Dune, by Frank Herbert, is one of the most important and influential science fiction books of the 20th Century. Frequently referred to as Science Fiction’s answer to Tolkien, the book (and subsequent series) has remarkable world building, but if you ask me, it is the story structure that really sets this book apart. In brief, Dune is the story of Paul “Maud’dib” Atreides, and his journey from being the fifteen year old boy heir to a Duchy, to becoming that prophet that could bring humanity into a new era. Though it has a slow beginning, is frequently dense and has a dizzying change of perspective throughout, this is a truly remarkable book that is likely to be enjoyed by anyone who gives it a chance.
Set in an anti-singularity far future devoid of any sentient aliens, and where ‘thinking machines’ (i.e. AI’s or even just normal computers) have been banned. Instead society focuses upon increasing the mental capacity of the human mind. Faster-than-light travel is possible through the use of humans known as ‘Navigators’ who are trained to see and predict possible futures, with some mind biochemical enhancing help. Society is run through a feudal imperial system with quasi-religious orders who attempt to manipulate both politics and the development of humanity as a whole.
The bulk of the story takes place on the desert planet Arrakis, known also as Dune, which is the sole source of the life-prolonging and mind enhancing drug known as ‘Spice.‘ Spice is the single most valuable commodity in the universe, except on Arrakis, where it is everywhere but access to water rules.
There is a reason I decided to present this review just before the release of my book: in hind sight, Frank Herbert’s Dune is probably the one novel that most significantly influenced my writing. Oh, don’t get me wrong, plot-wise and world-wise, there is almost nothing in common between my work and that of Herbert, but the dark, manipulative backdrop of this book, along with the nebulous morality and shades of grey portrayed had a truly deep influence on my view of fiction as a whole; deeper indeed, than I realized until my recent re-read. But enough about me…
Dune is the story of Paul “Maud’dib” Atreides, the only son of Duke Leto Atreides and his Bene Gesserit consort, the Lady Jessica. Though Paul doesn’t know it, he is the end product of generations of breeding designed to bring about a prophet that can predict and manipulate the future. Only, Paul has come too soon, and the powers-that-be are conspiring against him.
The tale opens with Paul’s family being forced to move from their water-rich planet of Caladan to extreme desert world of Arrakis (the titular Dune), sole source of the mind altering drug known as the Spice; a drug that allows humanity to travel the stars, and predict possible futures. While throughout the rest of the Empire Spice is the rarest and most valuable commodity known, on Arrakis it is in the very air they breath and it is water whose value is set above all else. What is more, the source of the Spice is shrouded in mystery, but the answers seem to be known by some including, perhaps, the dangerous and warlike indigenous nomads known as the Fremen. Oh yes, Dune is also home to giant sandworms that roam the desert, destroying all in their path.
From the get-go, the readers and even the Duke know that the transfer of Arrakis to the House Atreides is a trap. Duke Leto is too popular, so the Emperor has conspired with the Harkonnens, the Atreides family’s mortal enemies, to put Leto into this position of apparent power and, through a long series of betrayals rid himself of a potential rival. Unfortunately for the Atreides family, there is nothing they can do to avoid it. All they can do is try to set themselves up in a manner that turns the trap back on those who set it. So it is that a tale of deep politics and double crossing sets the stage. As the story unfolds, events move forward and possible futures become solidified into a tidal wave of predestiny, and this is what makes Dune a truly remarkable tale.
Forget for a moment, the incredibly imaginative world that Herbert created with giant sandworms, Bene Gesserit and Mentats. Forget, for a moment, the incredibly complex political and cultural background Herbert invented. What truly makes this book stand out is the form and structure in which it is written.
Right from the beginning, we know exactly what is going to happen. We see into the minds of every character of importance throughout the tale, including the truly evil Harkonnens and the traitor in the Atreides camp. We see exactly what is planned and how it is supposed to happen. What is more, each chapter begins with little quotes that spell out the events of the subsequent chapter and tell you, quite literally, how the book will end, and yet despite this inherent predictive spoilerific nature of the narrative, the further into the story you get, the more drawn into the tale you are.
Why? In part because of the byzantine nature of the tale, in part because there are giant frickin’ sandworms, but also because the manner in which it is told puts you into a perspective that one could not otherwise associate with. It makes the reader as much of a prophet interpreting the future as Paul Maud’dib is in the story. For this is a book on rails that still keeps one turning the pages as we discover ways in which Paul can, and cannot alter his destiny.
Indeed, that brings us to one of the most fascinating elements of Dune; how Herbert manages to create a world in which prophetic visions of the future do not necessarily seem magical. Indeed, many of the mystic elements that haunt the edges of this story come off instead as almost scientific. In Dune prescience is not (necessarily) the seeing of what will happen, but rather mental calculation of things that could happen – a hyper-analytical calculation of possibilities that show probably paths and how singular choices could influence them. To that end, the story walks a razor’s edge between a mystic prophecy and a cynical religious manipulation.
