Paul, heir of House Atreides, and his family receive orders to move to the planet Arrakis, the rich desert world that produces the spice that allows for interstellar traffic, and take control of the fief from their arch-enemies, the Harkonnens. Though they sense a trap, his father’s honour does not allow them to defy the Padishah Emperor’s orders. In the struggle for the dominion of Arrakis that follows, Paul catches a glimpse of a terrible future that lies ahead if he does not act to change his fate.
Jop: Welcome to this in-depth, spoiler-free discussion of Dune by Frank Herbert, a classic science fiction book and the first installment in the Dune universe, which by now consists of multiple series. Our curator Peter added Dune to the Escape Velocity Collection, a series of items that we believe represent the absolute peak of what the speculative genre has to offer.
I challenged Peter to defend his addition to the Collection – why should every fan of speculative fiction pick up Dune immediately?
Although the opinions on Dune might strongly differ among our curators, there can be no doubt about your love for this story. So, to start off – when did you first read Dune and what did it do to you?
I first read Dune somewhere halfway through high school. I remember asking my mum to recommend me a book to read in English, because I was practicing – back then, it was right on the edge of what I could understand. It was (and is) one of her favourites. I took the crumbling, well-used vanilla-smelling copy with the colourful sunset on the cover from the bookshelves and I absolutely loved it to bits. I’ve reread it at least three times since, and everytime I am afraid the magic will be gone, but it’s there every time.
There are two important reasons why Dune keeps working so well for me. The first is that Herbert respects the reader’s ability to figure things out on their own, and doesn’t feel the need to explain everything in the text of his novel. As a result, the strange world feels both natural – because the characters do not behave as if everything they do needs explanation – and mysterious – because some things hover just beyond the edge of explanation all the time, and I don’t think you’re intended to get them.
That leads into the second point: Herbert, for me, perfectly manages to write people that are just incredibly smart. Paul and Jessica, in the way they observe and analyse the world, are superhuman in a – to me – believable way. I know none of it is true, but for some reason, I constantly find myself in awe when reading about them. It makes me want to be like them in ways I have almost never experienced.
Without spoiling too much, when I was reading Dune, I can honestly say I was most impressed with its worldbuilding. Most of the story might take place on the inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis, home of the much coveted ‘spice melange’ drug, but there are many glimpses of a greater universe full of intricate politics. Arrakis itself is also well thought out, with a believable interpretation on how the ecology and cultures of such a place would develop and influence one another. I thought it was an original setting, though I myself have little frame of reference in the field of science fiction.
Is Dune’s worldbuilding one of the things that stood out to you, Peter?
I agree with you that the world the story of Dune takes place in is probably its greatest achievement. Herbert takes time to explore the ecology of Arrakis in detail: the difference between the different types of deserts, the habits of the few existing species of wildlife, the importance of conserving water in every thinkable process. On top of his ecology, he layers a fascinating local culture centred on the sand of the desert and conserving water. On top of that, he layers a high society culture of the Arrakeen elite, centred on wasting water and harvesting spice. And on top of that, he layers the politics of the Great Houses of the Landsraad, centred on intrigue and selling spice. Each of the layers influences the ones above and below it, and the whole takes place against a backdrop of a mysterious ancient history of human colonisation of the galaxy. The entire system functions very well, and, importantly, the worldbuilding is integral to the plot.
The world of Dune is so expertly crafted that I believe it is worth reading the novel exclusively to get to know Arrakis – I know people that even twenty years after reading the books remember little details on how the characters preserve water and how to walk across the sand undetected.
You already mentioned the fact that Herbert respects the reader’s ability to figure things out on their own. Though I certainly respect that sentiment in a writer, even I was somewhat overwhelmed by the worldbuilding infodump you get in the first 150 pages of the story. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself lost in the terminology appendices at the back of the book after every two sentences.
Even though the quality of the worldbuilding is outstanding, one could argue it’s clumsily delivered. So much so even that it scares off (novice) readers. Do you think this is a fair assessment?
Well, I’ll give you that Dune has a steep learning curve, but I strongly disagree with the notion that Herbert infodumps. Rather, the worldbuilding is a continuous trickle (perhaps to some readers, more of a flow than a trickle) that constantly keeps you guessing. But that’s the point! I believe that Dune is intended to be a mysterious book. Don’t go look up terms in the appendices – you’ll figure it out by yourself in a couple of chapters. Paul, our main character, is dumped in a world he knows very little about, and is constantly learning – and so is the reader. Accept that you might not understand everything immediately – you’re not intended to. And it is all the more satisfying if you end up ‘getting it’ on your own.
