What is so good about Dune?

BigHappy

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When hearing that Dune is labelled as the best science fiction book of all time, I immediately started reading it, expecting it to be brilliant from what I’ve read in reviews. But I’m about 400 pages in and struggle to see why people like this book so much, and what makes it one of the best science fiction books ever. I don’t dislike the book, and there are many interesting ideas and themes in it, I just think there are many things in it that make me confused as to why it is so widely acclaimed. Here are some reasons:
  • First, some of the main characters were very simple and uninteresting. The Baron, for example, just seemed like a typical evil bad guy. Also the way that Paul and Jessica just seemed to roam around the desert until they overpowered the first Fremen they saw with a few words didn’t really make sense, like the whole of Arrakis moved around them so that they could survive. The fact that Jessica could command people with her training seemed like an excuse for them to go around getting people to do what they want.
  • I do think that the meaning behind a book is more important than the realistic side, but a few things were I think going a bit too far. The societies in Dune are ones that have lasers, force fields, personal anti-gravity devices, and spaceships that can travel between solar systems, but at the same time live like they were in the middle ages, fighting with knives to prove themselves to their tribe and trekking across the desert landscape. I know that the idea is that technology has turned against humanity, but if AI technology has turned against them, surely the powerful weapons such as lasers and force fields have as well? And the narrative of the book was more of a fantasy style than science fiction (I’m not saying it wasn’t a science fiction book), so when the Atreides family were going from Caladan to Arrakis any vague description of the spaceship they travelled in was completely skipped, and it felt like Herbert was just trying to keep the fantasy style by ignoring the things in the book which had sci-fi themes.
  • The way the book is written focuses much more on the thoughts of the characters than anything else, which is not in itself a bad thing. But the world-building in the book, the names they use and the histories they reference to, aren’t really described or explained at all. The map in the front of the book (there is one in my copy I don’t know about others) seems to imply that they’ll be travelling across a richly detailed world like in the Lord of the Rings, or in Ursula la Guin books, but Arrakis itself is hardly described at all. The buildings, cities, and lives of the people, on any of the planets, are almost like a second thought (expect for the Fremen), and too little of the world outside Arrakis was even mentioned. Also some ideas in the book that were interesting were just stated – the computational thinking of the mentats is something that was hardly described, just mentioned, the same with the AI rebellion that happened many years before. This makes the reader have to imagine half the world in his head for himself, which was disappointing, given the world building qualities that people say this book has. And at times it felt like the narrative was just an endless stream of thoughts, and the world outside the characters’ heads hardly existed.
  • One final thing – many other sci-fi books I can’t help but think are just so much better than this. Any Arthur C. Clarke books, or other classics like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, The War of the Worlds, or the Day of the Triffids have had a much greater impact on society (particularly 1984) and I can’t see how Dune can be thought of as better or even as good as than any of these. Surely 1984, a book which has had a profound impact on the way we view modern societies, which is even studied the curriculum, is a far more important work than Dune (even phrases from 1984 have been commonly used, like ‘room 101’), so even if you don’t think Dune is the absolute best, how can it be at the top with these other classics? Compared to other books you see in ‘best sci-fi books’ lists, I don’t get how Dune is viewed the way it is.
Does anyone agree? And to any Dune fans reading this, what is it about the book that you think gives it such a high status and makes it so important?
 

Toby Frost

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I think this is almost impossible to answer. It's like asking "Why is Titus Groan any good?". The answer is that you either like it and roll with its weirdness, or it's not your sort of thing and you don't. It just seems that it's not your cup of tea and fair enough, really.

Personally, I thought the characters were very interesting, especially for an SF novel of its time. It must be one of the first novels to try to create a whole new futuristic society (albeit a feudal one) rather than to be the present day with spaceships. There probably is too much wandering around, and I find the Fremen dull compared to the original leaders of the two houses. If I remember rightly, Paul and Jessica are religious figures from Fremen legend, and given how pious the Fremen are, it's not surprising that they are followed. I really have no problem with the vagueness of some of the background: again, I'd say that goes to personal preference, not quality.

