Dune by Frank Herbert

Description

Dune is wildly influential and popular, and also kind of hard to summarize. Here’s a snippet from its Wikipedia page: “Dune is set in the distant future amidst a feudal interstellar society in which various noble houses control planetary fiefs. It tells the story of young Paul Atreides, whose family accepts the stewardship of the planet Arrakis. While the planet is an inhospitable and sparsely populated desert wasteland, it is the only source of melange, or “spice”, a drug that extends life and enhances mental abilities.”

Dune cover

Review

I didn’t like Dune while I was reading it. I would read a chunk of it and then come complain to my partner about all the things that irritated me. I was glad to have read it though, mostly due to the sheer volume of cultural references I now understood. But I kept thinking about it for days after I finished it, and then I read the next two books in the series. I didn’t like reading them either, but I read them. Dune is the only book I’ve felt compelled to do a fan edit of because I understand why people like it and why it was so influential, but I think it could easily be half the length. Below are my thoughts about Dune as I wrote them a few days after I had finished reading it–after those thoughts had some time to percolate.

The good

The worldbuilding is truly fantastic. Just very well-executed “macro” type stuff in pretty much all ways.

  • The primary draw of this book for me was learning more about Arrakis and its ecology. The spice and sand worms are so omnipresent in so much of what goes on in Dune in a way that’s really satisfying, affecting things as small as how the characters have to walk across open sand to things as large as deep multi-world political intrigue. I think Dune really shines when Frank Herbert uses his characters to reveal more about the rich ecological and sociopolitical systems he created.
    • I really enjoyed Liet-Kynes’s death chapter, which slowly revealed the life cycle of spice and worms while killing off my favorite character to the elements of the planet he wanted to, and might yet, save. Really loved the line “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero” (p 351). It’s almost enough to compel me to keep reading the other books to see if the Fremen lose sight of their slow progress in making Arrakis a green ‘paradise’ in favor of embodying Paul’s jihad.
  • There was so much going on with the interplay between ecology/environment, history, religion, and politics. The author clearly spent a very long time living in this universe in his head before he wrote the story down. Nothing feels ret-conned, forgotten, or shoe-horned in. Every piece of the world(s) feels intentional and related. The politics of the universe of Dune feel nuanced and believable.

The less-good

The characters were not terribly compelling to me. They felt largely very archetypal and not very distinct in terms of nuances of speech or mannerism. Due to the structure where every chapter begins with a snippet of an in-world historical text recounting people and events in a distanced external perspective kind of way, I was interpreting one of the objectives of the book as being that the author wanted to show us a sociopolitical/historical scenario from both the outside, distanced perspective and an internal, intimate perspective. like, “this is how he’s portrayed in history, but THIS is how he really was.” I don’t think it quite gets there, mostly because the writing just never really accomplished having me care about the characters beyond curiosity about the world and plot.

On that note, I wasn’t much a fan of the writing.

  • The reliance on italicized thoughts really kneecapped the emotional impact imo, and i think the author got kind of lazy with his characterization because of it. Sometimes the extent to which Herbert didn’t seem to trust readers to understand characterization was baffling.
    • The most clear example of this is toward the beginning of the last chapter. Paul and his entourage are entering the Arrakeen governor’s mansion. Paul asks about the extent of the storm damage. Gurney tells him that there’s been a lot of damage, both from the storm and the battle. Paul says “Nothing money won’t repair, I presume.” Gurney replies “Except for the lives, m’Lord.” This exchange could (and really should) have stopped here. Readers aren’t so goldfish-brained as to forget when Duke Leto was more upset about the risk of life than loss of equipment to a sandworm attack earlier in the book. It was a pretty prominent scene. But the author seems to not trust his readers to make this obvious connection, because that line continues: ““Except for the lives, m’Lord,” Gurney said, and there was a tone of reproach in his voice as though to say “When did an Atreides worry first about things when people were at stake?”” It’s just a totally flabbergasting instance of beating the reader over the head with obvious connections that would have been well done if he could have left it alone.
  • This is one of very few ‘serious’ fiction books I’ve not cried/teared up either during or upon finishing this year. I think this is because I never got attached to anyone because no one really developed much. At a certain point in the book it felt like characters were having the same interaction over and over in slightly different settings.
    • When Paul and Jessica are wandering the sands together, both before and after they are taken to shelter by Liet-Kynes, pretty much all of their interactions can be boiled down to Jessica being like “oh no Paul is so stern and broody and smart now, what kind of cool-ass monster have I created” and Paul being like “I am so incredibly smart I can feel my brain logic-ing at ten times the speed of anyone else, and I am brooding about it.” And they’re just constantly doing this without much real development. Like, sure, the author’s illustrating that the power dynamic has flipped and Paul is the one giving the commands now. But again with the beating over the head. Once was enough.
  • I think he over-describes things like what people look like in terms of facial structure and under-describes things like body language. I couldn’t easily find a good example of this but I remember there being descriptions of like. A random Sardaukar’s cheekbones and similar things that mostly just felt like fluff. I might be biased against this kind of thing in general because I have a hard time picturing characters no matter how thoroughly they’re described.

Some things that didn’t age well or bothered me in a socially regressive kind of way, acknowledging that this book was written in the 60s:

  • Primarily, the fact that Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is apparently the only not-straight character in the whole book. The Baron is also characterized as a grotesquely fat glutton with very little self-control, a sadist, and possibly a pedophile. Everyone except the most irredeemable piece of shit in the book is painfully straight. This queer-coding of villainy and villain-coding of queerness left a very bad taste in my mouth.
  • The Bene Gesserit being this whole mysterious society of women with highly specialized, magic-or-close-enough-to-magic powers and a many-generations-long scheme of galactic control…only to be more or less reduced down to “we’ve been working this way for this long to produce a man who can do all these things that we can’t” felt…really lame. There was a smattering of gender essentialism throughout the mysticism of the book (men have the taking force, women have the giving force) and in the characterization (there are no women characters whose primary motivation isn’t deeply tied to stereotypical feminine concerns like romantic love or motherhood) that took the wind out of the book’s sails for me. I feel cautiously hopeful about the binary-busting potential of Paul’s exploration of his prescient powers (“I’m at the fulcrum. I cannot give without taking and I cannot take without…” p 562) and wondered if this gets explored more in later books. (Spoiler from present-Torri: it doesn’t.)
  • The whole colonizer white savior bred through eugenics coming to save the noble savages thing is pretty ick. The framing in the story of why the Fremen accept Paul as a messiah (generations of carefully-crafted signals sown as prophecy and folklore by the Bene Gesserit on purpose, specifically for this reason) makes sense, it’s just gross that we’re supposed to root for the guy that’s benefiting from it. I do think though that by the end of the second book and especially the third, Herbert makes it pretty clear that Dune and everyone on it would have been much better off if Paul and the forces that contributed to his rise to power had just left the planet alone.

Overall

  • I don’t mean to come across like “this all time sci-fi classic isn’t good enough for me.” I think the reason that the weaknesses in the characters and writing (the micro-layers) stood out to me is the incredible finesse and strength of the macro-layers. There is a LOT going on in this book, and I’m sure for readers that really love the politics parts, it’s a feast you can revisit again and again and come away with something new each time.

One response to “Dune by Frank Herbert”

  1. […] mentioned in my Dune review that Dune excels in the macro but falls short in the micro, in part because we never really spend […]

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