I’ll excuse you if you can’t believe I’m a fan of science fiction and yet I hadn’t read Frank Herbert’s novel Dune until now. I decided this was the time, since the upcoming 2021 movie version is about to release.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel, although it was a bit of a steep climb at first. The depth of world building, the unique characters, and the societal/cultures Herbert envisioned is amazing. I can see why it’s often called the “Lord of the Rings” of science fiction, due to its world-building complexity. Yet this science fiction book does not focus on the technology as much as some might expect. It almost blurs the line into fantasy.
In Herbert’s futuristic universe, mankind has already overcome the threat that other sci-fi novels often explore. The almost over-used trope of a war against rebellious artificial intelligence has already been fought, long centuries before the start of Dune’s story. Computers and “intelligent technology” have been banned. Humanity has instead worked to enhance their own skills and mental abilities in place of computers and “thinking machines.” These seemingly super-human skills feel like they step over the line into fantasy or even what we might consider magic.
The beginning of the book caught me off guard, but not because of the blurring of the line between the Sci-fi and Fantasy genres. It wasn’t simply the unfamiliar words and complexity that made the reading slow-going either. Just a few pages into the novel I was surprised to discover the narrative style Herbert was using. He had the point of view jumping from character to character. The thoughts of various characters in the same room were fully on display to the reader. How could such a well known novel violate this “rule” of writing so blatantly!
Dune is written in Third Person Omniscient, a style which isn’t common in most modern novels. Third Person Omniscient was more typical in the Victorian era. Herbert was switching (“head hopping”) between characters in what seemed to me a modified Third Person style. This left me a bit dumbfounded – seemingly in basic violation of novel writing advice that I had heard over and over from various teachers of the writing craft.
Eventually, I became used to his style. He actually wielded this method with skill. Although it was not how the book might be written today, I had accepted it as his style and it fascinated me how he made it work. There was enough to focus on with all the unfamiliar terminology anyway. The growing list of characters, the unique technology and culture of the story became my focus. Deeper into the novel I started to understand why he chose this narrative style. The story was as much or more about how the other characters reacted to the main protagonist, as it was about Paul Atreides himself.
My suggestion to first-time readers of Dune would be to push through the beginning of the story rather than stopping to over-analyze it too much. If you find it too difficult to do this, then make use of the included terminology appendix in the back, but the meanings of most unique words can generally be understood from the context. It will become more apparent as you read on. I’m thinking I might even go back and re-read some of the beginning again to get a better feel for the subtleties of the story now that I finished the book. Some critics have stated that this is a flaw in Herbert’s writing, but I think it drew me into the story environment more, not having any info-dump of background in the beginning.
Another thing Herbert did in the book was lead off each chapter with quotes that are from inside the story’s own universe. They’re all attributed to a character you do not meet until nearly the end of the novel. Each quotation is related to the next chapter you’re about to read. In some cases I found this to be too “telling.” It kinda felt like these were giving away what would happen in the following chapter. If you find them helpful to get your bearings in the first chapters then by all means read them as Herbert intended, but if you find them giving away too much in later chapters, skip the quotes from Princess Irulan. I think you can enjoy and understand it just as well skipping those pre-chapter quotes if you find them too telling or spoiler. I believe these quotes are meant to imply the overall story is being recounted by the writer of these quotes, but I am not sure they are necessary. Yet it was interesting to finally meet the character from whom the quotes originated. It made her late introduction in the book feel like you knew something about her already.
Despite some of my criticisms, I did enjoy the story and I am inspired to read the rest of the Dune saga. I’m hoping this upcoming movie version of Dune can do the story justice. I’ve seen clips of the previous attempts to adapt it to film and they are pretty terrible. From what I’ve seen in teasers of the 2021 version, it looks like it will be mostly faithful to the novel but we shall see.