1984 is a more important book, and contains more relevant truths, but I don't think you can really compare them: while Dune has some relevance to the modern world, 1984 is a direct satire and a warning, which I don't think Dune is. Dune is a more impressive imaginative work than 1984, so as a work of imagination, I'd say it's better. The greatness of Dune, to my mind, is its story and setting, whereas the greatness of 1984 is its analysis of how real-world dictatorships work.
 

Stephen Palmer

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Dune was the first ecologically aware genre novel, and for that alone it deserves great attention.
The characters are marvellous and complex, the setting is original and wonderful, and the complex, allusive, detailed writing is terrific.
It really is a masterpiece.
 

alexvss

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First, some of the main characters were very simple and uninteresting. The Baron, for example, just seemed like a typical evil bad guy. Also the way that Paul and Jessica just seemed to roam around the desert until they overpowered the first Fremen they saw with a few words didn’t really make sense, like the whole of Arrakis moved around them so that they could survive. The fact that Jessica could command people with her training seemed like an excuse for them to go around getting people to do what they want.
I can't disagree with the Baron being a bland, evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil villain. I like Paul Atreides' (who's based on Agamenon of Greek Mythology) journey though. How he started as that little boy being watched in bed by the Witch and how he turned out to be in the ending is a Masterclass on negative arcs.

I do think that the meaning behind a book is more important than the realistic side, but a few things were I think going a bit too far. The societies in Dune are ones that have lasers, force fields, personal anti-gravity devices, and spaceships that can travel between solar systems, but at the same time live like they were in the middle ages, fighting with knives to prove themselves to their tribe and trekking across the desert landscape. I know that the idea is that technology has turned against humanity, but if AI technology has turned against them, surely the powerful weapons such as lasers and force fields have as well?
I disagree on this. I really like the idea of the universe becoming feudal, and the fighting being melee weapon-based. That happens because the personal shields made guns useless, so they have to rely on knives. It's like technology reached a peak.


Regarding the thoughts of the characters: this leads to one of the best fight scenes in literature--the end fight scene. You'll get there.

Another thing I like about Dune is the made-up language. It's hard to explain, but terms like Kwisatz Haderach or Muad'Dib just sound cool as hell.


One final thing – many other sci-fi books I can’t help but think are just so much better than this. Any Arthur C. Clarke books, or other classics like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, The War of the Worlds, or the Day of the Triffids have had a much greater impact on society (particularly 1984) and I can’t see how Dune can be thought of as better or even as good as than any of these.
I also disagree on your vision about the societal impact of Dune. If you look at the spice as a metaphor for oil, you'll see how Herbert was right.
 
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pogopossum

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The March 1965 cover of Analog Magazine.
John Campbell wanted to go to the old large format pulp size for his magazine. I believe that the March issue was the first time he tried it. Didn't last.
Looking up the cover I realized that what I remembered as the first installment of Dune was not.
I am the youngest of a family of SF readers. It came into our house and looked fascinating. I was 16.
Basically think that the actual story is overblown and pretentious, hence my thumbs up to BigHappy above. But I would not have said that when I
was 16.
 

Venusian Broon

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Personally, I thought the characters were very interesting, especially for an SF novel of its time. It must be one of the first novels to try to create a whole new futuristic society (albeit a feudal one) rather than to be the present day with spaceships. There probably is too much wandering around, and I find the Fremen dull compared to the original leaders of the two houses. If I remember rightly, Paul and Jessica are religious figures from Fremen legend, and given how pious the Fremen are, it's not surprising that they are followed. I really have no problem with the vagueness of some of the background: again, I'd say that goes to personal preference, not quality.
It's the layers of subtle worldbuilding that reward the careful reader. Herbert was interested in exploring how humans wield power or aim to attain it, amongst many other things. So, for example, the religious myths and legends that moulded the Fremem were actually seeded and manipulated by the Bene Gesserit via their Missionaria Protectiva program. That Paul and Jessica could exploit thousands of years of work by the sisters for their own ends to help them defeat the Bene Gesserit themselves was not only a delicious irony but was representative of how virtually all groups political machinations went.

Only one person's plan actually succeeds. But you'd have to read God Emperor of Dune to find out who ;)
 

The Scribbling Man

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I thought Dune was pretty poor, to be honest. Glad I'm not alone in thinking "it's not all that".

