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Dune, the Science Fiction standard

 

Frank Herbert

Just what kind of person does it take to write what could arguably be Science Fictions greatest work? For starters Frank Herbert ran away from home in order to escape poor living conditions and went on to lie about his age after graduating high school in order to get his first job with a newspaper called Glendale Star. Later he would join the U.S. Navy as a photographer for six months until he was given a medical discharge. Before becoming a full time writer Frank Herbert would’ve worked various jobs including: TV cameraman, radio commentator, oyster diver, wilderness survival instructor, creative writing teacher, reporter, editor of several newspapers, and speechwriter for a senator. Talk about a resume, I have enough trouble making pop tarts!

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History behind Dune

After reading this masterpiece for myself I got to thinking, how on earth did Frank Herbert conceptualize this vast and captivating universe? Well as it turns out, Dune was six years in the making before it was ever complete! I’d say those six years were well invested considering the outcome! So in 1959 Mr. Herbert was researching a story that had mentioned the US department of Agriculture was attempting to stabilize shifting sand dunes near Florence, Oregon by introducing European beach grass. Strong winds would blow the sands east and bury everything in their path. He even hired a light aircraft to survey the land and became fascinated by the idea that it might be possible to engineer or tame an ecosystem by introducing the right species (the European Beach grass). This thought process clearly manifests itself as the long term mission of the Fremen people in the novel Dune. They’re the indigenous and resourceful people of the desert whose main goal is to slowly terraform most of their planet into lush green landscapes so water won’t be as scarce but alas, I digress. The fact that Dune even took off was something of a miracle, see Dune was much longer than most of the commercial science fiction of the time and publishers were skeptical to publish it. In fact Dune was rejected by nearly twenty different publishers; Chilton Book Company (known mainly for its auto-repair manuals) would end up making Frank Herbert an offer to publish his book. Although Dune wasn’t immediately a best seller, it would gradually gain momentum selling over 12 million copies and later winning the Nebula and Hugo Award which are probably the most sought after awards a science fiction writer can win.

Star Wars and Dune

Probably one of the most influential, if not the most influential, science fiction masterpiece in history is Star Wars. There are few who’ve never heard the name before and it’s universe and stories live on and continue to grow since Disney acquired the rights to it (for better or worse). After reading Dune though, it’s easy to see perhaps how Star Wars (at least episode 4) had been influence by Herbert Frank’s novel. That’s right, it’s fair to say George Lucas borrowed at least a few things from the Dune universe. In one of the Dune reviews I read at theguardian.com they go so far as to say Dune’s film was called Star Wars.

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“Actually, the great Dune film did get made. Its name is Star Wars. In early drafts, this story of a desert planet, an evil emperor, and a boy with a galactic destiny also included warring noble houses and a princess guarding a shipment of something called “aura spice”.”

But those weren’t the only examples, the Bene Gesserit, who are a specially trained line of mostly women who possess great mental powers, can in fact be compared to the powers and prowess of the Jedi, there was even “moisture farming” on Tatooine (I mean come on). That being said, I’m not bashing George Lucas or Star Wars. I’m a fan of the series and Frank Herbert seemingly wasn’t mad enough to sue. In fact he and a couple other science fiction writers who thought they had ideas ripped from them formed a joke organization called “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society.” Just to be clear Frank Herbert did enjoy a great degree of success with his books later in life.

Overarching theme

Dune is set in a future where artificial intelligent machines have long since been destroyed in a bloody, drawn out war (there’s actually a trilogy prequel about it). In order to make up for this lack of technology, there are some humans who are genetically altered for specific tasks. Take the Mentat for instance, they are made to be experts in espionage and analytics and are basically walking super computers. Any political powerhouse, emperor, or duke of any importance has one (it’s what all the cool people do). The setting of Dune is on a desert planet called Arrakis where the most valuable substance in the universe is found, an addictive spice that is very dangerous to gather due to skyscraper sized sand worms that roam below the desert floors feeding on anything that moves. Dune covers many topics like political power struggles, family feuds, espionage, betrayal, redemption, internal conflict, and moral dilemmas. When I first picked it up I thought it’d take me forever to read it because I don’t have time to read as much as I’d really like but I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I got through it. This one is definitely worth picking up if you don’t already own it, I own two copies (paperback & ebook).

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Super powers and dilemmas

One thing I loved about this book is how it approached our main character Paul. Paul is a son of a duke (his father) and a Bene Gesserit (his mother, remember the Jedi women) and he eventually awakens a power within himself that allows him to see the future as potential streams of time. In essence he can basically see how certain courses of actions will have different effects on the future and can navigate through them to see what happens. Sounds pretty over powered? Well his powers come with some flaws. First is that every so often he reaches a critical point in his life where the future is fuzzy and can’t see past a certain decision which means if he grows too reliant on his powers he’ll lack the ability to make decisions using normal analytical skills. Second, his powers seem to be reliant or rather enhanced, by this addictive spice from Arrakis, so the more he’s exposed to it (and rest assured, he’s exposed) the more “tolerant” he becomes of the spice, requiring heavier concentrated doses in order to reach a certain effect. Lastly, our hero sees a future where, because of his powers, people are willing to fight a full out religious war across the galaxy for him. Well Paul isn’t really keen on spreading galaxy-wide death and destruction so he is constantly using his powers to try and find the future path(s) that will allow him to get what he wants with minimal violence if it can be avoided. This was an interesting dynamic because I love superheroes, anime, and manga and I don’t often see having superpowers and their implications being internalized by their wielders in most cases. Having a character like Paul, who clearly had moral dilemmas about wanting to and using his powers in order to achieve his goals was incredibly entertaining and interesting.

Interesting facts

After reading Dune and researching a little about Frank Herbert himself, I was fascinated to find out he never was able to finish his series because he passes away. See Frank Herbert had written six books in the Dune universe and the sixth (although I’ve yet to read it) leaves off on a big cliff hanger. As a science fiction fan myself I can only imagine the dismay Dune readers must’ve felt knowing they would never receive the closure they wanted…or would they. See one day after Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin Anderson had been writing other prequels in the Dune universe to much success Brian received news that would change his world. The Herbert estate lawyer had called Brian to tell him he had found a key to a safety deposit box from his father! Would you just take a guess what they found when they opened it more than ten years after Frank’s death? That’s right, a full and complete outline for the last installment of Dune! All the notes Frank had written on how he wanted the series to end were their! Now of course you could make the argument that the story wouldn’t be as good because it wasn’t Frank himself writing the novel, but even with the notes up to interpretation by Brian and Kevin at least readers could finally get some closure on how the series was intended to end. It was almost as if fate itself was giving permission to these two writers to finish what Frank Herbert had started.

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