies … I will not talk about the new ones), reading Dune might seem like Herbert was ripping off Lucas. However, I am almost certain it was the other way around. You have a desert planet, a young hero called to a great destiny, sand worms that eat people, an evil baron/ruler who is physically huge, and so on. Dune has a huge cast of characters, a complicated mythology and history, and a compelling plot line that managed to string me along. The learning curve is initially steep but my edition also included a number of appendixes among which was a handy glossary of terms.
Dune is also a space opera. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, space opera is “by analogy to soap opera or horse opera science fiction with an interplanetary or galaxy-wide setting, especially one making use of stock characters or situations.” Wikipedia is considerably more direct: “space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflicts between opponents possessing advanced technologies and abilities.” Although the book is set mainly on Arrakis, the desert planet the book’s title refers to, it is also about changing relationships within the Landsraad (a council of different aristocratic houses) and the Imperium (an emperor held in check by the Great Houses of which Paul Atreides’ father is leader of one). There is galaxy-wide conflict here as the House Atreides continues its blood feud (kanly) with the House Harkonnen. There is also romantic melodrama in the tension of who Paul chooses as wife/concubine, the issue of his mother’s relation to the duke (concubine but wants to be wife but cannot because of political reason). All this to say that, space opera is probably not my thing. While works in the genre create vast galaxies populated by interesting stories, conflicts, and so on, I feel like my appetite for such work has since disappeared. I used to love space operas as a kid (I may have read the entire Star Wars collection in the local library), I am not sure I like them anymore. Perhaps it is because they take on too much self-importance and lose relevance to the contemporary world (Although there are some interesting environmental themes in Dune that some grad student somewhere has written about I’m sure).
Part of my problem with Dune is structural (I am not interested in investing huge amounts upfront just to understand the plot). But part of it is also the content of the book itself. At one point I groaned loudly because of course, Baron Harkonnen (the novel’s villain) has homosexual tendencies which are alluded to throughout. In 1967 this might have had carried popular weight (gays are evil beings), but in 2013 it just comes across as a gross act of heteronormativity. Although Herbert gives women some roles to play in Dune‘s narrative, I kept having a sense that women were ultimately secondary in the grand scheme of the novel. This is a novel about boys/men fighting with swords while the galaxy hangs in the balance. I briefly scanned where Herbert goes in the other books in the Dune series and he does seem to switch focus to female characters later on, but in this novel it’s all about the men. I am just not interested in patriarchal reinforcement anymore. It is, without a doubt, a key work in science fiction, but it does tend to show its age (a problem that I’m not sure will go away).
I would recommend this novel to sci-fi fans who want to see where many of the big ideas/motifs/themes come from, but I have a suspicion that most fans of sci-fi will have already read this book. If you are not a sci-fi fan, it’s probably best passing on this one.
Herbert, Frank. Dune. 1967. New York: Ace Books, 1987. Print.