Dune review

Anthony G Williams

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Dune was first published in 1965 to immediate acclaim, and it remains one of the most popular SF novels ever written. I read it several times in the late 1960s and early 1970s but not since, so when it was chosen as "book of the month" for the Classic SF discussion group, I returned to it with great interest to see how it stands up today.

At around 500 pages it is a massive tome by the standards of the time (when less than 200 pages was a typical SF novel length), space which Herbert put to good use in making his world rich and complex. Unlike so many long novels, there is no padding here. The story is set in the distant future when humanity has colonised thousands of star systems, ruled by hereditary nobles with an Emperor reigning over all. The civilisation is held together by a spaceship service monopolised by the Guild of Navigators whose pilots rely on a drug called spice or melange, which enables them to see the future and thereby guide their ships safely. Melange is highly addictive, cannot be synthesised and is only found on the desert world of Arrakis. As a result of political machinations, the House of Atreides, led by Duke Leto, is awarded custody of Arrakis and its fabulous wealth. But the previous owners, the Harkonnens, have no intention of surrendering quietly and a bitter conflict results.

This would appear to provide all of the elements of a classic space opera but, unusually, almost all of the action takes place on the surface of one planet – Arrakis. The author thoroughly worked out the details of this world. The ecology is explained, backed up by an appendix devoted to it, with the interrelationships between giant desert sandworms and melange being a key issue. So also is the long-term attempt by the independent and ferocious desert-living natives, the Fremen, to alter the climate. The psychological, cultural and technical implications of living in such a harsh environment are a major theme, including details such as the design of the "stillsuits" which enable people to survive in the desert.

The rest of the story is also filled with fascinating and original ideas. The human reliance on computers had been destroyed in a revolt thousands of years before, prompting the developed of advanced mental powers through intensive training. The most direct computer replacements are the Mentats, who are able to analyse vast reams of data and compute probable outcomes of any course of action. Most advanced of all are the Bene Gesserit, a manipulative guild of women highly trained in both physical and mental skills to achieve astonishing feats; perhaps above all the ability to analyse personalities through their speech patterns and to influence their actions via the use of "Voice", a tailored manner of speaking.

The story is full of quasi-religious issues. Although not themselves religious, the Bene Gesserit encourage the development of religions which feature their own members as revered – and feared – leaders. They are also trying to create by selective breeding over millennia the "Kwisatz Haderach"; a man who will have all of their abilities plus be capable of far more. The Fremen are religious (influenced long ago by the Bene Gesserit) and are waiting for their own "redeemer" figure; Lisan al-Gaib. These concepts combine to form a key plot element.

More conventional space-opera elements are present, particularly the existence of shields which block any high-velocity projectiles, leading to the re-establishment of knife fighting as a key battle tactic. There is much exotic communication, with battle languages, code words, hand signals and even a private humming language used by two of the characters.

Despite this richness of invention, the writing is not loaded with infodumps, the author slips in just enough information in passing (with a glossary of the terms used at the back as an aide memoire). The first two-thirds of the book consists of one almost continuous sequence, but there is then a break with the remainder of the book being more episodic as the various plot threads develop towards a climax over several years. Some unconventional approaches are taken; for instance, one person is identified as a future traitor before even making an appearance, the author deliberately sacrificing conventional surprise to achieve a sense of impending doom. There is something of the flavour of an epic classical tragedy, emphasised by a "chorus" in the form of extracts from historical accounts at the start of each chapter, looking back on the events being recounted. This deliberate myth-making reminds me somewhat of Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality series.

Very unusually for SF of the time, the characterisation is good. Space is allowed for exploring personalities, for instance a formal dinner which takes up some twenty pages of fascinating multi-level exchanges, and six pages on the slow death of one character in the desert, giving us his final hopes and fears. Such is the skill of the author that such scenes as these are just as gripping as the action sequences. The hero of the tale fights against his destiny, regretting the way in which former friends have come to regard him but knowing he has to use their devotion in the right way. The conclusion is unexpected and satisfying.

Reading the book now with an author's as well as an SF fan's eye, I am more deeply impressed than ever. Dune is a superb achievement, one of the finest SF stories ever written, not just in plot originality but in the style of its writing. As so often happens, its success prompted a production line of ever-declining sequels. I read a few but kept only the first one, Dune Messiah, for a re-read someday. I won't comment on the 1984 movie, except to say that's what you get if you try to compress a densely-plotted book, which takes me around seven hours to read, into just over two hours.

