Dune, what can we say about this legendary science fiction novel? It has been the science fiction novel that has inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of authors and storytellers. Our story was written by the famous Frank Herbert, who passed away many moons ago, who left a story that is often said to be the science fiction equivalent to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Dune is more than a science fiction novel — it covers a range of issues that are relevant to our current day and age from politics to religion, science, and economics. The question in this review is: Does this novel that was first published in 1965 hold up in the 21st century? Let’s find out.
Violence: There is low-to-moderate amounts of violence in Dune. Characters get punched, stabbed, poisoned, and shot. There are duels and battles. The author is not very descriptive with these scenes and its clear he did not want to spend too much time on the violence. Much of the violence takes place outside the pages.
Sexual Content: Only a small amount of sexual content and it is largely implied. Several characters are in or develop romantic relationships, but there are no real descriptions of sex, just a few implied references. One villainous character is clearly implied to be a pedophile and that he acts on it a couple of times in the book, but the author keeps these scenes away from the pages.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters do drink alcohol and one character clearly becomes inebriated. The planet of Arrakis, the setting of Dune, is aggressively mined for its spice (called Melange), a substance that has numerous effects on individuals and becomes addictive to those who consume it regularly.
Spiritual Content: Dune oozes with spirituality with the main character, Paul Artreides, being a possible messiah type character. *Spoilers* As Paul gets older, the Fremen, his adopted culture, begin to perceive him as their messiah and slowly begin to worship him. *End Spoilers* Almost every character is religious in some way and many of these religions are blends of numerous modern religions and world philosophies. Characters often quote a religious text called the Orange Catholic Bible that blends Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Islam, while also speaking against the ills of artificial intelligence.
Language/Crude Humor: Very little use of swear words. I recall a d*** and a h***, but that is really it. There is some crude humor though, but even that is sparse.
Other Negative Content: Treachery, so much treachery… The political Machiavellian treachery is loud and clear in this story. We see characters disregard the life of others to accomplish their own political agendas, and are willing to sacrifice those around them to meet their long-term political goals.
Positive themes: Characters do act heroically and believe in doing what is right for the people they have authority over. The story also makes it clear that a group of people should never be exploited for material wealth.
Frank Herbert’s Dune has been on my reading list for a very long time. I remember several years ago, I was trying to find a space opera to read. As I was on my long journey to find the right book, I picked up Dune from my local library and about 10 pages in… I returned it. Am I saying the book is bad? Absolutely not, but rather, I discovered quickly that this book was far more of an endeavor than I had previously expected. I wanted something like Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, not a science fiction Lord of the Rings. Several years later, I decided it was time to tackle it and I can say that it was a journey of a book to read and it deserves all the praise that it has received over the years. But, considering my first stab at the book, it would be hard for me to recommend it to everyone because it is more than just spaceships and sandworms.
The plot of Dune takes place in the far future in a massive interstellar empire led by House Corrino. The Empire has numerous worlds controlled by various noble houses and the core of the book follows the conflict between House Atreides and House Harkonnen on the desert planet of Arrakis. The story begins with the young heir to House Artreides, Paul Artreides, being quickly considered a possible messiah type character. The story follows how he internalizes this aspect of himself. Paul, and his father, Duke Leto Artreides, and the entire House Artreides are moving from their home planet of Caladan, which they had ruled for generations, to Arrakis. This sounds like a downgrade, but not so… Arrakis controls a necessary resource called melange, a powerful spice that is addictive, but necessary for space travel. Space navigators need the spice for heightened awareness during space travel. So now this move sounds like an upgrade! Not so much either… the relocation is a part of a larger scheme, but I won’t say anymore for the sake of spoilers. Throughout this story, we see complicated components ranging from Machiavellian politics and plotting, use of religious figures to accomplish goals and plans, and of course, riding sandworms… let’s not forget that this is a science fiction story.
Frank Herbert builds us an incredibly impressive world that feels old and ripe with history and tradition. As a reader I felt like I walked right into world that had a history that I would only understand after spending some time there and I should not expect to understand everything right up front. Arrakis has its variety of cultures, but the key culture to the story is the Fremen, who are known for their ability to live in the harsh desert climates away from the major cities. Along with their survival skills, they are also world class fighters, possibly better than the Emperor’s elite warrior units, the Sardaukar. These desert warriors will become critical for Paul and his journey.
Imperial society in Dune is also extremely complicated and fully developed. The noble houses and Fremen are not the only organizational actors we see our story. We see groups of people like the Mentats, who are analytical geniuses that are more effective than any machine, or the Bene Gesserit, a group of females who follow a school of almost mystical and physical training. The Bene Gesserit are particularly interesting because their end goal is selective breeding to ultimately create what is called the Kwisatz Haderach, who is a male human with the ability to effectively see into the future. Does all of this sound complicated? It is and this list doesn’t included the other actors involved, like the spacing guild or the different tribes within Fremen society. This book is a beast to read without any doubt.
