Book Review #1: Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ – Masterpiece of Sci-Fi or Touch-Dry?

The sci-fi classic Dune by Frank Herbert is going to return with a new motion picture adaptation soon. Emphasis on ‘return’, since there has already been one adaptation in the 1980s. However, this is going to be a brand new adaptation with some well-renounced stars like Javier Bardem and Oscar Isaac.

I honestly bought the book because I knew that it is a classic and I did not care too much about the film but after reading the novel, that changed. With that being said, my expectations for the book were not particularly high but it surprised me positively. Dune is an interesting sci-fi epic and it got me excited about the film although I am wondering how they are going to adapt the source material.

Since the trailer has been released fairly recently and since I liked the novel, I am going to review it today. To give you a first impression of Dune, here is the trailer of the latest film adaptation.

What is Dune About?

Dune is set in a future, in which humanity is able to venture to different planets through space travel. There is an empire and various other structures in place to govern the universe. Besides the empire, there are various noble houses with planets assigned to their governance.

Over the course of the story, we follow the heir of the Atreides family, named Paul, on his way from a young heir to a duke. The Atreides family’s head is Duke Leto Atreides who is assigned as the ruler of the desolate planet Arrakis. At the beginning of the novel, the family is in the preparations for their departure to their new home.

Already at the beginning, it is clear that a storm is approaching, as there is a traitor among the Atreides and their servants. The characters start to plot against one another in order to find out who is the traitor and to avoid being exposed as such.

Shortly after the arrival on the sandy planet, the traitor pursues their plan and from that point onwards, the plot starts to gain more and more momentum. Protagonist Paul has to survive the treachery and makes it his goal to seize his inheritance as the duke of the house Atreides. At the same time, he has to learn how to deal with his newly awakened powers and the internal struggles that they bring with them.

The Great World of Dune

As touched on before, there are various fractions with their respective goals in Dune. The conspiracies between characters are one of the great selling points of this novel and set its plot in motion to begin with.

At the centre of the plot is the conflict between the Atreides family and their rivals, the Harkonnen, another noble house. Besides this conflict, there are various interest groups on a galactic and local level. On Arrakis, where most of the plot takes place, there are rebels called Fremen who are strongly adapted to the harsh living conditions in the planet’s deserts. Throughout the galaxy, there are fractions with special abilities, such as the Bene Gesserit and Mentats. While the former use their powers for the benefit of their order, the latter use them to support who hires them. Both are trained to be highly analytical and perceptive and the former use skills and powers like ‘the voice’ to manipulate others. This probably inspired the force in Star Wars at least when it comes to the magic system.

Cover Illustration and Design by Jim Tierney, no copyright infringement intended

All of these fractions have their own goals and traditions, which give the novel an immense depth. Despite all these details, the plot stays interesting, as the detailed world building enriches the plot and propels it forward.

The love for details shows in the example of Arrakis. Since the planet is really desolate, water is rare and one of the most important ressources. Therefore, people save as much of the liquid as they can and they use gear to preserve it. Said gear conserves the humidity that is exhaled for later usage. The local Fremen even go so far as to preserve the water of dead bodies because they do not want to waste the precious resource. Based on water and its conservation, an entire system has been established on the planet. You will learn how the giant sand worms called ‘Shai-hulud’ or ‘creators’ and the entirely blue eyes of the locals come into play while reading the novel.

The Grim Fate of Paul Atreides

The main character Paul is thrown into the centre of this world and its conflicts. He is an interesting character and already at the age of 15, he is really mature and analytical because of his lifelong training. Over the course of the novel, he develops the ability to look into the future but he can only see small glimpses and possibilities. He only knows the possible outcomes of a situation but not exactly how to proceed to make that happen, hence his life is never entirely safe and to the reader, it is never clear what is going to happen. Accordingly, this maintains the tension constantly, as Paul has to be tactical and wise when tackling the various challenges that he encounters on his journey.

Paul becomes more and more aware of the disastrous consequences that his actions can result in in the future, which leads to an interesting internal conflict. On one hand, the young man wants to seize his birth right as a duke, but on the other hand, he wants to avoid a religious war that may result of this, one that might plunge the entire galaxy into chaos. This dynamic keeps up your interest for the entire novel and the aforementioned conflict escalates more and more while Paul moves toward his purpose and the Jihad that he wants to avoid.

Where Does the Book Shine?

