With its latest film adaptation now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, it’s time to talk about Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction novel, Dune. Strap in.
The term “space opera” has never applied more literally to any piece of fiction than Dune. Thousands of years in the future, a frightened emperor and a wicked baron scheme to rid themselves of a mutual threat: the noble and respected House Atreides. The conspirators force the virtuous Duke Leto and his family into a sort of pseudo-exile on the colonized desert planet Arrakis, where the most valuable substance in the world, upon which all travel and commerce has become dependent, is extracted:
On Arrakis, far from friends or allies, the duke and his household are attacked by the emperor’s elite legions and all but wiped out. Only the duke’s son and heir, Paul, and Paul’s pregnant mother Jessica survive the slaughter, but if they want revenge, they must also survive the desert planet itself…
Dune sounds pretty fantastic from that premise, doesn’t it? It isn’t a science-fiction novel so much as The Tempest in space. What could possibly go wrong?
I went into Dune with clear eyes, or so I thought. I knew that the 1965 novel had taken heavy inspiration from Lawrence of Arabia and that it is very orientalist in its depiction of the Fremen, the indigenous desert-dwelling people of Arrakis, and I was not expecting much nuance. There are subplots dealing with eugenics, colonialism, religious conflict, and the influence of missionaries, all handled to various degrees of “yikes.” In short, I knew there were a lot of questionable elements, but I wanted to push through so I could see what all the fuss was about and properly critique the book when I was done.
Writers, if you need a confidence boost, pick up Dune. This is one of the most popular, most commercial science-fiction books of all time. It has passages so iconic that they are still memes 60 years after its first publication. It has had multiple film adaptations.
All of this success is in spite of prose that reads like the fantasy novel everybody writes in 7th grade in the back of their math notebook.
Dune is a trial to read. Each scene in the first half of the book is interrupted almost every other sentence by characters’ internal monologues, usually stating or restating things that the reader has already inferred. When there’s dialogue, in contrast, sometimes characters leap to conclusions or descend into a rage so quickly and with so little build-up that I kept backtracking to try to understand what had set them off. When there are startlingly beautiful lines or moments of unexpected poignancy — which there are! — they are almost bewildering.
Meanwhile, there is Paul Atreides.
I am calling for a total moratorium on the term “Mary-Sue” after reading every single character’s thoughts on how supernaturally special Paul is. Not only is he White Savior Space Jesus, able to learn (and outdo) everything the native Fremen do almost as soon as he sets foot on their planet, but he is also the pinnacle of a eugenics breeding program and a master at hand-to-hand combat and a human supercomputer. It wasn’t even so much that I minded that he was literally the messiah — I’ve seen a Chosen One before, I’m used to it — it was that the entire narrative grinds to a halt to tell you about it.
(Let’s not even get into the depiction of our villain, Baron Harkonnen, a caricature of a predatory gay man who leers after his own teenage nephew, and who is inflicted with obesity and STDs for his sins. It’s not great!)
All of that said, there were a lot of aspects of Dune that were a pleasant surprise. Around the halfway point of the story, there’s a two-year time skip, and then suddenly Herbert seems to get out of his own way. The prose becomes readable. The plot is compelling: it’s very hard to go wrong with “Shakespeare, but make it spaceships.” The world of Dune is convincingly strange and futuristic, and you can see its influence on media from Alien to Warhammer 40k to Gideon the Ninth.
Herbert also obviously had a lot of thoughts about colonialism, capitalism, ecology and conservation, and even the slave trade. (Haris Durrani’s recent essay on the “Muslimness” of Dune is worth a read for a perspective on the religious themes in Dune, arguing that Herbert incorporates Islamic philosophy in a far more nuanced way than a casual reader may notice.) The Fremen are the descendants of people who were conquered and forced into bondage by the empire, which is itself run by a corporation. The aristocrats aren’t just nobility, they’re also board members, and they’re all eager to extract as many natural resources from Arrakis and other worlds at they can. It’s hard to read Dune as anything but a critique of these systems.
Environmentalism is the theme that really shines in Dune. The main goal of the Fremen is to restart the water cycle on their planet, and Herbert goes into detail about the agricultural and scientific steps they’re taking to accomplish this. There is an emphasis on environmental responsibility and long-term thinking that feels more relevant now than ever. None of the characters are going to live to see the results of their work, but they do it anyway so that their great-grandchildren can inherit a habitable planet.
I was also surprised by how much I liked Paul and the other characters by the end of the book. In the second half, Paul is allowed to have an internal life that isn’t just foreshadowing and exposition, and he is much more vulnerable and frightened of his own power and destiny than I was expecting. His existence is radicalizing the Fremen — or perhaps they are radicalizing him — and he is terrified of his influence; it reminded me a little of Jesus Christ Superstar, of all things. Herbert takes a cynical and gritty view of where religious fervor and a charismatic leader can go that made me question whether or not Paul’s “specialness” was a good thing after all.
(Embarrassingly, I also have no choice but to stan the women of Dune. Paul’s mother, Jessica, is a little much, but his “wives” Chani and Harah have more personality in their scant dialogue than most of the rest of the cast, and I unironically love his little sister Alia, a terrifying psychic murder child.)
In conclusion, did Dune withstand the test of time? No, not really.
Dune is the rare book that could be better as a film — we’ll see if the 2021 version pulls that off. (David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation, while wild, is barely coherent.) Even if the more problematic aspects of the book could be set aside, the writing is terrible in the first half, and I have a hard time imagining most readers finding it anything but a slog.
If you dig sci-fi classics and have the patience to wait out the prose, there is a lot to like, but there are dozens of books I would recommend before I’d reach for Dune.
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