Completed 4/27/2015, Reviewed 4/29/2015
“Dune” is the greatest space opera I’ve ever read. That says a lot because space opera is not my favorite genre. Its messages about the environment and the rise against genocidal oppression really stirs me. Of course, the mystical, prophetic nature of the plot really tugs at my love for theological SF. But for some reason, I couldn’t completely put on my golden age of SF blinders and ignore the representation of women and homosexuality, something I’m usually able to do. So instead of re-experiencing the profound effect I had when I first read this in college, I found myself looking at the book as an outsider, only sporadically losing myself in the otherwise amazing story that “Dune” is.
What I loved most about “Dune” is the messianic premise: Paul Atreides, the son of a Duke, escapes a death plot on their new home planet to be taken in by native Fremen. He and his mother, Jessica, seem to fulfill a prophesy, with Paul becoming the messianic leader and Jessica the mystic destined to overthrow the empire and lead the Fremen toward making Dune a “green” planet. It mixes medieval and Arabic social structures, Greco-roman oracles, Buddhist principals and Christian messianic tradition into a complex future of haves and have nots. Then throw in a race of people being systematically slaughtered by the forces of an evil baron, and you have the makings of an amazing universe.
My hackles were first raised with the evil baron. Vladimir Harkonnen is the conniver trying to get tighter with the Emperor. He sets the ball rolling to destroy the House Atreides. As it turns out, he’s a pedophile, having a thing for young teen boys. There are no positive or even neutral gay characters to offset the perversity of Harkonnen. It’s the old trope of gays in literature: they are either child molesters or tragically suicidal. It brings me back to my youth, thinking I was doomed to a miserable life because that was all I read in books or saw in films. Of course, the argument can be raised that Harkonnen is not gay, since he shows no interest in adult males. He pretty explicitly seems to have lost interest in his heir-apparent nephew as an adult towards the end of the book. But the equation of gay = pedophile is already made, and readers like me instantly put up a wall.
The portrayal of women is even worse. They are all basically witches, concubines, or both. Nearly every female character is associated with the Bene Gesserit, the order of mystical women who seem to have a controlling interest in the fate of the human race. It signifies that women only have power through sex or magic. They have no power in and of themselves. Whenever two women in the novel have a conversation, it’s about a man, usually Paul (So, yes, it fails the Bechdel test). This is par for golden age science fiction. In a sense, it’s better than many books which have only one or no female characters. Still, I felt constantly hit over the head with the concept that the women’s only purpose in life was based on their relationship to men. Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time believing that 8000 years from now, even if we have an emperor of the universe, we’d revert back to women being solely tolerated for their role as lovers, child bearers, and nuns.
Despite these glaring issues, the book remains one of the greatest science fiction epics I’ve ever read. I think if the Mythopoeic Award existed at the time, it would have been another award in its pocket. Herbert created not just an incredible universe, but one filled with a complete mythology and history. He had the foresight to write soft SF, coming up with an anti-computer jihad in the universe’s history, and not giving details of spacecraft, allowing the book to remain technologically timeless. I still give “Dune” four stars out of five, but even allowing it the benefit of the doubt as being the product of a man born in 1920, it failed to move me in that profound way that a true timeless classic should have.