(An extract from my SFF blog)
 

thesoothsayer

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Quite agree with your review of Dune. I really liked the book, even if the culture of Arrakis seemed like a rip-off of Arabic nomad culture.

Reading the book now with an author's as well as an SF fan's eye, I am more deeply impressed than ever. Dune is a superb achievement, one of the finest SF stories ever written, not just in plot originality but in the style of its writing. As so often happens, its success prompted a production line of ever-declining sequels. I read a few but kept only the first one, Dune Messiah, for a re-read someday.
Have to agree with this as well. I stopped half-way through the God Emperor of Dune. The story just didn't seem to draw me in anymore. I do wonder if Dune was meant to be just a one-off book (or was it to be a two book series?) but, owing to its success, made the publishers coerce FH to write more sequels because the story really didn't seem to be planned well in the later books.
 

The Procrastinator

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Why do people apostrophise plural's? Is it capital
I love Dune (good review AGW). I have re-read the series many times but I have never been able to read book 6 (I think its 6), Chapter-House Dune, despite several attempts. I agree about the quality of the sequels. Dune Messiah is well worth reading, God Emperor is OK, and it goes downhill from there; none of them touch on the original novel. I managed to get through most of the sequels for the sake of completeness, which is why I keep having a go at Chapter House, but I suspect I will never be able to finish it!
 

Ursa major

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I managed to get through most of the sequels for the sake of completeness, which is why I keep having a go at Chapter House, but I suspect I will never be able to finish it!
Chapter House Dune was where I stopped reading the series; and although i did manage to finish it, I can't recall much about it (except for a feeling that it was bad, that I wouldn't read it again and that I would pass on any further sequels because it was clear that the well was finally dry**).

A friend of mine had borrowed Chapter House Dune from the library, read it and sub-loaned it to me (he was/is a very fast reader). So while the other books stare down at me from the shelf*** and sometimes tempt me into a reread, there's no danger of that with Chapter House.

I'd agree that Dune itself is by far the best of these books (of course it is: it's a magnificant achievement), but the others are fine.



** - Somewhat illogical, I know - writing a bad book doesn't flick a switch that forces all following volumes to be bad - but the quality had gradually declined through the series until it went off the Chapter House Dune cliff.

*** - I haven't enough shelf space, so this is a logical, not a physical, shelf.
 

iansales

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You'd have difficulty reading the Dune series after Chapterhouse Dune. Frank Herbert died before he could write any more. The new sequels written by his son & Kevin J Anderson were only published in the last year or two. And they are decidedly inferior.

In point of fact, the sequels are better written books than Dune, although they resonate less with readers.
 

Ursa major

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You'd have difficulty reading the Dune series after Chapterhouse Dune. Frank Herbert died before he could write any more. The new sequels written by his son & Kevin J Anderson were only published in the last year or two. And they are decidedly inferior.
I know. (And if you include the prequels, you can make that ten years, rather than two.) I've never considered looking at the Herbert/Anderson prequels, sequels and interquels (all of them unequels? ;)). It isn't because I don't think other authors should carry on when an author expires; neither is it because I doubt the new authors' skills as writers. As I suggested, I thought the well was dry and so anything using that same well was unlikely to be an improvement on Chapter House Dune.

As for augmenting the Dune universe with prequels: well, I like explanations of how things works as much as the next person, but there comes a point where it chips away at the magic. Why waste time and money in dispelling the authorial magic that is in the original novel? (I should admit here that I have doubts about a lot of the "science" in the original six books - genetic memory, to name but one - so I think I'd have trouble with any explanation of them.) And from what I understand, there are major continuity errors in the H/A books, which rather defeats the object of the exercise.


In point of fact, the sequels are better written books than Dune, although they resonate less with readers.
They may be better written, Ian, but that is only one aspect of what it takes to be a good book. So for me, Dune is still the best.
 

Rodders

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I've only ever read Dune itself. Many times. I'd loved to have been able to stick with the others, but found it too hard going.
 

gdoc

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I'm a little late to the party here, but hey ho. I liked Dune, but mainly for its scope. I found it overly long and frankly felt it needed an editor. I also didn't find the characters well written. More worryingly they were dropped whenever it suited the plot. The character of Alia was particularly inept I felt.

