Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert

Dune_1stArguably the most famous science fiction novel ever published, Dune captured the hearts and minds of the SF community and sowed the seeds for the future of SF, including the even more influential Star Wars films (1977 and on, and on, and on). With its vivid desert world, rich cultural patterns, and corrupt courtly intrigue, jaws dropped when the first of this novel was published in 1963, after years of one-plot pulp serials converted to 200-page novels, populated by one main character and a few supporting roles. Dune shook the SF world.

And, yet… I did not like it.

Paul, noble son of the House of Atreides, is relocated with his family to Arrakis, a desert planet well-known for its production of the spice known as mélange, a critical component in the delicate balance of economic power between the Padishah Empire, the CHOAM Corporation, and the Spacing Guild Navigators. Court politics between competing noble houses vying for power result in the assassination of Paul’s father, Duke Leto. Paul and his mother, the royal concubine Jessica, hide in the desert among a clan of Fremen, desert dwellers adapted to the harsh, yet protective, environment of the deep Arrakis desert. When Paul’s Bene Geserit training from his mother results in the unfolding of certain Freman prophecies, Paul’s status as a refugee noble brat changes, and the Fremen pledge to support to this strange, powerful teenager.

It’s a classic tale: boy has nobility, boy loses nobility, boy gets nobility back through pseudo-zenisms and aggressive posturing amid the backward native folk. And people don’t find this offensive?

They call it a space opera, but it’s more like a sand opera. A very soapy sand opera.

My first encounter with this novel, as a teen reader unprepared for my (probably) first real space opera, left me scrunching my nose. Unaware of Herbert’s intent to subvert a genre long inclined to foist the good hero into a moral victory against insurmountable odds (an unfair generalization in itself), I abandoned the book with a bad taste in my mouth. The nobility are petty, the Fremen are superstitiously blind, the mom is a manipulative tart, and the boy is a spoiled prick.

Okay, maybe it’s not the best space opera to cut your teeth on.

dune2As an adult, during my second encounter with this novel, aware of Herbert’s message against charismatic leadership, and armed with a stronger understanding of cold, calculating SF protags, I still could not enjoy this novel. But, this time, for new reasons. Characterization is no longer the problem— these people live in a world with limited opportunities for advancement, hence their calculating behaviors. Keeping that in mind, the nobility are practical, the Fremen are hardy, the mom is just doing the best she can, and the boy… well, that’s the point, you know.

…he really is a spoiled prick.

Herbert’s own protagonist has him backed into a corner. If Dune really is a treatise of caution against hero worship (to which I would argue that ecology is the primary inspiration for this tale), Herbert must create a cold, yet infallible protagonist—death to the tension of any story. If he’s cold, the reader doesn’t care what happens to him. If he’s infallible, he’ll survive every conflict. Wrap him up in a nice blanket of spiritual powers and preordained destiny, with a powerful clan to serve him, and you’ve got the makings of a demigod whose story is predetermined. Dune is worthy warning against allegiance to charismatic personalities, but it’s D.O.A.

Will they be angry if I say it’s boring?

Unfortunately, I suspect that many Dune fans actually admire the unearned arrogance of our rich noble-born leader. I worry that Paul’s behavior toward his women and his clansmen actually appeals to many males in the SF community. Paul is in control of everything—his emotions, his actions, his thoughts… even his followers. Even Paul’s mother recognizes his calculating moves as manipulative and unfair. “You deliberately cultivate this air, this bravura,” she charged. “You never cease indoctrinating” (p. 620).

How incredibly appealing to a young male…

But my greatest concern lies with the characterization of the Fremen people. “Paul slipped out his nose plugs, swung the mouth baffle aside. The odor of the place assailed him: unwashed bodies, distillate esthers of reclaimed wastes, everywhere the sour effluvia of humanity with, over it all, a turbulence of spice and spicelike harmonics” (p. 553).

That’s a mighty negative portrayal for a group of people who seem to be modeled after the Arabic culture.

