Let me tell you about a planet far, far away in a time so far in the future that Earth is a distant memory. It’s a desert planet where mighty spacefaring wizards ride fantastic beasts through the sand. Where despite high technology, battles are still fought with blades and shields. The feudal system has somehow stood the test of time, and a band of scrappy rebels must resist an all-powerful totalitarian emperor.
Is it time to cue John Williams? Send yellow text scrolling into the distance over a backdrop of stars?
No, it’s not. That won’t happen for another twelve years. I’m describing Frank Herbert’s Dune, released in 1965 before George Lucas even graduated film school. So I think it earns the title Star Wars Before Star Wars.
Giving it room to be old, which is something you have to do for old books or else not read them at all, I enjoyed this read. Let me start off with what I didn’t like and get it out of the way. I never found that I related closely enough with the characters to particularly care who lost his father or who was manipulated from birth by a clan of witches to become an omniscient ubermensch. Nor was I impressed by the political machinations within the space-feudal empire. One character I didn’t care about manipulated another to murder a third, then pinned it on a fourth who had to mind trick a fifth to prove her loyalty to her dead husband. I did like the scene where they forgave the man who thought she was the murderer and welcomed him back into the fold. Maybe I’ve just read too much Becky Chambers and am now addicted to reconciliation.
The distinction between what I did not and what I did like in this book is pretty consistent actually – As described above, the characters didn’t impress me, nor did the intrigue or the combat. But I did like the world-building, which is so well realized as to thread the line between whimsical and believable. They make a legitimate science fiction argument to justify the equivalent of Jedi mind tricks, and that’s just the beginning. Colossal sand-burrowing worms that produce magical spice. An entire culture and tech system built around the preservation of water, or the squandering of it if you are wealthy. Space that you can barely travel, not because the technology isn’t there, but because of the anti-competitive practices of a monopolistic space-travel conglomerate. Wait, is this space opera or dystopian fiction?
Frank Herbert’s made up words are a visceral pleasure for me both to read and to hear. He has a talent, and it makes me wish he invented more words instead of calling the other half of his new concepts “sand worms” and “spice.”
The Bene Gesserit (Ben-E Jezeret): Witches that control minds, drawing out deep-seated triggers with precise inflections of voice.
The Kwisatz Haderach (KEE-zats Hadderak): The only male Bene Gesserit. Wait, he’s more powerful because he’s male? Yes, I know, it’s not ideal, but remember it’s 1965, not 2022. Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica is more than empowered enough to exceed my standard for the era. In any case, somehow by being male (accessing masculine powers of some kind) and still being able to access the feminine powers of the Bene Gesserit, the Kwisatz Haderach combines the two and gains the power to see the future. Not in a fuzzy oracular way that seems to backfire as often as it help people, but in a way that makes defeating the all-powerful emperor feel like child’s play. I like to think of it as gaining power by being in touch with your feminine side, but I think in 2022 I’d write it more like either sex that is able to harness both sides can become a Kwisatz Haderach.
Then there’s that one guy who has a schizophrenic episode with his dad and listens to an imaginary lecture on planetary ecology before the desert literally eats him. I may be enjoying that scene more in retrospect than I did actually reading it, but a book is like any other adventure – the remembering is worth as much or more than the experience itself.
My review: Good for its era. If you like the world-building, quasi-medieval combat, and Jedi mind tricks of Star Wars and you want to try something that offers a little more intellectual heft, consider Dune.