Oct 192021

Dune, by Frank Herbert

Synopsis: It’s Dune. If you’re at this blog, you already know the gist.

Book Review: Seems kinda silly to review Dune in the Year of Our Lord 2021, but my book club re-read it in preparation of the theatrical release, so here we go!

Dune is literally split into three books, internally. The first two take place consecutively, the third one takes place after a time skip of several years.

The first two books are very good. Everything you’ve heard about them is true. The characters have depth, the plot is gripping, and the setting is insanely influential. It’s been mimicked and adapted a thousand times. Warhammer 40K is basically the Dune universe expanded.

I really enjoyed the political machinations of these books. A lot of the action is driven by political manuevering and social considerations. It makes everything more impactful and more interesting. I particularly loved the chapters told from Harkonen POVs, because they are deeply cynical real-politik types, and I love reading villains. :)

Much of this political drama is only possible by very liberal use of Omnicient 3rd Person narration. The narration literally jumps between different character’s POVs from paragraph to paragraph, in some cases. It’s an older style of writing, nowadays this simply Would Not Be Done. It really grated on me at first as well. I’m very used to the modern style, and I’m a fan of it. But it is more a fashion choice than anything else. Very importantly, much of the political action and drama would not have been possible without it. The head-hopping let us see how different charecters interpretted what was happening around them. This let us not only see the (assumed) political repercussions of any significant action, it also let us see where one character has misread another, or one hasn’t acurately communicated what they meant to, or when multiple people interpret a single act in different ways. It made for good drama, and good tension, and it wouldn’t have been possible by sticking with a stick single-person-per-section POV. It’s worth getting over the irritation to read this.

Speaking of irritation, the space-magic fell in a weird valley for me. It wasn’t quite 40K-level magic, in that it wasn’t full-out, balls-to-the-wall, this is Completely Fantastical Magic, we’re literally Summoning Demons and throwing Fireballs and shit. It was definitely a flavor of magic, though, because there was mind-control and seeing-the-future involved… but it felt like it was trying to inch into “Science sufficiently advanced” rather than just “pure magic.” I really wished he’d just gone into full-blown “Yup, it’s magic” mode, rather than trying to wink and nod in the direction of science. I guess that didn’t become fully possible until Star Wars?

Anyway, it’s a very small irritant. The first two books are fantastic.

The third book kinda falls on its face, though. There stops being much politics, which is a large part of the problem. More physical action that’s dangerous just because it’s dangerous, without additional confounders. And it feels very rushed. We find out the Emperor sucks at Emperoring, which makes sense, that’s one of the top reasons Emperors get deposed. But it happened without any lead-up or preparation.

Either Herbert ran out of steam in the last bit of Dune, or he was forced to cut a lot of it by a publisher. I’ve read that the point of Dune was that Paul lost. He is a failed Messiah. He took command of barbarians that literally raid civilized settlements, killing and pillaging in order to support their way of life. They’re brutal and their society is awful. His goal is to get revenge on the Harkonen without unleashing this plague of violence and death upon the rest of the universe. And he fails. In the end, he decides vengeance is more important than any other consideration, and this horde of killers is unleashed in what we’re told will be a galaxy-wide orgy of blood.

If you have read that this is the point of Dune, you can pick up the 3 or 4 lines that allude to this in the entirety of its 700 pages. But it’s not commented on much, and when Paul makes his heel-turn in Evil Overlord, it feels unprompted. It comes entirely out of the blue, and is kinda baffling. More importantly, it reads as a Crowning Moment of Triumph for Paul. He’s destroyed his enemies, and installed himself as Emperor, and it’s awesome and there is much rejoicing. The point that this was supposed to be a tragedy is… not just very hard to see, it’s basically not there.

I think the time-skip between books 2 and 3 is just too much. We don’t see whatever charecter development must have happened there, we don’t have any emotional connection to either of Paul’s children, or to the new person Paul has become. It’s a lack-luster ending to what was a really good book.

