Dune (Book Review)

I read Frank Herbert’s Dune perhaps twenty years ago during a long hot Sacramento summer. I worked at Toys -R- Us, a 3 mile walk from my grandmother’s house, where I was living, as I enjoyed the bargain of low (okay, nonexistent) rent, and a mediocre job in the retail industry. Despite the hundred degree days (and intolerably bad traffic), I walked to work every day. I didn’t savor being hit by a motorist careening through the Arden district. It took 45 minutes to an hour, and I often walked home, through East Sacramento, in the dark at 10 or 11 PM to return home.  Whenever possible, I had a book in my hand: this was where I learned to walk and read. Peripheral vision is my only physical gift from the gods, and I’ve used passionately it ever since. I’ve finished dozens of novels walking to-and-from work, or to classes. Dune was my first walking-and-reading adventure.

I remember very little from my first reading of the novel.  I remember a young man with powers beyond those of his peers. And battleship-sized sand worms. And a planet so dry it made the Sahara seem downright moist. Mostly, I remember the love story between young Paul Atreides and his bride Chani, from his youthful visions. Maybe I was young and horny. I was living with a 90-year-old woman, and my libido was certainly not running unchecked at this point in my life. So when i recently picked up the book, about a month ago, I was expecting Dune to be, from my recollection, a beautiful Bedouin-like love story set on the desert planet called Arrakis.

Okay, so maybe I should have paid closer attention to the book, and less attention to Sacramento traffic, all those years ago.  The first book had the love story (and the worms in the desert) to be sure, but I somehow missed all the political intrigue. I was at a point in my reading career where I wanted a book to get to the damn story, I suppose, and skipped over the first, say, 150 pages, where Duke Leto Atreides, Paul’s father, was sent to Arrakis and the readers were struggling to uncover his potential assassin. We know from the excerpted writings of Princess Irulan that head each chapter that there will be one the desert call the Muad’Dib. We know The Duke will die, and Paul will go into exile. We know Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, will be suspected by many people of the treason that killed her husband. We just wait for it to unfold. The anticipation is enormous, and when it finally happens, the payoff is great. Herbert writes wonderful characters against a bleak desert backdrop. The Duke’s real killer was the very nasty, very round Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who is perpetuating a longstanding feud between the Duke’s house and his own. Behind all this intrigue are the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, who have a secret campaign to “breed” the greater houses and give birth to the one known as the  Kwisatz Haderach. The antagonists are nasty without being embarrassingly evil. Their motives seem reasonable, if not to us, at least to them. You can picture some politician making the same decisions as the Baron, or trying the same manipulative policies of the Ben Gesserit. They’re not simply antagonistic for the sake of the plot.

Yep. Rather than being the love story that I fondly remembered, Dune is the story of a desert messiah: one who would bring peace and order to the universe. Oddly, I missed that minor detail during the first reading.

Herbert’s backdrop is rich: amazingly so.  When you step into the world of Arrakis, you finding yourself needing a drink of water. When you read about Harkonnen schemings, your mind wanders down the myriad paths that may possibly allow Paul Atreides to escape the designs of multiple political camps. It is rare both the story and the characters in a novel have such depth and richness.

And I must say this: Dune stands on its own. I was satisfied with its ending. Twenty years ago, I didn’t want to leave the characters. I needed them to be alive awhile longer, so knew what happened to them. During this reading, I realized they’d be all right. It’s how Herbert intended them to be: they were painted correctly in the first book of many to eventually be delivered from this author, and eventually, his son Brian. But I urge readers to stop with the first one. You can still love the characters, and enjoy the intrigue, perhaps even more so, without knowing what happened to them. Each book afterwards just seems to weaken the power of the first story.

I would also recommend, perhaps, sitting on a sofa and reading the book. Definitely not a commuter pamphlet, like so many I have read in the past.  You can try, but you will miss a lot of the power of the story if you don’t give Frank Herbert’s Dune the attention it deserves.


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