Dune (Frank Herbert)
Dune is the story of Paul Atreides, a noble born from Caladan. When his father receives a proposal from the Emperor to govern the planet of Arrakis, Paul is forced to leave home for the first time. His destiny, along with a mantle of leadership and god like status, awaits him on the world also known as Dune. The first act in the book nicely sets up the political situation in this alternate universe, introduces us to most of the main characters, and showcases the fall of House Atreides. The manner, and fact of, Atreide's demise is told to the reader very early on. Even with the traitor being known so early, the first act manages to keep interest by showcasing some of the quirks of the desert world of Arrakis, and the Dune universe in general. I will go more in depth with the inventions and stylings of the Dune universe in the prose section of the review, but suffice to say that the awe inspiring creations within the Dune universe definitely keep an otherwise bland first act afloat. The act does end on a high note, however, as some thrilling action sequences and counter plotting foil the evil House Harkonnen's attempts at total eradication of the Atreides line.
The second act is where things start to pick up, we learn more about the Fremen culture and political workings as Paul struggles to rise to power within their ranks. Paul's visions get more vivid, and the limits of his powers are more thoroughly explored. As he and his mother journey across the desert, Arrakis is further fleshed out through vivid descriptions of the landscape, types of sand, wildlife, etc. The Fremen enter with a bang, as a truly intense standoff between Paul and the Fremen ensues because they are unsure whether to take him in. After Paul is taken in, we are shown some of the other ways in which the Fremen interact and survive in the harsh wastelands outside of Arrakis' few cities. The Fremen culture is as detailed and engaging as many of the other aspects of the book are, and learning the Fremen ways alongside Paul was a treat. Meanwhile, Baron Harkonnen's plots to eradicate the Fremen and usurp the Emperor provide more political intrigue, and serve as a welcome break from the Fremen wastelands. The act ends after Paul has silenced the doubters of the tribe by defeating Jamis, the most Fremen most cynical to Paul's potential, in a duel to the death.
Act three skips ahead two years, and there are some strange omissions where detail is concerned. Not only have we skipped ahead two years, but Paul and his Fremen lover, Chani, now have a son, and the Fremen are now poised to take over all of Arrakis. The act starts off great, Paul finally masters riding a sandworm, and we learn of a new political roadblock that Paul must navigate. Paul's supporters are waiting for him to defeat Stilgar, the current Fremen leader, in order for Paul to ascend to the top of the Fremen hierarchy. However Paul decides to take a less conventional approach to solve this problem. Tension builds from there as the Emperor, Baron Harkonnen, and several legions of Sardukar and Harkonnen troops land on Arrakis. Unfortunately, the epic conclusion falls somewhat flat. Baron Harkonnen is killed by a two year old girl, and Paul's son is killed when the Harkonnen infiltrate a Fremen encampment, rendering his role in the story absolutely pointless. Also, the final battle between the Fremen and Harkonnen is given almost no coverage, a great disappointment considering how well the rest of the book fared in action sequences. Though the duel between Paul and the Harkonnen heir, Feyd-Rautha, and subsequent usurping of the Emperor, is well written and a fitting finale for this book.
Overall Dune's rather complex plot builds to a conclusion that just feels incomplete, not only do some things seem to be glazed over, but there are also several plot lines that are left open for the next book.
Dune's characterization focuses mainly on three characters, Paul, Jessica, and Baron Harkonnen. Paul is unusually cold and aloof for a protagonist, yet he still demonstrates excellent charisma and insights. He mostly focuses on what he can do to better the Fremen's position whilst avoiding the galactic jihad that he has seen in his visions. His romance with Chani seems like nothing more than a way to get integrated in Fremen culture at first, but they develop nicely over the course of the book's second half. Overall a very unconventional protagonist, but also a like able one, Paul doesn't whine or complain, he simply tries to avert his destiny and prevent the Fremen from committing mass genocide. Jessica, his mother, is in an interesting position. Part of a secret society of witches, Jessica disobeyed her orders when she conceived a son, and as such changed the course of history. Her emotions as she watches Paul develop traits of the kwisatz haderach add dimension to her character. She must grapple with her fear of Paul's burgeoning powers, while still attempting to love and support her son. She is both an unusually strong and pitifully subservient character, as is Chani. While both are trained warriors and more than adept at surviving in the harsh wastelands of Arrakis, neither of them do much besides tend to the home while Paul is away freeing Arrakis from Harkonnen rule. The lack of strong female characters does hinder the novel's enjoyment a bit, Jessica is a very complex character, but not a very strong one.
Harkonnen is another character that we learn much about through the course of the novel. He is nothing more than the embodiment of evil, and definitely an above average villain in terms of cunning and brutality. Though he isn't overly complex, he is characterized very effectively and is a perfect foil for Paul and his companions. Among the secondary characters, Alia, Jessica's two year old daughter with a very old mind created through Fremen ritual, and Gurney Halleck, one of Paul's teachers and a minstrel-warrior, were the standouts. Dr. Yueh, the traitor from the early part of the book, was also a highly sympathetic character; coerced by the Harkonnens to participate in the plot in exchange for the return of his wife, Yueh nevertheless manages to save Paul and Jessica, and nearly kill the Baron despite being in such an impossible position. The Fremen characters are not really explored much, and Paul's son was completely unnecessary for the purposes of this story, but overall fantastic characterization with plenty of memorable characters.
While Frank Herbert may not be the most incredible word smith out there, Dune's technology, ecology, political climate, and philosophy are absolutely engrossing. Inventions such as Fremen stillsuits that reclaim moisture from the body, crysknifes, suspensors, glowglobes, etc help add depth and a more lifelike feel to the world. There is also an interesting lack of laser weaponry and space battles for a sci-fi novel. Dune's universe has energy shields which reflects anything trying to penetrate it above a certain speed, forcing the majority of the combat in Dune to be done through swordfighting or hand to hand. The Spacing Guild owns a monopoly on all spacefaring vessels, and as such two genre cliches are completely removed from Dune's story.
The ecology of Dune is also very interesting, centered around the iconic sandworms, Arrakis is a valued planet because it is the only known producer of melange. Melange is vital to processes throughout the universe, the least of which is space travel (navigators use the spice to gain a future sense in order to plot routes through the universe). There is almost no water on Arrakis, because the sandworms are poisoned by it, and they are essential to the creation of the spice. As such plant and animal life is sparse, but existent. The ecology overall is very logical, and the depth of its development is a further positive in my enjoyment of this novel. Philosophy in Dune concerns a few things, religion, the nature of the human race, power, ecology, evolution, fear. While most of the philosophizing is somewhat grim and depressing, or at least cynical, there are some really poignant and insightful passages nonetheless.
Dune is a flawed novel, make no mistake, but the exacting detail placed on the setting, and a handful of captivating characters, along with some great fight scenes and vivid imagery, earn it a strong reccomendation.