Titus Groan though... Masterpiece.
 

Brian G Turner

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The way the book is written focuses much more on the thoughts of the characters than anything else, which is not in itself a bad thing.
Indeed, Dune is a masterclass in how to write Third Person Omniscient because of the way the characters drive the conflict and it's constant.

One final thing – many other sci-fi books I can’t help but think are just so much better than this. Any Arthur C. Clarke books, or other classics like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, The War of the Worlds, or the Day of the Triffids have had a much greater impact on society
Possibly true, but most are badly dated and arguably fail to easily touch modern audiences. Dune, however, is just as readable now.

But the world-building in the book, the names they use and the histories they reference to, aren’t really described or explained at all.
People love mysteries and unanswered questions. :)
 

Venusian Broon

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Hi BigHappy,

Welcome to Chrons first, BTW.

I agree with the opening sentence of @Toby Frost 's post - it sounds like it is just not your cup of tea. It is over 50 years old now and does have roots and references from that time period that perhaps someone new coming to it would find obscure now. That you don't quite like it, I have heard a lot from Booktubers who have been recommended to read Dune as the 'greatest SF of all time' in the 2018s, say, for the first time. But having said that, some Booktubers also struggle with Lord of the Rings and its style.

However compared to say, Arthur C. Clarke, a writer I adored as a child in the late 1970's, but I now feel creaks a lot under modern scrutiny, or something like Day of the Triffids (which I find too staid and cosy, and really from a bygone age) there is a richness and depth that continues to give Dune a current relevancy. Of the other books you mention, I think 1984 is a great book, but it's streaked through with solid slabs of political exposition - which I found fascinating - but I know don't gel with others. (Orwell is clearly having a massive amount of 'fun' building the ultimate tryanny!)

It's been a while since I've done a read of main six novels of the series (yes, I like Heretics and Chapterhouse Dune too, or at least find value in thinking about Frank Herberts six Dune novels as a whole - others mileage will vary :)) so I'm a bit rusty, but I will try and answer a few things that you bring up, from my perspective. (I'm going to cut and paste a few thoughts you had from one point to another, because I think there better explained in other areas, not trying to misquote you!)

This makes the reader have to imagine half the world in his head for himself, which was disappointing, given the world building qualities that people say this book has.
I think I am just going to have to agree to disagree with this statement. A masterful worldbuilding by an author, is done by stimulating my imagination and making me think, rather than having it set out for me by the author in pages and pages of exposition or nonsensical dialogue. ("As you must surely know, master Atreidas, the reason we don't have shields is..." ;)). A little fragment here or there, a mere thought from a character can tantalise as well as illuminate and paints what feels to be a real world, IMO. Sure I don't mind at all exposition (if interesting) and heavy description where necessary; but as you said, this book is close to the character's thoughts - they aren't going to think about things that are mundane or ordinary to them, they are going to focus on what is important for them at the time. It's up to us readers to piece together the larger picture as it comes to us.

As for the mechanics of the worldbuilding:

There is a consistency and interplay between the various elements of the worldbuilding that come together. The various political parties and groupings and how they scheme with and against each other: the Fremen, the Bene Gesserit, the Emperor, House Atreides, the Landsraat, House Harkonnen, the Spacing Guild, then later on in the series, Ix, the Bene Tleillax and the Honored Matres, all fitting around the protagonist and his family's journey. How they react is dependant on their 'skillbase' and 'power' and how they can wield and control others. Add to this the biology of the desert planet Arrakis - what is the relationship with the sandworms and the spice, for example?

Anyway a crucial thing that Herbert does is build a world of checks and balances.
- There is interstellar travel, but the technology requires navigators who can use prescience to adjust to avoid obstacles, otherwise interstellar travel is impossible...
- ....so Spice is used to 'awaken' prescience in humans, so that the navigators above can actually fly their heighliners, but it also prolongs a human beings longevity, as well as being highly addicitve, so other groups crave this drug for their own purposes...
- ....but only one world produces this rare substance. "Who controls the spice, controls the universe"

Which sits at the centre of the politics.

