Book Review: Dune

DuneThumbby Faba Calculo
There are two major awards in Science Fiction literature: the Hugo and the Nebula awards. Sixty-two novels have won the former (plus three who have retroactively given the award), and 49 have won the latter. These could be considered the giants of the field. But 22 of them won both awards, and to my way of thinking, the finest science fiction novel ever written in the English language may well be the one that, appropriately enough, was the first to achieve this feat.


The book is the story of Paul Atreides, the son of the Duke Leto Atreides and his sworn concubine, the lady Jessica. In the future where the story takes place, one more than 10,000 years from now, humanity has returned to feudalism, with overt political power balanced between the imperial house, House Corrino, and the greater and lesser houses of the Landsraad. However, between these two lie the parties that hold more covert power: the all-female order of the Bene Gesserit (think of the most hard-nosed nuns you ever met and add in limited telepathic abilities); the Spacing Guild, whose navigators alone can safely find their way through the dangers of hyperspace; the living computers, the Mentats; and the mysterious, shape-shifting Tleilaxu.

Interestingly enough, even some tens of millennia in the future, no extraterrestrial intelligence has been found. All of the above are merely altered humans. And one of the things that has most altered humanity is the spice mélange. This substance is found on only a single planet in the known universe, the eponymous planet Dune.

[pullquote]Interestingly enough, even some tens of millennia in the future, no extraterrestrial intelligence has been found. All of the above are merely altered humans. And one of the things that has most altered humanity is the spice mélange. [/pullquote]With the opening of the book, Paul and his family have been ordered by the emperor to replace the Atreides’ hated rivals, the Harkonnens, as controllers of this desert planet. However, all realize that this is a ruse to lure them into a position where they can be destroyed. Nevertheless, Duke Leto makes the move, believing that the desert nomads of Dune, the Fremen, may hold the true balance of power there, and that, with them as allies, their place on the planet could be secured. But the joint imperial-Harkonnen attack comes sooner than expected, and with the aid of a key traitor, Duke Leto is killed, while Paul and Jessica fake their own deaths and flee into the dessert, in search of the Fremen.

It’s here that the story really begins to open up, for prior to coming to Dune, Paul had discovered that his birth was a result of a breeding program run by the Bene Gesserit, of whom his mother is member. However, for love of the Duke, Jessica has disobeyed her order and given birth to a son, rather than a daughter, thereby advancing by one generation the birth of their planned super-being, the Kwisatz Haderach. Furthermore, throughout the universe, the Bene Gesserit have created myths of coming saviors that they exploit as the need arises. By coincidence, Paul fits some of the key details of the “prophecy” left on Dune. Thus, both in terms of religion and genetics, he’s viewed as the promised one.

Paul wastes no time in making use of these facts, seeking to avenge his father’s death. But this plunges him both in the moral ambiguities of Fremen religion and the existential ambiguities of the ability he, as the Kwisatz Haderach, now has to see all possible futures. And what his prescience most clearly shows him is a jihad that he himself will unleash on the universe, smashing the imperial house itself with his armies of Fremen fanatics. This he wishes to avoid with every ounce of his virtuous Atreides soul, but this, the future tells him, grows less and less avoidable with each passing moment.

And if Herbert’s characters and plot weren’t enough, there’s also the books setting. Next to the mysteries of Dune, other dessert planets from science fiction such as Tatooine are colorless sandboxes. The absolute lack of free-standing water shapes, almost defines the culture of the Fremen, who walk about in their still-suits, in which urine, feces, and perspiration are captured and then filter them back into potable water. In one memorable scene in which Paul is forced to kill one of the newly met nomads, the Fremen are all but overcome in awe when Paul weeps for the dead man, noting that Paul “gave water for the dead.” Then, in an almost religious experience, each seeks to touch the tears as they roll down his face. With this encounter, we begin to see the way in which the Fremen goal of bringing water to Dune has turned ecology and environmentalism almost into religions.

But, far more than what doesn’t lie on the surface of the planet is what does lie and move about beneath its dunes: the sandworms. Hundreds or even thousands of meters long, these enormous, nearly immortal worms figure into Fremen existence as everything from riding beasts to the visible incarnations of God. And what a mixed-up god He must be! For in this future, the religions we know have been strangely mixed, giving us hybrids of Christianity and Buddhism, of Buddhism and Islam, plus something called Third Islam.

However, while they are descendants of the Zen-Sunni Wanderers in fact, in outlook, the Fremen are all Islam, from their aggrieved relationship with the past, to their longing for jihad in the future. In fact, with House Corrino’s growing decadence and the rise of the Fremen, Dune looks like nothing so much as an answer to the question, what would have happened if the declining Roman Empire had had Islam to deal with rather than Christianity. And the answer ain’t pretty.

