by Frank Herbert
Dune is an iconic piece of science fiction, one of the best-selling in the genre, and the first in an epic series by Frank Herbert, but it’s a series I hadn’t gotten around to until just now. It’s also not a story that can be fully related in few words, but I will try in a few sentences.
Set in the far distant future, it is a coming-of-age story about young Paul Atreides, the son of a Duke, Leto Atreides, and Leto’s powerful mistress, Lady Jessica, who is part of a religion that is somewhat akin to witchcraft. In any case, Jessica’s people—the Bene Gesserit—are sometimes feared, sometimes reviled, sometimes respected, and Paul himself has been trained in their ways, even though the Bene Gesserit are solely women.
Paul’s family has recently arrived on Arrakis, a desert planet from which their people mine a spice called melange, which is very valuable. They face plenty of danger from giant carnivorous sandworms, the fierce climate and the wary native population, but the biggest threat comes from the House Harkonnen, their political rivals who are making a play to snatch control of Arrakis from the Atreides. We meet up with Paul at the beginning of this coup and follow him through to its conclusion, enduring a large time jump in the middle as Paul grows into a man and finds his destiny on the strange desert planet.
Straight off the bat, I have to give Frank Herbert credit for his skill at worldbuilding. Even by today’s standards, Dune presents a remarkably realized fictional world; that it is also one of the earliest examples in science fiction/fantasy just makes the detail Herbert put into his world all the more impressive. I personally have a low skill and little patience for the art of worldbuilding, which is why most of the things I tend to write either take place in the real world or in an urban setting very similar to our own, but even if I have no interest in creating a world myself, I have mountains of respect for those that do. It takes a lot of patience and skill to create a realistic universe in which to set your tale.
Unfortunately, I think that this sometimes comes at the expense of characterization. There were very few in Dune that I found intriguing or relatable. I know this is supposed to be a coming-of-age tale with Paul at the center, but Paul is very hard to relate to because he is mind-numbingly perfect. Paul Atreides is all things; he goes by so many titles or personas in Dune that it is almost dizzying to keep track of them all. He’s Paul Atreides, he’s Maud’Dib, he’s Usul, he’s the Lisan al-Gaib, he’s the Mahdi, he’s the Kwisatz Haderach—the names never end and Paul embodies all of them. From the start of the uprising that thrusts Paul into his destiny, he goes through a sort of metamorphosis that strips him of his childhood innocence. This is a necessary transformation for Paul to become the leader he was meant to be... but it also makes him dull as a doorknob. Possessing approximate knowledge of all things past and present strips Paul of doubt and weakness and makes him an all-powerful Gary-Sue. Even Paul’s mother finds the change unsettling, as she spends the entire book alternating between being proud and terrified of her son. Lady Jessica frets to such an extent that it gets old quickly. The later addition of a second creepy child does not help matters.
Any other characters I saw potential in were quickly disposed of the moment I started to find them interesting. Shadout Mapes? Dead. Duke Leto? Dead. Liet Kynes? Dead. Duncan Idaho? Dead—and this one hurt most of all. I’m happy to hear he was revived for subsequent novels, thanks to his instant appeal and popularity, but I’m not sure it’s enough to get me to continue. Some may interpret this ruthless disposal of characters as a storytelling device—a ploy to make you think you know what’s coming before it all gets flipped on its head—but I just found it disappointing after a while. What’s the use in allowing yourself to enjoy characters if you know they’re all going to be killed off before they reach their potential?
I also don’t think Herbert did a very good job at portraying minorities. Unique for the decade it was released, Dune actually has a homosexual character... only he is a fat, evil pedophile and the story’s lead antagonist. Of course. I haven’t got much else to say about this topic; it speaks for itself. I suppose it is telling that a story that goes out of its way to present a homosexual would make him so inherently vile.
It is Dune’s treatment of women that is more complicated. The story starts with some promise, portraying the Bene Gesserit as an extremely powerful and respected subset of women in society. All the women in Dune have their heads about them but unfortunately, no matter how clever they are, they still live in a cripplingly patriarchal society, and even the most powerful female characters are still propping up their men throughout the novel. Hell, the Bene Gesserit’s lifelong ambition is to find a male to induct into their religion and become a messiah for them all. I’ll give Dune credit for its time, but on the whole, the song remains the same.
I don’t see myself picking up any future Dune novels, as the fate of Arrakis is simply not compelling enough to plod through thousands of pages of Herbert’s thick and tedious fantasy-language. There’s only so much of Kwisatz Haderrachs and gom jabbars and landsraads and sardaukars that I can take. If I have to flip back and forth between a glossary and the text every other page just to understand what I’m reading, then the endeavor, on the whole, really starts to lose its appeal.