08 April 2012


Dune by Frank Herbert
1966 Hugo Award Winner
Published by Chilton Company
510 Pages
Audiobook narrated by Scott Brick et al.

I must not fear.  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 I will turn the inner eye to see its path.  Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.  Only I will remain.
The Bene Geserit Litany against Fear

The Atreides and Harkonnen families have a long-standing feud and when we begin this book, the Atreides are just beginning the process of taking over the desert planet Arrakis per imperial orders.  When they get there, they are beset on all sides by Harkonnen deception and the scarcity of water.  Add to the scheming and warring houses the mysterious and ancient plans of the Bene Geserit and the equally mysterious and possibly equally dangerous Fremen.  Dune follows the Duke Leto Atreides’ son, Paul as he struggles to live up to the Atreides name, understand his place in the Bene Geserit order and how to live on the desert planet.  Terrible description I know, but believe me this is good stuff.

The Mona Lisa of SF?
You know how sometimes you’ll see a painting and you can appreciate what you see well enough but what makes it great is everything that isn’t there?  Kind of like how so many people love the Mona Lisa for the story that her smile tells?

Dune is an amazing story with a mind-numbingly complex set of characters and is awesome as a text, but the cherry on top is definitely the world-building.  Sure there is actually a lot of detail in the book itself, but each one of those details is like the fluttering of a curtain in which we get a glimpse of something great, with the perception that there is still a whole room full of something wonderful to discover behind it.  In this case, when a character reveals a motive or a talent, it instantly calls to mind an entire lifetime of story behind it.  This was actually one of the worst parts of having to finish this book in a week.  I think I could have taken a month to read this and still would’ve felt rushed.

And despite the encyclopedic level of detail, it somehow feels as understated as Mona Lisa’s smile.  They are both enigmas.  Entrancing, engaging and beautiful.  Anyone who has seen a painting has seen the Mona Lisa.  Likewise, if you’ve read SF, you should have read Dune.

Paul Muad’Dib
The first time I read Dune, I was awestruck by Paul.  He knew the Wierding Way and could fight, disarm and defeat even the most hardened desert warriors.  He could command loyalty from men twice his age and lead them in battle.  He could use the Voice.  He was under 20 and he was a god in my new-to-SF mind.  As I was anticipating this re-read, my memory told me Paul was always in control as they left Arakeen and met the Fremen and became Muad’Dib.

Upon this week’s re-read, I was struck by how slow and difficult Paul’s transformation was and how frequently he was unsure of himself.  He struggled with his prescient visions and despite his Bene Geserit training, I think he was fearful every step of the way.  Even during this week’s read, I didn’t really think much about this, but now that I’ve had some time and I’m thinking more about it, I appreciate even more his struggle with fear – The Mind Killer.

I still enjoyed how embroiled in mystery and mysticism Paul found himself and he’s such a great hero.  My only gripe with Paul was his return to statecraft at the end.  I wanted him to go so totally native that he completely abandoned the Imperial System.  Of course I grudgingly accept that as long as that system exists, Arrakis will be oppressed and this forces Paul’s hand.  Oh well…

The deep desert and planetary ecology
Think of the Sahara in Africa.  If you’re like me, when you first learned about this part of the earth, it was both mysterious and terrifying.  I’ve always had an academic interest in the desert, how it works and what it looks like; to actually be there has always seemed like madness though and in elementary school learning about it for the first time, I can still remember that nervous feeling.

After reading The Monkey Wrench Gang many years later, I began to understand that people could have as fierce a devotion to the desert as any, much more easily inhabitable, clime.  Maybe that experience laid the foundation for this re-read…or maybe Dune is just that good.  Whatever the case, and I imagine no matter your take on desert life, the deep desert of Arrakis is a place you can’t help wanting to visit.  Which is funny since the Fremen, the people who have lived there for who-knows-how-long, only want to change it.

In fact, it is hard to deny that Arrakis is practically a character in itself, which is curious when you consider the history of the environmental movement.  The possibility of humans transforming the face of an entire planet was certainly not new to SF, there had been plenty of books dealing with terraforming by that point.  But the story of Arrakis was one of the awakening of its people to the possibility that their actions could forever change their world.  The sixties being the hotbed of environmental awakening that they were, it is hard not to make comparisons and connections to the burgeoning environmental movement in America.  I’m not sure how much Herbert was influence by the movement, but I imagine that it was pretty timely in the sixties.  In fact, maybe it’s time for a renewed interest in Dune given the relatively recent awakening of the effects of climate change.

I can’t say enough about Dune.  It reads a lot like Lord of the Rings.  It certainly deserves the Mark of Excellence.  It certainly deserves a high HEP SCORE.  The only downfall for me was the dialogue.  The characters are so straight-forward and blunt and serious.  So serious (well actually they’re tricksy and false but they’re always to-the-point).  In slow moments, it almost reads like a textbook, but maybe that’s just a function of the harrowing, sad and frustrating experience everyone is put through.  I probably would have been complaining if it had been any different so don’t listen to me – just read it!


Universe 5/5
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Dialogue 3/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5 (Stillsuits deserve a ‘5’ on their own!)
Characters 5/5

Overall 23/25

The Roll of the Die
This week’s book is Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein.  So far my rereads have not been as good as I remember them, so I’m hoping this one will buck the trend.  Either way I got a pretty good hardcover edition with my favorite cover art so it will be fun to look at.

Next week’s book is The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber.  I’m under the impression that this one was better than The Big Time so I’m looking forward to see what he can do here.


  1. Until I read The Dispossessed a few weeks ago, this was my all-time favourite novel. There's just SO much in it that rewards you when you re-read it. Have you read the sequels? Many of the issues you raise actually play out in them (Paul going native, the Fremen realizing that changing Arrakis may not be the best idea, Paul struggling even more with his role as God-Emperor, etc.).

    As far as Herbert and environmentalism, he apparently had read an article about biologists trying to stop sand dunes from spreading on a beach somewhere in Oregon, or Washington (I forget) and claimed that it provided all the inspiration he needed.

    Great review...I also love his style of description wherein he only mentions one detail that hints at something larger. This is a total must-read for any sci-fi fan.

    1. This was one of the first SF I ever read and I was just blown away by the idea that I'd been missing out on stuff like that!

      You're spot on mentioning the way he reveals so much with the smallest details. I can't tell you how many times I've reached out for one of the sequels and then picked up something else or realized that the library didn't have the right one. You've more than effectively renewed my interest though, especially the part about the Fremen realization. This also reminds me that I had bought a copy of God Emperor of Dune for 50 cents from the library a while back. I need to get back to this series so I can get to cracking that one open (it has such an awesome cover). Thanks!

  2. Wow, interestingly enough, it's in God Emperor that we see the Fremen struggling with the consequences of changing their planet. Funny how the part you're most interested in happens to be in the one that you bought.

    My personal favourite of the sequels is Messiah (the first sequel) since it deals with the struggle Paul has with seeing the future and the power/powerlessness that comes with it. It's the first novel I ever read that deals with some of the consequences of seeing the future, and seeing it accurately. On the one hand, that's an amazing power. On the other, it makes Paul feel like nothing more than a helpless tool of history, time, and the greater events going on around him. It's wonderful stuff, if you like that whole internal turmoil/existential crisis theme.


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