No, I cannot deny that Dune is not exactly a light read. There are a lot of complex conversations, a lot of complex politics, a lot of original worldbuilding. But I would argue that the worldbuilding is actually presented in a rather subtle manner. You’ll need to pay attention, but it is one of the most well-constructed science-fiction books I’ve ever read, and entirely worth the effort it takes to learn about its universe.
Something I specifically noticed about Dune’s worldbuilding, is the incorporation of Middle-Eastern and Asian inspired elements, especially in regards to the religions. As I’m mostly familiar with fantasy worldbuilding, in which Christianity and ancient pantheons are commonly used as the basis of self-built religions, I thought Herbert’s choices were interesting.
However, I’ve come to understand there are some who criticize these same aspects. These people accuse Herbert of religious appropriation and orientalism, for example describing his depiction of the desert-dwelling Fremen warrior culture as harmful (muslim) terrorist stereotypes.
On the other hand, others praise Herbert for the clever and positive way he’s included non-Western elements, pleasantly surprised to recognise things from their own cultures in a science fiction setting.
What do you think of this discussion?
I think it is important to place Dune in the time in which it was written – the first half of the 1960s. I’ll skip the history lesson, but if I understand correctly, the pervasive (and toxic) link between ‘muslims’ and ‘terrorists’ in modern culture dates from after the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and its neighbours, when several anti-Israeli terrorist organisations sprang into life. I cannot deny that that link exists today, but at the time, I feel like Dune would more likely be read in the tradition of Lawrence of Arabia (and, admittedly, all the colonial ickiness that comes with that) than 9-11.
That said, it is true that the Fremen culture is based on a relatively western orientalist interpretation of Middle-Eastern (or West Asian, if that’s your preference) and Persian culture. Cultural sensitivity and the woke brigade weren’t a thing sixty years ago, and it shows.
Herbert kind of wears this on his sleeve, though – he writes of cultural/religious amalgamations such as Buddhislam and the Zensunni faith, the result of the mixing of Asian cultures throughout the centuries-long colonisation process of the Galaxy. In his view religious and cultural identities are constructed (sometimes literally and deliberately), and the cultures of the various ethnic groups in the Dune-universe are (to some extent) intended to be caricatures of their origins on Earth.
Herbert does still use the Arabic-coded Fremen as an ‘other’, a group that is intended to be alien to western audiences. And in that sense we can’t really applaud him for his progressive writing. But given the time he was writing in, I think that his positive, human portrayal of the Fremen (and, compared to his contemporaries, women) should be grounds to forgive him his sins.
You already spoiled some of your thoughts about Dune’s characters, namely that you enjoy how they are written so much that you’d almost like to be them. For people who know how picky you are about characters in general, I believe this is an incredible telling compliment.
Is their intelligence the only reason you were attracted to Paul and Jessica as main characters? And what were your thoughts on the other POV-characters? In your opinion, do they hold up next to Paul and Jessica?
The intelligence and Bene Gesserit training of Paul and Jessica make them fascinating characters to read about, but they are also interesting because they are portrayed as primarily rational characters, inwardly very observant of their emotions and the actions caused by their emotions. This is a welcome change from characters with a lot of inner monologue in most books, who have a tendency to be very emotionally driven. Plus, they have a beautiful awareness of their fate that puts each of their actions in a different light.
None of the other POV-characters are as well-defined as Paul or Jessica, but I feel Herbert has made the right choices in picking his viewpoints, allowing the reader to experience each of the pivotal moments in the saga up close. Their chapters give great little insights into the thinking of some of the other characters and factions.
Circling back a little to the smartness and strong rationality of some of these characters, you’d expect that they’d make less crucial wrong decisions than the emotionally driven characters in most other stories. Interestingly enough, this is not the case. Dune’s characters still make these kinds of mistakes, not because they are too emotional though, but because of the opposite: they don’t dare to trust their intuition. It’s an original divergence.
Every synopsis and flap text of Dune paints a picture of a vengeful revolution story full of politics, a captivating premise for a plot. Quite early in the story, however, it occured to me that many plot elements are spoiled in advance by the codices at the start of each chapter.
