So I see from my previous post that I haven’t written since September.
Anyway, I’m looking at less than two months left in the year and three categories still to go in this year’s Classics Challenge so I have to write about the category just finished: A Future or Alternative World; I chose Frank Herbert’s classic “Dune.”
Now I’m no great lover of science fiction, but “Dune” is on just about every list of “Books you must read to consider yourself alive” or some such title of an arbitrary list that I’m always clicking on when they appear in my Facebook feed. It’s amazing how many of those lists include the same books and how many of those books I hate: Heller’s “Catch-22,” Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and (dare I say it?) Mark Twain’s great American novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
I can now add “Dune” to the list of must-read books I can’t stand.
You may recall from my previous post about “Dune” that I was a little leery of tackling a novel with 40 pages of glossaries, appendices, et. al. I occasionally turned to the character list to remind myself who we were talking about, and once looked at the glossary to help me understand what the hell was going on, but I’m only looking now at the titles of the appendices just to let you know that I’d rather eat sand than read “The Ecology of Dune” or “The Almanak en-Ashraf (Selected Excerpts of the Noble Houses).”
Written in 1965, so it’s just this year eligible for our arbitrary Classic qualification, “Dune” tells of a future world where humans and, I assume, other beings (who are called by their tribal names but seem to be humans) behave much like they did at the time Herbert wrote this. Of course humans will always be driven by the same motivations, but I still found it disappointing that, in the end, everything is about profit.
There’s this desert of a planet called Dune the universe is mining for something called spice, which is, who knows, a drug, a vital life need, a one-a-day multivitamin? It smells like cinnamon and people can get addicted to it. I kept thinking how blessed I am that I will never see a future when Starbucks’ pumpkin spice becomes currency and power.
There are these dukedoms and emperors and warring factions and they all end up on this barren planet to fight for control of the spice. The main character is a 15-year-old named Paul. Yeah, that’s right, Paul. Not that I have anything against that name, but so many others in the book have names like Irulan, Hasimir Fenring and Thufir Hawat that, “Paul” stands out as a bit odd. His mother’s name, Jessica, is again, jarring.
So Paul may be the savior of the human race, the chosen one whose birth was foretold and perhaps even maneuvered by his mother’s ancestors, over the centuries. He leads a people on a revolt and I guess wins a sort of victory (sorry about the spoiler). I may be wrong, I honestly couldn’t tell you whether what happened at the end was good for the characters or disappointing.
There were some parts I did like and one of them is, of course, the famous worms of Dune. These creatures that live under the planet’s sand come to eat people and equipment mining the spice. What is the worms’ relationship to spice? It never says, but I like to think spice is worm poop. Don’t know why I think that, but it seems to make sense.
This book is “one of literature’s great triumphs of imagination” said a blurb on the back of my mass-market paperback version. And I suppose it is. It’s interesting how the people survive on this harsh planet and preserve water, and how the lack of water informs their everyday lives. But when there’s something off, it’s really off. In one scene, Paul’s father the duke holds a meeting where he opens a folder to find a report! A FOLDER! And prior to the meeting, the duke says, “There’s coffee for those who want it.” I laughed out loud at that because it seemed so 1950s. Glad though, to know people in the future will still know the pleasures of a steaming hot cup of joe as they plot intergalactic wars.
The story is simple, but Herbert tries to make it more convoluted than it needs to be. Everyone has a subtext to everything that’s said. And he explains the subtext, which as a reader I found irritating. He must have gotten a great deal on italics when he was writing “Dune” because so much of the book is in it, mostly the subtext explanations and inner dialogue.
I had my own odyssey with reading this book which may have taken a full month, but it wasn’t steady reading. The copy I started reading fell apart then I lost what was left. I confess I didn’t really look too hard for it, though. Then I checked the book out of the library, which only had one copy in the basement and I had to blow dust off it before I opened it. Lost that for several days, too before deciding I’d try to borrow it on my Kindle. If you can believe it, SOMEONE HAD CHECKED IT OUT! Found the library version where I had left it in the storage area of the basement (where I must have set it down while looking for something else) read some more then got the email that said I could download it to my Kindle and I finished reading it that way.
That story is more interesting to me than the novel. It was maddening, intermittently interesting and, to my mind, overlong and overwritten. I was more than ready to come back to Earth.