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Dune () Top 100 Books of the Millenium

If I say that Dune is like a James Clavell novel set in the outer reaches of the Galaxy, do folks understand that I mean that as a compliment?  Like Clavell, the great strength of Herbert's novel is the way that he intertwines plots and schemes:  everyone has their own agenda; alliances are temporary and purely expedient; loyalties are shifting; even kinship is no bar to treachery.

The central story concerns Paul Atreides, the 15 year old son of Duke Leto and his Bene Gesserit concubine the Lady Jessica.  Paul is the product of a millennia old Bene Gesserit breeding program and may be the Kwisatz Haderach, a hyper-evolved mental adept with extraordinary extrasensory powers.  Even as Lady Jessica is training Paul in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, the Duke is training him to lead the embattled House Atreides.  Emperor Shaddam IV has just turned over control of the desert planet Arrakis with its invaluable spice concession to the Atreides, but the Emperor recognizes that Duke Leto is a powerful rival and and the Imperium's invincible troopers, the Sardaukar, make the Emperor particularly dangerous.  Likewise, the Atreides rising fortunes have caused jealousy and hatred among other families of the Landsraad, a sort of combine of the great trading houses.  In particular, the vile Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, whose House Harkonnen has just lost control of Arrakis, also known as Dune, is bent on the destruction of the Atreides.  As plots and counterplots explode, sometimes quite literally, Paul and the Lady Jessica are turned out into the desert of Dune where no humans can long survive exposure to the elements, but they are taken in by the mysterious Fremen, a fierce desert people who believe that Paul may be their Messiah.  At this point, Herbert brings religious themes into the mix and the story really gets interesting.

This book won both the Hugo and Nebula awards and is widely considered to be one of, if not the, best science fiction novels ever written.  It is a grand space opera combining elements of Byzantine politics and an Islam-like religious movement.  Ironically, the weakest strand of the story is also the most speculative.  Melange, the spice of Dune, is so valuable because it is basically a mind-altering drug, which is used by the Spacing Guild to warp space and time and facilitate intergalactic travel.  While the political and religious strands of the story have a familiar logic to them, whenever the story turns to Melange and its effects, the tale gets pretty sketchy.  Unfortunately, in the sequels to the book this drug-induced storyline gained increasing prominence at the expense of coherence.  But for this one novel, Frank Herbert masterfully wields his complex plot across a sweeping canvas and soaks the maximum tension out of a large scale political and religious conflict.  The reputation of the novel is well deserved.


Grade: (A+)