Monday, November 19, 2007

Review - Dune

by Frank Herbert
1966 Hugo Co-Winner for Best Novel
1965 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Dune. Arrakis. Desert planet.

Dune. The book that launched a thousand sequels and a dynasty similar to that of the Tolkeins. It's one of the biggest novels in the history of science fiction, winner of the first Nebula, and potentially the best selling work of science fiction ever (I haven't been able to confirm the numbers for that one). I recall eating breakfast near Grand Central Station on a trip to New York and seeing a gigantic painting in an office building across the street featuring the Bene Gesserit litany.

I don't like the book.

I recognize that this makes me a heretic but where would we be if everyone thought the same way. I didn't care for the writing, I didn't care for the world building, I didn't care for the characters, I didn't care for the story.

Dune, for one of those five people who have somehow gotten here and have not heard of it, is about a world almost completely without water called Arrakis. On Arrakis you can find spice, a substance that can be refined to a drug that allows one to manipulate space and time. Spice lets faster than light travel be possible, is key to the function of the human pseudo-computers that manage things, grants its users immortality, and generally makes the universe go round. The downside to this is that giant worms the size of battleships roam the surface of Arrakis and have a tendency to crush anyone who wanders the desert looking for spice.

In this very distant future the known universe has regressed to a feudal system with great lords running entire planets. House Harkonnen runs Arrakis and controls the spice but they have a scheme to eliminate their rival House Atreides by having the planet handed over to them and then crushing them with the Emporer's assistance while the Atreides are still consolidating their power. The Atreides have an ace in the hole because the heir, Paul, is an übermench resulting from centuries of controlled breeding by a secretive organization of women called the Bene Gesserit. He has some vague, undefined superpowers of observation which are still developing as he goes to Arrakis. The Harkonnen succeed in killing almost all of the Atreides except Paul and his mother Jessica who flee into the desert seeking shelter with nomadic tribes while he plots his revenge.

There's one aspect to Dune's story that snapped my suspension of disbelief so hard that it could never recover. I can accept worms that tunnel through sand like its water. I can accept clothing that recycles the body's energy and liquids so efficiently that the laws of thermodynamics must be taking the day off. I can accept that a spacefaring culture might not grasp the doctrine of air superiority (okay, maybe not on that one but it's a mild balm on the "primitive people versus technology" plot that pales in comparison to my biggest problem). The single biggest problem I have with Dune is the spice. Not the fact that it makes you immortal, causes physical changes, and lets you bend the universe to your will; my problem is that no one seems to really care about it.

Spice is the most important substance in the universe; we're told this repeatedly throughout the book. So how is the most important substance in the universe, a substance which happens to appear to be vegetable matter, harvested? They fly around and go "Oh! There's some!" and then pick it up. Try to imagine anyone with bronze age technology on up taking this approach to collecting an important resource. And people put through major effort for much less important things like bananas. The book has one character working to prevent the discovery of the truth behind the spice but that's one person and spice has been the most important thing in the universe for thousands of years. No one has tried to improve production, enhance yields, cultivate it, or even been curious about the nature of the spice for a period that covers the same time frame separating the first Egyptian dynasty and myself. Since the book hinges on this idea it pulls me out of it immediately.

Once suspension of disbelief is lost it is hard for a book to recover. Good prose can help but Dune is lacking in that. For much of the book its as dry as Arrakis itself. It does pick up at several points (Paul and Jessica's journey in the desert is a particularly evocative section) but on the whole I found it to be plodding and overstretched. The characters are rather flat and seem to be puppets to the plot though Paul does get some depth toward the end of the novel.

There is one chunk of prose that I think is good is the famous Bene Gesserit litany:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
If the entire novel was written like that... well it would be pretty annoying after a few paragraphs but that is a very memorable screed that resonates well with readers.

Herbert tends to throw around his own terms without context which interrupts the flow of the book as you have to flip back to the glossary to be reminded what that term is. If he established things up front and then used the words regularly this wouldn't be so bad but he has a tendency to drop in a term and then not use it again about it for a few hundred pages before referencing it again so that the reader has forgotten what it means. Making things worse is the fact that he tends to define words in the glossary with other words in the glossary. On the whole I find this kind of writing annoying; dropping foreign terms in the middle of English text when a simple English equivalent would do is at the very least pretentious.

I can't deny that Dune is popular but I obviously don't care for it. Since I didn't like it I have to make a conjecture and say that Dune's popularity stems from its complex world-building, though when I first read Dune I was in that phase of my life when I was more willing to overlook poor writing for depth of setting and I didn't like it then (when I outgrew that phase it left me with a bitter dislike of the vast majority of fantasy novels). Dune is one classic science fiction work that I find skippable.