While reading this, I couldn’t help but feel that discomfort I get when I’m around someone at work who I suspect is a racist and could drop a Bigot Bomb at any moment. 21,000 years in the future and the Arabic race is characterized as desert dwelling tribal nomads, motivated only by religious zeal and control of a major resource. Is this not even a little bit bigoted? Unimaginative? Uninspired? Sure, Herbert’s Fremen signify honor in this treacherous world, but that’s not enough to overshadow their brutish, ignorant characterization as they burrow in the sand, inhaling their own filth in sweaty stillsuits, and willing to embrace the rule of a snotty rich teenager due to a superstitious prophecy that is well known and easily co-opted.

And yet, the characterizations of female characters don’t bother me as much… does that mean I’ve been… conditioned?

dune3But overall, my biggest complaint is the incessant, italicized internal monologue, which often switches characters mid-dialogue. I can’t help but think some of the tension would be restored if Herbert had dumped this device to allow for some mystery in his characters’ thoughts, particularly in a tale where gray morality rules and ethics is completely absent. But instead, it’s all splayed out for me, like a gutted sandworm drying on the hot sand. No mystery.

Oh, but the sandworms are cool!

They are cool. They are very cool.

As boring, bigoted, and passive as this story is, it’s a classic that is still inspiring legions of SF geeks. In terms of world-building, Dune is spectacular. It’s a must-read for anyone who claims to love SF.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

***The WordPress autopost bots have taken over this blog for the month of July! Feel free to comment, disagree, or make snide remarks, and Megan will respond as soon as she is released… er, as soon as she returns.***

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27 thoughts on “Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert

  1. stephswint says:

    I actually liked the book, but I can definitely see your point of view. I read it a long time ago. Whatever you do, don’t watch the movie. It’s awful.

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  2. Rabindranauth says:

    I wasn’t blown away by it either. For the most part I found Paul to be too detached to grow fond of as a character, and when he comes into his power among the Fremen he’s the quintessential hero; there’s never any doubt he’ll fail or anything of the sort.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Exactly! I understand it’s a character study, but in 600-pages I could use at least one or two nail-biting moments.

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  3. Widdershins says:

    Paul was the deal-breaker for me with Dune too.

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    • Widdershins says:

      I can’t help but wonder though … what the story would’ve been like if ‘Paul’ was ‘Pauline’ as was prophesied. Not that I can imagine Frankie writing the story that way, but a gal can dream.

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      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        That’s what you should write next! A revamped Dune with a female protagonist. (I’m sure Frankie Jr. will be fine with it.)

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  4. I’ve had the book for years but am still only ~160 pp. in. Sometimes it’s better to just look at pictures. http://io9.com/rare-dune-art-from-omni-reveals-frank-herberts-origina-1155285272

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  5. […] #3. Dune World by Frank Herbert […]

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  6. jameswharris says:

    This reminds me of Remake by Connie Willis where characters had the job of making old movies politically correct. It’s going to be a big job to fix the gender bias in 20th century fiction. And like you point out, there’s other things to consider. Why does the far future with interstellar travel technology have such primitive societies and feudal aristocracies? When I read Dune the first time back in the 1960s I thought Herbert had just seen Lawrence of Arabia and been reading books about Australian aborigines.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Haha! I’m always dubious of SF about space feudalism and futuristic primitivism. I realize that dark ages may be part of the human pattern, but it’s often an inconsistent plot device. We have atom bombs, but we don’t have planes. We have genetically-modified dragons, but we don’t have electricity.

      I probably need to read more Dune books to comprehend the history of the Fremen people before I nitpick too much, but it dies seem odd that their ancestors left Earth to land on a crap planet like Arrakis.

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      • jameswharris says:

        My guess is Herbert wasn’t that concerned with science, history or logic, but just wanted a complicated setting for his story, pretty much what George R. R. Martin is doing with his Game of Throne books. I don’t plan to read any of the sequels. Dune was an engaging read, but I don’t want to get stuck in that universe. I really dislike series. I hate it when writers hook me with their fictional heroin.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I seem to recall something from the “You will now become the Reverend Mother” memory transfer scene about the Fremen being forced onto that planet as slaves or something similar?

