One winter day when I was twelve or so, I was in a used bookstore in Northfield, Minnesota, waiting for my parents to finish their shopping in another store. I spent most of my time there wandering back and forth through the sci-fi/fantasy section, looking for a book I could read on the long car ride home but with only a few dollars in my pocket I didn’t want to waste my money on something I would end up hating, and then have to spend the rest of the eight-hour drive staring out the window at the empty fields of Iowa. Somehow, a little orange paperback caught my attention, and to this day, I don’t know how or why.
It was a beat up little book. Clearly printed in the 1970s, it was an unattractive shade of burnt orange, the cover art was worse, and the title’s typeface in should have been reserved for bad porn films. Maybe it had to do with the reviews on the back cover, declaring it to be a sweeping achievement of the human imagination as well as a thrilling adventure. Or maybe it was just the fact that it took place on a desert planet, and I was in Minnesota in December.
Whatever inspired me to pick up that battered old paperback, I read Frank Herbert’s Dune straight through and haven’t really stopped since then. The ugly orange copy has since been replaced by one that doesn’t fall apart when you get to the middle, but it’s still a major presence on my bookshelf and would be right next to my three copies of The Lord of the Rings, if only H and T were next to each other in the alphabet.
Like The Lord of the Rings, Dune can be read by a twelve-year old as a brilliant adventure story- Very Good Guys and Very Bad Enemies, a planet full of warriors, a revolution against more Very Bad Men, and a love story mixed in to all of it. It’s all very exciting, but if that were the whole of it Dune would not be the sort of book you can read every year for nearly twenty years, and take away something new every time. The teenaged me loved the adventure. In my college years, I found that the religion-in-politics themes influenced my own political ideas. And how could I not love the Bene Gesserit? They were not characters to love the way you might adore Bilbo Baggins, or come to respect like Chani, but they were vastly intelligent women with influence, who knew what they wanted, and then set out to achieve it. Perhaps Buffy Summers would have been a better role model, but after a year of five servings of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer per day thanks to an obsessed roommate, I’d had enough of the perky Slayer.
Now, nearly twenty years after my first foray to the desert planet Arrakis, I’ve had time to absorb the many themes of the book- the perils of a theocracy, the dangers of trying to manipulate the future, how a person can spin a web of legends around himself and become a religious figure without truly believing in his own legends, ideas of ecology, the danger of a society dependant on a finite resource… The list goes on.
I know some readers feel that Dune feels dated, and indeed it does at points. Jessica and Paul are not normally names I would associate with characters from the year 10,191, and the weapons and social structure tend to the archaic side, but for me that’s never been the point. To me, the story of Dune speaks of the failings we all have, that even prophets are fallible. The Kwisatz Haderach is meant to be the epitome of humanity, but even he cannot prevent his revolution from being torn apart.
It’s something to remember in an era where revolution seems to rise and fall with the seasons.