Dune

by Frank Herbert

Cover image

Series: Dune #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: 1965
Printing: September 1990
ISBN: 0-441-17271-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 537

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The Atreides family, distant cousins to the imperial family, have ruled the planet of Caladan for twenty generations. Caladan is a wet farming world, comfortable and pleasant, but not horribly important. But House Atreides is feuding with House Harkonnen, and, at the start of Dune, that feud maneuvers Duke Leto into giving up his holdings and moving his family to take possession of Arrakis.

Arrakis is a desert planet, previously controlled by Baron Harkonnen. It is unrelentingly hostile, home to smugglers and dangerous local desert dwellers called Fremen. But it's also one of the most important planets in the galaxy, since it's the sole origin of the chemical called melange, or spice. Spice permits a limited form of prescience, which allows the navigators of the Spacing Guild to successfully steer ships across the interstellar void. Arrakis's production of spice is what makes interstellar travel, and therefore all of interstellar civilization, possible.

Dune is the story of Paul Atreides, son and heir to Duke Leto Atreides. His mother, Lady Jessica, is one of the Bene Gesserit, a secretive order of women devoted to mental and physical discipline and to the long-term genetic improvement of mankind. He is not supposed to exist; Lady Jessica was supposed to only bear a daughter of Leto. But he may be something special, the long-sought (but also dangerous) Kwisatz Haderach who can unite male and female Bene Gesserit powers. The Bene Gesserit take great interest in him from the start of Dune. More surprisingly, so do the Fremen of Arrakis; from the moment he arrives there, he seems to be fulfilling prophecies of theirs that are partly, but not entirely, ones planted by the Bene Gesserit long ago. The feud with the Harkonnens, the unstable place of Arrakis in galactic politics, the dreams of the Fremen and the Imperial ecologist on Arrakis of terraforming, Bene Gesserit plans, Paul's abilities, and the legends of the Fremen all combine in a complex mix of politics, battle, and clashes of culture.

Dune is an acknowledged SF masterpiece, one of the best-known classics of the genre. It's usually found in short lists of the best SF novels ever written. It spawned five sequels by Frank Herbert (about which more in a moment), as well as numerous additional sequels and prequels by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert. It's been adopted for the screen twice, not to mention board games, video games, and numerous other projects. This is my second reading, the first in about twenty years, but the story was still immediately familiar from having seen films and having discussed and read about the universe.

This is not science fiction in any strict sense. Dune is science fiction in the same way that Star Wars is: a futuristic gloss on top of power structures inspired by feudalism, heavily mixed with mysticism, mental powers, magic, and implausible but convenient science that creates the story effects the author wants. Both Bene Gesserit powers in general and Paul's abilities in particular are effectively magic. There is some hand-waving explanation of their ability to verbally control other people as taking advantage of specific pitches and intonations that people are vulnerable to, but it's effectively spell-casting (and is a direct inspiration for Jedi mind tricks). All of the mysticism (and there's quite a lot of it in Dune, including race memory, precognition, and even molecular transformation) resembles the Force from Star Wars more than anything scientific. Dune is epic fantasy told on a science fiction stage, complete with a young protagonist coming into his powers and dangerous and sometimes hostile mentors.

What Dune gets right, and what has put it so high in the pantheon of great science fiction, is the world building. Herbert sets the story tens of thousands of years into the future of humanity and then effectively projects the feeling of deep history over everything in the novel. This is the kind of book that has appendices with more background information; more to the point, it's the kind of book where you may actually read them out of curiosity. Mankind has a vast interstellar empire (Herbert's universe, like Asimov's Foundation universe, admits no aliens) governed by a system akin to the early British monarchy. An emperor rules in balance with the Great Houses, who meet in a sort of parliament. But against both is a third force: the Spacing Guild, who maintains a monopoly over all interstellar travel. (And the Bene Gesserit form an underground, secretive fourth power base.) Herbert plays with vast swaths of time and great forces of history as well as very good epic fantasy and better than nearly all SF I've read.

