Book Review: Dune

The most modern Dune cover art

I recently listened to a review of the new Denis Villeneuve film adaptation of Dune, which was in theaters this past fall as of this writing. In response to one host asking how it was, the other thought a moment before replying as a sincere compliment “it was Dune.”

Dune is Dune. That just about sums it up. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and I don’t think I ever will. Published in 1965, 11 years after The Fellowship of the Ring, Dune is a genre classic that inspires think pieces discussing what it means. What is Dune really about?

Is it about economics, and the apathetic cruelty of capitalism taken to the extreme? The exploitative evils of colonialism and feudalism? The manipulative dangers of organized religion as a political body? Substance abuse? The prime importance of caring for our environment? The answer to all these questions is a resounding “yes”.

Original Cover Art

That said, Dune is also an epic adventure about a boy coming into his power to avenge the destruction of his house. In fantasy and sci-fi, we call that a tale as old as time.

The Basics:

Title: Dune
Author: Frank Herbert
Genre: Science Fiction, High Fantasy, Epic, Political intrigue
Published: Chilton Books, 1965. Previously serialized in Analog magazine.

Spoiler-Free Summary:

Although there are many plot threads, the core story revolves around 15-year-old Paul Atreides, heir to the Duke Leto. He has received the best training in two pseudo-scientific magical disciplines, combat, and statesmanship, but joining his family as they possession of the desert planet Arrakis, the only known source of the a psychotropic spice which allows their psychic space navigators to guide humanity through the stars, will push him to his limits. This new fiefdom, given by a galactic emperor, is both gift and curse: it could lead to immeasurable wealth, but House Atreides must hold it from the previous owners, house Harkonnen, who will certainly come to re-conquer their former vassal.

Dune Mid-2000s Cover Art

Paul must navigate the underhanded political intrigues, the deadly Arrakeen environment, and his increasingly painful bouts of prophecy as he seeks to survive and increase his house’s glory.

Why This Book Is For You:

Dune is utterly different from anything I have read recently. I don’t know if it could get published in today’s literary culture, where first-person narrative and thriller pacing are in vogue. In a way, Dune is a quiet novel, diving deep into each character’s psyche. Herbert creates tension in a very classical way (I mean that literally, in the way of Dickens and Vern): through dramatic irony created by a super-omniscient narrator. We know on the first page of the second chapter, for example, exactly which trusted retainer will betray Atreides. The reader must carry on with horror-movie “don’t say that!” and “don’t go in there!” energy.

The text follows a pattern: dialogue leads to extensive internal reaction. After nearly every spoken line, we see one or more characters dissect each word for scraps of meaning. What was said? What was meant? What does the speaker want the hearer to think was meant? What response will get the other to think, say, and do what is needed without revealing goals or motivations? Dune is the masterwork on political intrigue.

Dune 1980s Cover Art

If that doesn’t get you going, sci-fi action with helicopter dogfights, violent sandstorms, giant carnivorous worms, and bloody melee combat abounds.

Where Can You Learn More?

If you want to explore the Dune universe but don’t know where to go after Dune, I highly recommend this reading order analysis. Frank Herbert passed away in 1986; Read about his legacy as interpreted at the time, or a retrospective 50 years after the original pub date.

Happy Reading, fellow bibliophile.

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