Sunday, January 4, 2015

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer"


DUNE intimidates me. 

I don't think I could ever recall a time that I became almost terrified to review a book and share my most intimate thoughts about reading it until now. I confess that I don't know anything about Dune until three years ago when I made the active decision to explore what the science fiction genre has to offer. I researched a lot of online lists regarding the most critically-acclaimed books and Dune was the one that keeps appearing all the time so I know that it must mean something so I ventured into buying it one afternoon in August last year when my laptop's battery charger quit on me suddenly, so I was offline for the rest of the day. And my world in that moment has never been the same since I started reading it. Everything about doing so was unplanned and it couldn't have been more perfect. Just seventy-four pages in and I knew I was reading something special already.

The magnificence of the novel is often subtle yet clear-cut in an inexplicable manner that leaves me at loss for sufficient words; and I am one who always knows what to say when it comes to the literature I read. So far, I've read Flowers for Algernon, Childhood's End, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Shrinking Man, Ender's Game, and Speaker for the Dead, sci-fi wise, and all of these books have widened my perspective and weakened me in the knees because of their unanticipated emotional impact--but none of them can compare to the enigma and sheer elegance that Dune was. A few novels are intricately beautiful, able to scar you with a lasting impression and not only does Frank Herbert accomplish that; he also elevated the genre to me, personally, into a breadth and quality that makes the world of Dune so intimately familiar to readers regardless of the futuristic setting it was created in. Written in the sixties, futuristic doesn't truly reflect the scope of this novel. The locations may be set on a different planet (the desert planet Arrakis which is supposedly rich in spice melange) but the politics, economic divisions, diversity in culture, religious archetypes and superstition somewhat resemble ours--often in the most chilling sense.


But what truly sets Dune apart from other science fiction books is the absence of artificial intelligence. There are no sentient machines here. There is only a human civilization from a thousand years from now, one that is not so different from what we have now, able to develop advanced technology as well as enhance the mental and physical skills that define humans as a species that continue to thrive and evolve, both as individual and society. The world and people Herbert have created are mostly Middle Eastern in concept and influence; a great number of the terminologies in descriptions, dialogue and characterization are Arabic. There are also Islamic overtones that populate the pages but to define Dune in those simplifications alone would be insufficient. There is a varied list of religions, as well as a comprehensive explanation regarding the political dynasties and technology of Herbert's creation. This is only the first novel of a timeless series that spans decades. It belongs to the subgenre of "soft science fiction" which usually focuses more on the social sciences (anthropology, political science, psychology) which for me is what makes Dune both less and more accessible to new readers. More often that not, when we think about science fiction, we think about AI and conflicts between humans and machines so if you're the kind of reader who enjoys these things in other mediums such as television and movies (I know I do), Dune may take some time to get used to. However, if you're one who can enjoy an expansive universe with sprawling family sagas and cultural nuances, then this book will persistently intrigue and ultimately hold you prisoner.


It is a story of a mother and son foremost, and they are two of the most compelling characters in the book who readers will follow closely during their respective self-explorations and strenuous journey into the unexplored territories of the desert planet Arrakis. Lady Jessica is a Bene Gesserit (described as "an exclusive sisterhood whose members train their bodies and minds through years of physical and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that can seem magical to outsiders"). She is the concubine and beloved companion to the duke Leto Atreides and their son Paul was touched by a destiny that challenges the norms and comforts of the regime he is a part of.

Paul and Jessica as characters and their relationship with each other remain as my favorite aspect of the story. In a sense, this book can be viewed as Paul's coming-of-age story as he slowly but surely accepts his role in spite of its overwhelming dangers and implications. No one in the book has undergone such a crucial transition than this main protagonist. Dune serves like play in three acts where the middle part is where Paul's endurance, identity and mental strength are tested and the very last act solidifies his accomplishment as the new leader of a world that is forced to keep up with him or else.


I would assert that Lady Jessica is the most empowered and admirable female character I've ever read in fiction, and it's mostly because of her pragmatism, unshakable sense of self and autonomy, as well as her skills as a Bene Gesserit which for me shatters the conventions of how women (fiction and in real life) are usually perceived as emotional creatures with fickle passions and impulses. Lady Jessica stands above this, and always lets her head rule her heart but it does not make her frigid or callous. In fact, it has made her so endearing and easy to sympathize with especially whenever she makes decisions whose impact cannot be underestimated. She recognizes the power she has because of her training as a Bene Gesserit, and equips herself with it quite impressively and in service to the people she loves (like the duke and her son). However, the prejudice and negative bias towards her kind are still heavily highlighted. The Bene Gesserit are duped as "witches" because of the superstition that prevails among outsiders when viewing their craft from a distance. Men are always suspicious of her motives, always believing she is capable of the worst (and she is, but cautions herself against it). It's refreshing me for me as a queer woman to encounter a female character who doesn't weaponize her sexuality or deceive men for her own self-serving needs. Lady Jessica is far from perfect but she is poignantly humanized by her actions, thought processes and devotion and faith towards her son Paul. She's a remarkable specimen, that much is certain, who is wise enough to know that she can't know everything or give absolute guarantees about the things she does know. 

Paul and Jessica may take the center stage but other characters, supporting allies and villains alike, are just as well-rounded and memorable. I personally adored Kynes, Chani, Stilgar, Galleck Hurney and the elusive Princess Irulan who opens each chapter with excepts from her writings which set their tone. These short excerpts are reflective, often taken from various teachings and commentaries regarding science and spirituality as well as cultural analyses that the princess herself has taken a valued interest and investment in. She is only later introduced as a character by the ending chapters of the novel but her pieces throughout the book have served as narration devices which are consistently atmospheric and insightful. 

I would like to recommend Dune to everyone I know but I also recognize how challenging this work of fiction could be. This is not something you can pick up casually. It is the kind of book that is meant to be savored. I find that re-reading it again right after finishing it has even heightened my understanding and appreciation. The truth for the matter is the minute you start reading the first five chapters of the book, you are transported directly into the events without any kind of backstory. You just have to find your way from there and it can get confounding at times but it's also very exhilarating because the world of Dune slowly unfolds before your eyes in a small manner first (with the Atreides household moving to the Arrakis planet largely inhabited by the Fremen) until it sets up the wider stage later on. One of the most beguiling plotlines of the story is the Fremen as a desert society, and the spice melange as the source of their livelihood which is also a substance considered to be most important if not profitable. It certainly reminds me of the Spanish and Portuguese expeditions back in the day that we studied Philippine history in school, where they explored the continents to establish colonies and to look for spices (which eventually led them to my country in the first place). There are discussions about economics regarding the spice being harvested in Arrakis, as well as the cultural practices of Fremen when it comes to water, a substance they consider very much a scarcity so acquiring and preserving it involves a series of bizarre rituals.

 Dune is a classic for many reasons. There is just so much to consume and digest here that will not always be readily accessible so multiple readings of the entire novel itself is something I highly suggest. It gets better every time you willingly emerge yourself with the people and cultures within its pages. It took me two months to finish the first two parts. I then stopped for four months and picked this up again just last December. Its magnetic hold on me never loosened even during such a hiatus. I don't think I can compare Dune to anything else (though some could draw comparisons with a series from another genre, J. R. R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings). In that sense, just like LOTR, Dune does stand as a testament of its own making and legacy. 

DUNE fucking intimidates me. But I nonetheless love Dune with all my mind and spirit, heart and soul.


RECOMMENDED: 10/10

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