Friday, November 10, 2023

Karen S Wiesner: {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

 {Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

by Karen S. Wiesner

In previous books I’ve reviewed for my “Put This One on Your TBR List” series, I included a summary and background details for the book I spotlighted. However, Dune (or the Dune Chronicles) is touted as the bestselling science fiction novel in history, has become a franchise in its own right, and a book description and premise is probably unnecessary here, given the sheer amount that’s been written about this saga already. So this is strictly a review (as much as I’m capable of making it anyway) of the first book.

I first heard about Dune in association with the 1984 movie that starred Sting, the rock star, and all the movie posters I’d seen looked about as hokey, cheesy, and downright silly as it got. I assumed this was some overblown space opera not to be taken seriously. However, when I saw the preview of the 2021 remake starring Timothee Chalamet and Oscar Isaac (among other worthy actors), I started to get curious about this series. Anything that’s been around as long as this has (first published in 1965—nearly 60 years) and has this huge of a following seems like it might actually have endured as something beloved for good reason.

I found a beautiful, like-new trade paperback copy for only $6 at a used bookstore. I won’t lie, the size of it was intimidating. 689 pages! I looked through it before I started reading the story. The first thing I noticed was that there were no chapters, per se. Each section was prefaced by epigraphic excerpts offered up from a fictional character within the series universe (which is called, hilariously, the Duniverse by diehard fans). I love the idea of making a series and a setting so insular, it becomes like something real that has historical and cultural significance. These types of commentaries, biographies, quotations or philosophies serve to ground the story in almost archival weight.

Inside this trade paperback, I found three “books” which made up the first Dune. There were also four appendices—the stuff lore lovers devour. I was amazed at the author’s thoroughness. This is the kind of world building you can only stand and marvel at the scope covered. The first appendix was like a fictionalized account of the ecology of Dune as told by Pardot Kynes, the first (fictional) planetologist of the main setting in the story. Next, the religion of the series was covered along with space travel. Most science fiction avoids the idea of religion as if science will eventually become the religion of the future. Although a lot of the religion in Dune does come off as superstitions or ways to manipulate the masses, I appreciated that it was included at all. Like it or not, humans are spiritual creatures, even if that doesn’t always imply morality. The third appendix was presented from the point of view of the fictional character Jessica, a member of the Bene Gesserit, a kind of religious organization that could be a cross between witchcraft and the stealthiest spies that employ voice control as one of their weapons. The next appendix gave information about the noble houses featured in the series. There were also sections with a dictionary of terms and cartographic notes along with a detailed map (I love this!!!). Finally, there’s an afterword provided by the author’s son Brian, which was very enlightening.

I was duly impressed by all this, so I started reading. It’s a slow-moving story, but I was instantly confronted with the inaccuracies of my presumptions about the story. This was no mere space opera, and there was nothing hokey about it. It’s a science fiction saga, yes, set far, far, far in the future (smart!), but the tone of the story (when it eventually settles into the main setting Arrakis, a barren desert planet with a merciless climate) conveyed a classical fantasy feel to me. The society of Arrakis is populated with scattered bands of native Fremen who are the only ones who really know how to survive in such a desolate, harsh place. They live like nomads without much by way of technology. Their religion and unique philosophy rule their lives. Water, as you might expect, is their most precious resource and it’s their currency. However, the irony is that the place they call home is the only place where melange spice can be mined—but only at great peril…for multiple reasons (ranging from giant sandworms to weather instability to the ban on “thinking machines” to intergalactic feudalism that fuels the political in-fighting that overshadows the universe). Melange holds dominion over everyone and everything. This drug extends life and expands the consciousness. Additionally, it allows for the folding of space, which has made interstellar travel possible. I admit, as a major plot in this series, I was bothered that something that could be considered a hallucinogenic drug could hold such sway over the entire universe. But I suppose that isn’t unrealistic, considering how popular drugs are these days.

As for “overblown drama”, I found no suggestion of it. I was compelled to keep reading all through the three books of the first Dune story. I was so impressed, in fact, that before I was half done reading it, I bought the entire boxed set of the first six novels written by Frank Herbert. After his father’s death in 1986, his son Brian teamed up with sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson (I’ve read some his Star Wars books) to co-author other Dune installments which include prequels that fill in the gaps of what happened previous to the events of the first Dune book, as well as those that fit into the middle and end of things and finish the entire series.

Dune is extremely well written and authentic in every aspect. The worldbuilding is impeccable. The author left nothing out. That said, I think the drawback of this saga is the same that tends to plague many larger-than-life sagas. The world is so big, there’s no way an author could possibly give every character in it, even the main characters, the space needed for true, deep development. One of the signs that depth is lacking, in my opinion, is the over-the-top head-hopping that takes place in this novel. I’ve never witnessed any author do it with such unabashed boldness. Usually, an author will yank the reader out of one character’s head, into another’s, but that’s as far as it goes. Herbert knew no boundaries in this story. Every scene contains head-hopping all around the room. Every character included in a scene is given “head space” within that same scene.

Those who have read my writing reference titles know that this is my foremost pet peeve. In Dune, it’s true that some of the main characters are given more “head space” than others, and you get to know them slightly better as a result, but I didn’t feel I came to know any of the characters in Dune even remotely as well as I would have liked. As I said, I’m not sure it’s possible to get in-depth in a saga this vast. What happens when the scope of a story is too large is that readers are only selectively shown what the author wants them to know about the main characters. We don’t know what they really feel and think about so many things, nor do we get more than a skewed taste of their past, present, and future dimensions (those who’ve read Dune will truly understand the irony of that statement, given what the spice drug does to the minds it enslaves). We only get one-dimensional characters, including the main ones. This makes it very hard to root for or even like most of the people populating this world. I think the only character I truly liked in this book was Duke Leto Atreides. The rest filled the roles the author gave them—no more, no less. Even Paul, the duke’s son, and what most would consider the main character of Dune, wasn’t someone I continued to be compelled and sympathetic toward. By the middle and at the end of the first book, he became little more than a monster, driven (contradictorily) calmly and ruthlessly insane by the drug spice.

I was also bothered by the strange character growth in Dune. They changed so much in this first book. It’s divided into three parts, I think, so the writer could skip over the character growth that changed characters from one thing to another. In this way, a lot of the development felt convenient to the plot. The author needed them to do something in a certain way. Yes, Herbert built in strong religions and philosophies, training rigors, etc., but in part because none of the characters are developed deeply, the alterations in their personalities are stretched almost beyond belief, are logical but mildly distorted, and ultimately brush against the dreaded deus ex machina as close as it gets without actually entering it.

All these things said, I enjoyed the story enough to be intrigued and interested in continuing to learn more. I’m glad I decided to read it, despite my earlier presumptions. I’ve also watched about a third of the 2021 remake movie, and I’m finding it follows the novel very closely (as closely as it can and still make sense of the scope). I also intend to watch the sequel when it comes out in 2024. Both of these encompass the first and second parts of the first novel. There are a lot of other media associated with this franchise. I’m not sure how far I’ll delve into this universe (the sheer breadth of it feels intimidating to me), but for now I’m determined to at least read the author’s original stories and watch these two film adaptations.

In the afterword provided by the author’s son, Brian Herbert talks about having asked his father if his magnum opus would endure and hearing the modest assessment that only time would tell. Given its popularity for nearly 60 years, I’d have to say endure it has—endured and flourished! If you haven’t already wandered into the Duniverse and been captured by its distinctive spice, Dune is definitely worth a try.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here:

Visit her publisher here:

No comments:

Post a Comment