Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dune by Frank Herbert

If you read science fiction long enough, sooner or later you'll read Frank Herbert's Dune. Called the greatest scifi novel of all time it has the pedigree to back that up, including a Hugo Award in 1966. If you haven't read the book you've probably at least David Lynch's 1984 film version (or only bits and pieces of it if you're like me).

In my opinion, a measure of the novel's strength is the fact that its setting is only loosely scifi - I can imagine it being easily set in 18th century Europe. Sure, it's set in the year 10,000 and involves conflict over the substance that makes intergalactic travel possible (something called spice). But everyone runs around with swords and knives and, at least in Lynch's movie, dresses like extras from Master and Commander and travels in a post-modern steampunk world.

And actually, I can do more than imagine when and where it might be set. To me it's quite obvious we're talking about the invading ruling houses (Americans, British, French) occupying the desert planet Dune (the Middle East) solely to exploit its energy source (spice/oil) and repress the native Fremen (the Arabs). There's even a single sidelong reference in one of the appendices that cast the Israelis in the role of the Sardaukar, the emperor's bloodthirsty shock troops. (That's just mean.) And course there's a nefarious corporation in the background.

The story is actually quite enjoyable and flows along quite nicely despite the length and some of the fine level of detail. Yes, there were times when I mired in some of that detail but then realized I was simply getting anxious by anticipating scenes from the film. I would not hesitate to read Herbert's other books in the Dune series.

Because the novel and film are so intertwined in my personal experience (I watched the DVD all the way through upon completing the novel), I have to end by pointing out that as much as I respect David Lynch as a director, the Dune film is an uncomfortably compressed version of the novel. It's too much material crammed into too little time. I'm told the Sci-Fi channel's version of the film is truer to the novel.

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