Sunday, February 26, 2006

George Lucas Likes Dune

So here is Dune, by Frank Herbert. It's a verifiable classic of Science Fiction writing, it spawned a movie which is a classic of Science Fiction filmmaking, and I found a battered old copy of it at the by now famous Fredericksburg Library Booksale.

It has a picture of Monument Valley on the spine. Don't know why.

For those of you not familiar, Dune is about a desert planet, named Dune. You may be familiar with a place called "Tatooine." Well Dune is like Tatooine, only not shamelessly stolen from another story. Dune is the only source in the universe of melange, or "spice." Those of you familiar with the Star Wars extended universe will recognize that this idea was also shamelessly stolen for use in a fairly pedestrian plot starring Han Solo. Melange is highly addictive, but it extends lifespans by hundreds of years, tastes great, and is required for interstellar travel. So Dune is an important place, even though it sucks to live there.

The deserts of Dune are inhabited by gigantic sandworms (you may remember them from a movie named Tremors) and by a hardy race of religious fanatics called Fremen (think thinly vieled Muslims - don't worry, it's okay to say that, because they are the good guys - well, sort of).

The main character is a boy named Paul, who has the ability (sometimes) to see the future, is able to control people with the sound of his voice, and is able to defeat anyone in a knife fight, using the special (magical?) knives of the Fremen. Sound familar? Think of him as a slightly toned-down Jedi. Or maybe like a Jedi before the prequels came out, before they could fly and breathe underwater and stuff.

George Lucas liked this book.

We've got a mix of action - mostly knifefights - lots of religious mumbo-jumbo, and what most reviews describe as politics, but which really more resembles tedious 16th century court intrigues. The religious overtones are extremely prevalent - one might consider them a theme, if one were writing a schoolpaper. Unfortunately for ease of use, Herbert saw fit to invent his own religion, which is all well and good, except try reading Augustine's Confessions without having read the Bible or without ever having heard about Christianity.

Any points Herbert might have been trying to make flew right over my head on the tiny wings of a thousand made up words, like "Kwisatz Haderach." Yep. Something about "watch out for jihads."

Anyways, after wading through the terminology, for which there is, mercifully, a dictionary in the back (note, however, that the dictionary contains spoilers!), you're presented with a pretty entertaining universe. The back of the book describes it as "a world more awesome than any in literature," which might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it is close enough not to be completely laughable. The sandworms are fun, the desert is fun, the spice is fun, and when the pseudo-Jedi main character uses his superpowers, it's pretty entertaining, until you realize he is pretty much invincible.

Speaking of the back of the book, the publishers seem to have had an inferiority complex of some kind against Tolkien. No less than three times is the Dune series compared to Lord of the Rings - it's sold more copies, it was voted "Best Series" by the readers of some magazine I've never heard of (they note that LotR ranked lower), and Arthur C. Clarke apparently said Lord of the Rings is the only thing that can hope to compare with the raw majesty that is Dune.

And the similarities are there, I suppose. Both Tolkien and Herbert created crazy worlds with their own full-fledged mythologies and their own languages. They're both epics. But here is the main difference, and it can be either a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view: LotR is about a normal guy thrust into a situation where he is responsible for saving the world - the world turns on the decisions of a puny little guy from the country who just wants to go home. Dune, on the other hand, is about a superhero who is thrust into a situation where he is responsible for revenge and for saving himself and his family - without destroying the world in the process.

Both are entertaining in their own way, but they are very different stories, despite what the pundits might say.

If you are at all interested in Science Fiction, in Hydraulic Despotism (I don't know why you would be), in coming-of-age adventure stories, or in giant sandworms, and you think you can wade through the sometimes labored prose, you should check this one out. After all, if George Lucas liked it (various spoilers, mostly in the chart), how bad could it be?


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