But House Corrino and, indeed, all of mankind having bigger fish to fry. For as the Bene Gesserit suspect, with their political machinations, and as Paul knows via his prescience, humanity is going to destroy itself. Despite the intricate rules of war that have carefully been laid down in the Great Convention (whose bottom line is clear enough: use of atomics against humans shall be cause for planetary obliteration), it’s just a matter of time. Even if Paul can succeed in resurrecting House Atreides, placing it as the imperial house, and ruling the universe with his armies of religious fanatics and his prescience, is even that enough to allow him to rescue mankind from itself?

But don’t make the mistake of seeing this as a hero story when almost the opposite it true. While Paul may start off as a pureblooded, virtuous Atreides, it won’t be his father’s morality that will be there to guide him as he grows up but rather his Bene Gesserit mother’s talent for political machinations, (though, in time, even she will become distraught over the degree to which he uses religion to manipulate the Fremen). As Herbert himself put it, “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.” • (2723 views)

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19 Responses to Book Review: Dune

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I haven’t read the book (just a hundred pages or so a long time ago), but I think that’s an excellent review. That makes me want to read more. The Dune series is such a complex thing, I’ve never read something this clear.

    And I didn’t know there were any shape-shifting creatures. I don’t remember seeing those in any of the movies.

    And although the David Lynch movie may or may not reflect well on the book, I generally liked the movie. Of course, it depends which version. The Blu Ray “extended” version that I have includes a lot of stuff not in the DVD release…and, exasperatingly, cuts out some of the finest scenes in the initial DVD release. So I’m still looking for the “ultimate” David Lynch release. But that might never happen.

    I’ve also seen the Dune (200) mini-series with William Hurt. Although I thought Hurt was awful in this, it had a lot to commend it.

  2. faba calculo says:

    “And although the David Lynch movie may or may not reflect well on the book, I generally liked the movie.”

    Omg, that was literally my favorite movie of all time for years after I saw it! No one will ever be able to match Siân Phillips’s portrayal of the Reverend Mother Helen Gaius Mohaim. I came out of the theater just bursting with excitement. Herbert himself liked the movie a lot. In fact, I meant to mention the movies in my review of the book, but once it got past 1000 words, I felt that I had to start cutting.

    That said, when I finally read the book, I was shocked at how different it was from the 1984 movie. The plot was almost an exact match, just the tone was different, but what a difference just a change in tone can make!

    Btw, great choice for images. By pure coincidence, that’s the exact picture I’m currently using for the wallpaper on my main laptop.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Although I don’t know much about how The Reverent Mother was portrayed in the book, it doesn’t matter. I loved Siân Phillips’s portrayal. And I remember her fondly from her wicked portrayal of Livia (the wife of Augustus/Brian Blessed) in “I Claudius.”

      Feelings run strongly regarding Lynch’s movie. I liked it, as I said. But many didn’t. And I think a different “tone” is certainly a truth. But I liked the tone of the movie, although my one real criticism of it is that it seems very chopped up. I think they took what should have been four hours (or more) of film and tried to condense it down. And it looks it at times.

      But I like most of the characters….even Sting, who’s an obvious pop add-on. The art direction of it is superb, even if it doesn’t reflect what in the novel (and I don’t know if it does or not). I guess it’s an excellent example of what they call Steam Punk.

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    Herbert may have meant the series (at least the first 3 books) as a lesson in not trusting a hero; the notes at the end of Dune certainly hint at that. But the story hardly seems to show it, at least in terms of the individual events. There are hints of it in Dune Messiah, where Paul sadly compares his record to that of other notorious conquerors through history. But it’s never clear that the Fremen themelves are worse off (though the later books may show that).
    A friend of mine once told a story about a writer who wrote a very long book, which he eventually called Done when he finally finished it. When the book proved so popular that a sequel was requested, he rushed through the job and so ended up calling the book Done Messier. But that still sold well enough to call for another sequel, which he left to his children to do, and finally titled The Children Are Done.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Herbert may have meant the series (at least the first 3 books) as a lesson in not trusting a hero; the notes at the end of Dune certainly hint at that. But the story hardly seems to show it…

      I always take with a grain of salt whatever an artist says about his own work. They are often the worst judges. And often what they say is political- or marketing-oriented such as J.K. Rowling’s eye-rolling comment that “I always thought of Dumbledore as gay.”

      To a large extent, once a novel is written, it belongs to the public imagination. If you saw any “gayness” in Dumbledore, then you’re way ahead of me. And the same goes with whether or not “Dune” really is a refutation of the hero. Again, I haven’t read the trilogy (and the extended or derivative works).

