Monday, March 15, 2010

Dune by Frank Herbert

Title: Dune
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Chilton Book Co (1965)

Frank Herbert’s Dune is a well-known sci-fi classic, and this is at least the third time I've read it and there’s an outside chance it’s the fourth. Obviously, this book has a quality that keeps me coming back for additional exploration. Interestingly, with each read I have become more critical of the book. This would explain the rating. The first time I read the book I would not have hesitated to give it 5 stars. But now I give it 4 stars. Am I getting too critical in my old age? Possibly.

Dune is a long book with an incredibly layered story. A simple summary can't do it justice so keep in mind that my description is necessarily inadequate. The book opens shortly after House Atreides has been awarded the dukedom of Arrakis. In fulfilling this appointment they will have to leave their home planet of Caladon and take over the spice rich planet of Arrakis from House Harkkennon. To complicate matters the Emporer actually supports House Harkkonnen (an ancient rival of the Atreides) and is using this appointment as a way of trying to eliminate House Atreides. And there’s the not inconsequential ecology of Arrakis: a desert planet with no open bodies of water. Throw in the Bene Gesserit schemes, the Spacing Guild’s monopoly and the Fremen belief in prophecies, not to mention the value of the spice, and the reader will find a very intriguing story of courage, power, manipulation, and destiny.

I like the way this book is written. There is a nice flow to the style and information is given in such a way as to continually pique your curiosity (well, almost continually - more on that in a bit). With as rich a sociological and ecological creation as Dune is, a reader could easily get frustrated with the layers of custom and history. However, the smooth style and presentation of said creation keep the reader engaged rather than alienating them.

The story gets a bit long in the telling. The layers of intrigue within intrigue within intrigue (within intrigue – I think you get my point) at first keep the reader on the edge of her seat. However, the end is a bit too far removed from the layers of intrigue and I found that the intrigues lost their edge. The next time there was a twist or a shift in character philosophy my response was not ‘what will this mean?’ but rather ‘oh another one?’ This is where I have become more critical. I don’t remember feeling this way at all the first time I read the book so it might be that this particular style does not lend itself well to multiples readings (the other reason for the decrease in rating can be found in the spoiler section).

Overall, I give the book a high recommendation; especially for the science fiction fans out there. The suspense is wonderfully built and, like the best sci-fi classics, this title is as much a psychological thriller as it is an action/sci-fi thriller. I should also mention that this book is the beginning of a series but I quickly lost interest in the subsequent titles. If you find that you absolutely love this book, it might be worth your time to try out the others (I have a friend that loves all of them), just be sure to read them ‘eyes wide open.’

I have a pretty specific critique for this book (and sci-fi authors in general) but it contains mild spoilers. It's also long so I didn't want to do the highlight thing. As such, anything under the big warning in caps might be spoilerish.

rating: 4 of 5 stars


I am a big sci-fi junkie, both in print and on the screen. I’ve found though that while I love the B (and C and D) sci-fi movies, I expect a lot more out of a sci-fi book; and it’s because of books like Dune and other great sci-fi classics. It’s all well and good to have silly costumes, crazy action, and movie physics that are so bad you don’t even accept them in a made up world in a movie - but I want more from a sci-fi novel. The genius of Science Fiction is that it gets to push the limits. There’s the obvious in that the genre can push the limits of technology and exploration but there’re the more subtle, and more interesting, limits of humanity to explore. Sci-fi presents the reader with extremely familiar characters in extremely unfamiliar settings. With this simple set-up there are endless possibilities for exploring humanity and the human condition. The best sci-fi novels will never miss a chance to do this.

The Achilles’ heel in this opportunity is that the author’s limitations become painfully obvious. I mean dump a big pile of shit on your good time obvious. In worlds where interstellar travel is possible - or telekinesis or speaking to animals or a man being raised on Mars- the sociological limits of the author’s imagination can prevent some very interesting social exercises. I often feel like the author’s core beliefs in the structure of society are screaming at me from between the lines of her/his fictional world. And this brings me to Dune and the female characters.

The female characters in Dune are incredibly well-written. They are integral to the story and not used as decoration or plot devices. They are bright, strong and extremely capable. All three of them. I’m sorry to report that in the future equality has not come far. Women are still subject to the whims of men, hereditary titles still go through the masculine side (which is just silly if you know anything about reproduction), and if you’re lucky you’ll be a loved concubine (unlucky means an unloved wife). I’m happy to report that this is not the case in most present-day societies so it’s stupefying to me that so many sci-fi authors do not have a better imagination in this regard. So if you’re disappointed that Jessica is marginalized by her son and Chani meekly steps back while the new Duke takes a ‘more acceptable’ wife, you’re not alone. There are plenty of us out there who are waiting for the written future of equality.

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