Book Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune - Header

Ever since this passion I now have for reading exploded in my life I have wanted to read Dune by Frank Herbert. Not only do people rave about it as one of the seminal and biggest selling science fiction novels ever written but also, I grew up playing the computer games that take it name on the Sega Mega Drive, as well as, watching Sting prance around in his underwear in the film adaptation and so, have always had a natural draw and loyalty to it.

However, the book had always scared me because it’s 608 pages long; and thus, always appeared to be too thick, too demanding to commit to reading. The size implying an almost aggressive and uninviting attitude to the story it holds. Somehow, I have just never looked at it and felt moved to read it. It would be something I’d start and end up demoralised by, as the pages appeared never to turn. But, literally as I finished The Night Manager by John Le Carré I noticed it was heavily reduced in price as an eBook and so, I decided, finally, to take the plunge! After all, you can’t see how many pages are left in electronic form!

Sega Mega Drive - Dune by Frank Herbert

It’s been a long time since I watched the film and even longer since I last played the computer games, but the names and characters instantly came flooding back even if the imagery and the story weren’t completely clear. I knew it would potentially take me a long time to read but this instant familiarity helped put me at ease because I felt safe with the characters, and therefore, welcome to their story.

While I didn’t feel threatened by the story, the first thing that struck me very though is the way Frank Herbert has written Dune. There was a risk that as a book written in the 1960s the language could feel old fashioned and dated. Making it hard to follow or difficult to read but that doesn’t really happen. It’s pages aren’t filled with big, complicated words or phrases and expressions no longer in use. It’s a story told simply and plainly as though through the eyes rather than the dictionary. But while I found the language used didn’t hurt the story, the construction did. It felt to me too stiff and concise. There is a real rigidity to the style of the writing which meant the natural flow was broken up by the constriction imposed. It left me feeling like I was having to work to read it. The lack of a natural rhythm and pacing to the story turning it into a mentally draining attrition rather than an enjoyable read.

For instance, over and over again someone would performance an action before speaking, but it would be written as “speaker, action, said:” e.g. “Paul, turned away from Jessica said…” and while I understand what Herbert is conveying how it was written doesn’t to me feel natural. I want the word “and” I want the two actions separated, “Paul turned away from Jessica and said…”

Frank Herbert (Writing) - Dune

My other issue with Herbert ran throughout the book. I was just never sure of his motives. As the book opened and got into its stride I kept thinking to myself that Herbert was actually disguising a war story. That this was based around experiences, whether his own or not, of desert warfare, most probably during the second world war. And as this idea grew in my mind I started trying to place it, Africa, The Middle East, maybe later – maybe Korea, but nothing appeared obvious enough to cement it. Worse still though is that, just as this idea that I’m being told one story camouflaged as another started to dominate my thinking, the pretence of what it might be completely skewed. Warfare lost to a story of seeming religious commentary. Suddenly I was becoming more and more convinced that this was actually a look at the simplicity of religion and tribal belief outside the western world. And of course, just as I had reassessed this in my mind and accepted this new angle, it swung away again and appeared to stand and deliver a story about power and capitalism and society.

Dune is obviously attempting to make a fair greater point than a simple sci-fi story. But I never felt sure as to what it actually was, whether it’s one large or multiple small. It distracted from the novel, because it’s so obviously perfuming the story and yet I could never place it, and even now, having finished the book I’m still longing to find that answer rather than linger with the characters or their lives.

Annoyingly though, when I stopped looking for deeper themes and motifs, when I simply gave myself superficially to the characters and their situations I didn’t actually find it that stimulating. Having childhood memories of its basic world I remembered: spice harvesting, worms and war and they are all there, but they aren’t anything like as vivid as I was hoping. The story is very dialogue heavy, told virtually all through first person discussion, and while the book has an apparent narrator, it’s a voice that is lost very quickly at the start of each chapter. As it decides instead to ease drop conversation and reprise to drive it’s story forward.

Footprints In The Sand - Dune by Frank Herbert

This over reliance of talking meant that it spends a lot of time musing or throwing ideas back and forth rather than describing the characters or their surroundings. You are meant to form your imagery, opinions and thoughts of the characters you meet based upon their actions, tone and manner rather than written description. And I found that this made the book feel heavy. It doesn’t, actually, feel long, but their is just a weight to it’s style that meant I felt like I was forcing myself to read it. To push through it’s chapters.This wasn’t helped by the fact that there are large passages when things felt a little monotonous and unimportant and worse still, everything just felt lacking. It’s not cold or heartless but rather seems devoid of any emotive power. It never changes pace, never drags you along or sweeps you off your feet. I never felt involved in it and while I could see the desert sands, the imperial palaces and the characters faces clearly, they always lacked that much needed visceral sharpness. You never feel the sand on your skin or the heat on your back.

I’m glad I’ve finally read Dune, yet I am also torn as to how I feel about it. On the one hand I have come away feeling drained by it. That I’ve had to want myself through it’s pages at times, not because the story is dull but because I was never immersed. I never felt inside their world. It’s a long passage of text and nothing more. And yet, the other hand holds characters I like, I’ve befriended. The problem is they are too little to outweigh the rest of the book. It never bored me, but I just found it too trying to really enjoy spending time with it.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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