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Arrakis--Dune--Desert Planet--Review

In his dedication, Frank Herbert refers to Dune as a prediction. I sincerely hope it's not. Don't get me wrong, the technology and sci-fi elements are interesting, the fantasy aspect are wonderful (Dune is cross-over fiction after all)--but the humanity is more than lacking: it's absent. If Herbert's prediction is correct, humanity is doomed to become a regressive culture of wooden, inhuman, one-dimensional actors: a society where men are Men (stoic, unfeeling things of action), women are Women (irrational, manipulative and inexplicably emotional creatures three paces behind their "betters"), and all other-sexed people are abominations who can never rise to be true Men or Women and are fit only for pity or scorn.

Herbert's vision is of a dark future indeed.

Written in 1965, Dune probably should be afforded a bit of leeway, but not much. Sci-fi was still growing out of its boy's magazine roots. No longer just moon monsters and rocketmen, pulpy sci-fi was starting to go to new places, examine what it meant to be human and explore broader vistas. 1965 was a much more restrictive society, with censorship and social, gender and psychological norms that are today increasingly unfathomable (or at least retrospectively horrifying).

Still, writing in 1965 was by no means devoid of style, depth or insight. Many books written before and during the 1960's remain infinitely readable and relevant today. Just read John Wyndham, who has oodles of insight, speculates with the best of them, constructs fiction so tight it approaches singularity, and writes better women than most men of our age. Don't believe me? Read The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), but Wyndham is not alone: do yourself a favour and check out Ray Bradbury's Farenhheit 451 (also adapted from a short story published 1950) or George Orwell's 1984 (1948) if you want to read excellent early science fiction that holds up today.

Where does that leave us? Well, I must now harshly judge Dune. Clumsy is the word I would use to describe this novel, followed closely by misogynistic, repetitive, poorly paced, and oddly unimaginative.

Yeah, this review is going to make a lot of Dune fans angry.

Women are central to Dune--which opens and closes with them, in fact. Several women are central and quite formidable, but only where appropriate and never too often. Worse, nearly all the women depicted live to serve a fifteen-to-seventeen year old boy who waffles between admiration and disdain for the females in his life. He places them on pristine Madonna pedestals, there to remain so young Paul Atreides may alternately sexualize and worship them according to his mood. Poor Chani, who is strong enough to stop Fremen challengers from even approaching her mate, yet is soon relegated to the south with the other women and children, despite being Paul's "strong one" who will always stay with him.

I guess he meant that metaphorically, or forgot to mention that strength revolved around their uterus and ability to manipulate--a sphere of power and influence granted to them, indulgently, by him (and men in general). Oh, that wacky Paul.

The central relationship in the story, aside from the main character's relationship with himself, is between a boy and his nun-like mother (the oedipal issues are strong with this one), a boy and his nun-like grandmother, a boy and his nun-like concubine, and a boy and his nun-like princess bride-to-be. As strong as these women are, they are not permitted by the author/protagonist to be as strong as they can be. So, one must ask, are they really strong at all?

These women are each quickly benched as soon as they come into contact with the Man, the super being, the Kwisatz Haderach (give a dog a bone), thereafter rarely permitted to exercise their power despite ample opportunity, unless it feeds Paul's ego. It rankles and disturbs, particularly his mother's jealousy of Chani. Paul's mother must caution her son about Fremen women, wonders why he--a young boy--sings a love song to a young Fremen girl--Chani. Uh . . . because he's a young man, smother, I mean, mother?

I get that Dune is a galaxy-spanning, neo-medieval space opera, but there's a difference between that as a setting for conflict and reveling in that grimdark future. Herbert does not comment on the horror of that sort of repressive society, merely reports it. Maybe that was his aim. He did subsequently say the Dune series was meant to be a warning about the dangers of the cult of personality. His book had a few excerpts here and there about the limitations of religious politicization, but the book is far too dense and fractured to adequately convey unified themes without first earning a doctorate in the series. That's not good writing.

