Book Review: “Dune” by Frank Herbert (1965)

Dune-Frank_Herbert_(1965)_First_edition
There are many different covers for Dune, none of them totally adequate, IMO. This is a good image, but the fonts… ugh.

Dune is such a weird book. As almost everyone knows, it’s about a young nobleman named Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, who are taking control of the barren desert planet Arrakis.

Almost immediately, they are faced with political machinations among various factions, including the rival House of Harkonnen, the smugglers of valuable spice that can be found only on Arrakis, the natives of the planet–the mysterious Fremen, a reclusive desert people–and the Bene Gesserit, a mystical order of witches, of which Jessica herself is a member.

Early on, I was struck by how likable many of the characters are. Duke Leto and Lady Jessica are genuinely in love with each other and care about ruling well and raising their son. Paul’s mentors, including Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho and Thufir Hawat all are earnest loyal members of House Atreides. I feel like many modern stories would go right for the grimdark by having everyone be a jerk. But in Dune, there’s only one character who is obviously evil right from the start, and that’s Baron Harkonnen.

Of course, he is successful in his scheming against House Atreides, and quickly ends the Duke’s reign, forcing Paul and his mother to flee into the desert wilderness of Arrakis. And an inhospitable world it is–an endless sea of sand, populated by the monstrous worms that seethe beneath its surface.

Paul and Jessica soon make contact with the Fremen, the indigenous tribe who, thanks to Bene Gesserit of a bygone era, believe Paul to be a messianic figure. This is helped by the fact he has all sorts of strange second-sight abilities as a result of a Bene Gesserit breeding program designed to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, which means “the one who can be many places at once” or, in the language of fictional tropes, “the chosen one.”

Yes, this is a “our-hero-is-the-chosen-one-from-the-prohecy” story. Normally, I can’t stand those, but I’ll give Herbert credit, he manages to do it in a way that pretty much works. Part of that is just due to the obvious care and effort he put in to building every aspect of this world–each character, each faction, is carefully described and thought out, all with their own motives and plans. Herbert clearly put a lot of work into the worldbuilding here, which is maybe why there are so many scenes of Paul and Jessica having hallucinogenic experiences where they glimpse different possible futures–there are any number of ways this story could go at any moment.

Speaking of Jessica, I really liked her. She’s a good mother, a good wife, and a brilliant strategist and a genius at political maneuvering. Classic science fiction is not necessarily a genre where you find a lot of strong, believable female characters, but Jessica is certainly that.

Most of the characters are very good–in fact, if there’s a weak link, it’s Paul himself. His mind is so weird that he can be a little hard to relate to at times. I guess that’s the idea, since he has achieved some sort of near-omniscient consciousness.

It’s not news to observe that Paul is clearly modeled on T.E. Lawrence, an Englishman who led Bedouin guerrilla forces against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and who had quite a complex psyche himself. Dune is loaded with quasi-Islamic terms and concepts, and it seems quite likely that Herbert was influenced by Lawrence’s portrait of the culture depicted in his memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (Paul Atreides is referenced as writing a book called “The Pillars of the Universe” in Dune.)

Lawrence was also the subject of the film Lawrence of Arabia, which was released to near-universal acclaim three years before Herbert published Dune. I can’t imagine it didn’t influence him. I even wonder if the idea of the effect spice has on people’s eye color was inspired by Peter O’Toole’s baby blues in the film. 

The big difference is that Paul’s revolution succeeds, and he ultimately brings both the House of Harkonnen and even the Emperor himself to their knees, forcing the Great Powers to bargain with him. T.E. Lawrence, um, didn’t. I think Lawrence’s story is actually more dramatic, but Herbert was telling a mythopoetic saga in the grand tradition of heroic legend. The Hero with a Thousand Faces can’t be overruled by the Politician with Only Two, even if that is more true to life.

Dune totally follows the path laid out in Joseph Campbell’s book. It’s practically the archetypical heroic myth. Small wonder the book has had such influence. The desert world, with its “spice” and its “sandcrawlers” and its “dew collectors.” Not to mention its quasi-religious order of people with superhuman powers… it all reminds me of something. Hmm, what could it be?