        Also: totally agree with the futuristic primitivism critique. So many authors imagining the future are…not really even coming close to imagining the future.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. wildbilbo says:

    Ah, visiting an old review of yours… which, while I don’t disagree with any specific points, I have to admit that I loved Dune 🙂

    I also didn’t get the same characterisation of the Fremen – Nomadic & superstitious yes, but I didn’t get any sense of ‘brutishness’. I got a sense of a harsh environment creating a harsh, tough people. This of course gave Paul a hugely powerful army that could take on the Emperor’s Sardukar. Not to say you are wrong – simply that I didn’t get it 🙂

    I ALSO loved the movie – perhaps this says something about my tastes…?
    Cheers
    KT

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Now that you bring it up, I don’t remember any ‘brutishness,’ either. I wonder what I meant by that.

      I think what bothered me was Paul’s internal descriptions (because EVERYTHING is internally described in Dune) of the Fremen made it sound as ifPaul thought they were brutish. He was disgusted by their smelly, close living conditions. Which felt a lot like Herbert’s own opinions about Middle Eastern peoples. I was uncomfortable with Herbert’s co-opting of a real non-White culture, instead of making up his own. It felt stereotyped, rather than coming from any real sense of respect or genuine curiosity about the culture.

      But that’s my projection on the book. I’ve read in several accusations that Herbert had legitimate anti-Arab sentiments, but I haven’t seen any evidence of that. I think he’s just a typical American who generalizes other cultures, and thinks his culture is superior.

      Liked by 1 person

      • wildbilbo says:

        Sometimes I wonder if I miss things due to invisible privilege (invisible to me anyway)…

        I also wonder how much of my view of the book was influenced by seeing the movie first. In the movie there is no ‘disgust’ at any stage – Paul simply seems impressed by these tough locals(and seems to impress in turn – because he is the chosen one).

        I read the first three books again (they are on my re-read list) last year – loved them again – I think on my next re-read I’ll try to give it a more critical analysis.
        Cheers
        KT

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I need to see this movie…

          Liked by 1 person

        • Warstub says:

          Hah, yeah. I had a similar process, though it wasn’t the movie itself but the 60 page Dune storybook adapted from the film. The imagery put all those characters in my head as I passed over the first novel (“Because I already know what happens in it”) and went onto all the sequels (though Idaho was the curly headed person he was supposed to be, I think). I read the books when I was 14 and Dune was the last book I read, though Children of Dune has always been my favourite.

          I think my lack of real-world knowledge at 14 allowed me to not see all those aspects described in this essay, but I’m also not sure I’d still see them now. I tend to look at something so far in the future as only having elements of human nature in them rather than seeing them as representative of contemporary examples regardless of the author’s drawn inspiration. Maybe that’s me forcing blinds over the mind’s eye, but take the last line in Dune: “History will call us wives” How sexist! And it is – extremely so. Yet, in context, I personally don’t think Herbert was being as sexist as he was raising the individual status of one woman compared to that of the other.

          I think it is a great book, and i enjoy(ed) it a lot, but it is absolutely ripe for contemporary dissection!

          Liked by 1 person

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            I don’t think a lot of people share my point of view on Dune, and I certainly don’t think people who enjoy Dune are racist/sexist. All I know is that I felt a uncomfortable reading it. All vintage SF is due for contemporary dissection, particularly from diverse viewpoints, and it would be instructive to see Dune discussed from a Middle Eastern viewpoint (which I’m sure has been done, but I just haven’t seen it).

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  8. Found it! So I agree with pretty much everything you say. So why the fuck did I still enjoy it so much? I actually don’t know. WTF critical, Nikki, WTF? I guess the intrigues of the story propelled me? I do recall that I kept waiting for the not-actually-a-savior-of-prophecy turn around, something that would allow Paul to actually subvert or get beyond the vision of violence he sees spreading out in front of his future.

    I do recall as I was reading wondering why it was considered so groundbreaking though. It’s pretty cool, but groundbreaking? But the context you mention does explain that pretty well.

    I was actually really surprised at how few cringe-worthy moments I found in here. Maybe this is all because my expectations were below nothing? Hmm.

