Dune by Frank Herbert (Book Review)

This review was originally posted on The Founding Fields, here, where I got my true start as a reviewer. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a science-fiction classic and for me, a foundational read in my teenage years that has shaped much of my reading over the last decade and a half. I’ve reread the novel many times and it always holds up, even now in these times. It challenges you like few other novels ever will. Enjoy!

Shadowhawk reviews the first novel of the Dune Chronicles series.

“A trip down memory lane, Dune is more amazing than when I first read it back in high school, almost ten years ago. Still one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read to date.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields

There are a select few big-name SFF authors from the somewhat mid to late 1900s that I consider to be a must read for any fan of the genres. These include greats like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Frank Herbert, J. R. R. Tolkien, Raymond E. Feist. The reason for that is that these five men wrote the novels I read in my formative years of breaking into the “proper” SF genre. From grades 9-12, it was Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey series, Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles, and Isaac Asimov’s Robot and Foundation series, Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar and Empire trilogies, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that I kept returning to again and again. They enhanced my love of reading and opened me up to some truly wonderful worlds and settings that I could get lost in, without any of the charm dimming.

Last year, I powered through the audiobooks for the first five Dune Chronicles novels and I was reminded of why I loved this series, and why I hold Dune to be the most phenomenal science fiction novel written to date, in my experience. There are some truly wonderful authors writing SF today, such as Adam Christopher, Rob Sanders, Nick Kyme, Graham McNeill, James Swallow, Kevin J. Anderson, Mike Stackpole, Nathan Long, Paul S. Kemp, Drew Karpyshyn, Guy Haley, Matt Forbeck, Gav Thorpe, Selso Xisto, Jo Anderton, Sarah Cawkwell, Katy Stauber, and others. But, for nostalgic charm and just the huge scope of world-building that can be found in Frank Herbert’s Dune, there is no comparison.

(Note: To head-off any readers raging about the male vs female argument in my list above, I haven’t read that much SF from female authors, and I’m just going by that experience. I tend to read more fantasy than SF from female authors. The list above is not meant to be restrictive in any way.)

If anyone asks me which SF novel I would absolutely recommend above all others, my first response would be Dune. If you haven’t read it yet, then you have missed out on some fantastic characters, exceptional story-telling, and great SF/space opera elements.

I make no secret of the fact that I love the entirety of the Dune-verse. I’ve read all the six volumes penned by Frank Herbert himself. I’ve read the seventh volume co-written by his son Brian Herbert and noted SF author Kevin J. Anderson. I’ve also read the prequel House and Legends of Dune trilogies by the duo. And I love all of them. None of these novels are perfect (although Dune comes close), and they all have a few flaws, but the entire scope of the setting, the daring concepts and themes that they all explore is nothing short of fascinating. And it’s that vision that I respect above all other elements of these books. Without that vision, none of these books would have been as great as they are.

So, on to Dune itself.

There is no one factor that stands out on its own above any of the others for this book. There’s a very perfect harmony between all the elements of the book, whether it’s the pacing, or the characters, or the world-building, or the dialogue, or anything else. Of course, the characters are a special bunch all the same.

Whether it’s Duke Leto Atreides, or Lady Jessica, or Paul, or Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, or Stilgar, or Count Fenring, or Feyd-Rautha, or any of the other characters, each and every one of them brings something different to the table. The thing is that through the entirety of the cast, we get to see the Imperium almost in its entirety, both on a meta level, and a more personal one. We see how the various noble Houses struggle against each other; how the Padishah Emperor’s elite troops, the Imperial Sardaukar, measure up against the armies of other noble Houses and the desert warriors of Dune, the Fremen; we see how politics can adversely affect a noble House from within; we see how the lowliest of all the people in the Imperium survive; we see the strategies and plots and counters of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood in effect; we see how the Guild Navigators fit into the social and cultural strata of the Imperium; and more.