You may be asking now, “Mike this book sounds big, you have made that clear, but is it actually any good?” The answer is yes! Absolutely, but with some caveats. The story is huge and impressive. As a political science and economics major, I greatly enjoyed the politicking, the scheming, planning, and intrigue. I loved reading how Paul used is logical skills and training from his Bene Gesserit mother to out maneuver his rivals. The story had some tense dual scenes that were a true pleasure to read, despite how brief and sparse they were. Overall, I enjoyed the story, but if you are looking for a classic space opera of high flying space adventure.. you won’t find it here. Dune reads more like a journey of political intrigue with science fiction as the backdrop.
The characters of the story were very impressive. I really enjoyed reading Paul methodically break every moment down to its bare bones. At times he almost seemed too in control (he spends much of the book as a 15 year old). As the reader moves throughout the narrative, its apparent why he is in so much control, but it almost comes off as unrealistic to some degree.
I found many of the other characters unique and quite interesting. Paul’s mother, Jessica, and father, Duke Leto, are strong characters who demonstrate unique characteristics, particularly Jessica. Our main villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, chief political rival to Paul’s father, is a diabolical and disgusting antagonist that I truly enjoyed hating. He may have had the most personality out all of the characters despite how menacing he was portrayed. Overall, I really enjoyed the characters and they were fun to read as they managed this game of galactic political chess.
While not explicitly stated, the theme of Dune screams something we all know too well. Does this sound familiar? Desert setting, key resource for travel that is exploited by the powers that be, and the indigenous people believe in a messiah character who will lead them in a jihad (this word is used explicitly in the book). Sounds like a commentary on the middle east, something that was a relevant issue in the 60s when the book was written and is still relevant today. I didn’t mind this connection, but I know many do not like it when books/movies/games are used as a commentary on relevant issues. For that, I will once again say that this book may not be for everyone.
The writing may have been the biggest challenge for me. It is without a doubt a higher level of writing than most books in the genre, but there were some issues that I found odd. Herbert would jump around perspectives during any given chapter and it could be in rapid fire succession. One paragraph could be Paul, then the next is Jessica, then the next is Duke Leto. Herbert generally made it clear which perspective he just switched to, but there were a few moments where I was completely lost with who was talking to whom.
I also found Herbert’s world abnormally difficult to understand at times. In one sense, and as I said up above, Arrakis feels alien, which is good for the plot he created, but there were many terms used by characters, notably the Fremen, that were poorly, or not at all, defined. I would often just gloss over them, accepting that I would never know what they meant. The book does provide a glossary in the back, but I’ll be honest… I was able to move forward in the narrative not knowing a few terms and there were no real consequences for my lack of knowledge of a specific term. Yes, you want to know the often repeated ones, but many were rarely repeated. Others may find it fun to study a fictional language, and I do find it interesting, but I have also read many books that have done a better job of bringing the reader up to speed on an alien world than Herbert’s Arrakis.
Just to be clear before I move on from the writing, Herbert’s writing is much more advanced and is quite sophisticated. If a reader wants a more challenging read, then this book is a great choice, and will provide any reader a challenging and engaging read. I just found a few elements of Herbert’s writing a little odd.
Dune gave me a lot to think about. It made me think of real world themes, such as the exploitation of resources and the people who are exploited for it. It made me think about how leaders exploit religion to meet their own ends. It also made me think about how powerless people can be when society’s elite play their political games. These are real world themes and Dune tackles them, though not necessarily solving them.
Dune also follows a messiah type character who is to lead people, but that character has flaws and makes mistakes. It brings me joy that the messiah I follow is real and that messiah is Jesus. Jesus has no flaw; in 1 Peter 2:22 it says, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.” Dune is a great conversational piece to talk about Jesus and discuss how Jesus stands apart from all other “messiahs” we see in literature who may be “good,” but are flawed and in some cases… exploiting their position as a messiah-type figure.
Dune is still a masterpiece, even 50+ years later. It was enjoyable to read and had some really exciting moments. As someone who enjoys political intrigue and complicated storylines, this book hit the mark for me. I was able to read through the flaws and enjoy the sci-fi masterpiece that did more than exceed standards, but set the standard for an entire genre.
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+Deep story +Strong characters +Fun political intrigue +Sophisticated writing +Plot is relevant for modern times +Complicated and interesting setting +Clean-ish content
-Odd writing choices with perspectives and terms -Plot is not for everyone
The Bottom Line
Dune is truly a masterpiece that will appeal to many science fiction fans, but not all. Frank Herbert's writing is more advanced than most in the genre, but there are some oddities with some of his writing choices. All that aside, the setting and characters are well done and deep, and the story set the standard for science fiction.