For some reason, I’d never gotten around to reading Dune before now, in spite of it being wildly popular when I was in high school, a time when I was more inclined to read sci-fi/fantasy. Part of that popularity had to do with the release of the 1984 film starring Kyle McLachlan; in fact, I even have a personal story. When I was a freshman, I won third place in a Dune poster contest sponsored by Universal Pictures. The third-place prize was a t-shirt and a copy of the final movie poster, while I’m pretty sure first place winner got an expense-paid trip to Los Angeles. Come to think of it, maybe that outcome, combined with the dreadful film, turned me off reading the book for the next 38 years.
After seeing the visually stunning 2021 film, I decided to give the novel a shot.
I’ll say right off the bat, I have mixed feelings. Dune is entertaining and surprisingly easy to read for a 600+ page novel that includes a glossary of terms as well as appendices that explain the ecology and religion of the planet. My only real complaint during the first half of the novel is the excessive use of characters’ thoughts for exposition–Herbert depends heavily on those inner monologues to help clarify their actions which, while helpful, isn’t the most elegant solution. As the novel progressed, I started to get more put-out by the gender stereotypes: the powerful women are witches (and it isn’t only the “bad guys” who use the term); Paul’s love interest has no depth whatsoever and is basically a prop (seriously, if I had to read about Chani’s elfin features one more time I was ready to throw the book, which would be bad since it’s quite heavy and could break something). I’m pointing these things out because they detracted from my enjoyment, but I’m giving the novel tons of leeway since it was published in 1965.
Those complaints aside, I can’t help but admire Dune. When Baron Harkonnen says to his nephew, “Observe the plans within plans within plans,” it’s a signal that we’re in for a complicated journey: plans within plans, treachery within treachery, themes within themes. The premise of a young outsider growing into the role of a Messiah to an oppressed people isn’t new, and wasn’t new even in 1965, but the care with which Herbert develops this world and the layers of political intrigue are dazzling. I admire complex world building, and Dune is one of the best examples of this I’ve read, from the detailed descriptions of how a stillsuit works to the backstory about Pardot Kynes’s discovery of the potential for Arrakis to support vegetation. I recognize that not everyone finds these details entertaining, but I just leaned back in admiration and said, “Damn, that is thorough.”
In spite of my complaints about Chani, most of the novel’s many characters are fleshed-out individuals. Duke Leto is a strong leader who instills loyalty in those around him, and whose Shakespearean fatal flaw is that he is just not very good at politics. His final thoughts before he dies are of his family: “It had been good, much of his life. He found himself remembering an antenna kite up dangling in the shell-blue sky of Caladan and Paul laughing at the sight of it. And he remembered the sunrise here on Arrakis–colored strata of the Shield Wall mellowed by dust haze.” Not only does that passage contain beautiful imagery, it paints the Duke at the end as a man brave enough to accept death and gentle enough to think of his son’s laughter in his final moments. Lady Jessica, the most central character in the novel after Paul, begins as concubine to the Duke and a sister of the Bene Gesserit who obeys the commands of the Reverend Mother, to mother of the chosen one (she recognizes the power shift when she finds herself moving “in his orbit”), to a Reverend Mother in her own right, defiant and determined. From Doctor Yueh’s pain and treachery to Gurney Halleck’s devotion to House Atreides to the mysterious Emperor’s political maneuverings, motives and characterization are clear.
On top of the plethora of well-developed characters, the novel abounds with themes: power and its source; ruling class vs. working class; colonization; religion; the environment; people vs. nature, to name a few. Dune reads like a sci-fi novel that’s dying to be somebody’s Master’s thesis.
Dune is certainly not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. No doubt we could just as easily write a term paper on its flaws as we could along a theme like “each character’s relationship to the spice.” But it contains plenty of ideas, plenty of complicated world building, and plenty of well-thought-out politics. It’s not going to make my list of all-time favorite novels, but it’s definitely earned my admiration.