[I’ve been making an effort to catch up on classic genre writing that I probably should have read as a kid, but for whatever reason didn’t. There’s not much use in writing reviews of years-old books mostly accepted as classics, so I’ll write them up under this column instead. Follow it here.]
If you listen to to our podcast, you might remember me talking about Dune almost a year ago. After putting it aside for a while, I picked it back up recently. With a little more time to sit down and become absorbed in the book, I finally finished Dune and loved it.
Dune‘s greatness (and even though this isn’t an official review, I’ve added it to our Great Readssection) lies in in how comprehensively detailed Herbert makes his universe. Many sci-fi books attempt to create a unique world, but only end up with a bunch of needless explaining of invented terminology and a story that could just as easily work in a different setting. This is not the case with Dune. Like any good sci-fi saga, the setting is as central to the story as the plot and characters.
Herbert seamlessly blends fantasy and sci-fi conventions in a way few franchises besides Star Wars have been successful at. Aristocrats playing politics, sword fights, space ships, and giant sandworm alien monsters punctuate a story that is full of rich lore rivaled only by books like the Lord of the Rings series and creative technology and terminology–but that story never insults the reader’s intelligence by spending the first third of the book pedantically explaining everything.
Dune follows the young Paul Atreides, only son of Duke Leto Atreides, as he becomes a Lawrence of Arabia-esque folk hero on the desert planet of Arrakis. The Atreides have been granted control of the planet by the emperor of the interstellar human race, replacing the corrupt Harkonnen family as the managers of the fiefdom. An arid and desolate planet, Arrakis is extremely important to the imperial-helmed, oligarchical CHOAM Corporation, as it is the only known source of a substance called spice, which when ingested can grant humans slight precognition. This utility alone makes safe navigation for large-scale interstellar travel possible.
The feud between Harkonnen and Atreides leaves Duke Leto dead and Paul and his mother stranded in the forbidding desert. Perhaps due to the spice, and perhaps due to other factors best left unspoiled, Paul begins to stand out as a truly extraordinary young man (there’s a lot of Luke Skywalker in him actually–Paul probably “influenced” George Lucas’s writing). Though the adventure begins when Paul is only a boy of fifteen, he soon proves himself a wise (even precognitive) and mature leader. Soon he’s heading a revolution on the surface of Arrakis, at once fighting to liberate the people and planet of Arrakis and exercising the restraint needed to avoid inciting an interstellar jihad.
It’s worth noting that though it’s taken me quite a while to finally read this book, the movie has long been a favorite of mine. I’m a big David Lynch fan, so I’m a little biased towards liking the movie anyway, but having read the book: it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation. One thing that always bugged me a bit about the movie was the constant internal monologue voiceovers in which the characters described their logic and motivations for saying or doing certain things. I assumed it to be a bit of laziness on Lynch’s part to not try and get that information out of the acting.
As it turns out, this technique is lifted straight from the book. There are constant italicized asides where a character explains exactly what they are thinking. At first, this annoyed me with the book as well–again I thought it was a lazy shortcut on Herbert’s part. But as the book progressed and characters words and needs increasingly different from their thoughts and motivations, the asides grew on me and I began to feel the book would be lacking without them. It’s an example of dramatic irony done right: the reader knows exactly what each character knows, and thus more than every character, but the whole picture of the plot isn’t revealed immediately.
That’s because much of the book deals with overt and subtextual politics being played between characters. There are deceptions that layered mutiple plot points thick. It’s a bit like A Game of Thrones in this way, except much better. Like all exemplary sci-fi, the book eventually opens up to reveal a much broader and richer set of variables than immediately apparent, and in doing so also manages to pose more higher-level, philosophical questions for interested reader. Even if you’re not a big reader of genre books (I’m not), you’ll probably enjoy Dune. If you’re the type of reader who deigns to read George R. R. Martin or The Hunger Games on the subway, this book will knock your socks off.