Friday, March 10, 2017

Book Review: Dune

Book Review: 'Dune' by Frank Herbert

4 / 5 Stars

Dune first was published in hardback in August, 1965. This Ace Books paperback (544 pp, including appendices) is a first edition, and was released in 1966. The cover artwork is by John Schoenherr.

It’s hard to communicate nowadays, almost 52 years after the book first was published, how influential Dune was to sf of the 60s and early 70s. For over a decade it was the science fiction novel, the one most frequently read by people who were not fans of the genre. In its length and complexity it was the sf equivalent of what The Lord of the Rings trilogy was to fantasy literature.

I first read Dune in the early 1980s. I remember I found it OK, but no great revelation, and never looked at it again. Having become more familiar – and, to be honest, increasingly underwhelmed – by other works from Frank Herbert, I thought it might be interesting to re-read Dune and see if my thoughts about the novel have changed.

Upon my re-reading, I again realized that Dune is not a particularly accessible book. There is a large cast of characters with which to become acquainted, the backstory is complicated and abstruse, and there is a large vocabulary of invented words, so much so that readers will have to consult the Glossary on a continuous basis while making their way through the novel’s first 100 or so pages.

The novel’s narrative is primarily occupied with dialogue passages, a prominent feature of Herbert’s other novels. Many of the these dialogue passages are lengthy and protracted and take up entire chapters. Plot developments – such as battles - that would be given high profiles in most novels, are in Dune mentioned in a sparse manner. For example, the climactic battle at the end of the novel is related in the span of only two pages. The emphasis on dialogue tends the give the narrative a passive, lumbering quality.

Much of the book’s exposition into the areas of mysticism, Near Eastern religion and philosophy, and existentialism have a very ‘Sixties’ flavor that has not aged all that well. Too often Herbert’s prose passages devoted to these metaphysical aspects of the novel come across as pretentious and empty.

In the novel’s favor, the cast of characters – however large – does include some memorable individuals, including the Baron Harkonnen, one of the most repulsive villains ever to appear in sf literature. And although highly detailed world-building is commonplace nowadays among most sf and fantasy novels, Arrakis remains one of the best examples of world-building more than half a century after it debuted.

Summing up, my re-reading of Dune left me with the impression that the novel was entertaining despite its flaws; this is not something that can be said of much of Herbert’s other works.

Whether Dune will retain what fading influence it still possesses, as the years unroll, is open to question. 

Its length is not necessarily a handicap in these modern days, when tweeners will excitedly read a Harry Potter novel within the span of a few days, and for older readers, many paperbacks on the shelves are deliberately designed to be over 400 pages long. But, as I mentioned above, Herbert’s prose style is likely to be off-putting to readers accustomed to clear and declarative writing in their novels. 

In my opinion, Dune is likely to recede into the background with the passage of time, becoming one of those novels that is fondly remembered by ageing Baby Boomers (of which I am one), but more or less ignored by the sf readership at large.

1 comment:

tangus said...

My take is about the same as yours, with a couple additional observations.

On the down side, some of that highly praised worldbuilding was clearly inspired by Arabic and Islamic language, culture and religion and spice is an analogy for petroleum. That makes the whole structure a lot less creative.

On the plus side, it inspired an Iron Maiden song.