The ecology was good, as was the fatalism of the Fremen. But I find Herbert's writing clunky. The death of Paul's son, for example, was ineptly handled; we never got to know the child so I didn't care he had died. The end sequence where the Fremen take on the Emperor's troops was poor too. I had no real sense of a battle. It was over quickly and, in a long book, it seemed like an afterthought.

There were some inconsistencies too. We are told mentats are human computers, existing because real computers are banned. So too are atomic weapons, yet the families have these. In a rich world it seems more plausible someone would be using AI. A minor point, but something I feel a good editor would have picked up.

I especially disliked the lack of chapters. I appreciate this was a stylistic choice, but I felt it needed more structure.

But my biggest criticism is the head hopping. This is a major no-no for me. If it is handled very well, and the author can occasionally let us slip from one character POV to another, then fine. Herbert lacks this skill. Some of the scenes jumped from inside one character's head to another just to make the conversation easier on the writer. This is quite an amateurish approach and one that is impossible to ignore when reading Dune. It really throws you outside the context of a scene when we hear the thoughts of two or even three characters as they interact. This is unbelievably distracting especially since the author had no qualms about jumping back and forth between characters all the time.

That said, the idea is solid as is the ecology and overall realisation of the world on which the book is set. Dune certainly has its place, but I don't believe it deserves its legendary status given its relatively poor execution. Still, it is an immersive read which is a rarity.
 

Toby Frost

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I agree with a lot of what's been said here. Dune is very good and the characterisation is excellent. At points in the first half, it feels like SF's answer to Gormenghast. It wins points for not just transposing the 1950s to space but creating a genuinely unusual culture. Some of the Arabic references are now (much too) familiar to modern readers, but it must have seemed incredibly exotic when it was first written.

However, I think Dune has a single huge flaw: it wipes out or incapacitates most of its interesting characters about halfway through. The Atreides are killed and scattered, and even the Harkonnens, who were a horde of deranged villains, start to look impotent and absurd. In their place, we get the blandly messianic Paul and his blandly fanatical minions. Herbert even seems to acknowledge this at one point, where Paul thinks of Stilgar (or another interchangeable Fremen) as his "creature" rather than a friend or ally. By the end, the interesting politics of the Great Houses and the Emperor has been dismantled and the survivors exiled, and it's hard for me not to feel that, in finishing the story, Herbert has gutted the setting.

Overall, though, Dune is very good indeed. I think it is much better than most of the epic SF of its time, and will continue to be read when Asimov, Clarke and other won't.
 

gdoc

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I do agree Dune will outlive many others. It's idea is big, and universal.
 

Parson

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Overall, though, Dune is very good indeed. I think it is much better than most of the epic SF of its time, and will continue to be read when Asimov, Clarke and other won't.
Dune is wonderful. But I've always thought it's legendary status was somewhat questionable. I read it in the 80's when so many people thought it was without peer.

On the whole I would prefer good Asimov or Clarke (not all what they wrote was) to Dune and certainly to everything after that Classic. For me Dune can't hold a candle to Ender's Game or Rendezvous with Rama or Gateway or The Fountains of Paradise etc.
 

gdoc

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There is no book quite like it. :)
I agree. I suspect it would be difficult for someone relatively new to the work reading it today to appreciate how different it was. The grasp of climate and the Jihadist references in particular seem to place the book in a more modern time; it is easy to forget it was written in the early 1960s.
 

gdoc

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Dune is wonderful. But I've always thought it's legendary status was somewhat questionable. I read it in the 80's when so many people thought it was without peer.

On the whole I would prefer good Asimov or Clarke (not all what they wrote was) to Dune and certainly to everything after that Classic. For me Dune can't hold a candle to Ender's Game or Rendezvous with Rama or Gateway or The Fountains of Paradise etc.
I agree with this assessment. Dune has its place, but some of Asimov and Clarke's work was as groundbreaking. For me Dune just needed a good editor. If someone had persuaded Herbert to lose about a third of the text and perhaps structure it into chapters it would have benefited. And of course, my own bugbear, the headhoppery with the main characters - that kills entire scenes for me. Which is a pity.
 