      But certainly in the movie, Paul Atredes is somewhat of an old-fashioned hero. He fights for the little people against the corrupt, unjust, and powerful. That he does so (eventually) as a religious-type leader is interesting.

      One wonders if Herbert was just looking for cheep cheers at being anti-religious the same way Rowling was trolling for cheep applause with her Dumbledore line. Again, I don’t know. You all know the books much better than I do. But I’m always suspicious of an artist’s interpretation of his own work. You would think they would know best, but that often is not the case. The enactment of art (the process of writing) is less analysis and more a function of inspiration and creativity.

      That’s why there are such things as book critiques. They can, if they are not full of their own biases, do a good job of outlining a book. And I think Faba did good on this one….from what little I know of the book. And if it turns out that Herbert was anti-hero, then so be it. That’s a popular genre (and one popular with me) as seen in Film Noir, for example, which often has the ambiguous hero.

      • faba calculo says:

        Perhaps just a quibble to you and Timothy, but I don’t think that one should think of the Dune books as a trilogy, as the story doesn’t seem at all complete until after God Emperor of Dune, the fourth book. Not that the last two of Herbert’s books didn’t add anything, but the revelation of what Leto II needed to do to prevent humanity from exterminating itself is really what the fourth book is about.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          No quibble. I admit to not knowing. It sounds as if one needs to at least read four of the books to get a sense of the whole thing.

          • ladykrystyna says:

            I definitely agree. The first two books don’t quite get at what is going through Paul’s mind regarding his abilities, etc. Once you read the next 2 books you get a better understanding.

            And I think it keeps the theme that Frank Herbert talked about – about not relying on a hero.

            Although I agree with you about not taking what the author says at face value.

            Re JKR – she’s an obvious liberal, if not full on leftist, but the Harry Potter series is one of the most conservative ones I’ve read. And she handled a certain other theme very well, too. Perhaps people kind of saw it coming, but I thought she handled it well and very beautiful.

            Another thing, too, is that when someone reads a book, they bring their own perspective. Liberals can read Harry Potter and think Bush is Voldemort (okay, maybe Cheney is), while we conservatives see it differently.

            And certainly different people will see different themes when reading Dune, and perhaps not see the one that Frank Herbert was talking about.

  4. RobL_V2 RobL_V2 says:

    Yes nuns but not from your father’s abbey…

    These vixens are trained to perfection in the erotic arts capable of such licentious prowess they can sexual gratify any man into absolute submission and servitude.

    Well… if one has to be a slave, not a bad way to go…

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Sounds a heck of a lot better then the nuns who whack your wrist with a ruler if you misbehave. On the other hand, sex slaves tend to vote Democrat. 😀

  5. ladykrystyna says:

    Awesome to meet a Dune fan. I don’t run in to many of them. I’ve read the original series so many times, I lost count.
    The new stuff is drek, IMHO.
    Great review.
    I could talk ad nauseum about these books, but that’s difficult on my Nook.
    So I’ll leave it at that. 🙂
    Perhaps in line with the upcoming release of Ender’s Game, I should do a review of that. I finally got around to reading it.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I never read beyond Children of Dune, though I have the books. I’ve also read from The Dune Encyclopedia (which was actually written by some professor’s students and is VERY unofficial, though quite interesting and at times even amusing, as in their parody of the Shakespeare question or in their description of contemporary history in terms of struggles between Houses).
      I haven’t read the Ender books, except for one we received from the publisher (which didn’t persuade me to read others; but then, it was relatively late in the series). I’d love to see a movie (or perhaps miniseries) of the Alvin Maker series. Incidentally, I will add that Card (a Mormon) considers himself a liberal and a Democrat, but he’s also honest and has in fact been attacked for his role in a comic book series because of his “homophobia”.

      • ladykrystyna says:

        I highly recommend reading the entire original Dune series. But skip the new stuff (even though the new books are supposed to complete the series that Frank Herbert never could.).

        • Kurt NY says:

          I liked Dune, and have read it a number of times, but never quite warmed to the rest of the series. Guess even the original is so dystopian I don’t choose to dwell in the universe.

          Given your enjoyment of Dune, have you also read Lord of the Rings, and what was your take on it? And, if you enjoyed that, have you read the 14+ books of the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan? In my opinion, a far superior product on a lot of different levels.

      • ladykrystyna says:

        I recommend Ender’s Game. Unconventional, but very prescient re the internet. Reading it, you would almost believe it was not written in the 1980s.

