Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Series: Dune Chronicles (#1)
Genre: Space Opera
Publication Date: 1966
Arrakis. Dune. Desert Planet. Only on this one world is the spice melange located, and he who controls the spice controls the universe. The Atreides family now control Arrakis, but their enemies are many, and tragedy is certain . . .
It is impossible to talk about Dune without taking into account its legacy. Fifty-five years after it was first published, Frank Herbert’s work has shaped an entire genre. Without Dune, there would be no Star Wars. No Saga of Seven Suns. No Sun Eater. Dune was not the first space opera novel, but was a game-changer for the genre. In that respect, Dune is unquestionably one of the greatest novels in the science fiction canon. Yet as the book itself teaches us, legacies are a tricky thing, and Dune‘s is no different.
I first read Dune in 2017, and I went in expecting to have my mind blown. It wasn’t. At the time of publishing, these ideas were groundbreaking, but half a century on those ideas have been copied and re-imagined hundreds of times over. It’s not 1966 anymore, and all the big ideas were ones I had seen elsewhere, and often used to better effect. Dune is ground zero for so many things, but the genre has grown and flourished in those fifty-plus years. It’s seeped into every aspect of modern life. Put simply, you can’t read Dune today the way a person would have in the sixties. The world we live in is just too different.
Dune is a book that most people will tell you gets better on a reread. Look closer at the themes, they’ll say. The ideas are more complex than you think. Sure it looks like a fun space adventure, but there’s more below the surface. Now, there is certainly something to be said for that perspective. Dune is a multilayered narrative, and has thematic wells you could drink from for years and never dry up. There is a reason I used it in my dissertation, after all. But my experience on a reread is actually the opposite of what everyone else seems to be saying.
Once you accept that the idea are better used elsewhere, you can read Dune on its own merits. It is a fun space adventure. The characterisation isn’t subtle. The Atreides are noble and brave, though with an edge of steel running through them. The Harkonnens are a bunch of evil murderers with no redeeming features at all. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yes, you can look at it as a meditation on the nature of authority and heroism, but you don’t have to. Dune is exciting and packed with action. Come for an adventure, and you’ll get one.
The real drawback, however, is not that the ideas have grown stale over time, nor that the book is (with a few exceptions) painted in black and white. The problem, bluntly put, is Herbert’s writing. Frank Herbert has phenomenal ideas and a grand sense of scope, but on a prose level, he falls well short of what I’d expect in a classic of the genre. Obviously, some of this is the result of changing prose standards over time. The full omniscience of his writing is a far cry from today’s more focalised writing. But the issue goes deeper than that. Herbert jumps from one character’s head to another in the middle of a scene without skipping a beat. Heroes and villains alike spell out their exact thought processes, often verbally, and no real person has ever spoken like one of these characters. The Hmm-mmm-mm-ing and Ah-h-h-ing gets very tired very soon. The pacing goes from glacial for most of the novel to a rushed conclusion that doesn’t quite do justice to any of the many plot-lines it concludes. Then there are the descriptions. Paul doesn’t sit by a tent doorway, he ‘crouches by the sphincter.’ There are some great turns of phrase to be found, but much of the book wobbles between stilted and downright atrocious.
For all its many flaws, Dune deserves to be recognised for its contribution to the genre. There is a grand adventure in here, but it’s weighed down by the book’s place in history.