Yeah, the Tatooine portion of the original Star Wars has some serious overlap with Dune. I’ve even heard it said that the Krayt dragon skeleton C-3PO sees is meant to resemble a sandworm. I’m not so sure about that (worms wouldn’t have endoskeletons.), but there’s no doubt somebody had Dune on their mind while making Star Wars.

I’d argue that The Phantom Menace is also weirdly like Dune. It’s about a young ruler who loses their throne thanks to the machinations of a sinister trade guild, flees to a harsh desert world, develops a keen head for political and military maneuvering, and leads an army of indigenous warriors to take back their throne.  Yes, Padmé Amidala is the female Paul Atreides. They even have the same initials! And here they thought some kid who could drive fast cars was the Chosen One.

All right, I’ll quit re-litigating The Phantom Menace. (For now.) The point is, Dune had a massive influence on the world of science fiction and fantasy. It’s weird, but here at Ruined Chapel, we like weird. Like Paul Graham, we believe that good design is strange. This is why you can’t have strict rules for writing. As I discussed with Mark Paxson a while back, Dune breaks writing rules, and well it should, because it is in service of creating a memorable world and telling an interesting story.

13 Comments

  1. I read Dune years, no–decades ago. I remember being impressed by it, but like you I thought it was weird. Of course I’ve forgotten many of the details, so thanks for the reminder.

    1. My pleasure. I read somewhere that Herbert wrote it in “layers” so that it could be re-read with the focus on a different layer each time. I haven’t tried this yet, but it could be interesting.

  2. I read Dune a couple of years after it first came out and being a teenager was taken up by the scope, although probably missed a lot of the nuances. In my 30s we didn’t gel and that feeling as stayed with me.
    That said, there is no doubt the Dune books are an epic effort and have been the inspiration for who knows how many other novels, along with films (Star Wars anyone…Desert world for starters).
    The parallels with Lawrence had never occurred to me, a most astute observation there.

    1. True story: my mother said she found “Dune” derivative because she had read Lawrence’s memoir and it seemed to her it was just a fictionalized imitation.

      I’m not sure I’d go that far, (no sandworms in Arabia, I don’t think) but then I haven’t actually read Lawrence’s book.

      1. That’s most interesting. Lawrence did have this spiritual, esoteric side to him and reading Dune with that strong spiritual message of its own could give a person that impression.
        It seems the test of a strong work is that whether the readership is divided into:
        1. Love it
        2. Like it.
        3. Not my scene.
        4. Couldn’t stand it.
        5. Didn’t understand it.
        With only minimal numbers who are indifferent to it.

  3. I read Dune in the 70’s and was impressed but I have to say I’ve forgotten most of the details. I then went on to read the sequels but by the time I got to v.4, it had deteriorated to nothing but a bunch of philosophizing talk among the Bene Gesserit women – watching paint dry was more fun – and I never finished that one.
    One thing I always remembered from the books was the sandworms. In fact, I have a small salute to the worms in The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head, v.3: The Valley Thorns, where our heroes have been forced to flee into the desert. “We watched in amazement as the Workers leaped again and again, following a turmoil in the sand. An enormous worm would poke out its head and snap its strange, round mouth at its pursuers, then dive again.” The worms aren’t more than a meter long, but they are collected because they produce a hallucinogen that the Seers use as a vision-inducer. And that’s all I’ll say – someday you’ll have to read the series!

  4. I read Dune a number of times in my younger days, but haven’t read it in quite awhile. When you mentioned reading it, I decided to read it again. It’s next on the reading stack.

    1. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on the re-read. I’ve heard it’s a book that can bear many re-readings.

  5. Reading your review, this sounds like a book I would definitely enjoy. Yet… I cannot remember the number of times I started reading it in my 20s but just could not get into it 🙁
    Maybe now I’m older, I might give it another go…maybe…

    1. It does have kind of a slow start, and it certainly is a strange setting, so I can understand finding it hard to warm up to.

  6. I’m with Termite Writer. I read the first four books, but God Emperor of Dune was a real let down. People forget that Herbert had other really good books. The White Plague, Soul Cather are just two, they’re not as sci-fi as Dune. Harlan Ellison compared Dune to King of Kings.

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