Frank Herbert's 1965 classic novel that defined science fiction.
Also posted on Goodreads.
As the novel that supposedly defined science fiction, I found it to be much more reminiscent of political-religoius-military fantasy--but maybe that just goes to show how much science fiction has evolved and expanded since Dune's original publication (?). That said, I came in with the wrong expectations and was a little disappointed as such. I wanted more science than I got. But I still enjoyed myself with the religious-political-military themes.
This book is touted for its ecological themes as well, but I don't know-- I just felt that was a lingering background of the world rather than a key focus--like, here is how this people adjusted to such a dearth of water and plant life (!), but there wasn't much reflection on the alternative other than Jessica's longing for Caladan.
I was disappointed as well, though not surprised, in the lack of female characters with agency who aren't defined by a more important male character. Jessica may perhaps be the single female character who fits this mold, but then she is also a bit problematic being couched in the Bene Gesserit lore. At first I found the Bene Gesserit stuff cool, but over time it reminded me more of how women have been literally punished for being "witches"... And anytime Paul exhibits some of his Bene Gesserit training, it is a toss-up on whether someone will compliment or be afraid of it.
The very last line of the book most exhibits the way it problematically treats women:
After insulting the woman who will be marrying Paul as a political strategy, Jessica assures Chani that though they are concubines in life, in history they will be remembered as wives because Duke Leto and Paul respectively truly love them and use their political wives as vessels for childbirth.
“Do you know so little of my son?” Jessica whispered. “See that princess standing there, so haughty and confident. They say she has pretensions of a literary nature. Let us hope she finds solace in such things; she’ll have little else.” A bitter laugh escaped Jessica. "Think on it, Chani: that princess will have the name, yet she'll live as less than a concubine--never to know a moment of tenderness from the man to whom she's bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine--history will call us wives."
WOW can we call you by your individual names too and how individually cool you are independent of your dude partners?
WOW, way to end on a high note.
But wait--there's more! Herbert included not one but FOUR appendices. The third one is titled "Report on Bene Gesserit Motives and Purposes". I was hoping to find something redeeming here, like some deeper insight into the order's mysterious practices and origins. But no... It's rather scathing. A few choice quotes:
the concubine Lady Jessica defied her orders and bore a son.
Yeah, because women definitely can choose the gender of their child (?!?!). Or is this some mysterious witch power of the Bene Gesserit? Ugh, it's just reminiscent of historical false understanding in blaming women for bearing children of a lesser sex (in most/all cases, a daughter, ironically compared to this passage).
A bit later is a list of obvious facts that prominent members of the Bene Gesserit missed or failed to include their reports. It concludes with this paragraph:
In the face of these facts, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that the inefficient Bene Gesserit behavior in this affair was a product of an even higher plan of which they were completely unaware!
Brian Herbert includes an afterword where he reveals that Frank was rather absent in Brian's childhood, shutting everyone out so that Frank could have complete concentration to do his writing. It's only when Brian also becomes a professional writer in his adult years do he and his father work more together on that craft and have a more meaningful relationship together. He relates this to Leto and Paul Atreides' father-son relationship here, too. On other characters, Brian reveals that Frank modeled Lady Jessica after his wife, Brian's mother. Frank would "lovingly" call her "witch" because she seemed to be clairvoyant, I guess. But that's just flippin' weird.... and while I don't think Brian intended for the afterword to put Frank in a worse light (I think his intent was quite the opposite, actually), that's the effect it had on me.
Why do I always hear about the environmentalism and sci-fi? My partner (white cis-male) suspects that most of the fans have his demographics, read the book during their teenage years, and were just less attuned to picking up on sexism than me at the time (and likely even as adults, let's be real). BUT what do we know.
So with this major caveat of Frank Herbert's treatment and perhaps paternalistic view of women, this book is still epic and deserving of its place in literary history as a classic. I normally don't read books this long – my edition was over 800 pages – but this story compelled me enough to stick it through to the end, so that's something! Ugh. It's just a shame about the women... But oh well, again I am not surprised and am used to this. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie.
Overall rating: 6.5/10. I rounded to 3/5 on Goodreads.
(+) political intrigue, world building and complex societies, epic, environmentalism I guess (?), the Bene Gesserit in the first half of the novel, strong literary writing, pacing, terminology at the end of the book
(-) poor representation of women overall, writing is sometimes pompous, not as much sci-fi as I expected, it's so damn long, it's clear that Herbert hates women