The journey of Paul Atreides from his times as a young boy on Caladan, through his years on Dune as Paul Muad’dib, and to the culmination of this journey as Duke Paul Atreides, is the central narrative of Dune. Everything revolves around the desert planet, and Paul’s life on it is intrinsically tied to its fate. Through Paul, and other characters such as the Imperial Planetologist Liet Kynes and the Fremen Naib (leader) Stilgar, we see how the Fremen intend to change the face of planet for the future generations, redefining their relationship with it over the course of decades, and even centuries. Paul’s introduction into the grand schemes of the Fremen is an important element of the second half of the novel, because he does

Once again, it’s Frank Herbert’s immense scope and vision that’s at work here. The novel is incredibly detailed and it touches on a plethora of social, cultural, economic, and environmental issues, many of which are just as relevant today as they were for the author in the 1960s. One of the things that I really liked about the novel, in relation to the above, is that whenever Herbert talks about Imperial technology, or the atmospheric conditions on Dune and the effects of the geriatric spice, melange, the novel takes on a very “Hard SF” feel. And it’s not presented in the dull factual way that Greg Egan does in his Orthogonal space opera series, or how Mike Stackpole describes starfighter flight mechanics in his X-wing novels. Herbert’s descriptions are much more approachable and easy to grasp. He has a facility with describing complex topics such as the relationship between the sandworms of Dune and the planet itself, and how this relationship affects the environment conditions on the planet, plus, how this in turn affects living conditions in the desert regions. For this reason alone the novel gets a huge thumbs-up from me.

The politics that dictate life between the various Houses, between the Houses and the Emperor, between the natives of Dune and their various overlords (Atreides and Harkonnens alike), between the Fremen and the smugglers, etc are another sterling standout element of the novel. It is all rather complex when you look at the entirety of it, but Herbert has taken care not to overwhelm the reader with any of it. Each interaction between the various factions in a given scene is told with a balance of brevity and nuance so that Herbert is able to hint at the larger plot-threads he is weaving in and out while also keeping things simple for the reader to follow along with.

Yet another element I loved is how Frank Herbert explores Dune, or Arrakis as it is also known. We see how the Fremen of the desert live. We see how they interact with the various other factions present on the planet. We see details of their lives, their culture, their religion, their motivations, their beliefs. We get to see the different areas of the planet, and it also happens that Dune doesn’t have a single great desert as it would at first appear, but there are several different desert regions on the planet, each with their own ecology and… atmosphere. We get to see a lot more of the sandworms, especially the old and great known as the “Old Men of the Desert”. It is far more than I expected, and is absolutely delightful in its delivery. I remember that when I first picked up Dune, the cover had a couple of sandworms in the bottom half and an army of Fremen riding on top of them. That very imagery is done great justice in the novel itself.

Now, there are times when some of the imageries and themes that he runs off with, such as the moment of Lady Jessica’s acceptance into Fremen society as a Sayyadina (sort of a religious leader) or Paul’s own… elevation as a Messiah, can all get a bit tiresome and can seem to drag on, but I never minded it. I can see that some people might find all this detail to be a bit extraneous and overbearing, but I think that it actually adds to the reading experience. At a time when genre authors today are writing all these super-complex and detailed stories, it’s always nice to see that it’s just the resurgence of a much earlier trend that was brought into mass appeal by writers like Frank Herbert. I can’t profess to know if the authors of his era were the trailblazers of such an approach to SFF (although Tolkien very well might have been!), but I can definitely say that he and others like him were the ones who brought it into sharp focus and set precedents for others to follow.

In my review here, I chose to focus on a few key things, rather than talk on about the various characters, and the aspects of the setting that I found to be phenomenal, and so on. The reason is that I did a sort-of-review post about Dune last year on my blog – “Why I Love Dune“, and wrote about some of these things in that post. Another is that if I started to get into the individual elements of Dune, this would turn out to be something like a 5,000-6,000 word review. That’s a daunting challenge to write, and to read as well. It’d be about the size of a short story really! And keeping that in mind, I will be doing a follow up post to this review for my blog, so keep an eye out for that as well.

As much as I wish otherwise, Dune is not a perfect novel, because it does have a few niggles here and there. Suffice to say that there is very little to dislike about the novel, and a lot to like. If you are just breaking into SF and want to read some older material, Frank Herbert’s Dune should be your absolute first stop. It is well and truly a classic of the genre, and a definite must-read.

Rating: 9.5/10

More Dune:

  • Dune: Messiah (Review)
  • Legends of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Review)
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