Book review: Dune

Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: five stars

I am not, particularly, a sci-fi kind of reader. A couple of years ago I set myself a task: to read through the SF Masterworks series of books. How’s that going, you ask?

Well, this is the third book I’ve tackled.

I was expecting – largely based on decades-old memories of the flying-underpants film version – the book to be crap, so I didn’t have my expectations set to stun. Happily, the novel surpassed that, even if nobody tells you at the outset that you’re going to be reading a political, economic and ecological thriller about the universe’s most hotly-contested product: magic wormshit.

And Space Jesus! Can’t forget Space Jesus!

I won’t give you the entire backstory – because like Tolkien, I figure Herbert was just a big ol’ nerd who couldn’t play D&D and so got their DM jollies off by writing books to show off the fancy-ass worlds they’d created – but suffice it to say that Dune basically is the story of economic/house jostling over a planet (Arrakis, known as Dune) which creates some magical flubber that makes space travel possible. Think Game of Thrones but with pleather and intergalactic cocaine instead of dragon eggs and you’re probably in the right neighbourhood.

(I mean, there’s glossaries and several appendices to this work that describe the workings of the planet and societies and so forth in here. If you’re into that shit, you’ll be in heaven because it is extremely nerdy but also, curiously, extremely well done.)

The more I think about it, the more I realise that Herbert welded on some pretty standard fantasy tropes as well: a lot of this book is more on the F side of the SF/F thing. There’s tribalism and magic, and “smart machines” have been banned after some, uh, unpleasantness. This is where the world-building tendencies pay off: when characters move between societies – the organised houses versus the sietch societies of Arrakis – there’s a sense of distinct klatches of people, not just human palette-swaps.

Early in the book, though, we run into something that alternately tickled and irritated me. This:

Paul lay awake wondering: What’s a gom jabbar?

So. We’re somewhere way in the future. There’s mystical, futuristic and weird terms: gom jabbar! And then the name of the most important person in the book is… Paul. Like a fucking geography teacher. There’s some cool names to go with some cooler characters (the Shadout Mapes, Gurney Halleck) and some fuckawful reaches (hi there, Duncan Idaho) but it’s this weird flip-flopping that occasionally threatened to take me out of the narrative.

Similarly, a lot of the terms in the work are altered spellings of Arabic terms. I get that Herbert is amalgamating religious terms and orders from our time to create his world – so much is explained in one of the appendices – but it feels a bit on the nose, and a bit obvious. It’s not a huge deal, but it did keep buzzing me occasionally.

However. The story slaps. I’m certain there’s lots of layers and comparisons one could add or make – there’s elements of Exodus in there, and of a Chosen One – but in terms of high-stakes drama, Dune delivers. There’s Nazi-level villains to loathe – if you’re not against a corpulent floating fascist killer who seemingly wants to fuck his grandson then I dunno what to tell you – and idealistic heroes. There’s battles and brinksmanship. While it’s obviously a sci-fi book it doesn’t really feel like one: though it sits in the genre and discusses things which aren’t real (or are speculative, as I am no mentat, let’s face it) it doesn’t seem particularly improbable.

The concept of duty and destiny features pretty prominently, but they’re roughed up by the realities of life in a dusty shithole where you have to live in a suit that recycles your piss, and you have to walk funny across the sand in case a penisworm the size of a building comes along to eat your ass.

It’s difficult to review something that’s considered such a classic. All I know is that I was prepared for it to be terrible and was wonderfully surprised. Though there’s bits to take the piss out of, the work holds up, and it’s an engrossing read once you get started.

While I was reading the book I kept a record of some thoughts – on top of the notebook I’ve taken to filling these days – in a Twitter thread, for the amusement of my already-read-it friends OS who thought my travails as a Dune virgin might amuse.

You might find it annoying, but there’s gifs of Livia Soprano in there, so I like to think there’s something for everyone.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t reading this to be ahead of the game when the new film version comes out. I recently rewatched the Lynch-directed version and my youthful confusion was explained by the knowledge that I was still confused by the fucking thing even after I’d read the source material. But I’m glad I have.

Confusion and spectacular eyebrows await!

Will I read the rest of the series? Including this one, I’ve the six books written by Herbert sitting on my Kindle. I’m under the impression that the first three are essential, the next three are so-so, and anything not by him is optional. I’m also under the impression that the books become weirder and more horny as they go, so I suppose there is the morbid fascination of seeing how terrible a horny Herbert truly is.

Hm, maybe.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph. If you’d like to buy me some books to review, there’s a wishlist over here.

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