This book took me a bloody long time to read.
I bought it a couple of years ago, started it, slogged through the first 200 pages, and put it down.
It stayed on the floor next to my bed for many, many months.
Late last year I tried again. I started from the beginning, slogged through 300 pages and put it down for a long time.
On the weekend, I finished reading Dune. It feels like a milestone.
As you can tell, for me, Dune was not an easy book to get stuck into. The first third of the book is slo-o-ow. The problem is that Herbert has crafted an incredibly complex, interplanetary world tangled with political intrigue, feuding houses, invented jargon and lots of characters with funny names. It takes a good few hundred pages to immerse oneself in the world of Arrakis & beyond. There are a ton of characters, some of them with similar-sounding names, that initially fly over your head. Herbert doesn’t spend a lot of time describing each character or letting you get a deep sense of who they are, so you have to rely on your own efforts to remember.
So what is the story of Dune? It’s an epic. A science fiction epic, and, I do have to conclude, a veritable masterpiece. It deals in prophecies and legends, decades and centuries, emperors and rulers of great houses. Essentially, it chronicles the rise of a messianic figure: Paul of Atreides, the fifteen-year-old son of a fallen house, who through immense personal skill and cleverness and the investment of numerous past generations, rises from the dust to be a leader of men.
It’s a great tale, and I’ve encountered nothing like it before. The thing that makes it most unique, I feel, is the setting. Arrakis is a desert planet, largely uninhabitable, a sea of barren dunes, swept with dust storms. The native people, the Fremen, dwell in cave networks and in the underground, and flourish in a completely fascinating way of life. I enjoyed reading about the technicalities of sand travel, particularly the stillsuits that conserve every drop of the body’s water. Herbert really makes you feel the thirst of the people on Arrakis—the preciousness and sacredness of water, the parched nature of the land and of the desiccated bodies of its inhabitants.
I also enjoyed the way Herbert portrays the Bene Gesserit skill of intuitive logic (is that an oxymoron?) that both Paul and Jessica utilise. Many of the dialogue scenes are layered with undercurrents of unspoken meaning and suspense. The conversational parries are just as tense as the sword-fights.
What didn’t I like about this book? At first, Herbert’s writing style really grated on me. He uses words like an old chef tossing ingredients into a food processor: I feel like he throws phrases together out of a vague sense of meaning—at first, the phrase doesn’t really make sense, but if you just let it flow over you, you get an impression of what he is trying to say. Especially in the bits where he writes about floating consciousnesses and all that…I decided it was best to just accept and not over-analyse. As I read on, I got used to his style and actually started to enjoy and appreciate his literary technique.
I suppose another thing that wasn’t quite to my tastes was the two-dimensionality of many of the characters. The males are variously skilled and heroic, or evil and leering and conniving. The females are generally either haggard crones or beautiful and talented. The bad guy is a paedophilic homosexual. On the flip side, Dune is a book that focuses more on events, motives, intrigue, treachery and plot than on subtleties of character. It covers broad themes and provokes thought about the worship of a hero figure, the origin of religion, the interplay of humans and environment, and many other ideas.
Overall, I can see why Dune won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1966 and lives on as a classic. It’s a game changer, sweeping in scope, and quite different. But I’m not sure if I’ll read the sequels…