The detailed world-building is equally good. Nearly all of Dune takes place on the desert planet of Arrakis, which has a lovingly-described ecology and local culture built entirely around scarcity of water. (The details of that ecology are much of the plot and mystery of the book, so I won't spoil them further.) While I doubt the precise details hold up to close scientific scrutiny, this is an obvious precursor to the great ecological stories of later SF, such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. The details all feel right and hang together in satisfying ways, while also generating the great Sand Worms of Arrakis, a key ingredient in several of the best set pieces in the history of SF. This is the sort of book where the fascinating details and discoveries about the world do as much to keep one turning the pages as the plot, although the plot is also satisfyingly twisty and tense.

Unfortunately, Dune doesn't get everything right. The amount of mysticism involved is a bit much, and at times the drug-trip mystical experiences of viewpoint characters turn into excessively purple prose and nearly incomprehensible descriptions. Those mystical experiences also involve race and genetic memory, a concept that's just scientific enough to be unbelievable. A few of the other scentific cheats are also rather blantant; for example, Herbert constructs an elaborate, artificial technology of shielding that seems designed primarily as an excuse to add sword combat to a futuristic story, and I have always struggled to suspend disbelief about the way lasers and shields interact in Dune. The Spacer Guild's monopoly on interstellar travel can be explained; their monopoly on local orbital space, or even the high stratosphere, both vital to allow certain things on Arrakis to remain secret, are much more dubious. Herbert mostly doesn't try to explain these things, and as with Star Wars the less explained the cheats are, the better they work as part of the story. But the technological background doesn't hold up against much examination.

Worse, for me, is the general quality of the writing. Herbert does some things very well, such as world-building, and avoids awkward infodumps. Characterization and pacing are both fairly solid; he does a good job with Paul and Jessica in particular, and I've always liked the Fremen. But he wants to put the reader in everyone's head, frequently by giving character thoughts as italicized dialogue, and to enable that he uses a perspective that I always find distracting.

Most fiction is written in tight third person. This means that the viewpoint character for any given section of the book is referred to in the third person, like all the other characters, but the reader has special access to their thoughts and emotions. We get to know what they're really thinking and feeling, not just the impressions they give to others, while the non-viewpoint characters are shown only from external appearances and the thoughts of the viewpoint character. Some books hold to the same viewpoint character throughout, but more commonly books move between viewpoint characters at scene breaks to provide more angles on the book's events.

First person, in which the story is told by a specific character as if they were telling a story or writing it down, is the most common alternative. Third person objective, in which we don't get any special insight into the internal thoughts of any of the characters, is less common but still unsurprising.

Dune does not use any of those perspectives. Instead, Dune uses wandering third-person omniscient, in which we get the inner thoughts and emotions of a character in a scene and then a few lines later the inner thoughts and emotions of a different character. This is the sort of thing that may or may not bug you depending on how much you've read, how deep the expectations of perspective are ingrained, and how much you notice perspective. It drives me nuts. I subconsciously align with the viewpoint character of a section, and pay attention to the ways that authors indicate which character will be the viewpoint character at the start of a scene. Herbert's constant flitting from character to character makes me dizzy. We get the verbatim thoughts of everyone almost indiscriminately, making me feel like I'm randomly hopscotching through the scene.

For me, this does two things: it hurts my ability to get engrossed in the story, since I'm constantly thrown out of my normal reading mode when the viewpoint unexpectedly shifts, and it makes the writing feel repetitive. One keeps hearing about the same thing from multiple perspectives, and at times the story bogs down in everyone's internal dialogues rather than showing character reactions and letting the reader draw their own conclusions. I think it tries for a cinematic perspective, but ends up making the story feel muddled.

The other flaw, which I didn't notice originally but which leaped out at me during this re-read, is that Herbert's world-building uses quite a few stereotypes. The most notorious, and most widely discussed, is of course the Fremen. Herbert draws heavily on Arab and Islamic culture even beyond the obvious similarities of people living in a harsh, arid climate. He borrows some rather loaded terms and cultural markers, such as jihad, to construct a culture of potential religious fanatics. This is not all bad; the Fremen are clearly portrayed as the good guys, which is a refreshing change from more typical current portrayals of Islam. But it becomes clear that they have aligned their entire culture around influences from outside, and the whole plot of Dune can be fairly characterized as an instance of "what these people need is a white man." Paul (and Kynes before him) joins their culture as well, but Paul becomes a better native than the natives, while simultaneously bringing his outside perspective. It's the sort of plot that is more widely noticed today than it would have been in 1965.

