Tag Archive: Review 16

A Desert Planet and a Messiah

(The image is the poster for the miniseries– all the cover images for the book are 1970s kitsch.)

Today’s book is Dune by Frank Hebert.

Dune is one of those books that I have meant to read for a long time. Since I was a child I could remember my mother’s tattered original copy sitting in the bookshelves and every once in a while I would pick it up and try to read it and I would get overwhelmed. Two summers ago a friend who was road-tripping with me was reading it and enjoying it, and I picked up a copy and tried to read it again– this time I got distracted by other things in life and didn’t finish. So finally, I picked it up again (for the third time now) and read it, and this time, I finished.

Dune is an astonishing book. I think Frank Hebert is probably up there with Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin as one of the great sci-fi/fantasy writers. (All three writers are markedly different and hard to compare– and if you have never read Le Guin you are doing yourself a disservice. Go out and read the Earthsea series– 5 books in all–immediately. She is a genius. Tolkien well you know who Tolkien is unless you have been hiding under a rock the last fifty or so years.)

Herbert creates an astonishing world in Dune. A world where people inhabit various planets, which are run by feudal houses– who scheme and kill in a way that would make the Sopranos blush. He also creates an entire religious system, society and ecology. The bulk of the action centers on the planet Arrakis– a desert ecology that produces melange- a spice needed for interplanetary travel. And it is the only place in the universe where it is produced. The whole universe is ruled by a scheming Emperor, who wishes to destroy one feudal house- Atreides– which is led by Duke Leto and his heir Paul. Paul’s mother (Leto’s concubine) Jessica is a Bene Gesserit (often referred to as a witch by those who fear her, but trained in certain powers.) The Emperor sets the Harkonnens (another feudal house) up into a feud with the Atreides house so that he can get rid of the Duke and his heir. He almost succeeds as the Duke is killed and young Paul escapes into the desert with his mother, to only be taken in by the Freman (tribal peoples who live in the desert and ride giant sandworms. Think Tremors, only cooler.) The Freman, a religious people, eventually believe that Paul is the Muad’Dib, a chosen leader– the Messiah so to speak. And Paul accepts this upon realizing that he might also be the Kwisatz Hederch– a superhuman male Bene Gesserit, whose existence the group had been breeding for for thousands of years. Paul rallies the Freman to overthrow the Harkonnens and to get back at the Emperor, but in the process, realizes that he has unleashed a holy war on the universe (jihad– many of the words in this book are clearly borrowed from Arabic.)

Okay, confused already? Well, Dune is a dense book filled with treachery and scheming. The characters, while not unsympathetic, are not wholly good or evil. Most of them inhabit different shades of grey and Paul is not a wholly likeable hero. He is not necessarily noble and good- he understands that he is unleashing war and seems to accept it as his fate. The book as a whole is deeply complicated and my guess is that it will take multiple readings to pick away at the layers. The religion that Herbert constructs, the customs and society- all of it — is really very intricate.

A few comments about the book– first of all I liked the way Herbert portrayed the female characters. They are fighters, warrior women, wise-women and lovers. No wallflowers here– they do not sit back and watch the action, but rather they are integral to the action. This I found refreshing and progressive especially given that this book was written in 1965. Secondly, I think the book can be read in many ways, but one possible way, is as an allegory to the Middle East and the problem of oil (the “spice” in the novel) and how the nobles (dictators, or kings) oppress the freman (tribal peoples, ordinary people) who follow a strict religion (Islam.) I don’t think this is at all a big stretch- but I also think that Hebert leaves it open as to what he is saying with this book. Power corrupts– power goes to men’s head, and power is deadly– Hebert shows that clearly in this work. And I cannot even begin to start with the issues of ecology that Hebert deals with in the book. Let’s just say that this book is as relevant now as it was when first published.

This book is not for the young. Frankly, where I would let teenagers read Tolkien and Le Guin, I think that Herbert’s work is better read as an adult. For one it is more personally bloody (the knifefights!) secondly, I think it might just be too overwhelming– especially grasping the religious meanings, which are intricate and difficult.

Herbert’s book is a masterpiece, and what I can say here doesn’t scratch the surface. It’s a heady book, brilliantly conceived and an amazing treatise on the condition of mankind. It’s not about good vs evil, or truth vs. untruth– it is murkier and darker than that, and in that way, it is  more true to the human condition.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

An Upper Class British Bachelor

Many years ago a friend of mine recommended to me P. G. Wodehouse’s short stories about a British gentleman named Bertie Wooster and his butler, Jeeves.  At some point I saw a T.V. episode based on the stories, and found it pretty amusing, but it took me a while to get around to finally reading some of the stories, which I did this past weekend.  Since a couple of Wodehouse collections are conveniently available as a free download for my Kindle (new toy), I decided to give one a whirl.

My Man Jeeves is a collection of eight short stories, most of which center around Jeeves and Wooster, but a few of which focus on Wodehouse’s earlier character, Reggie Peppers.  The stories present a comical window into the life of the pre-World War II social elite, and they are told from the first person perspective of Wooster.  In this collection Wooster, a man of considerable means, has taken up residence in New York City, in part to get away from the influence of his burdensome Aunt Agatha, who still lives in London.  Wooster’s world consists of being waited upon by Jeeves, enjoying NYC’s nightlife, and (with the considerable help of Jeeves) helping get his friends out of fixes.

The stories are somewhat formulaic – a friend approaches Bertie with a problem, Bertie asks Jeeves to help find a solution, hilarity ensues, Jeeves finally solves the problem – but are no less amusing for the familiar pattern.  Wodehouse’s characters – not least the title characters – are positively eccentric, the dilemmas they face, absurd.  My favorite story in the collection involves the Reggie Peppers character.  Peppers’s friend Freddie, in an attempt to be reconciled with his girlfriend, kidnaps a child he mistakenly thinks to be her cousin in the hopes of winning the girlfriend back by returning the child safe and sound.  Upon discovering that the child is not her cousin, he seeks out the child’s family for fear of being brought up on kidnapping charges, only to find the family quarantined with the measles.  Freddie and Reggie – two uppercrust British bachelors – are thus left to care for the child until the family has mended.

Another amusing feature of the stories is the dynamic between Jeeves and Wooster.  Though Jeeves is a more than able servant, he has his opinions about Bertie’s fashion and grooming habits, which often leads to tension between the two.  Needless to say, in the context of the master-servant relationship, the tension is all the more amusing, as the two seek determinedly to win a battle of wills over which tie or hat Wooster should wear.

On the whole, these stories are excellent light entertainment, particularly for Anglophiles like me.  Though it wasn’t my favorite book this year, it was certainly worthwhile and a nice light diversion, both from work and from some of the heavier books I’ve read.

Sixteen down, (at least) thirty-six to go.