by Frank Herbert
“They tried and failed, all of them?”
“Oh, no.” She shook her head. “They tried and died.”
OK. Wow. Monster of a novel. But it’s not just the length. We’ve all read books this long and much longer. There’s a unique quality here in terms of world realization—this one’s got it, and strictly by comparison, others do not.
Dune plays as a fantasy world as much as science fiction mostly due to its barren, desert setting. Advanced technology exists, it just takes a backseat to political and religious aspects, the latter of which allows a form of ‘magic’ into the universe. It’s not just the Bene Gesserit training that gets mentioned ad nauseam, but a pseudo-Hebrew/Islamic religious amalgamation that leads to a new messiah also adding mystical elements.
The book has three parts blending together almost seamlessly, though at one point there is a jump of a few years. Nearly half of the book is the introduction of Duke Leto’s family to the planet Arrakis, a desert world where the important galactic resource ‘spice’ is mined. The planet is really a fife with a ruling family but squabbling houses wrestling for control adds the intrigue. Leto’s son Paul and his concubine Jessica are forced into survival mode in the desert where they encounter the Fremen, a tribe of warriors and spice hunters that have learned to adapt to the deep desert. Whispers of prophesy circulate as Paul and Jessica join the tribe, and things come to a head with the treacherous houses and the galactic emperor.
If that sounds boring by modern standards, that’s because it is. By modern standards only. The book takes quite a while to get burning, enough so that today’s readers may be tempted to give up on it before it really gets good and hot. The payoff is there, but like many classic works they were written for a world with a different attention span. There’s a lot of staging in the form of political maneuvering, which is present throughout the book, but also much heavier in the first half. If you’ve got the reverence for classics or plain temerity to pick this up for the first time, don’t give up when you find initial speed differences! Trust whatever that thing was that led you to this book in the first place. When Dune gets cooking, it really moves. The payoff is there, but it’s not the instant gratification we’ve become used to, instead favoring a richly developed landscape.
The book is excellent all the way through, even in its slower-moving machinations. As is often the case with books that reach classic status, when things take time and effort to build to full complexity, it’s an altogether different experience when they come tumbling down at the end. Today we’re used to four-walled wooden sheds filled with fireworks giving us flashbang explosions, but the fire that’s lit under Ye Olde Grande Hotel is a different beast entirely and its own unique brand of spectacle. This book isn’t read, it’s experienced.
“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”