        But after that, I wasn’t all that keen on finishing up the series. Looks like it gets too weird for me. I can see that it will be hard for me to connect with the characters after Ender’s Game.

        I read that book, btw, because I heard about what was going on with the boycott of the movie. I mean, I’d run into Orson Scott Card’s webiste previously and saw the essays he wrote. Yes, he identifies as a liberal and a Democrat, but nothing like any of the trolls we run into at NRO (or anywhere else). I can certainly disagree on many things with him, but I know I’d actually have a good debate/conversation.

        So, of course, I’m going to see the movie and of course I bought the book. 😀

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          But after that, I wasn’t all that keen on finishing up the series. Looks like it gets too weird for me. I can see that it will be hard for me to connect with the characters after Ender’s Game.

          Exactly, Ms. Separated-at-Birth. I read it years ago upon the enthusiastic recommendations of a Mormon friend of mine. It was okay, as sci-fi goes. But the role of Ender seemed weak. And I don’t remember much about it. Wasn’t there a brother and sister who were some kind of all-knowing oracles or something….or just super smart kids? Some of the premises of the book seemed stretched — even for sci-fi — and like you said, it kind of gets a little weird.

          I’m more into hard science fiction. Perhaps this book just delved way too much into fantasy. And, like I said, I still don’t remember the book that clearly. But wasn’t Ender’s job to destroy the bug universe or something? Again, I found the premise of putting all this power into the hands of one yute to stretch suspension of disbelief a bit.

          Still, if someone does a movie review and convinces me that the movie is good, I’ll watch it! But I did try to read the second book in the series. And it was just not interesting, at least at the start.

          It’s interesting to hear Orson Scott Card referred to as a liberal (by Tim, and i know he meant it in a good way). I’ve followed some of his writings from time to time on The Ornery American and he generally sounds very conservative. But that’s the catch, isn’t it? There are a LOT of people who have been taught that conservatism is a mean and horrible thing. It’s hard for many people to leave their beliefs behind and admit that the people they so demonized were actually substantially correct.

          And it’s really the lies and misconceptions that we are drowning in right now. We need an entire generation of “liberals” to come to the understanding that everything the Left told them was a lie. Scott has obviously made that transition (or just received a conservative Mormon upbringing, and it “took”), at least from what I’ve read. But many haven’t. They’re still transitioning from hippie to normal American, from Utopia to reality.

          One has to at least linguistically separate the weeds of Leftism from whatever true and good ideals of “liberal” were in one’s initial outlook, assuming one had any true and good ideals to begin with. And I’m finding that, delusions aside, a lot of that “hippie” stuff was the very (bad) soil in which Leftism sprouted in the first place. So I actually don’t have a lot of respect for those who say they are really “liberal.” But I digress. 😀 But hopefully a few of these “liberals” will be a bit shocked and awed at what our Marxist-in-Chief is doing in this shutdown. He is anything but “liberal.” NRO actually has a good editorial in this regard today.

      • ladykrystyna says:

        The Dune Encyclopedia! Wow, I’ve never ran into anyone that has even heard of it, let alone read it! I found it at my local library while in high school and, ahem, “bought” it from the library. AKA – I “lost” the book and paid the fee because I lost it ($10). 😀

        It is pretty impressive.

        Way more impressive than the drek that Frank Herbert’s son has been writing.

  6. Timothy Lane says:

    It occurs to me that in certain ways Frank Herbert anticipated even Barry Screwtape Obama and his vicious lot. Near the end of Dune, Paul Atreides demonstrates to the Guild that he is capable of wiping out the ecological system that creates the spice mélange, on which their (and his) abilities are based. By this threat (which includes the suggestion that he might destroy it just out of spite), he forces their capitulation to him. This is exactly what BSO did (as best he could) with the shutdown and threatened to do if the debt ceiling were not raised.

  7. Mike43 says:

    Unbelievable. One post that started with Dune, included Ender’s Game and even some slams to J.K. Rowling.

    I saw Dune the first week-end it opened. Took my wife of 3 years to it. I had been a fan of Hebert’s and read all of his books. Unfortunately, my wife had not read any of the books, and so kept asking me what was going on. (I decided it wasn’t grounds for divorce, and she decided that it wasn’t either, since she was just as po’d at me.) We’ve been together over 33 years, now.

    I read Ender’s Game when I was enlisted in the Army. Loved it, and the prescience of not just the internet; but using real time and interactive games to train armies. Sports have always been a big part of the military. There’s a reason that Army-Navy Day is huge, and not just amongst the West Point/Annapolis alums. Funny, though. My sons loved it but my wife and daughter were not thrilled.

    Don’t care; going to the movie November 1.

    Great postings. Keep it up.

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