To that end, even the manner in which the story is told is an integral part of the story itself. Thus I gave this book an Alpha rating, but beyond this literary tool, Dune is also just a very good read. It is a story of religious jihad and political manipulation, of scientific prophecies, of personal struggle and the needs of a species. It is an enticing tale that blends personal character arcs with grandiose story arcs… assuming, of course, you can wade through the beginning which many see as pretty dense.
Yet, there is a reason for that 150 page or so set up. After all, the tale that is told in this is one of the most complex story’s I’ve seen, and there is a great deal one must know before the adventure begins in earnest. So stick with it and I suspect you will see that nothing in this story is a throw away – every bit comes into play later in the tale, and the ending is as exciting as any one can imagine.
And there are giant friggin’ sandworms…
Notes about the Audio Edition:
This 2007 MacMillan Audio release of the Audio Renascence unabridged version of Dune is one of the most bizarre mashups of audiobook and audiodramas I have ever come across. Yet despite this, it works really really well.
The bulk of this audiobook/drama is a simple narration by the very talented Simon Vance. On this level, the narration is straight forward and works perfectly well. What is unique in this recording, however, is that there are parts that are also performed by other actors, each of whom takes the part of a given character or role. These include John Arlein, Scott Brick, Kent Broadhurst, Allan Burroughs, Orlagh Cassidy, Euan Morton, Jason Culp, Jamie Heinlein, David R. Gordon, Byron Jennings, Ilyana Kadushan, Scott Sours, Oliver Wymon, and Patricia Kilgarriff.
Normally, this sort of mashup fails miserably, but in the case of Dune it worked extremely well. Of particular note was the reading done by whoever played Baron Harkonnen. The actor’s deep base voice and the way in which he read the part brought a depth and life to a character that in the book always seemed a bit too much of a villainous caricature. Here, however, the Baron came to life and I began to at least understand how people might follow him. Other actors also did extremely well, and somehow, despite the fact that Simon Vance read some parts and actors read others, it all came together more or less seamlessly.
I would highly recommend this version of the book, particularly if you are the kind of reader that might feel a bit bogged down by the large amount of set up that dominate the first 150 or so pages of the book. For me, set up is lovely, but I do understand how readers can get a bit “GET-ON-WITH-IT” So, if that’s you, listen to this.
Note: The original text of this article accidentally used Jack Vance’s (famous author) name rather than Simon Vance (famous actor) name, when discussing the wonderful job that Simon did in narrating this piece. To that end, I have corrected this mistake in the text, but left Simon’s very kind comments.
Additionally, I want to note an apology to Simon Vance, whose talent and hard work deserved better than to get his name wrong.
For more about and from Simon, go to http://simonvance.com/, which is an interesting site for its own sake.
 Artificial Intelligences, for those who are less familiar with Sci Fi jingo.
 An aesthetic, quasi-religious/quasi-scientific order of women who are trained in mental and physical prowess to a degree that they can perform remarkable martial arts, control the sex of their children, and use the ‘Voice’: a way of speaking that forces the listener to do their bidding.
 This is all set up in the opening chapters. So no, no spoilers here.
 Men who have been mentally trained to be human-computers, capable of performing mental calculations better and faster than any so called thinking machine
 In fact, this is done in a manner that at times can be distracting, for we switch perspective in this book more quickly than one can always keep up with. We can be reading full force from the point-of-view of one character and switch without warning to the POV of another character in the very next line. Thematically, this does match the form of the story, but practically speaking, it adds to the already dense nature of the book.
 No, this is not a spoiler. We are told this in Chapter 2 (pp. 19-26) who the traitor is and have it repeated throughout the book right up to the point where the treachery occurs.
 And indeed, as far as I know, this is the book and the author that introduced the concept of giant sandworms, so fans of Tremors and similar tales, come see how it started.
 Indeed, the preambles to each chapter are often criticized as unnecessary and distracting, but here I disagree. They really do help one to empathize with the central protagonist in a manner one could not otherwise do.
 Oh, don’t get me wrong, the science doesn’t really hold up to close examination, but it is no worse than say FTL travel or transporters or other tricks of the Sci-Fi Trade.
 Please forgive the fact that some of these names may be misspelled or completely miswritten, but the only full cast list I could find was in the recording itself, and so had to be transcribed from Simon Vance’s reading of it.
 For example, see my review of the audiobook of Airborn by Kenneth Oppal, though admittedly that fails in part because it is a first person narrative that suddenly has other peoples voices appearing.
 No roles are listed in the credits, so if anyone can provide me with a list of who played who, I’d be delighted to post it here.
- Dune: A Little Reflection (laurylgaumer.wordpress.com)
- 5 Essential Frank Herbert Novels That Aren’t About Dune (io9.com)
- Creating New Worlds: Frank Herbert’s Dune (synkroniciti.com)
- The Winds of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (robobonobo.wordpress.com)
- David Lynch and Sand Dunes, or, Odd but kind of wonderful (thepageboywrites.com)
- Dune 2 RTS Now Available for Internet Browsers (escapistmagazine.com)
- HTML5 port puts ‘Dune II’ in your browser (theverge.com)