Frank Herbert’s Dune is a classic epic fantasy that my darling husband calls one of his favorites. Never mind that he was a teenager when he read it. So when I saw a clean copy on the shelf of a used bookstore, I grabbed it up. I like epic fantasy, so why not?
Then I mentioned my purchase on Litsy (a great bookish community in an app!), and a buddy read was born. My favorite hashtag for it was #Dunesnotjustfordudes. Yes, I’m the one who came up with that beauty. However, I learned later where that reputation came from. Herbert was rejected by so many book publishers, that Dune was originally published by Chilton. They’re the people who make auto repair manuals. Most likely, that’s how Dune ended up in the hands of more 1965 men than women.
Dune is a science fiction and fantasy mashup. It’s SF because the action takes place in a place and time without reference to Earth. The fantasy elements include politics, ascension to power, and class warfare, among others.
The Atreides family, who are minor royals, are forced to move to Arrakis. They leave a planet with many creature comforts to rule the desert planet, also called Dune. We have patriarch Duke Leto, his concubine Jessica, and their teenage son Paul.
Herbert divides the book into three massive chapters, also called books. The first book is primarily world building, with some political intrigue thrown in. The Duke doesn’t want to be on Dune. Jessica, Paul, and their entourage want it even less. But they are all ruled by the Emperor and the Council, so they suck it up like good subjects. Immediately a variety of suspicions arise, and no one trusts the other. All the while they’re trying to adjust to a place where water is tremendously scarce. This goes on for hundreds of pages.
I kept waiting to switch from ponderous expository writing to something more expedient and exciting. Where was the climax? The suspense? It was there but, unfortunately for me, it was couched in heavy verbiage. I truly struggled. Had it not been for the buddy read, I think would have bailed. As it was, I took substantial breaks between each chapter.
One bright light was how deeply Herbert addresses the environmental issues on Dune. In his own muddled way, he’s making statements about how and why a planet becomes damaged, and whether it can ever be revived.
Another interesting point was the main industry on Dune, which was the harvest and production of a spice called melange. The spice was produced in the sand, and lives were risked with every harvest. With similarities to cinnamon in flavor, the spice acts like a drug for those who use it. And it’s used by nearly everyone on Dune and in the Empire. Herbert uses Dune to make a statement about the economics of legal drug use, I think.
Yes, Dune has plenty of world building with unique places, creatures, language, and topography. But if I don’t care about the characters, all the world building in the universe isn’t going to pull me in. I found the main character, Paul, to be entitled and somewhat boarish. I never wanted to cheer for him.
There are few female characters, and all of them are one-dimensional. We have the witch mother, the trophy wife, and the lover. Each of them is really only there to further the character development of Paul. One other female exists and she’s simply a “yes man” for her husband. This just annoyed me. Science fiction and fantasy have come so far in the last 50 years with strong female characters from many authors, including Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin.
This is another 2-star read for me, or possibly a 2.5. I’m glad to have checked it off my list. While I didn’t hate it, I also can’t say I actually liked it. And I can’t imagine reading any more of Frank Herbert’s books.
But I appreciate how this book influenced so much of the SFF I read today. However, I’m giving epic fantasy a break for a while. With Dune and The Inheritance Trilogy, this was the winter of the epics for me, and I’m ready for another genre.