Saturday, June 7, 2008

Review of Dune

Winner of the first Nebula award in 1965 and co-winner of the Hugo award, Dune is regarded with an almost reverent awe by some. As one of the first science fiction novels to emphasize characters, Dune is the precursor to many of the modern books in the genre that we read today. In spite of its reputation as a must-read novel in the genre, I put off reading it for years, thinking it was probably dry and dated with flat, boring characters and lots of technobabble. Fortunately, I found these preconceived notions of mine to be wrong. Although it is not a perfect novel, Dune contains interesting characters, political intrigue, religious themes, a very detailed world, and philosophy that made for an enjoyable and profound reading experience.

Fifteen year old Paul Atreides was never supposed to exist once the Reverend Mother of her Bene Gesserit order commanded his mother to bear Duke Leto Atreides a daughter. However, the Lady Jessica did not want to disappoint the duke, and a part of her dreamed that their son would be the Kwisatz Haderach, the man who was foretold to be able to "be in many places at once." Paul shows signs that he may indeed be this man as he grows older, and the Reverend Mother tests him with the gom jabbar, a test normally only reserved for women. He passes the test, enduring more pain than any woman tested ever has, but this is not proof that he is the Kwisatz Haderach.

Meanwhile, House Atreides has more immediate problems than young Paul, whose potential lies mostly in the future. Emperor Shaddam IV has noticed the Duke's growing power and decided to neutralize it by pitting Atreides against House Harkonnen, an old and powerful family that already hates Atreides. He begins by taking the rich desert planet Arrakis from Harkonnen and gifting it to Atreides, providing an excuse for a direct confrontation between the two. When the Duke loses control of the planet to a combined assault by Imperial and Harkonnen forces, Paul and his mother are forced into hiding with the planet's natives. When the natives begin to recognize Paul's growing powers as the fulfillment of their own prophecies, the stage is set for House Atreides to finally fight back against Harkonnen despite its overwhelming military advantage.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I started Dune with the idea that it was going to be similar to the other older science fiction I had read, mostly the early Asimov novels in the Robot/Empire/Foundation series. I didn't feel that these books had very good characterization, and thought that Dune probably shared this drawback. Luckily, I was wrong; Dune's characters were much deeper than Asimov's, though they seemed to lack a level of emotion or heart that appears in many of my favorite books. The politics and intrigue almost seem to overwhelm the personalities of Herbert's characters, giving them a one-dimensional feel despite their overall strong development. Everybody is constantly manipulating everybody else, regardless of friendships or familial connections. While this is consistent with their situation in feuding noble houses, and indeed drives much of the book, it makes the characters feel less empathetic and not quite human.

These character development flaws were the only major problem I had with Dune. Otherwise, I found it to be an excellent story, filled with interesting political, religious, and philosophical undertones (and a few sandworms). Arrakis was an incredibly detailed world, well-crafted and realistic despite being thoroughly foreign and alien. The political infighting is as intricate as anything I've ever read, if not more so, packing more knifefighting (figurative and literal) into 500 pages than series like A Song of Ice and Fire has into nearly 3400. I don't want to say too much about the religious aspects of the story because they do not become key to the plot until late in the book, but suffice it to say I found them intriguing and one of the high points of the novel. I also welcomed the inclusion of multiple very strong female characters, particularly given that Dune was written in the mid-60's--by a man no less! A lot of current authors could take some tips from Herbert in this area.

The technical aspects of the writing are adequate, though not exceptional. Pacing was mostly good, though there were a couple of places where it seemed to drag a bit, and the style of prose mostly straight-forward. Ideas were at the center of Dune, and the writing was good enough not to detract from them.

I'm not ready to join the Cult of Dune as the greatest science fiction novel ever written, but it was thoughtful, complex, and overall enjoyable. I may actually read it again at some point, since it was entertaining, but I still felt I missed some of the more intricate details that would have made it even better. Despite some mixed reviews of Dune's sequels that have made me hesitant to continue the series, I am still tempted because of the strength of this novel.

8.5 / 10


Anonymous said...

Hey Kristen,

Nice to see that you enjoyed Dune. While I view Dune as being one of the greatest sci-fi books of all time, it also justly deserves its criticisms. It can get very heavy handed at times and while I can see why some may not think it as great as I do, I still find it utterly fantastic.

The second book, Dune Messiah, can get really bogged down in religious and metaphysical undertones. So much so that it can be a real slog. I would recommend watching the Sci-Fi channel Dune series which nicely condenses book 1 and 2 together into an interesting show.
(Remember, the tv series and not that long mess of a movie starring Sting.)
I say this because the Dune books pick up with Children of the Dune, which many say is the last great Dune book. I don't necessarily agree, but later Dune books do shift from original focus a bit.

Anyway, nice review.

Anonymous said...

Great review of Dune; it's one of my all-time favorites (a classic, IMHO). The next three books were great (again, IMHO), though I agree with Joshua that Children of Dune's better than Dune Messiah. (The latter was a bit depressing.)

God Emperor of Dune is very good, but be warned--it's set long (centures? millenia?) after Children. The novels after were okay, but not as good--maybe there was too much lag, so I was confused when I read them.... If I re-read God and the rest, it might go better for me. ;-)

I didn't care for the two-part "Dune 7" "sequels" by Kevin J. Anderson and Frank Herbert's son, supposedly written based on his notes (but clearly containing major things they concocted in their various prequel series, which I haven't read).

ThRiNiDiR said...

I was a fan of Dune universe long before I even heard of the books (PC games Dune and Dune: The Battle for Arrakis were and are still one of my favourites, the movie by Lynch was great too). A few years ago I started on the prequels written by Herbert Jr. and I've enjoyed them quite a bit (despite all the contempt going their way these days). If I can be honest, that I'd say that I enjoyed them more than the original Dune (read only the first book). I agree with your thoughts on the book though, but if I had a gripe it was Paul and his ├╝ber-menschness; not that likable fellow at all. btw, great review :)

Kristen said...

Joshua - It's certainly understandable why some believe Dune to be one of the greatest science fiction books of all time with the combination of ideas and an interesting story. Thanks for the advice on the sequels. I didn't know there was a mini-series done by the Sci-Fi channel. Seeing a small part of the horrible movie is one of the reasons I thought I was not interested in reading Dune for a long time, so I will be sure to avoid that one. ;) I love any story about religion so I might have to just pick up the sequels, even if they can be a bit hard to get through.

Kendall - Thanks for adding your thoughts on the sequels. I had already decided to definitely avoid any of the Dune books written by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert. Even if they are not as bad as I've heard, there's going to be way too many of them by the time they're done with them all.

Thrinidir - I agree, Paul is certainly not a likable character. He's very powerful and very cold, and this makes him hard to relate to although it does make him interesting.