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WesternSFA


National Lampoon's Doon
by Ellis Weiner
Pocket Books, 221pp
Published: November 1984

This book has sat on my shelf for decades without being read, because it's exactly what it looks like: a parody of Frank Herbert's legendary 'Dune', done by the National Lampoon. I might suggest that I hadn't read it until now because I hadn't read 'Dune' either and there's no point reading a parody of something without having at least some reference point to what's being parodied, but then I haven't read 'Bored of the Rings' either, without any valid excuse. Maybe my real reason is that I'm not American so didn't grow up on 'Mad' and 'National Lampoon' and don't appreciate a lot of that sort of American humour.

I'm reading it now because it's the April selection for the CASFS Book & Media Social and because I've finally got through 'Dune' as well, as part of my runthrough of winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel. What I found was that it's indeed the sort of American humour that I expected, most of which didn't make me laugh at all but did make me shake my head, roll my eyes slowly and groan aloud. Fortunately, what I also found was that it isn't just the barrage of cheap name substitutions that it looks like. Of course, the Gom Jabbar from 'Dune' is morphed into the Abdul Jabbar here. Like, what else was it going to become?

Eight-year-old readers—at least at the time this was published in 1984, because eight-year-olds are not going to get most of the cultural references today—will have yuk yukked it up to things like that, even though they're not exactly high wit. The Bene Gesserit have become the Boni Maroni. The Spacing Guild is now the Schlepping Guild. Arrakis, the legendary desert planet known as Dune is, somewhat inevitably, Arruckus, a Dessert Planet known as Doon. I didn't even bother to groan at most of these, but then I'm not an eight-year-old American boy reading this in 1985. Hey, the second paragraph introduces turbulence in the Nether Region. You can guess how juvenile it will end up.

There are better gags. I think I actually laughed when Weiner introduced the Houses. I don't mean the main two of House Agamemnides and House Hardchargin, replacing House Atreides and House Harkonnen, because they aren't that clever, but there's a paragraph that points out that other great Houses are openly covetous of Duke Lotto Agamemnides being given the administration of Arruckus by Shaddap IV (groan) himself, the Pahdedbrah Emperor (double groan). Which Houses, you might ask? Why, House Wax, House Pancakes, House Rising Sun and even House Seven Betty Grables, that's which. That's good stuff. The latter is even a double joke.

The grand level substitution isn't one of the better gags. Dune is legendary because it's the source of Spice, the mysterious and rare substance so desired by the rest of the galaxy. On Doon, that's beer. I do admire how deeply Ellis Weiner went in extending that transposition, because he really had to work for it, However, he managed to build an entire mythology around beer in this book that encompasses history, culture and the entire food chain in all its cycles of replenishment. That particular achievement is a lot more impressive to me than any one of the individual jokes that it spawned.

This isn't a particularly long novel—it's done in merely a hundred and sixty pages, if we ignore the glossary—but Weiner does a great job at skewering the mythic nature of its target. Everything in Frank Herbert's 'Dune' has a mythic element, including the names. Paul Atreides is known by many other names; even among the Fremen, he becomes Usul within his troop and Maud'Dib on a wider basis, and he also claims to be the Kwisatz Haderach of legend. Sure, Pall Agamemnides predictably becomes Assol, Mauve'Bib and the Kumkwat Haagendasz, but Ellis Weiner goes beyond those trivialities to really have fun with how legends work. Eventually, Pall realises that he can be whatever he wants to be simply be claiming to be it, whatever it means and even if nobody knows.

I think my favourite jokes here, though, aren't even in the narrative but in the quotations ahead of each section to echo the mythbuilding historical notes in the original book. Here, they're each taken from a different book by the Princess Serutan, a joke I didn't get at all—apparently Serutan was a laxative promoted on American radio and TV  from the thirties to the sixties—and they're glorious. Most are about Pall Agamemnides, of course, the Kumkwat Haagendasz, but there's even one from 'No More Princess Nice Guy: The Princess Serutan Story', which ends, "He strode across Arruckus like he owned the place. Who did he think he was? If he's so ineffable, let him write his own damn biography." I found these sections so funny that I almost wanted to skip the story to see what the next one would be.

And so this really is what it is. I wasn't surprised at how juvenile and obvious most of the humour was, but I was surprised at how deep Ellis went into parodying the underlying themes of 'Dune', destinies and ecosystems and messiahs. I was a little surprised that I got as many of the jokes as I did, regardless of whether they were funny or not, but I was surprised at how old some of the cultural references were for a 1984 book. There was very little trawling in the eighties and even the seventies, but a lot that looked back to the sixties and even earlier. Maybe because I have so little background in the 'National Lampoon', I was also surprised to find so many of the parody substitutions chosen only because of their sounds rather than any deeper meaning.

It probably counts as a recommendation that I didn't entirely hate it. I got through all hundred and sixty pages, emerging mostly unscarred, and there were aspects that I honestly enjoyed and can happily praise. I absolutely wasn't expecting to say that in this review. It's going to be a hard book to recommend though, in an era where a larger proportion of the population understand 'Dune' than ever before, because of the Hollywood movie, but I would give the primary reason as the dated aspect of the jokes than their quality. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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