Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

20 Books of Summer 2022: Book 6

I’m split on how to feel about Frank Herbert’s Dune. I attempted to read it a few times over the years, but it never pulled me in. I only finished it now because I was impressed by the film. Arguably, the book ends on an even bigger cliffhanger, but I’m not curious enough about this world or its characters to read further. It’s a classic and I’m glad to have read it, but it wasn’t as entertaining or engaging as expected.

Much of the book’s drama stems from a power struggle between the various Great Houses in an interstellar society. The feud between the Harkonnens and Atreides takes center stage after the Emperor transfers Arrakis, a spice-producing planet that brings tremendous wealth, from the Harkonnens to the Atreides. As is often said within the book, there are “plots within plots within plots” as the two houses scheme and lay traps for the other. A complicating factor is that Paul Atreides, the Duke’s son, seems to have been foretold by the Fremen, the people living on Arrakis who have been oppressed by everyone pillaging their planet for spice. It’s worth noting that “spice” is more than a food seasoning—it’s an addictive substance that can increase health and lifespan, and also grant prescience to some people (including Paul).

I don’t know where to begin with a coherent review because even the strong points of this book aren’t all that strong. If I say I like the world building (and I do), I have to wrestle with how small this story seems despite its interplanetary setting. Arrakis may feel more like a planet than a big desert, but it still has that Star Wars problem: It’s in a great big galaxy, but only a few families matter, and folks are secretly related which shrinks things further. Plus, if you read “spice” as a stand-in for any natural resource that has caused conflict on Earth, this story is yet another depressing iteration of the fight for oil/gold/rubber/etc., only this time in space.

I’m going to break this up a bit:

Not as bad as expected

  • I’ve seen criticism that the female characters are weak, that women in this world are either wives, concubines, or witches, but despite their limited roles, these women are powerful: They pull political strings, advise rulers, plot bloodlines, see the future/past, and they’re strong enough to kill men in battle. To say they’re “just wives and concubines” is misleading. It’s less that women cater to men in this story and more that everyone caters to Paul. It’s also worth noting that since Dune is fixated on the upper echelons of society, the male characters don’t have much freedom either. Leto’s role as Duke leaves him no choice but to walk into an obvious trap.
  • Stories about a “Chosen One” come with plot armor and arrogant characters whose arrogance is rewarded by the plot as their successes confirm over and over that yes, they’re the best. e.g., If Paul’s going to ride a worm, it’s going to be the biggest worm anyone’s ever seen, etc. However, this is almost—almost—tempered by Paul’s fear of becoming what he sees in his visions. He wants to lead, but he doesn’t want to lead a fanatical mob in a religious war. This sprinkles in a little unpredictability; all his visions will probably come true in some way, but in what way? Paul’s ascent seems less assured when the narrative casts that ascent in a negative light. It helps, too, that his visions aren’t overly clear: “The prescience, he realized, was an illumination that incorporated the limits of what it revealed—at once a source of accuracy and meaningful error. A kind of Heisenberg indeterminacy intervened: the expenditure of energy that revealed what he saw, changed what he saw.” (478)
  • Every chapter starts with an excerpt from in-universe sources ranging from diaries to historical documents. Sometimes these explain or hint at events or characters not yet covered by the main narrative. By far, this is the most interesting use of epigraphs I’ve seen. They give the feeling that Paul’s story is larger than what the reader has seen so far.

Surprisingly disappointing

  • The writing is weak. It’s plodding, repetitive, and opaque. It makes interesting things boring. I’d rather read the wiki pages about spice, worms, and the gom jabbar than the passages in the book. The only reason I was able to get through this book at all is because I had the stunning imagery of the movie in my mind. The movie made this book palatable. At the end of the day, it’s the poor writing that will lead to this book’s low score. Herbert had a lot of fun and new ideas, but I wonder how much more compelling this story might have been if given to a stronger writer.
  • There are quite a few asides detailing a character’s thought mid-conversation. For the most part, these aren’t really needed because the dialog is strong enough to explain what’s duplicated in the parenthetical. e.g., “Great Mother! he thought. I’ve aroused her suspicions! Now I must use every trick. . . . There’s only one solution: tell the truth as far as I can.” (75) While occasionally useful, these asides dilute conversation and prevent it from flowing naturally.

Incredibly petty, but still

  • In addition to the movie’s imagery, the sandworms were a big part of why I kept reading. I needed to know more about them. When I learned the Fremen could ride them, I imagined they had some sort of symbiotic relationship, perhaps there was a form of communication between them. Instead, the Fremen catch rides by inserting hooks between a worm’s rings and prying them apart. When this happens, the worm rotates to protect its delicate inner layers from the harsh sand, and the rotation lifts the Fremen up to its back. Other riders at the end of the worm beat it to drive it forward. Eventually the worm tires and stops moving so the Fremen release it and allow it to dive back under the sand. At the risk of sounding excessively soft-hearted, learning that these fantastic worms—arguably the most interesting creatures in the book—are irritated and beaten into taxi service was a real bummer.

The test of a classic… Is it aging well?

The tech aspects have held up well—tech is described enough for a reader to understand its purpose, but not so closely that the reader imagines the 1960s version of whatever’s being described. The concepts of personal shields, palm locks, suspensor lamps, cones of silence, poison sniffers, ornithopters, stillsuits, etc. will probably hold up for years to come.

Beyond the tech, the book is busy with layers of scheming, intrigue, and world-building, and much of the conflict has an air of timelessness since struggles over scarce resources have always and will always cause unrest and instability.

Overall: 3.7 (out of 5.0) With better pacing and better writing, this would have been a more enjoyable reading experience. However, the world-building and its status as a classic make it required reading of sorts.

20 Books of Summer 2022

Previously on

  1. A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie
  2. The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
  3. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  4. Sphere by Michael Crichton
  5. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Read, review coming soon

  1. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  2. The Appointment by Herta Müller
  3. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
  4. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Currently reading

  1. Burmese Days by George Orwell
  2. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  3. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
  4. Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard
  5. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Unread, review coming later

  1. Human Acts by Han Kang
  2. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  3. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  4. The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
  5. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Image credit: Goodreads

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