But I do think there are layers and layers of this. For example, the technology of Dune:

The societies in Dune are ones that have lasers, force fields, personal anti-gravity devices, and spaceships that can travel between solar systems, but at the same time live like they were in the middle ages, fighting with knives to prove themselves to their tribe and trekking across the desert landscape. I know that the idea is that technology has turned against humanity, but if AI technology has turned against them, surely the powerful weapons such as lasers and force fields have as well?

...The fact that Jessica could command people with her training seemed like an excuse for them to go around getting people to do what they want.
The fundamental issue with Technology is the Butlerian Jihad. The point of this event, that takes place far in the past of the events of Dune, was that humanity was being enslaved by artificial minds. After a bloody fight that killed billions of humans, society religously banned constructing machines that copied human minds - computers or even calculators were destroyed and anyone that built them killed.

So Herbert imagines this event, then suggests what might happen afterwards to societies - Mentats develop techniques and ways of thinking that replace 'calculating machines'; the Bene Tleillax turn to the human body and alter our genetic code to manipulate bodies and minds; the Bene Gesserit have explored methods of training over thousands of years so that their bodies seemingly have superhuman powers - such as the Voice (not the programme with Tom Jones, but a method of controlling other people by using particular tones and sounds ;)), and a long list of other techniques; the Space Guild fly interstellar ships, but the minds of the navigators are in control, not any computer. Also there are the people of Ix - a system that seems dangerously close to replicating artifical thinking machines again. Their usefulness of their technology to others is the only thing keeping them as a power (or even alive), as they are skating a thin line with heresy.

Here Herbert paints not a black and white universe but a grey one. It's a fluid moving thing that resembles the sort of real worlds we see.

As for a lot of the rest of technology Herbert again gives them strengths and weaknesses. Personal shields exist that stop fast moving projectiles, hence guns with kinetic projectiles are not useful, but instead 'slow moving' objects can penetrate (a shield that stops air coming in would suffocate a user!) - hence knives and blunt weapons replace hand guns and rifles. 'Lasguns' do exist, but Herbert makes it that if a laser is fired at a shield 'sub-atomic fusion' occurs and a nuclear explosion will occur, either at the shield or the lasgun (said explosion occurs at a random spot in his universe). Hence this stops lasguns being credible weapons. And so he builds a fictional universe with a different 'set of rules for combat'.

Now you could like or dislike any one of these worldbuilding elements. I do think Herbert's ideas on genetic memory are just a bit too 'far out man' for me - genetics was still trying to find itself in the 1960s and there some crazy ideas at the time at what all this DNA we carried actually did. Also prescience definitely goes to fantasy side of things for me - but one of the things Herbert liked to do was explore the idea of prescience. What if someone, the Kwisatz Haderach say, actually could see the future 'properly'. What would it be like, what would they do? What actually limits such a vision?

(Also there is a fascinating interview with Frank Herbert where he says he experienced something like prescience. Essentially he was at a girlfriends house, where - bored I assume - they got a shuffled random pack of playing cards and she challenged him to predict the cards as she turned them over. Apparently he got all 52 correct. She shuffled them again, and he did it again! That freaked them both out and they stopped...)

...so when the Atreides family were going from Caladan to Arrakis any vague description of the spaceship they travelled in was completely skipped, and it felt like Herbert was just trying to keep the fantasy style by ignoring the things in the book which had sci-fi themes...
Why come up with a description of something that really had no impact on plot or characters? All that was necessary to know is that there is a monopoly on interstellar travel by the Spacing Guild and that they really need spice to operate. Why isn't it a SF theme to explore an alien world and the life cycle of a sandworm? Not all SF is Star Wars or Star Trek aboards spaceships! ;)


Also the way that Paul and Jessica just seemed to roam around the desert until they overpowered the first Fremen they saw with a few words didn’t really make sense, like the whole of Arrakis moved around them so that they could survive.
Well, Paul arriving on Arrakis is starting to 'awaken' his terrifying powers of prescience as he started to injest spice and Jessica is an extremely capable reverend mother with a wealth of techniques and knowledge. They are powerful. How they got onto the desert and escaped is somewhat luckier, but that requires explaining the Emperor's plan, the Baron's role and how they stabbed House Atreides in the back....

But the question you have to ask yourself is that, of course Paul is main protagonist and central character of the first book. But is he a hero?


