dune

Monday, December 27, 2021 |

I have, for the last twelve years or so, been talking about reading Frank Herbert’s famous sci-fi epic Dune. I even mentioned it in a blog post in 2013 as one of my top 10 most intimidating books. I’ve had friends try to convince me to read it, and I meant to read it… I bought myself a paperback copy about four years ago that’s been collecting dust on my bookshelves ever since. What finally made me pick it up? Watching this year’s film adaptation. As someone who hadn’t consumed ANY Dune-related media, the story was new and fresh, and I wanted to see if the book measured up. In many ways it did, but I still have my quibbles. I’m sure the world doesn’t need another Dune book review, but I tapped out my thoughts in the Notes app while reading, and after all this is why I have a book blog – for me!


dune by frank herbert book cover
Set on the desert planet Arrakis,
Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for... 

When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.


Dune is at its core the story of a family under siege – of the members of House Atreides, those who betray them, and the way those betrayals shape the universe as a result. The stage and setting for those betrayals? The desert world of Arrakis, which is a character in its own right. Author Herbert blends mysticism, the hero’s journey, myth and legend, and a deep understanding of ecology and science to create a science fiction masterpiece. It is a story that largely holds up a half century later, and marks it not only as relevant, but interesting, all these years later.

 

That said, I found that there were several things that the movie edited out or altered to match modern sensibilities, that were a bit of a shock to me as I read the book (as a modern sci-fi reader, and modern reader in general). These included: 1960s and 70s surface-level exoticism of Islam, a white savior narrative, eugenics as a way to create a superior kind of human (white supremacy!!), drug use to transcend consciousness and gain access to a higher plain of awareness and knowledge, a typical and misogynistic sci-fi/fantasy story trope of men with multiple wives while women are held to a different standard, and homosexuality as a stand-in or marker of depravity in a person or leader. There were also words and phrases like terrible purpose, race consciousness, and jihad, all repeated without disambiguation. All of this can be laid at the feet of a narrative “of its time,” but they also may take today’s reader right out of the narrative. Fair warning and all that.

 

The most interesting bits of Dune were, in no particular order: discussions of “desert power” (a line used to great effect in the film adaptation), Herbert’s commentary on corruption and leadership, and the Missionaria Protectiva (a planned seeding cultures with religious ideas to allow future persons to move freely within the religious frameworks of those worlds). I also appreciated Herbert’s juxtaposition of a practical acceptance of death as part of the life cycle, and common use of spice as a drug that elongates life. Dune had many things to say about beauty and youth, and unfortunately at some points veered into fatphobia.

 

As for characterization, I appreciated seeing the world of Dune through multiple perspectives, including Lady Jessica’s (Paul Atreides’ mother). At its core, this is a story of the flowering of a young man in the nexus of power, and it is not only a coming-of-age but also a coming-of-the-promised-one narrative. Creating an almost omnipotent main character does have some drawbacks. I say this without irony: men will see themselves in Paul — men who always believe they are the smartest in the room and have the most interesting things to say. And I don’t know if that’s what Herbert expected or wanted to happen, but I can see why this book is so timelessly popular. It has forward-thinking themes and a popular setting and incorporates real science, but what it also has is a Mary Sue sort of hero for boys who feel too smart for the life they are living to project themselves onto.

 

While this book and its main character are wise, poetic, epic, and stand the test of time, I found that it lacked (for me) a sense of authentic human empathy. The pacing is good, the twists interesting, the characters fully developed, and the emotion flat. I was engaged, but not at the level of wanting things desperately for the characters. The strongest emotion evoked was one of justice at the plan of revenge. I am happier, I think, with more modern books that ask me to emotionally commit to a character with real faults. And that is that.

 

Non sequitur: I caught myself wondering if Robin McKinley wrote The Blue Sword in part in response to this book? Some similar themes, featuring an imperfect character (a girl doing things!) growing into her own as a leader in a desert landscape.

 

In all, Dune is an interesting and seminal read, and one I’d recommend to those who like science fiction as well as those who don’t usually go for it (but who liked the recent film!).

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