Long books fascinated me when I was a kid. There was probably no time between 1979 and 1988 when I wasn’t trying to read Lord of the Rings. I never got through it in one go and so I thought of it as a country I could visit but that I would never truly know. These were books that created a universe that seeped beyond the pages of the book, the turns of the story, it led to the endless sagas. To put beside the magic medieval mummery came the space aged later medieval mysticism of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune.
It was a perfect book for me. A big book, but not too big five hundred some pages. I first read an edition from the library. It was orange, a hardback and had some horizontal curves to suggest the desert planet of Arakis on the cover. I remember coming home from church one Sunday in June and lying in the garden with my book. I must have been nine or ten. It’s imprinted on my memory the way Chris Pratt is imprinted on those Veloceraptors. It is an image of Summer. That half hour between coming home from church and having to eat. When I was young, reading was so dilatory. You could be on one page for a whole day reading the same bit over and over; the same book for weeks, months. Nowadays my reading suffers from competence. About six years ago, I bought the Lord of the Rings and read them all the way through. Took me a week and a half. I skipped the songs. One rule of reading novels – whether it’s Thomas Pynchon or Tom Bombadil – always skip the songs.
There was no way I was going to finish the hardback library book of Dune before it was overdue, but then I got the blue covered paperback. The typography is like a Western and the Fremen look like Arabs, consistent with Herbert’s borrowing of Arabic sounding words and concepts throughout the novel. I read this version (I’m not sure if I got it new or second hand). I skipped Gunny Haleck’s songs and the little quotations at the top of the page from Princess Irulan’s official hagiographies. I enjoyed the hero’s journey and was suitably freaked out by how weird Paul becomes throughout the book. The drugs – the mind-bending Spice is obviously LSD if LSD did what you think it can do when you take it – went over my head, but I was impressed by how easy it is for Paul to get a girlfriend. Then I got the film tie-in.
This version I read a number of times. It has stills on the cover, but none in the middle which struck me as a bit of a dupe. I enjoyed the film at the cinema. The first half is brilliant. The second half peters out and becomes increasingly silly. Giant worms being ridden you can get away with in prose but once you see it, and this isn’t a question of special effects, it just looks stupid. This was also the copy that I decided to reread this Summer in a bout of literary nostalgia. I sat in the garden and read two hundred pages without moving, except to go pee. I was waiting to go to the airport and pick up my parents who were coming to visit. That probably was what was causing the nostalgia.
Caladan is a rainy place and living on the coast of the North West of England, I could relate to that. Everyone in the book has special training to do stuff which is really normal but talked about in a special way. The Bene Gesserit sisterhood are basically connivers; the Mentat think about stuff; the Guild drive space ships. Paul is trained in a whole array of skills, including thinking in italics. At one point Jessica, Paul’s mother, wonders what time it is – or consults her ‘time sense’ as the book would have it. A couple of hours of passed. Paul is like Neo, Luke, Harry Potter, Jesus, the chosen one and the drama slackens considerably as you realize there’s nothing that he can’t do and all the prophecies will come true. As the book goes on, the savage Fremen become compliant and docile under his hand and Dune itself changes from a hostile desert world to somewhere that might actually be worth farming. Herbert, realizing his dilemma, has to explicitly reign in Paul’s superpowers to create some tension for the climax of the book.
The universe itself is that brilliant mix of the familiar and the uncanny. The Arabic has already been noted, but the whole social structure of the late middle ages with Dukes and Barons fits well with de-technologized world. This isn’t so much steam punk as windmill punk. The lacunae are well used as well. If George R.R. Martin had written Dune the first book could easily have been three or four, but Herbert recognises when not much is happening and jumps ahead years at a time and is even quite happy to skip lengthy battle scenes. It makes for what is, when it comes down to it, a compact well-focussed novel. In my teens I read all the novels in the series. I remember Chapterhouse: Dune being published in 1985 and so I must have read them all by the end. I never read the Brian Herbert continuations. They came out too late for me and I’d already moved on to other things. I recently heard there were plans to remake the movie (directed by Lone Survivor’s Peter Berg, God help us!), but then I heard the plans fell through. One continuation I would love to see, would be David Lynch making a film of Dune Messiah. I still think his flawed version of the film is a great watch and I’d love to see it go further. Part of this desire comes from its obvious impossibility. I wrote a piece for Studio Exec to that end. Many of my jokes are fantasies.
The book is finished and my parents have gone home. The nostalgia is still here, but it is a dangerous thing to do, revisiting Arakis. It makes me long for Caladan as well.
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John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.