Fiction Reviews


(1965/2007) Frank Herbert, Gollancz, £7.99, hrdbk, 609 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08150-5


For those you do not have it, this 2007 reprinting of Frank Herbert's 1965 SF classic, Dune is arguably the edition to get out of the many in recent years. More of this later.

Dune is undeniably one of science fiction's mid-20th century landmark books. In fact I suspect many aficionados would have it in their top ten of 20th century SF titles. Indeed back in the 1980s it came second in Concatenation's all-time best SF poll conducted among our readers of the then print edition of Concatenation as well as those attending one of the UK national SF conventions. Not surprisingly it won the Hugo Award for 'Best Novel' in 1966 (actually co-won it with This Immortal by Roger Zelazny) and it alsoaccrued a Nebula Award. If only for these reasons alone surely this novel has to be considered, and has an entry in, Essential SF. So what about the story?

In the future humanity has spread to the stars. Each of the major settled planets belongs to a clan or 'House' and, through these Houses, ruling over all the planets is the Emperor. However the Emperor does not have it easy. Some of the Houses have the potential to take control of the Empire and all the Houses to some degree or another are competing rivals for power, influence and favour. So the Emperor does the obvious thing and keeps inter-House rivalry just ticking over so diverting effort into that rather than any attempt to usurp him. If all this were not difficult enough to manage, humanity's spread to the stars and coherence of the interstellar empire is dependent on mutated/evolved humans of the Spacing Guild. Guild members can physically warp space and so enable interstellar travel. However their ability to do this is enabled by a substance called 'spice'. Spice itself cannot be synthesised and is only found in one place, the desert planet Arrakis or Dune. On this world it is associated with the giant sand worms and can be extracted from the desert

In essence the afore is the dynamic Herbert established that underpins this novel. There is the triumvirate of the Emperor, the Houses and the Guild with spice and Arrakis fundamental to their collective functioning. The novel Dune concerns two competing Houses one of whom takes their turn over another in managing Arrakis for the good of the Empire. However the House standing down is a longstanding competitor (to the point of being an enemy) of the House taking over. Meanwhile on the Dune planet of Arrakis the native Fremen await the coming of someone to lead them out of their basal position within interstellar affairs. Given that they too have a close relationship with spice production, and that also in the mix is a sisterhood who derives (not the extreme space-folding abilities the Guilders have but) quasi-precognitive abilities from spice, the story emerging from this novel is rich and exotic indeed.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of a complex, many-stranded, and unfailingly rich plot that spawned an entire series, beginning with Dune Messiah (1969), then Children of Dune (1976), God-Emperor of Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1984), and Chapter House Dune (1985). There are those who believe that in general the quality of these novels declined as the series progressed. Indeed the less said the better about the further spin-off novels published after Frank's death, but what is undeniable is that Dune itself has stood the test of time being almost continually in print and so is truly worthy of the term 'classic'. Therefore it was not surprising that eventually this original novel was transferred to the big screen as Dune (1984), directed by David Lynch, and starring Kyle MacLachlan (as Paul Usul Muad'Dib Atreides), Francesca Annis (as his mother and Bene Gesserit Jessica), Jurgen Prochnow (Leto), Dean Stockwell (Dr Wellington Yueh), and others including Max Von Sydow (Dr Kynes), Patrick (Star Trek: The Next Generation) Stewart (Gurney Halleck) and Sting (Feyd-Rautha). The cinema release was lengthened for a Japanese TV, but Lynch (who had filmed all dialogue from the book and needed money to edit together a 5-8 hour version) was not consulted and had his name removed from the credits. There was also a Dune TV mini-series (first broadcast 2000) starring William Hurt (Leto), Alec Newman (Paul) and Saskia Reeves (Jessica), and a Children of Dune mini-series (first broadcast 2002). These series had extremely good viewing fgures.

Now regulars to this site expect an occasional comment on the science in SF. So here it is. Dune was written as an environmental novel. While the Dune planet of Arrakis has an exotically imagined (but nonsensical) ecology, the story is one of how human relationships can be affected by dependence on natural resources and how this in turn can lead to conflict and war. Such a perspective is not unusual today, but remember that back in the mid-1960s it was uncommon. Frank Herbert consciously wrote Dune this way and indeed the book is dedicated by the author to real-life ecologists. This is great. What is not great is that a few overly enthusiastic SF critics have claimed that the ecology in Dune stands up to real ecological scrutiny. This is balderdash. Dune is a work of science fiction. It is truly a great work of SF, however it is SF. Whatever value the tale has in nurturing an environmental perception in readers, it cannot be said to provide any meaningful insights into real life ecology. This is not to say that real ecologists will not like the book, some if not all of my ecological colleagues who read SF thoroughly enjoy it, but they do so as a work of SF. Yet over the years I have heard a number of so-called SF academics blather on about the realistic ecology in Dune to the extent that they flaunt their ignorance of ecology. This is a shame – if not embarrassing – because, as you will guess with a site called The Science Fact & Fiction Concatenation, its core contributors recognise the value of SF's interface with science. As a bioscientist, with perhaps just a modicum of expertise in biosphere science, I do find this stretching of Dune's (I freely admit considerable) worth irksome and so feel compelled to nail this particular science flag to the mast. Rant over.

Now Dune has deservedly sold exceedingly well over the years. Even so some 40 years have passed since Dune had its heyday of sales. Nonetheless it remains a book that every self-respecting SF reader should have on their shelves. If you have not or, if like me, your own copy is now rather battered, then this is the time to invest in Gollancz new edition. Indeed there are three additional reasons to plumb for this new printing. First off, it is a paperback-sized hardback with a rather nice John Schoenherr cover illustration of a sand worm. Second, the font is larger than many of the paperback printings of the book's first two decades which was on the small side: back then SF novels on average had far smaller page counts than today. Finally, at £7.99, the current price of a paperback, it is exceptionally good value. So I welcome this Gollancz edition, and you might want to seek it out too.

Jonathan Cowie

The writing of this review was assisted by notes from Tony Chester and informed by an old conversation with another biologist on the team.

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