Sexy nun outfit.
Herbert probably wouldn't hate this Bene Gesserit outfit

Pacing and editing are Dune's Achilles heel. Aspects that should be delved into and savoured are rushed and under-described. Things that don't matter are expanded upon, monologued, repeated and beaten like a dead sand worm. There is rarely enough description for the reader to picture the low-high tech settings and technology, yet internal and external dialogue is lengthy and melodramatic. Virtually nothing is set up for later payoff, information is constantly dumped on the reader, often via internal monologue immediately before (or after) the information is required, and nearly all tension is deflated by convenient flashes of foresight, excerpts revealing the outcome of a chapter before it is read ("A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!"? Spoilers.) or maintained for a few sentences before the pin is stuck in. Unforgivable sins of fiction, all. In short, Dune is much like this paragraph: aggressively and needlessly dense.

There are a few tight, well-paced chapters in Dune but, like oasis in the desert, they are few and far between, leaving the reader parched in a wasteland of overwritten prose and tiresome monologue. We spend far too little time getting to know characters through shared experience. Far too much of the book is spent telling us about what so-and-so said or how such-and-such works, what this-and-that means and why it's significant. Boring. So, so boring. Let me see and feel someone's pain and longing, don't report it to me like the weather.

Along with getting too much or too little, the reader often gets nothing at all. It feels like many necessary scenes are missing from Dune, possibly flowing from its roots in two separate serials in Analog magazine. Crammed together, expanded and rewritten, we never see enough of pivotal characters like Kynes, Idaho, Feyd-Rautha, Doctor Yueh, or even Duke Leto Atreides, to feel much of anything when they suffer or die. Being told they're great or strong or powerful is no substitute for seeing them, regularly and consistently, behaving in like manner. Stilted dialogue and occasional glimpses of their ability are no substitute for fleshed out and consistent characterization, which is conspicuously absent in Dune.

The biggest loss by far is the two years skipped between books two and three. Paul is suddenly seventeen and a full-fledged Fremen with a death-cult following and his legendary status secure (mostly). A lot of exciting things occurred over those two years, things that would have tested and developed every surviving character while furthering the plot. The book skips over young Paul becoming a young man, falling in love, escaping his mother, being tested, overcoming Stilgar, his found-father-figure. But that would have been, I suspect, outside Herbert's own emotional range and experience. You cannot write a thing unless you know a thing, after all.

"Dune" endpaper by artist Matt Griffin
Write without rhythm and you won't attract good prose.

Repetition, repetition is the mind-killer--repetition. Repetition. Did you know that water is scarce on Arrakis--Dune--Desert Planet? Yes? Well, don't worry, you're going to hear about it fifty-six more times before the book is done. Yes, I get it, water is scarce! I already get it because the book takes place on a ruddy desert planet. Shai-Hulud! Don't tell me about it, show me. I want to see the people in the streets, the water-starved servants, the children nearly dead from dehydration and heat stroke lying in bits of shade while Paul explores his new home, surrounded by characters we must get to know. But no, water is scarce. Scarce, reader! Saying it makes it true and beating you over the head with it rams the idea home better than a good turn of phrase or subtle insight into human nature.

You know Gurney, the one with the inkvine scar along his jaw that writhes or ripples when he moves? Get used to hearing about that scar at least a dozen times--every time we see the character, in fact. And things: you can't move for all the things in this book. They need a thing, have a thing, must do a thing--you'll read thing so often it'll lose all meaning, which is a problem since everything is a thing. You thing?

Repetition is a massive problem throughout the book that will have you laughing and/or rolling your eyes instead of being immersed in the story. Bad, clumsy writing.

Bart Simpson writing lines on a public school blackboard
You said it, dude.

Muad'Dib is the new Mary Sue. He's logical, unemotional, a virtual wunderkind with a razor-sharp mind above any Mentat, Bene-Gesserit training equal to many a space nun, and so fast and strong no one can match him in a fight. Except an old eunuch for some reason, who decides not to kill Paul because . . . timeline? It got a little fuzzy there at the end.

