not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
this post was originally published on my Goodreads account.
I’ve got a weakness for books that obviously had a lot of thought put into the creation of their world- basically any book with an appendix, map, and at least two made-up languages is likely to get an extra star- so I am fine with forgiving Dune its smaller faults in consideration of its obvious ambition. Putting aside all my smaller quibbles, this is a stunning work of imagination- Herbert created an epic story of rebellion and war that required him to create the ecosystem and culture of an entire planet, a 10,000-year-old galactic empire with intricate political machinations and religious factions. This could all be deadly boring if it didn’t contain so many details that were enjoyably insane- the millenia-long cult of psychic women secretly imposing a eugenics program on galactic royalty, the alien culture structured around the conservation of water, the rock-paper-scissors military strategy of blasters vs. shields vs. swords, the casual mention of an AI rebellion 10,000 years in the past, the prison planets that double as military recruitment facilities, the obese man who uses antigravity devices to move more easily… the spice! The worms! The water of life! There is enough incident in this book to fill three books, and enough ideas to create a long-running series, which is more or less what happened.
The superabundance of things that appeal to those parts of me still in touch with my childhood (this book definitely goes on the “books I wish I had read when I was 12” list) makes up for the persistent feeling that the world doesn’t quite hold together, that Herbert can’t quite balance the needs of explaining his world with the needs of advancing his story. One example: a faction invades a planet, something the reader and most of the characters have been expecting for the entire book. But the protagonists are all shocked and unprepared, and only after the rebellion do we find out why- the force was bigger than they expected, because the costs of transporting such a large force was larger than the profits the faction could have anticipated from its invasion, because all space transport is arranged through a single monopolistic group with a vested interest in keeping the planet unoccupied. There’s probably no way to make that information dump elegant, but to give it to the reader after the events that make it important is doubly awkward (and worse, feels like cheating). Important characters are killed in between chapters almost as an aside, main characters tend not to arrive at important conclusions until the moment the plot requires them to. Some stuff gets too repetitive, like the book describing how Paul Atreides uses his heightened perceptions to infer additional information every time he enters a room, which I started highlighting for my amusement about halfway through.
And then there are the politically problematic elements – the sexist undertones of the Kwisatz Haderach (“We look down so many avenues of the past- but only feminine avenues…He will look where we cannot- into both feminine and masculine pasts”), the imperialist undertones of the Muad’Dib business – which coexist awkwardly with the novel’s celebrated environmentalism and progressive views of religion and ritual. And holy hell does Jessica get short shrift by the novel’s end. But these are venial sins at best, and seem to be the result of Herbert questioning and working through his own ideas as he writes them, rather than deciding them beforehand and schematically delivering them on the page like, say, Ayn Rand (or Daniel Quinn, to be centrist about it). Dune feels like a personal expression and self-examination written as a pan-galactic space opera, and it’s the novel’s idiosyncrasies and grace notes that stick firmest in the memory afterwards.