    Interesting, the connection between the Fremen to Arabic people you make (and probably other critics? I have no idae, this is my first Dune review ever). I did not make that comparison in my head even once, maybe because the associations I have with Arabic culture involve big cities or like my neighbors and people I see on the street every day. Poeple living in a desert doesn’t make me think Arabic automatically. I also don’t recall their features making me instantly think based-on-Arabic cultures. Did I miss something there? Hmm. Either I was vastly unobservant here or I just have very different cultural associations with that particular culture. I also didn’t feel like the Fremen were portrayed particularly negatively, what with the constant wonder everybody has for their incredibly advanced technology and them being the only people who have figured out how to be awesome in the desert. The passage you quote, for example, about them stinking just seemed really realistic to me, like any group would smell after a long hike like that in weird pee-drinker suits, but maybe that is also because I associate the smell of sweaty people who haven’t showered for weeks with my beloved friends (hahaha, long live crust punk).

    Liked by 1 person

    • And for the record, since it has been bothering me since I posted this that it might have come out or across wrong, I don’t think my lack of seeing the Arab connection means it isn’t there (though I 100% agree with you that I want an Arabic viewpoint on that one), but me trying to figure out why I didn’t notice that as a potential problem area.

      Where I don’t agree is about the Fremen being portrayed positively/negatively. I should have made those two paragraphs.

      Anyway. Now that we have that cleared up, I can sleep easy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        There is never an ideal time to respond to comments. I’m either busy with something else, drowsy, or writing another post with the full intent of responding to comments afterward and then I run out of time. That’s why I take so long to respond sometimes.

        It’s possible I’m being over-critical and some people think I will prefer the next two books over this one. Since writing this review, I know I’ve seen other reviews that have mentioned the parallel to the Middle East and with, as James mentions above, Lawrence of Arabia, and the looming tensions that led to the 1967 oil embargo, it’s not like the Middle East was invisible to the West at the time. And considering Herbert’s focus on resource control, I can’t not see spice as a replacement for oil– especially considering he was a journalist.

        Plus, my mother’s family was living in Kuwait throughout the late ’60s through ’70s, and I grew up with all kinds of middle eastern stuff in my house, including tons of photos of desert sand and desert beaches and such. So, even though I’ve traveled a little bit in that region and it was all urban, my mind’s eye still pictures those old family photos of lots of sand (but no sandworms, sadly).

        As far as the smelly people thing goes, I probably am a snob about that. But I spent a few years as a high school teacher and I don’t think anyone else can know the small torture that comes from being trapped in a room all day with 180+ teenagers moving in and out of your quarters. (With how many jocks taking muscle supplements that cause all kinds of bodily responses that they will happily tell you all about and apologize for but jesus christ nobody cares about your stupid muscles quit farting in my classroom!)

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  9. I dunno about over-critical, I def think that the argument could be made that it is there, that he is using stupid stereotypes as his foundation. (I am still beating myself up a bit about not noticing it. Because no matter how different my context for Arabic peoples is now, I was/am aware of the stereotyping of them as wandering sand people so WTF critical Nikki, I repeat until the end of eternity.) I think there is a VERY interesting reading to be had of this book in that context, particularly with the oil/melange parellels.

    ANYWAY.

    I still think the Fremen are portrayed positively. That I will defend to my grave. Or until I reread and find specific evidence otherwise. One argument I would make in the Fremen favor too is that I had the feeling that the comments about their supersticion and the way they so easily sort of translated Paul into their savior figure and myth was a comment on human procilivity to do that and not a stab at the people Herbert ostensibly based them on, but I would need to reread to back that up as something that was actually in the text. It may or may not have been. And maybe my entire reading of this was colored by the fact that I liked the Fremen more than anyone else in the book.

    And dude, teenagers stink. Hahahahaha. But seriously.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      The Fremen are protrayed positively; they are the only “good” people in the book. It may be my own bias about standards of living that reacts to their living conditions– which is living in nature, an eco-message and not a bad thing. But the “white savior” thing bothered me a lot, and I picked up a contradictory message about them: they’re so wise, yet dumb enough to believe in prophecy and let this asshole take over<– human proclivity to do that or "other" proclivity to do that. I don't know. I'm sure my bias is showing up somewhere in that.

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  10. […] an M. John Harrison space opera novel should never be anyone’s second-ever space opera novel. (Dune was my first.) Not for the uninitiated. I had no idea about space opera and I certainly had no idea […]

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  11. […] Dune by Frank Herbert – But then there are other novels about political maneuvering based on egoism and sexism that I have little patience for. But it’s, like, everybody’s favorite, you know. […]

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