Paul Hamilton's Reviews > Dune

Dune by Frank Herbert
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's review
May 28, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction, novel
Read from September 08 to October 11, 2011 — I own a copy

Having seen Frank Herbert's Dune listed on practically every "Top {Whatever} Best SF Novels" list—well, ever—I figured I'd better finally get around to reading it. The first thing I noticed was that in spite of not having read it or really having a clear idea of the plot and only having half-watched the David Lynch movie way back when I was a pipsqueak, there was an awful lot of the details that had sunk into my subconscious just from the benefit of being a hopeless nerd for the last 34 years. Terms like Bene Gesserit, melange, Paul Atredies, House Harkonnen and Arrakis all rang bells in spite of having no real context for any of them.

Still, even with part of the vocabulary rattling around in my skull, there is a real learning curve to this book. I think, after all this time, I've finally come to terms with my relationship to SF: I love the idea of Science Fiction, but a lot of its literature is deeply flawed. Because SF is generally pure imagination, it captures my sense of wonder which is why I go back to it over and over again. But the thing is, the more imaginative the author is, the worse they get at introducing someone into their worlds. At least, that's how it feels. SF authors like to throw around all these world-building made-up terms and create new languages and cultures and technologies that they get to name and explain and they don't always bother to set the stage properly for someone coming into the world, instead dropping them in and saying, essentially, "just go with it." Or, on the other extreme, they spend pages and pages setting everything up without ever explaining why the reader ought to care.

Fantasy authors have a slightly easier time since mostly there is a context to fantasy; perhaps the fantasy tropes are part of its weakness since originality isn't a defining characteristic but at least they allow a degree of accessibility. You can call the hulking green-skinned, heavy jawed, war-thirsty brutes Bludgryphs or you can call them Wyldingz, or any other psedonym, but I know you mean "Orks." Even if they have orange skin or fur or some come from noble tribes, I still know what you mean. When some SF writer starts talking about "the wingspan on the steely Feruhgl'ahnj being sixty decajinters wide" I sort of glaze over. Maybe it's a metal space dragon? Maybe a spaceship? Maybe it's a really small communicator? Whatever, just get on with it so maybe somewhere in the next twenty pages that one sentence will make half a lick of sense.

And here's what happens: All this imagination is running around, loose and wild, hoping you'll pick it up by contextual clues and while the author is smugly shoving their cleverness into your face and daring you to question their wit and craft, I start to fall asleep. Literally, in the case of Dune. It's not that Herbert wrote a boring book it's that I floundered so much with his clever but context-deprived jabbering that it wasn't until 75 pages in that I finally saw some semblance of character and conflict and drama and intrigue. It took me longer to read 30 pages of Dune than it did to read 400 pages in The Hunger Games. Because here's the secret I don't like admitting to myself: I prefer YA SF. The short version of it is that YA books get to the point and filter their creativity and cleverness through a character filter so we're learning about the people while we learn about the places and the things. Maybe Suzanne Collins wouldn't be doing what she's doing without Herbert, but I'm glad she's doing it better than he did.

Fortunately for Herbert, classic SF fans and myself, Dune does eventually start to make sense and even starts to get exciting. A synopsis doesn't do justice to the intricate plot of the novel, but the focus here is on the planet of Arrakis, a water-deprived desert of a place that just happens to be the sole source of melange—spice—which is vital to the Imperium, necessary for space travel and the cornerstone of the interstellar economy. Arrakis was controlled by House Harkonnen, but an Imperial order has them vacating the planet and welcoming House Atredies as its new stewards. Only the Duke, Leto Atredies, suspects or perhaps knows outright that there is a Harkonnen plot behind the new assignment. His only hope is that his foresight will permit him to turn the tables or, if worst comes to pass, his young but gifted son Paul can succeed where he will have failed.

My favorite part of the book is the snippets of works by what appears to be Paul's biographer, one Princess Irulan, (view spoiler) which appear before each chapter. These foreshadowing blocks of flavor text frame the book as a sort of future history, a narrative account of something that is significant in a broader context looked back on from a future time. It works exceptionally well, even creating a nebulous but fascinating character in the Princess herself, and nearly all the quotes relate in some way to the following chapter.

My least favorite part of the book is the way Herbert struggles to maintain a consistent point of view, switching pell-mell between characters having a dialogue, dropping italicized thoughts in from them or even onlookers, consistently resorting to a more tell than show means of conveying the inner struggles of the principal characters. It never really makes the book hard to follow, but it makes the book kind of a pain to read, consistently pulling the reader out of the flow and making it at times very slow reading.

The good news is that the praise for Dune is deserved because in spite of it being kind of a mess in terms of writing, it's a triumph of storytelling, world-building, and adventure. By the beginning of Part III, I was absolutely loving the story of Paul Muad'Dib, his mother Jessica and the Fremen natives with their mysterious plan for the desert planet of Arrakis. There is so much thought put into the setting here, Arrakis itself is practically the protagonist and it speaks volumes that unlike some easy to digest places like Hogwarts or Narnia, you don't want to visit the world of Dune yourself, but it's so wonderful to be allowed to come along for the ride with the Atredies and share in their fight for the fate of their House and their newly adopted planet and newly adopted people.
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Quotes Paul Liked

Frank Herbert
“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong - faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it's too late.”
Frank Herbert, Dune

Frank Herbert
“The mystery of life isn't a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”
Frank Herbert, Dune
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