The awakening of Paul’s powers was one of the most interesting moments to me personally. The concept of accessing (possible) memories and future situations in the present is really interesting and provides great potential for an engaging story. Frank Herbert uses this potential skillfully to create and maintain tension and to keep the plot moving. Since Paul does not now how he is going to get out of situations unscathed, there are lots of tactical elements and lots of internal struggles in this novel.

Moments like these, in which the author plays with the characters’ thoughts and doubts and the readers’ expectations simultaneously, constantly maintain the tension and practically force you to keep reading and learn how a situation is going to be resolved.

Another interesting facet of Dune is Paul’s character development. He is just a teenager, yet he has immense powers that take a toll on him. The boy lives through many decisive moments in a short time and begins to numb emotionally. Seeing how a 15-year old becomes increasingly calculating and callous towards his enemies and how he uses his powers against them, makes this already great premise all the more interesting and enjoyable.

Paul’s powers are immense and he is not a normal teen. Despite that, you can still relate to him, since his feelings are portrayed quite tangibly, especially when he uses his powers. Despite the power that is knowledge brings with it, Paul is still a teenager and at times behaves as such. He is not an untouchable god but rather a young man who goes through a lot and obtains great power in a short amount of time. Paul is an interesting character and I enjoyed his journey until the end.

Not All that Glitters is Gold

Despite all its strengths, there are some aspects about this novel that are not too great or that make it not accessible to every age group. Dune is the beginning of a saga, hence the author has to introduce the world that it is set in. This takes time. Just the introduction of the main characters takes a lot of time. Thus, the first third of the novel can feel a little dragged out. However, it is established early on that there is a traitor and that some kind of conspiracy is about to unravel. This paired with constant foreshadowing builds up the tension steadily, even if it takes some time at the beginning. As soon as the plot sets off, it really kicks off and makes up for the long set-up in the first third of the novel.

That didn’t age well…

Dune was first published in 1965. Much has changed over the past 55 years, so some elements of this title did not age too well. For example, the portrayal of some of the characters has questionable implications. Obesity is used as a moral highlighter, as the main antagonist is REALLY FAT (he uses flying machines to carry his own weight). This is not cool in 2020 but it is done in a ridiculous way, so you cannot really take it too seriously.

Apart from that, the portrayal of women did not age well at all. There are barely female characters in the novel and those who are present are only in supporting roles that are quite representative of typical sexist notions of women’s “duties”, such as a princess who only functions as a means to profit by marrying into an influential family. Paul’s mother could be considered a strong woman but she is not portrayed in a good way, either. She is a Bene Gesserit and uses her knowledge and power to manipulate others. This matches biased views about “women doing whatever it takes to succeed” and portrays them as witches, which of course does not represent the reality. Especially this aspect of the novel shows that it was written in a different time, as the misogyny of the 60s seems to shine through in its portrayal of women.

Closing Thoughts

All in all, Dune is considered a classic for a reason. The universe it is set in has a great depth, the characters are interesting and there are barely annoying characters. Especially the premise based on memories from the future is interesting and Frank Herbert uses it cleverly to intertwine the plot, the world and the internal conflict of the protagonist with one another.

However, parts of the novel betray its origin in the 60s. If it were published today for the first time, it would result in lots of arguments about some of its questionable implications. Despite that, the story seems fresh and it definitely inspired some more contemporary work like the Star Wars saga. Accordingly, it is interesting to see how Dune influenced newer pieces of science-fiction.

Despite that, Dune is not a book for everyone. To really enjoy it, you should at least be a teenager. I highly doubt that a 12-year old could thoroughly enjoy it because of the slow introduction and the writing style, which can be a bit complicated, especially if there are tactical sections. Some of these sections remind me a little of Virginia Woolf’s writing style, which can be rather complicated, so I would not recommend this book to children.

You should definitely read Dune if you want to dive into an interesting world with diverse fractions and a nicely written story. I give it 9/10 points and I am curious about the sequel and the new film adaptation. However, I am not entirely sure that Dune can easily be adapted into a film so I am a little bit sceptic about it but only time will tell.

This marks the end of my first book review. I hope you liked it. Have you already read Dune and if so, how did you like it? Feel free to tell me in the comments or on Twitter.

As always, thanks for reading.

-sovlpvnk

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Published by sovlpvnk

On this blog, I talk about the alternative music scene and its ethics as well as LGBTQIAP+ -related topics. I mostly write about asexuality, political issues and their representation in media. Expect content in English and German every two weeks.

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