Still, it’s Dune. I feel like I have to recommend it, both because most of it is good, and because it’s a vital work of SF canon. Take into account that this IS Dune, and make your own recommendation. :)

Book Club Review: Very good for book clubs. LOTS to talk about, we were going for a long time. Recommended.

Woke Note — now that the Dune movie is coming to theaters, it has become important for it to be Problematic. We have a book club member that insisted Dune is sexist, and Herbet is sexist and bad. Dune is actually anti-sexist, it centers extremely well-developed women with rich inner lives and lots of agency. Never are they portrayed as sex objects, or as devices there to facilitate a male character’s story/plot. But both the Imperium and Fremen are patriarch societies, with lots of in-built sexist oppression. The argument is that because Herbert wrote Dune, he could have chosen to write these societies as matriarchal, or eglitarian, or anything other than patriarchal. He didn’t do that, so he’s sexist.

This is stupid on many levels, enough so that I won’t bother to get into it. (And yes, when asked, this bookclub member said that Margart Atwood is super sexist, and no one should watch/read Handmaid’s Tale, so at least she gets points for consistency). But it’s out there, so there’s that.

  4 Responses to “SF/F Review – Dune”

  1. For what its worth, and it’s been a couple of months since I reread dune to prep for the theatrical release, I didn’t read the emperor as being particularly bad at his job or in fact even as being less than very good at his job; just that he had a very hard challenge.

    In the universe of Dune, its literally impossible to get anything done on an interplanetary level without the cooperation of the guild; military, political, economic, they have ultimate veto and significant effective control of everything interplanetary. Also its all but impossible to get anything political done without the cooperation of the bene gesserit, they are enmeshed in so many families and social circles and have access to so many skills and abilities that not having bene gesserit in your family is a huge disadvantage. Additional its also very hard to get anything done economically or politically without cooperation of a significant number of the great houses. The emperor, for all his power, is extremely constrained, and the fact that he accomplishes as much as he does is really impressive.

    One of the reasons Paul succeeds (“fails?”) is because he isn’t really constrained. He is completely willing to just burn it all down, wreck the bene gesserit programs, wipe out the guild, end space travel, crash the galactic economy, let whole worlds die in the resulting collapse, etc. The emperor is trying to advance his interests, while keeping the whole system working smoothly. And, of course, the emperor doesn’t win, the guy who threatens to burn it all down does. There’s a lesson there and it’s a bleak one.

  2. I find it interesting you characterize Paul as a failed messiah as if this were inherently bad for the story. I literally thought of him when you discussed Dani in your article on the failures of the Game of Throne series vs. the books. It seems like Paul also fits the mold of the white savior who, not being protected by the storyline winds up committing multiple atrocities and failing to make the world a paradise.

    He does seem much less willing to try and make things better by book 2, but some of that seems to be the same fatigue his predecessor had. Realizing that running an empire is a lot harder and more complicated than conquering one, dealing with the endless interest groups who can all make his job impossible unless he handles them properly, and accepting that even the best possible outcome he can engineer is often very bleak and leaves a lot of people suffering.

    Additionally, a more cynical answer could be if Paul had succeeded it would have been impossible to write much in book 2… maybe you’re point about everyone writing with the goal of doing a sequel isn’t so recent of an issue?

    • To the contrary, I think it makes it a much better story if he’s a failed messiah! It’s fantastic. I think it was executed badly, which is the problem. I only knew he was supposed to be a failed messiah due to extra-textual sources that told me so. Within the text itself it feels very much like a Conquoring Hero ending, rather than a Failed Messiah ending. I wish it would’ve been the latter.

      • Interesting, I remember this as the first time I cam across the idea of a failed messiah. I suppose the first book does give a somewhat triumphant vibe, but even then you see Paul as very much imperfect, he makes mistakes, he loses people close to him and in the end he still doesn’t get everything he wants.

        This definitely gets reinforced in the following two books.

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