Discover more from Lunar Awards
Dune: A Review of Frank Herbert's Classic Novel
A book that masterfully exposes your religious and political sensibilities.
There’s nothing more daunting for a reader than becoming engrossed in a novel like Frank Herbert’s Dune, which has achieved legendary status among science fiction fans. When I finally picked up the book, all 617 pages of it, I knew I needed to approach this modern classic with caution. I didn’t want to be swayed by public opinion or by Herbert’s own interpretation of the work as an external source of illumination. Casual readers don’t normally source external material before diving into a book, and I wanted the same clear-headed approach. That was a mistake.
It’s why this review is split into two sections. The first explains what I discovered after completing my research, and the second details my thoughts regardless of Herbert’s (or anyone else’s) views. If you haven’t read Dune, each section should allow you to better approach it with a receptive attitude. If you have read Dune, I hope the review will help you find a new appreciation for Herbert’s seminal work.
Section One: Finding Purpose in Dune
When I finished Dune, a sense of disappointment crept over me, not because the book was unenjoyable, but because I felt I misunderstood Herbert’s intentions. It would not be possible for me to appreciate the work and confirm my suspicions without external input, an academic pursuit I don’t normally like to blend with fiction. The quest led me into the fandom, where I was greeted with an array of commentary on the extended Dune universe, the movies, TV series, as well as explorations of themes on ecology and conservation. Most fans praise Dune for its apparent disdain of imperialism, capitalism and conservatism, a drastic overreach, a conclusion that did not sit right.
My search for answers ended with The Maker of Dune: Insights of a Master of Science Fiction, edited by Tim O’Reilly. Among other writings, the book contains Herbert’s essay “Dangers of the Superhero”, a fantastic summary of how the protagonist Paul Atreides came to life, and how his transition to Paul-Muad’Dib, the Kwisatz Haderach chosen one, should not be revered, but feared with dread. Any power structure constructed around an individual that seeks to permanently remove the choices of other individuals is to be met with loathing.
“This grows from my theory that superheroes are disastrous for humankind, that even if we find a real hero (whatever that may be), eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that always comes into being around such a leader. What better way to destroy a civilization, a society, or a race than to set people into the wild oscillations which follow their turning over their judgment and decision-making faculties to a superhero.” ~ Herbert, p.97
Paul’s character arc made me uncomfortable as it should have, his personality shifting from youthful ignorance to authoritarian in the latter half of the story. The epigraphs in each chapter further confirm the evolution, ending with a poignant observation by his future bride, Princess Irulan, where she says, “Can you say he did this out of a sense of justice? Whose justice, then? Remember, we speak now of the Muad’Dib who ordered battle drums made from his enemies’ skins, the Muad’Dib who denied the conventions of his ducal past and with a wave of the hand, saying merely: “I am the Kwisatz Haderach. That is reason enough.””
How odd to create a protagonist who answers his calling, but who in final form perpetuates with religious zeal the very characteristics of the antagonist he aims to defeat. This led me to believe Herbert, while drawing analogies in his novel to systems that can cause irreparable harm, was not chiding any -ism through his fiction. He is pointing out that all paths to a utopian ideal, that perfect society or world, are in danger of corruption. It is not the processes or the altruistic aim of the politics that corrupt, it is the people within them.
Herbert discusses that this was not his original inclination, and just like most of us was tempted by confirmation bias, ready to chastise the apparently guilty parties based upon his own sense of justice.
“At the beginning, I was just as ready as anyone to fall into step, to seek out the guilty and punish the sinners, even to become a leader. Nothing, I felt, would give me more gratification than riding the steed of yellow journalism into crusade, doing the book which would right the old wrongs.” ~ Herbert, p.99
The Dune loved by so many is the result of his change in thinking. However, readers continue to project their own conclusions onto Herbert’s. Those conclusions are in reality a reflection of personal beliefs and expose our own religious and political sensibilities. When I wondered if I misunderstood Herbert’s intentions, instead of looking to him, or anyone else for answers, I should have looked inward. This is exactly what Herbert wanted.
“Of course, there are other themes and fugal interplays in Dune and throughout the trilogy. Dune Messiah performs a classic inversion of theme. Children of Dune expands the number of themes interplaying. I refuse, however, to provide further answers to this complex mixture. That, after all, fits the pattern of the fugue: you find your own solutions; don't look to me as your leader.” ~ Herbert, p.100
This could be the very reason why the other Dune chronicles were never received with the same heartfelt admiration as the original. They cast a harsher light on those places we dare not look at and force us to recognize that no matter our preferred systems of politics, government, commerce or religion, the ultimate power inherent within them will be too attractive for us to resist permanently. This is the dilemma to which we alone are responsible for finding a solution.