I get what Herbert was trying to do but the execution, like much of the novel, is lacking. There's just no tension when the main character can see around every corner. The rare moments when Paul sees too many possible futures that he can no longer see the forest from the trees (he's that good) are some of the only scenes with tension. In the entire 489 pages.

That's a problem.

Cover art for Nancy Drew's The Secret in the Old Attic
It's hard to struggle when you're great at everything.

An imaginative lack of imagination. Dune is a book about ideas. That's why it ships with its own appendix (coughs in Tolkien). Herbert did a lot of research and it shows. Like all good stories, he stole a lot of little things from a lot of people, places and things and alloyed something fabulous and new in the fires of his imagination. But only so far as the setting and main ideas are concerned. The ideas are imaginative, the prose is not.

Clumsy, remember?

I didn't read a single satisfying simile; not one magnificent metaphor in the entire book. Sure, he tried once or twice but, poetry, thy name be not Frank. I skipped every awkward song and poem and skimmed huge swaths of bland text, though never the spacial details or descriptions of the fabulously alien technology (yeah that was a joke). Language is important, word choice essential; varied structure and consistent dialogue, description that leaps into the readers mind and sets it on fire, not running for the next paragraph to latch onto something, anything!

A scene from the movie, Dune.
The 1984 movie, Dune: so full of life and colour, so unlike the novel.

Now we come to it: the thing I set out to achieve; the thing you have come to read. Let us walk without rhythm across the dunes to evade the worm and forge that thing... no wait, I'm having a vision: two stars from an infinite number throughout space and time that is at once finite; that is, two out of five stars. Now we know the thing.

-- "Spoilers" by the Author

Now, we come to it: I give this book 2/5 Stars.

Of course, you already knew that, because I already told you. Ho-ho, perhaps that is me being meta and showing you what it is like to have prescience, much like Mary Sue Muad'Dib. It is a burden that makes one invincible yet eternally bored, except where the plot dictates otherwise. Lines within lines like writhing inkvine scars crossing other rippling inkvine scars along the jawline of space and time, to that place where no woman can go because, you know, they're great and all, but they aren't me: a man. Not just any man, a manly Man, a man's man--not a homosexual man who is a pedophile for some reason, or a eunuch, who is no longer a man even though he can kill me, the Manest of men, for some reason, probably because he lost his manhood and is now in a place I cannot understand and is therefore inferior yet superior in some sick way--and certainly not a sexy space nun who is also your mother, but we aren't going to go there.

Muad'Dib, writer! Why did you read a novel you hate so much? Honestly, out of spite; and partly because Dune remains so highly regarded, is an example of early developmental sci-fi, and, if I'm being really honest, to see where David Lynch's visual spectacle/fever-dream of a movie departed from the text. Dune is one of those books I felt I had to read even if I didn't like it, if only to inform my own work.

I should say that there was something compelling about the book. Certain ideas, happenings and turns of phrase do resonate. Herbert was hitting on a thing, certainly, just not squarely or often.

Dune is a hot mess of a novel. I don't know Frank Herbert, but this book smacks of the worst toxic masculinity/nerdism that served as the foundation of sci-fi for over half a century. We're still trying to get past it. Lacking subtle insight, the novel comes across as an immature man's messianic fantasy, imbued with his love/hate relationship for women and yearning for a simpler time of chivalric ideals (pro-tip, there never was a simpler time), where people knew their place and the hierarchy was set. Things were known then, much like they are known by a certain boy named Paul, struggling to find a place in this crazy universe of ours.

To come back to the beginning, Dune still has one foot firmly in the boy's magazines of its roots, and it shows.

J.D. (Jeremy) Mitchell is a writer of fantasy and science fiction. Check out the first three chapters of his novel, Springtide Harvest, and his many other writing-related blog posts below.

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