Another major example of this, and one that I found more blatant, is that Herbert turns the Harkonnen into hissable, one-sided villains and uses some nasty stereotypes to do it. The insane torturer is consistently and repeatedly described as effeminate, fat is used as a marker of moral inferiority and evil, and the primary villain is homosexual and prefers drugged young male slaves. Here too, this sort of characterization short-cut was more common in 1965, but it's not appealing and makes the (already rather camp) scenes set among the Harkonnen even less enjoyable.

Less clear-cut is the way women are handled throughout Dune. I do have to give Herbert some credit, particularly for the era in which he was writing. There are powerful female characters in Dune, including both Jessica and Alia, who have their own independent power and successfully pursue their own agendas throughout. The effectively all-female Bene Gesserit is a major political power in the story and is treated by the other players with respect as well as fear. But it's hard not to also notice the general position of women as subservient to men, not only in the general culture of the Great Houses but also in the more positively-portrayed Fremen culture. Indeed, the subservience of women is even worse in Fremen culture, where they're treated like property and where being killed by a woman is a sign of shame. Again, Herbert deserves some credit for doing better than a lot of 1960s fiction, but the sexism fairy has still been at work here.

None of these flaws change the fact that Dune is a masterpiece. Herbert brings together history, world building, ecology, politics, and a compelling coming-of-age story about a messiah figure into a fast-paced, sweeping epic with a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. I think they do make it a flawed masterpiece, but it's still one of those SF novels that everyone should read at least once.

Sadly, it's also a masterpiece that I think has suffered from its own success in the form of sequels, prequels, and a ton of supporting material. This is one of the problems that truly excellent world building can lead to.

Human history is fractal: any specific detail can be examined in more depth and will usually lead (provided that information is available at all) to even more fascinating detail. The best world building conveys that impression of depth. That's what Herbert achieves here with hints, notes, and asides: the sense that galactic history is a vast ediface with the same fractal complexity as real human history. It makes for a compelling background, but it also inspires people to dig into that background and flesh out all of the details the way that we do with human history. But this doesn't actually work; invented history created by one person simply cannot be fractal in the same way. Human history is endlessly complex because it was generated by the complex interactions of many people. Invented history is an illusion that hints at complexity by building the same surface, but one mind, or even a small number of minds, cannot generate the same depth. The result is that if one digs too deep, one removes that convincing surface and ends up with a mundane, simplistic, and unsatisfyingly fake set of events.

I think that's what's happened with all of the supporting material that's been written around Dune since its original publication. Dune is of a piece, a single story that's deeply enjoyable on its own terms and leaves the reader with a satisfying impression of complexity. The systemic excavation of that complexity lessens it and reveals too much of the illusion. Yes, I want to know more about the Butlerian Jihad, but that's the point: the wanting is the sign of succesful crafting of imagined history. Reading the definitive account is more likely to leave me unsatisfied than to lead to the recursive curiosity that human history can create.

The sequels to Dune written by Herbert himself are, for me, another matter. Some reviewers level the same criticism at them: that Herbert dives too far into background best left unexplored. But they have the advantage of moving forward, telling more of the story set off by Paul, and the end of Dune is a clear setup for a sequel. One of Paul's goals throughout most of the book has been left unaccomplished. I don't think Herbert dove too deep into his creation; rather, my problem with his sequels (all of which I've read, although it's been some years now) is that he took the story in a direction that I actively disliked and found painful to read.

Regardless, the general consensus is that the sequels aren't as good as the original, and while Dune doesn't fully resolve its story, it's complete enough that it's possible to stop here. Stopping is the general recommendation, although I still may re-read and review the sequels at some point.

Followed by Dune Messiah.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-11-23

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04