Re-reading favorite books has become something of a luxury since I started blogging, because the pressure to keep up with new titles has made it next to impossible to revisit those “old friends”. But there are always exceptions, and since enthusiastically appreciating the recent movie version of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve I’ve been promising myself a re-read of Frank Herbert’s saga – or at least of the first three novels, which I’ve always seen as their own self-enclosed narrative cycle.
Reviewers who are far better (and far more articulate) than I am at issue analysis, have already written much about the Dune saga’s core themes, its social and political ties with the real world, its writing style and so forth, so there will be nothing of this in my reviews: my approach to books tends to be more… emotional (for want of a better word) than anything else, and that’s what’s going to happen here since this novel for me represents THE landmark in Science Fiction – just as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is for Fantasy, both books being gifted with something of an enduring timeless quality.
The story of young Paul Atreides, from scion of an important family to hunted survivor fighting for his life to charismatic leader, is more than well known: a mix of a hero’s journey with a coming of age tale, set on the background of the complex, often deadly, politics of a vast galactic empire where the balance of power hangs between economic interests, shifting alliances and the machinations of mysterious organizations with a precise agenda to follow. When I first read Dune, a few decades ago, this complexity, and the mix between classic SF themes and some fantasy elements, proved to be quite fascinating: a feudal system of government, with its infighting between ruling Houses; the secretive Navigators’ Guild whose adepts could forge vast distances through a form of prescience, or again the order of Mentats – human computers acting as surrogates for banned thinking machines.
These were all intriguing details that caught my attention from the get go, but the most thought-provoking concept was that of the Bene Gesserit, a school of highly trained women capable of great mental and physical feats, and driven by the goal of creating a sort of super-being through a painstaking, ages-long project of genetic manipulation. To the twenty-something me of back then that proved to be far more appealing, to the point that I tended to focus more on Lady Jessica’s arc than her son Paul’s – even though his story remained riveting throughout; re-reading the novel now, I’m still intrigued by all things Bene Gesserit, but my approach to the narrative is more balanced, while acknowledging that for the time in which the book was first published such focus on female agency was indeed a revolutionary notion.
If all of the above held me in thrall, it was the move to Arrakis, the desert planet, one of the most captivating alien places I ever read about, that literally blew my mind: endless sands, no water, killing winds, and above all the giant sandworms roaming under the surface, and their tie with the precious melange, the life-prolonging spice whose mining could make or break the fortunes of the empire. And of course the Fremen, the desert dwellers who had learned to adapt to such an unforgiving environment, creating a society that went beyond mere survival and that showed indications of sophistication under the apparently basic nomadic and savage outer layer. Mix all this with what is ultimately a tale of revenge and search for freedom, and it’s hardly surprising that the younger me was forever impressed, and that a couple of re-reads in the following years never managed to try and go beyond this undoubtedly intriguing surface.
So, what about older and (hopefully) wiser me? Of course, being now well acquainted with the story arc, I was able to concentrate more on the characters, and to appreciate their development and shades of personality, just as much as I did for the writing and the style of storytelling. Where on my first read I just lightly trod over the “adventurous” surface, now I could enjoy some thought-provoking deeper reflections. First of all, the narrative tapestry is constructed in such a way that the various pieces of the puzzle combine to create an ever-growing sense of doom for the first part of the novel: even with the help of hindsight, it’s clear, very early on, that the Atreides’ move to Arrakis is going to end in catastrophe – and I wonder if even the choice of their name, taken straight out of the tragic Greek myth, represented a clue in plain sight for all to see… Despite this inevitable conclusion, and my actual knowledge of it, I was drawn into the story’s flow as if reading it for the first time, which should be a testament to Frank Herbert’s narrative skills in weaving this complex mix of galactic politics, greed, personal ambition and revenge into a novel that still feels fresh despite being written almost sixty years ago. There indeed goes another reason for my reluctance to re-read books: the fear that the writing might not work anymore for my changed tastes – to my deep relief, such was not the case with Dune.
But of course it was Paul Atreides’ character that drove many of those deeper musings I quoted above. On the outer layer he’s a teenager who led a solitary – if charmed – life until his family’s relocation to Arrakis: a boy with little opportunity to interact with his age peers, schooled by his mother in the ways of the Bene Gesserit that, on the cusp of events, are revealed as a means of unleashing some untapped potential that might set him apart from the rest of humanity. Something that would be a huge burden on anyone, let alone a 15-year old boy… And here, I think, lies the core of Paul’s personal tragedy, that of not being completely (if at all…) the master of his own destiny, which is later compounded by the growing talents of precognition that will show him a future – or a set of futures – that seem to hint at their tragic inevitability. Paul’s transformation into the charismatic leader of the Fremen does not hold any hint of glory, but is rather tainted with the recurring awareness of the terrible purpose which haunts his waking nightmares. This time around I was able to feel some form of empathy for Paul, something which was absent in my first visits with the saga: Herbert’s characters, though intriguing, always manage to keep some distance from the readers, so now for the first time I was able to perceive his humanity under the mantle of predestined hero that Herbert had placed on his shoulders.
Where the first book of the Dune saga ends with something that might look like a happy end, with revenge obtained, the villains vanquished, the Fremen once again the masters of their own world, there is still a perceivable cloud hanging over it all that will carry on to the next book and the conclusion of Paul’s narrative arc, a warning – if you want – that happy endings are a mere illusion and that this story, fictional as it is, might rather be a reflection of reality. And maybe that’s one of the reasons, if not the main one, of the hold that this novel can still exert on readers’ minds so many decades after its inception…