Author: Frank Herbert
Genre: Science Fiction
To many science fiction aficionados, Dune was the gateway drug that got them into the genre. Dune has everything one expects from excellent science fiction: the galactic scale, the alien planets and the futuristic technology, but the first novel in Frank Herbert’s popular and highly influential series subverts and toys with each of these tropes. The galactic scale is mentioned but is seldom really felt, the planet of Arrakis is alien yet tantalizing familiar and apart from one or two exceptions, most of the weaponry and technology seems pre-modern or even medieval. So why then is Dune so widely recommended when Herbert’s characters are largely bland and inscrutable and his plot meanders sluggishly? The equally wide accepted answer is that in Dune, Herbert has crystallized the essence of the science-fiction genre and presents it in the form of a saga that breaks its own boundaries to the extent of becoming something truly deserving of the label ‘epic’.
Broken into three parts, Dune tells the story of a young nobleman’s son, Paul Atreides, who travels with his family to the titular desert planet of Dune where they must defeat both their political enemies and the hostility of their new home. Herbert unquestionably has an innate sense of the cosmic – Dune deals less with the enormity of space, which is implied in the novel more than it is shown, but more with unfathomable depth of time and the ages. In doing so, Herbert shows an understanding of the sense of vastness that other authors sometimes struggle to manage. His universe, full of interesting societies and cultures, each with their own structural rigidities and intricacies, is pushed further and further in the first two sections of the novel, before it finally breaks in the final third.
In truth, these first two-thirds are the painfully slow and doubtfully necessary set-up for the explosive final act. In much of the first two sections, it feels as though Herbert is his own worst enemy; there will be an excellent chapter, full of plot progression and character development but any momentum generated in these chapters is almost immediately killed in the proceeding chapters as the reader is forced to wade through red herrings and painfully detailed exposition. Indeed, Herbert’s writing style is not quite as refined as one would hope – there are entire chapters just blatantly cramped with exposition and his characters have an odd tendency to announce themselves, as though to remind the readers of just who they are. Worse, the agendas and motivations of the various factions in the novel do not seem to hold up to any closer scrutiny; it’s one thing to leave some questions unanswered but it’s quite another to answer them unsatisfyingly. The novel’s resolves every major plot point but it is debatable whether the destination was worth the journey. The primary conflicts, drawn out throughout the novel, are resolved in a heartbeat and the novel’s climax is utterly devoid of conflict as a result of just how simply everything falls into place for the protagonists. It’s still a satisfying ending but after waiting for an hour, it’s not unfair to expect a more fulfilling meal.
Herbert’s characters are another problematic area. The primary protagonist, the young heir of House Atreides, Paul, starts off likable enough, being both impressive in his abilities and relatable in his vulnerability. However, as the novel progresses, Paul becomes (intentionally) more and more alien to us until by the final act, the character has changed to the point that it feels like there is a major disconnect in the character’s emotional state that the novel has not fully explained. The antagonistic House Harkonnen is disappointingly as well – they begin capably and show signs of being well-developed nuanced villains but remain lamentably one-dimensional in their cruelty and egregious unpleasantness.
Ultimately, the trouble is that in the forty years since Dune’s release, galactic scale rebellions and acts of larger-than-life heroism are just no longer as rare as they once were. It perhaps for this exact reason that the Dune franchise has not penetrated pop culture to the same extent that Star Wars and Star Trek have – whatever Dune does, the latter two do as well if not better. Still, this is in no way to say that Dune has nothing of value to offer. The fictional Spice Melange in the novel is analogous to crude oil in our world and where the novel’s heavy Arabic overtones and many Muslim references would have been simply an exotic flavour in 1965, it is fascinating to see how our own reactions to seeing jihad and religious Prophets have changed in these forty years. If you are at all a fan of the genre, you will find great value in reading Dune but if you’ve had no luck with sci-fi in the past, you’re not likely to find anything here to change your mind.