On Dune

Achieving the level of creativity and having the courage to invent something completely new is hard. Usually we regurgitate things we have seen and most stories are the rewriting of other people’s stories. Most fantasy is an attempt to rewrite Tolkien. Most Science Fiction perhaps Star Wars.

This makes ‘Dune’ special. In his epic Frank Herbert built a new world, Arrakis – Dune – a spice land harsh and dry and brutal which produces the substance, melange, to which all the universe is addicted. And the Fremen, the ancient denizens of the desert who ride the great worms which produce the spice and call the harshness their homes.

This book is about water. We live on a planet where water falls from the sky; and cannot imagine the desiccation of a land where dead bodies are drained of their water before they are buried, where everything is measured in the amount of water bartered and traded and smuggled. For the Arrakins, spice is everywhere but water is scarce.

The only criticism I have for this novel is that Herbert used the Arabs as a model for his Fremen. By sprinkling words like ‘umma’ and ‘jihad’ through the novel it was obvious he was writing about them; which then made the reader think that perhaps this was a platform piece (like Avatar was when it became clear it was a paean to nativism against exploitation of mining companies – and therefore tiresome). When this shift occurs it becomes impossible not to superimpose the complicated politics of the Middle East upon his novel, and that was unwelcome.

Besides, a better model for the Fremen would be the Tuaregs – the deep desert people of the Sahara linked more to the ancient Phoenicians and Finnish than the Arabs, the blue men of the desert who make their living transporting goods back and forth across the great sea of sand.

Nevertheless, Dune was an extraordinary novel and easy to read and highly recommended. Not everything needs to be transcendent.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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2 Responses to On Dune

  1. jscd3 says:

    When I read Dune for the first time in college in the mid 70’s, I assumed that it WAS an allegory for the then contemporaneous Middle East – Fremen = Arabs, Spice = Oil. I did not realize at the time that it had actually been written years before
    So, in that sense, Herbert was a bit of a prognosticator
    I also read Dune Messiah – and like most critics at the time, found it a disappointment
    Flash forward 40+ years and on second reading, Dune was still a good book, but not nearly as impressive as it was to my 19 year old self
    On the other hand, Dune Messiah, with its emphasis on the moral problems found in the Fremen after they have achieved victory but also lost their traditional life, resulting in a new cycle of revolution, reads a lot better to me today and rings very true, suggesting that Herbert once again saw the future
    Just my two cents…


    • Its disappointing a little bit, we hope the novel stands alone and isn’t just an allegory for something else. Tolkien used to push back very hard when asked if LOTR was an allegory for Christianity (not that he wasn’t a Christian/Catholic) but he said he just wanted to tell an amazing story, that was all. I’ve been debating reading Messiah, maybe I will next year thanks for the minireview.


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