Do you think these codices undermine the plot’s strength?
No, on the contrary, they add to it! I can’t quite say, ‘Dune is not about the plot’, because that wouldn’t be true. The plot is an important part of what makes Dune great. But the plot of Dune is not about surprising the reader with clever twists. The reader is supposed to unravel the mystery of how the plot will get to where it has announced it will go. In a way, this mirrors Paul’s own experience: he gets told his fate, and the rest of the story is about figuring out how it will unfold – and fighting it.
And this is a conscious choice on Herbert’s part. You’re supposed to know how it will end, and to hope against hope. The codices and the POV-chapters from the perspective of the ‘bad guys’ allow Herbert to showcase the complexity of the world and the clever plans of all factions to the reader. It makes for a different reading experience, watching a tragedy play out from every angle and seeing the struggles of the characters caught in the flow.
I think Dune would work far less well if you wouldn’t have the ‘spoilers’ the story gives you, because a lot of the behind-the-scenes cloak and dagger would be lost on you.
There are a lot of installments (several dozen, give or take) in the Dune-universe, and Dune itself is only the first book in a trilogy. It’s somewhat remarkable you’re only adding Dune to the collection. Is it a conscious choice that you’re disregarding the rest of the series?
So, the honest (possibly embarrassing) answer is, I have only just read the second part, Dune Messiah, in preparation for our conversation here. And of course, I haven’t lived underneath a rock so I know more or less what will happen beyond the second installment too. But one of the reasons Dune works so well for me is the mystery that permeates from the pages. And I don’t want to shatter that by learning too much about the world. Dune Messiah is a good book, and I think that people who really enjoyed Dune are going to like reading it too and seeing where the story goes. But the scene is already set, so there is only little of the amazing worldbuilding that Dune has. And the book makse explicit some of the things that you might have guessed at the end of Dune, but you felt clever for figuring out on your own. Overall, it’s good, but simply not on the same level, and not necessary to deeply love Dune.
Dune is universally seen as a science fiction classic and has been of a major influence on the genre. Though this is impressive, it comes with the fact that the story dates from 1965. That’s a respectable age of 56 years.
We’ve already touched on this a little. In your own words: cultural sensitivity wasn’t a thing back then. However, everyone that has experience with high school reading lists might think of some other pitfalls that could come with books that old, such as stuffines and extreme wordiness. Can these traits be applied to Dune, or is the prose as flashy and fast-paced as people have come to expect of modern science fiction?
Dune is not a light, quick, read. A lot of the tension in the story is built up over long conversations between people fencing with words, not swords. Herbert has a tendency to be very descriptive (which I love), and to use relatively flowery language (which I love). It’s not snappy in the way that some action packed modern novels are. But it’s also not Asimov! Sure, some of the conflict will be narrated from a distance. But if there is fighting, you’re sure to catch at least some glimpses of steel-on-steel. Blood will flow from the pages before the tale is over.
I don’t think that pace or tension arcs are this books traps – it’s rather getting lost in the complex plot, politics and world building, or not buying into the Bene Gesserit training or the carefully constructed conversations. Dune takes itself rather seriously (which I love!), and if you do not, it’s unlikely you’ll reach the end.
In summary, Dune is an intricately crafted, multi-layered story with some excellent worldbuilding, justly a praiseworthy science fiction classic. Although this book was ultimately not for me, even I can appreciate the many unique ideas it has to offer. In fact, despite our thoroughness, there are still many aspects of the story we have left undiscussed, such as Dune’s many intriguing themes.
Peter, is there something you’d like to add before we close off?
We’re sadly running out of space to discuss everything there is to discuss – most importantly the themes and threads of religion and fate that run through the books, but also the interesting way in which Herbert mixes fantasy elements into his science fiction setting, Herberts ideas on ‘hard men’ and ‘soft men’, fascinating elements of world building like the Butlerian Jihad and the origin of Mentats…
Maybe what I want to say is: there is so much to find in Dune, that I feel that almost anyone can find a theme or a layer or an element to enjoy. And if that is the case, then anyone that professes to love science fiction should at the very least give a genre-defining masterpiece such as Dune a shot.
That’s it for now folks! Go read Dune if you haven’t already, and soon we’ll be back for another addition to the Collection!