And at times it felt like the narrative was just an endless stream of thoughts, and the world outside the characters’ heads hardly existed.
That feels a lot like the universe I inhabit :LOL:



Anyway, I've rabbited on too much. People I find, can get sucked into Lord of the Rings, because of the crazy detailed lore, the story, characters and the volumes of notes available to pore over. And I think there's a similar drive in a way for that of Dune, which although is nowhere as in-depth as LotR, is still extremely rich and complex.
 

pyan

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BigHappy said:
This makes the reader have to imagine half the world in his head for himself, which was disappointing, given the world building qualities that people say this book has.
You're putting this forward as a disappointment? To me, this is precisely the main reason why any book is (and always will be) superior to the film or TV series based on it.
It's also the reason why I read and enjoy SF/F and have done for the last 50 years or so: because I can imagine half the world in my head.
 

Stephen Palmer

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As others have said above, it's the richness and (ironically) timelessness which makes Dune such a classic. Arthur C. Clarke's work has in the main become massively dated, and John Wyndham's, for all that his work still resonates and is highly re-readable, does suffer a bit from being so fixed in 1950s Britain. Dune, though, continues to fascinate. I would certainly re-read it if I had time. I'd never touch anything by ACC with a bargepole.
 

Rodders

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I always enjoyed the world building of Dune and would argue that it second to none. (Stephen used "richness" and he is spot on.) It is probably one of the most complete planets and universes that i have personally ever read.

It's also a book that is very dense with ideas and not a single word is wasted.

I very much struggled with the sequels.
 

pyan

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I very much struggled with the sequels.
I managed fine up to Children of Dune, struggled with God-Emperor, Heretics and (especially) Chapterhouse, but gave up on the Brian Herbert/Kevin J Anderson sequels (or opportunistic travesties, as I prefer to think of them) after the first chapter of Hunters...
 

Stephen Palmer

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The first three are, I think, of a piece - all marvellous. God Awful Of Dune is awful, but I liked the two which followed.
The rest is opportunistic crap.
 

Toby Frost

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I thought that the first Dune book was by far the best. The problem is that many of the good characters die (although Duncan Idaho, one of the dullest, keeps coming back), and the interesting political system is in ruins by the end.

I think the Baron is actually quite a feasible character, given his sci-fi hovering and size. There are and have been people with even less good points than him in positions of power. I always saw him as a cartoon of a bad Roman emperor. He's grotesque, but he's in a position where he would be allowed to become grotesque.

Incidentally, for what it's worth, without Dune I strongly doubt that there would be any Warhammer 40,000.
 

BigHappy

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You're putting this forward as a disappointment? To me, this is precisely the main reason why any book is (and always will be) superior to the film or TV series based on it.
It's also the reason why I read and enjoy SF/F and have done for the last 50 years or so: because I can imagine half the world in my head.
A masterful worldbuilding by an author, is done by stimulating my imagination and making me think, rather than having it set out for me by the author in pages and pages of exposition or nonsensical dialogue.
I see what you mean and agree to some extent, maybe this is just a personal preference of how much is described and how much is imagined.

Mentats develop techniques and ways of thinking that replace 'calculating machines'; the Bene Tleillax turn to the human body and alter our genetic code to manipulate bodies and minds; the Bene Gesserit have explored methods of training over thousands of years so that their bodies seemingly have superhuman powers
I think this is my main problem with the book - ideas like this are interesting and I want to read more about them, but then when I do too much of it is left for me to decide (again this is probably just personal preference). Also book/magazine covers like the one in pogopossum's post are kind of deceptive - they make you think the book is about epic battles with giant sandworms, and yes all of the book wouldn't be just about that, but it gives you a false idea of what the book is about.
 

Venusian Broon

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I think this is my main problem with the book - ideas like this are interesting and I want to read more about them, but then when I do too much of it is left for me to decide (again this is probably just personal preference).
You learn more as you read deeper, just as if you are obsessed with the world of LotR you can get a bigger kick expanding your knowledge by reading the Silmarillion.

However if you are struggling to enjoy Dune, I'd guess that it's going to be an even harder slog for you in the follow ups! Which is no problem, there's more than enough books and stories by other authors out there for you to find and explore. :)
 
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