Vince W

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I agree with this assessment. Dune has its place, but some of Asimov and Clarke's work was as groundbreaking. For me Dune just needed a good editor. If someone had persuaded Herbert to lose about a third of the text and perhaps structure it into chapters it would have benefited. And of course, my own bugbear, the headhoppery with the main characters - that kills entire scenes for me. Which is a pity.
While I agree that Asimov and Clarke has great works, Dune, for me, is the book. The use of epigraphs for chapter breaks was a novel idea and it provided glimpses into the Dune background without going into too much detail. Frank let our imagination fill in the gaps as we saw fit.

I also see no problem with seeing what the characters are thinking. It was a problem for filming, but I don't think Frank ever anticipated that anyone would even try.
 

Brian G Turner

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I also see no problem with seeing what the characters are thinking.
It's regarded as the best use of Omniscient POV, because it's used to underline conflict. This is especially in the early chapters, not least with Paul, Jessica, and Dr Yueh.
 

gdoc

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It's regarded as the best use of Omniscient POV, because it's used to underline conflict. This is especially in the early chapters, not least with Paul, Jessica, and Dr Yueh.
I disagree. This is an amateurish mistake, often rigorously condemned by experienced editors. Never say never of course, and I'd be happy to see a skilled writer experiment with head hopping. But Herbert lacked that skill. If the only way you can convey meaning is to expose the thoughts of two or three characters in the one scene then you are probably out of your depth. Even using it as an indication of prescience, a feature of the universe Herbert created, is a cop out; in practical terms this is no different from exposure to a character's thoughts.

I am told Stephen King occasionally slips from one POV to another in a single scene, and does it well. But for me it really threw me out of the scene in Dune. The sense that this was all being artificially explained to me by an author was a constant bane of this book. It's saving grace is the depth of the world he created, but when it came to basic writing technique he was pretty poor.
 

gdoc

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I also see no problem with seeing what the characters are thinking. It was a problem for filming, but I don't think Frank ever anticipated that anyone would even try.
Internal thoughts are fine. Multiple internal thoughts is artificial, and quite obviously so in Dune. Indeed, it is one of the major no-no's experienced writers and editors often have to laboriously explain to new writers. To immerse a reader fully, one POV per scene. Some even advocate one POV per chapter or even per book.

It is quite jarring to be "experiencing" a scene from one character's POV via his internal thoughts only to have the writer transfer us inside someone else's head and access information the first character cannot know.

This happens a fair bit in Dune and I would suggest it is an amateurish mistake most writers have hammered out of them by skilled editors. I suspect there wasn't an editor anywhere near Dune.
 

philzilla

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I disagree. This is an amateurish mistake, often rigorously condemned by experienced editors. Never say never of course, and I'd be happy to see a skilled writer experiment with head hopping. But Herbert lacked that skill. If the only way you can convey meaning is to expose the thoughts of two or three characters in the one scene then you are probably out of your depth. Even using it as an indication of prescience, a feature of the universe Herbert created, is a cop out; in practical terms this is no different from exposure to a character's thoughts.

I am told Stephen King occasionally slips from one POV to another in a single scene, and does it well. But for me it really threw me out of the scene in Dune. The sense that this was all being artificially explained to me by an author was a constant bane of this book. It's saving grace is the depth of the world he created, but when it came to basic writing technique he was pretty poor.
Internal thoughts are fine. Multiple internal thoughts is artificial, and quite obviously so in Dune. Indeed, it is one of the major no-no's experienced writers and editors often have to laboriously explain to new writers. To immerse a reader fully, one POV per scene. Some even advocate one POV per chapter or even per book.

It is quite jarring to be "experiencing" a scene from one character's POV via his internal thoughts only to have the writer transfer us inside someone else's head and access information the first character cannot know.

This happens a fair bit in Dune and I would suggest it is an amateurish mistake most writers have hammered out of them by skilled editors. I suspect there wasn't an editor anywhere near Dune.
Okay.......
 

Brian G Turner

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This happens a fair bit in Dune and I would suggest it is an amateurish mistake most writers have hammered out of them by skilled editors. I suspect there wasn't an editor anywhere near Dune.
In modern fiction, that would be true - but Dune was published in 1965 when Omniscient POV use was the norm. The unique way Frank Herbert used it was to underline conflict between characters within a scene.

There are still books being published in SF/F that are in Omniscient POV, though it's not common now - though it is in other genres.
 
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