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Review: Dune

February 27, 2012

Author: Frank Herbert

Title: Dune

Published: 1965

Pages: 608

Dune is pretty much seen as one of the, if not the, seminal pieces of science fiction literature. Unfortunately, this raises the expectations of the reader and ultimately, it failed to live up to mine. The plot follows House Atredies who are sent to govern Arrakis — a desert planet that produces the most valuable commodity: melange. They have taken over from House Harkonnen but the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen has set up the Duke Atredies to be assassinated.

The first quarter, even the first half of the novel was fine; Herbert does a fine job of setting up an intriguing plot that gives you hope that it’ll lead to something. There’s not much tension — you’re pretty much told what we’ll happen — and the constant forays into characters’ thoughts come across as corny. They reminded me of those bad American soap operas where you can actually hear the character think. The novel is a strange sort of mixture of science fiction and fantasy and Herbert does a good job of describing this futuristic cum medieval court setting. And it is impressive world-building that he created even if it’s pretty much everything but the kitchen sink. For a stunningly better written novel that takes place in a quasi-medieval setting look no further than A Canticle for Leibowitz.

However, once the assassination of Duke Leo Atredies takes place and Paul and his mother have escaped into the desert the story delves into a myriad of slop. Herbert obviously did a lot of research; there’s things about mediation, psychology, religion, anthropology, but it all comes across as if he just threw it all in without much thought of what it’s doing there. I know people will probably say that it’s a highly intelligent novel and I’m sure Herbert was a clever guy but I just never got the impression that the novel was anything other than a run-of-the-mill hero narrative. The plot really isn’t very complex and often it seems the only reason it is perceived as being this labyrinth story is because Herbert does a poor job of explaining anything. I’m not a great fan of appendixes and glossary in fiction because it often seems like the author isn’t a good enough writer to weave the information into the main story.

None of the characters amounted to anything other than one-dimensional. You can’t identify with anyone because, even when we can read their thoughts, Herbert always keeps them at a distance. Paul and Jessica’s frame of reference is too wishy-washy to hold onto and the other characters never get a chance to do anything but move the plot along. Paul comes across as an obnoxious, whiny brat that you fail to see why anyway would want to follow him. Herbert said that one of the themes of Dune was humanity’s tendency to follow a charismatic leader. Yet, Herbert wrote Paul as so anti-charismatic that this idea becomes laughable.

Plus, it’s pretty much a simple case of good guys versus bad guys. The Harkonens are your typical “Hollywood” bad guys. They are gluttonous, murderous, deviants. The Baron Harkonen can’t be just a man who wants power (or something, his motivation is unclear) he has to be fat and a homosexual. The Attredies are essentially honourable and a decent lot. The Fremen who are supposed to be these mystical, “one with the desert” nomads are your typical kind of hocus-pocus foreign types. I always have my misgivings whenever an author appropriates a foreign language — in this case, Arabic — because it’s mostly used as a way to mysticise them. Herbert often sprinkles in Arabic or faux-Arabic to create some semblance of mystique about these people.

In the end, I’m really not sure why I actually finished this novel. I can understand why people would love the novel but it just didn’t do anything for me. Plus, it’s far too po-faced for me. There is no humour, no laughter just a endless sludge through a world of miserable poo-poo heads.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012 1:52 pm

    I tried reading this several years ago, but I didn’t get very far. It is one of those books that I feel I should read and so I admire the fact that you finished it. Glad to hear I’m not alone in struggling with it.

  2. February 28, 2012 10:32 am

    I remember devouring all the Dune books in my late teens/early 20s and that is probably the time to read them. Not planning to revisit either, although I would watch the film again on TV (not for its mangling of the plot, but for Lynch’s epic vision).

    • February 29, 2012 3:44 pm

      yeah I can see that would probably be the case for most people…but I’m only 22 so perhaps I should have read it a couple of years ago.

      oh yes the film is spectacular…even if it is a bit daft…sound weapons “snort”

  3. April 21, 2013 1:51 pm

    Hi, got here from Janet. If you think Dune was bad, wait till you try the many, many, sequels, and prequels. I didn’t mind Dune, and Children of Dune had some good bits, but everything else steadily got worse. Don’t even think about the films. I’ve seen all three, and mercifully, the details have faded.

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