Section Two: Finding Enjoyment in Dune
The one aspect of Dune that is most outstanding is the world in which Herbert built. Among those who recommend the novel, a commonly cited reason is the creation of Arrakis, the planet where the majority of events transpire. In science fiction, the world in which the characters inhabit is a complimentary component to the story. Arrakis, nicknamed Dune by its inhabitants, is the required central element that ties both characters and plot together. Everything revolves around Arrakis, either by its presence, or in the case of water and a spice called Melange, its scarcity.
Arrakis is home to the Fremen, an oppressed, advanced civilization that lives in cave dwellings, has adapted to the planet’s harsh climate and is steeped in religious prophecy and ritual order. They stand in contrast to the royal empire growing rich off the mining of Melange and await a messiah (Lisan al-Gaib) to help them take back their homeworld. Their numbers are kept secret, as is their ability to control massive creatures called sandworms, “Makers” or “Shai-Hulud”, which they ultimately use in battle against controlling forces.
Even though Arrakis and its spice are important components of Herbert’s world, there is a deeper, complex system of politics and government that oversees Arrakis. The entire structure is modeled after the feudal system of Europe, complete with dukes, barons, counts, princes and princesses, all belonging to the Great Houses of the Landsraad. The fiefdom of Landsraad is primarily controlled on a galactic scale by order of Padishah Emperor of the Known Universe Shaddam IV. Two planets named Caladan and Giedi Prime, represent the homes of House Atreides and House Harkonnen, and contain the protagonist and antagonist.
Beyond the royal order, there is a religious order of Bene Gesserit witches operating behind the scenes in all houses. As the narrative progresses, they are slowly revealed to wield more knowledge, power and influence than anyone imagines. This is a topic that is so satisfying that it demands more attention, but Herbert continues to keep it all a mystery until the very end.
For what Dune accomplishes in worldbuilding it lacks in storytelling. Calling all of Frank Herbert’s Dune books the Dune Chronicles is an apt description. Herbert is largely a chronicler of events, and while the plot is rich with detail, it does not fit the form of a typical story. The timeline is sequential, and the division of “books” mark Paul’s transition toward savior, but those events largely stand alone in orderly fashion. It’s possible this is by design since Herbert is very concerned with prescience, the concept of absolute conservatism, or being completely aware of everything happening everywhere only in the present.
This tends to be a major sticking point for readers who dislike the book. Chronicling involves adding details steeped in lore that provide insights, but don’t progress the story. Each chapter starts with an epigraph, which acts as both external artifact and spoiler. I didn’t skip them, a choice I don’t regret, but you could choose to, and it wouldn’t matter in the least. Herbert mentions in his external writings that the original manuscript was a massive tomb, no doubt due to his focus on the world of Dune instead of an evenly balanced story. Nearly a hundred pages worth of scenes could be cut, and the book would still be fantastic.
With regards to characterization, this is another subject where Dune is nearly perfect. Paul Atreides lacks sufficient flaws and is regarded more as a vessel that gets filled with purpose over the course of the book. However, he, along with all of the characters, are unique in their personality, a feat difficult to achieve given how many players exist in the story. The antagonist, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is a favorite, a grotesque fat man that requires anti-gravity suspensors to move around. My only desire was that he received more pages to document his illicit behavior.
If you are a fan of science fiction or fantasy and want to read Dune, then I suggest you invest the time. It’s a book that requires a solid commitment, better suited to longer sessions of enjoyment when you can allow yourself to be pulled into the mythology. Herbert’s writing voice can be mechanical, although it’s not a strain. He never hides his character’s motivations, and it’s fun to hear their thoughts, a secret shared between writer and reader. It’s important to remember you should draw your own conclusions about the purpose of the story. You may learn something about yourself as you learn about Dune.
A final unrelated observation I’ll make is that I think successfully translating Dune into another medium like film or TV is impossible. It’s been done several times, even recently, but it fails to capture the expanse of the universe. Nothing can compete with the book, but I wouldn’t mind seeing someone try with an MMORPG game. Feel free to rebuke me in the comments.