I can see the Onion headline now: “Surprise! Book Reviewer Enjoys Widely Respected Pillar Of Science Fiction Genre.” A picture of me accompanies the article. In it, I’m sitting in my reading room, holding a hefty copy of Dune aloft and smiling like a ding-dong who doesn’t know what he signed up for. The rest of the article is just the journalist laughing at the dude who thought Dune would be a fun, breezy read. In truth, Dune is a chonk boi of a book that’s certainly fun at times, but it’s definitely not breezy. It is, however, awesome, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word.
The politics, science, and survivalism of Frank Herbert’s tentpole sci-fi make it a dense read. My copy both looks like and reads like a brick, a thought I had countless times during my readthrough. But you can use bricks to build houses, and that’s a fitting metaphor for Dune. Finishing the ~800 page tome left me with a sense of accomplishment, as though I had constructed a house from scratch using only copies of Dune as bricks.
It’s not a new feeling for me. Finishing a book that’s considered a crucial thread in the fabric of the SFF genres often feels like overcoming a hurdle. I felt the same way with The Lord of the Rings. There’s a mystical quality to these pillars of the SFF world that draws me to them. A feeling that I need to read them to cement my position as a “true” reader of speculative fiction. I normally chide this gatekeeping attitude, but there’s always that part of me that breathes a sigh of relief when I’m able to say something like “Yeah, of course I’ve read Dune.”
By all counts, Dune is an outright excellent book. However, there’s a definite thickness to the plot that makes it more of a full-on trek than a short hike. I guess what I’m saying is you shouldn’t venture to Dune lightly. That’s especially good advice for the novel’s main characters, who find themselves smack dab in the middle of a nefarious plot to control the book’s eponymous desert planet.
The Atreides family (who you may remember from our Thanksgiving post) is tasked to assume rule of the desert planet Arrakis, aka Dune. The planet is barren and brutal, but it produces melange, a valuable (and addictive) spice that fetches a great price across the universe. Paul Atreides, son of the Duke tasked with ruling the planet, narrowly escapes with his life when the powerful Baron Harkonnen betrays the Atreides family. He journeys with his mother into the most desolate regions of Arrakis, where he begins to become part of the planet’s unique culture. As he makes this journey (which is both literal and spiritual, I might add), the Harkonnen family seeks to destroy all remnants of the Atreides family to tighten their own stranglehold on the spice-producing planet.
That short description, as you might imagine, is incredibly high level. Dune focuses on tiny moments in time. The small change in the way a suspected enemy says a word. The intricacies of conserving water on a planet evolved to be dry. There’s so much content in Dune, but it’s not all flashy action or huge setpieces (though both get their due). The best comparison I can make is to A Game of Thrones. Politics and intrigue reign supreme in Dune, making it an extremely involved and sometimes boring reading experience. Your willingness to trudge through the first 300 pages will likely determine your tolerance level for such politics. Once I surpassed a whole book’s worth of verbal sparring and made it to the back half of Dune, I couldn’t put it down. What starts as a slow foundational story turns into a riveting adventure. You just have to decide for yourself whether it’s worth the effort.
I’ll assume you’re confident enough in your own abilities to make that decision for yourself and move onto an actual review of the book. Damn, it’s good. The characters are layered and fascinating. This is thanks in part to Frank Herbert’s amazing imagination. He has created an entire society replete with warriors, distinct planetary cultures, and a group of “witches” that can control people with just their words. Herbert slots his characters neatly into Dune’s various subcultures. The reader is privy to character complexities, which in turn are spurred by the cultural structures Herbert has built. Paul himself is a highlight, but so is his mother Jessica, the warrior-bard Gurney Halleck, and even Baron Harkonnen, the book’s primary antagonist. I soaked up each character’s flaws, strengths, and triumphs as if they were my own.
Dune itself should be considered the star of the show here. I never thought Herbert could make a desert planet so vibrant and enticing. Through the eyes of Dune’s native Fremen, the planet is a thing of magnificent beauty. The flip side? It’s equally brutal. The sandworms that roam the lands can devour a chopper in a single swoop, and the slightest disturbance can betray a desert walker’s location to the beasts. These conditions give way to cultural practices that are flat-out fun to read about; Dune is a tapestry that constantly unveils new artistic wonders for readers who play close attention.
It’s these qualities that sparked two hours-long reading sessions to finish Dune. Once I surpassed the lagging intro, I sped through the book as though a sandworm was hot on my trail. Dune serves as a wonder of worldbuilding, a masterclass in character, and a storytelling accomplishment worthy of its many accolades. And on top of being a truly great book, Dune will make you feel like a tried-and-true sci-fi fan. What more could you want?
Rating: Dune – 9.5/10