Dune is Frank Herbert’s 1965 epic science-fiction novel, and the starting book in the Dune saga. It is often listed as one of “the” science-fiction books that you have to read. Judges of the Hugo and Nebula Awards agreed and awarded Herbert the prizes for the book. It has been made into a movie and has inspired many writers since with through its characters and world design.
Dune follows the story of Paul Atreides, a young member of a noble household who, it turns out, is a mystical warrior. Through a series of events he leaves his home planet to move to Arrakis, the desert planet. There the adventure unfolds and Paul must confront his destiny.
I chose to listen to the audiobook version by Audio Renaissance. Unabridged, it comes to twenty-one hours and eight minutes of listening. To keep the audio track interesting the narration is varied. Scott Brick, Orlagh Cassidy, Euan Morton and Simon Vance all take different roles, propelling the story forward. There is even some sound effects such as the whistling dessert wind and some electronic music adding to the atmosphere of the tale. This recording was shortlisted for the Audiobook Download of the Year 2007 on Audible and I must say it was quite an impressive production which I would recommend.
Story-wise the tale really earned it’s epic reputation. The scale of Herbert’s imagination is astounding. He blends the themes together so well with descriptions of people and environments that are so detailed it seemed like he actually lived through it. Whatever picture or emotion he wanted to portray, it was easy for the reader to imagine the detail, so intricate were the descriptions. By the end I really felt that I knew the characters, the landscapes, the cultures and the politics. Sometime when an author goes into such detail it can make the reader weary and to be honest, a bit bored. This is the precise reason that I never finished The Fellowship of the Ring. But I never got tired of Herbert’s descriptions in Dune, they were a pure joy to experience throughout the story.
Herbert also used the “writings” of the Princess Irulan to give readers an extra insight into the life of Paul and the world of Arrakis. These were small snapshots at the start of chapters. Despite the size, I felt that added greatly to the mythology of the universe and it gave the reader a deeper understanding of the motivations and reactions of the characters.
As spectacular as the worlds and people were, I found them accessible at the same time. There were little familiar details, such as the names Jessica and Paul, that made it easier to connect with the world. It was not all alien and these nods to the “real-world” were cleverly added in my opinion.
There are loads of themes in this book, you could write a PhD on them I am sure. My favourites ones involved religious war and the environment. Herbert detailed Paul’s struggles with his destiny, need to survive and the religious fervour building up around him. He felt powerless to stop the movement that would be carried out in his name. It was an interesting twist on the messiah concept, I thought and it was interesting to see how Paul dealt with that. There was also the fascinating narrative about how religion was planted among people to control them and keep them in check. This is a criticism often levelled at religion generally so seeing how Herbert used it to add to his story was really interesting.
The other theme I particularly enjoyed was the importance of water. It is a discussion that we need to have, in the real world, about the availability of clean water and trying to make sure that we don’t take it for granted. Hearing the lengths that the citizens of Arrakis like the Fremen have to go to, to get water to stay alive is shocking but totally understandable. There is debate around the ethics of water collection, the question of ownership, the waste of the rich and the question of environmental manipulation are all discussed through the story in a natural way. It did not feel preachy, rather just laid out as the reality of a dry environment.
I think my favourite character of the book was Paul’s sister Alia. She is a strange child due to an incident that occurred when she was still in the womb. Alia is brave, forthright, witty and very, very scary. I would have loved her to have been in more of the book but I am sure she will feature in other books of the series. Dune did have a male heavy character list but there were other women of note other than Alia. Jessica, Paul’s mother and Chani, a Fremen woman, are two characters of note who featured throughout the book. They are good, solid characters, not token, and they have a range of personality traits that are well developed. I am not sure if it would pass the Bechdel Test but it was great to see such prominent women characters in a sci-fi book from the 1960s.
Confession time, I didn’t really care much for Paul, the main character. I think I was more worried about all the other characters than him to be honest. That does not mean that he was not interesting but I found the others more interesting. I also found the “baddies”, the Harkonnens, a bit too easy to hate. They were bad through and through so you were from the start, rooting for the Atreides. This still made a good story and they really are bad but a little one dimensional.
Finally one thing I have to give Herbert credit for this that no characters seemed to be sacred. There were quite a few deaths, even of characters that would meet the George R.R. Martin scale. It definitely keeps things interesting and helps keep the character list manageable!
I would recommend this book for fans of sci-fi and those who are new to the genre. It is really epic and it creates a universe where a reader can really lose themselves. If that has not sold you then this might, there are giant sand worms in the desert. Great fun.
The audi-book version by Audi Renaissance is available here.
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