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Frank Herbert: Dune
– March 26, 2021
I believe this is the third time I have read it. It has been a good long time since the last, though. And the reading was curiously tinged by my fragmentary memory of the earlier readings and of the Lynch film. (I don't believe I saw any of the miniseries.) It made for interesting interplay.
Dune is one of those books that devotees of imaginative fiction hold up as being literature. But it is not so much, really. The writing is competent but it never rises to the exceptional. And the book is mostly narrative. There is very little depth. Indeed, in reading it I would often note how Herbert was passing up opportunities to develop depth. Brian Herbert, in the afterward to the most recent edition (the one I read) speaks of people finding various readings in it — religious, ecological. But as I point out with my review of Lord of the Rings, it is often the case that the reason people are able to find "readings" only inversely has to do with the book. That is, the book is shallow enough that people are readily able to bring readings into the book that do not actually exist therein. That, I believe, is very much the case here. There is, for example, no great ecological statements being made here, however the claims.
The plot also has its difficulties. The entire takeover of Arrakis by the Harkonnens occurs between chapters. That seems to me rather a problem in the writing. It does not speak of a clever technical maneuver, it speaks that Herbert could not figure out how to do it. Same with Paul's descent into the visions of the Water of Life, which is to me a huge error in the writing. That should have been a major part of the book. The book opens on the idea. Instead it speaks that Herbert simply did not engage the spiritual aspects of the story as a whole as he could have. When Jessica takes the Water of Life, the journey is not visionary, it is told in terms of biochemistry. The spiritual aspct is wholly pushed aside. Which made me look back and say, "Well, maybe the original scene with the gom-jabbar wasn't as spiritual as I thought. It was entirely political." I do not think that that is what Herbert was aiming for. But Herbert was committed to writing science fiction; and, perhaps, too limited by that conviction. Or, simply, limited in ability. Not giving Paul's journey is a major error.
One more example, a big one, is the final scene of everbody gathered together in one room. Perhaps acceptable in terms of the negotiation of peace between Paul and the Emperor. (I should note that the telling of the reclaiming of Arrakis was awfully quick as well.) But when Paul and Feyd-Rautha had a knife fight in the middle of it the scene fell into the comedic. It was almost as thought Herbert could think of no other way to get rid of that character.
What Dune is, what it can be praised for, is that it is an imaginative book. The first of its kind, says the publishing history offered by Brian Herbert in the afterward. It is "creative" in the sense of the phrase "creative writing." But it is a false conclusion to step from that to saying Dune is literature. It is not. It it a mundane book, with writing that meets the needs but rarely rises higher than that, and hardly any symbolic resonance at all. Which is an important point to make. A book can be creative — can be really creative — without it being literature. And people are willing to praise contemporary imaginative fiction because of that trait. But keep in mind, just because it is creative, does not mean it is not also pulp.
Still, as fun a read as the first time I read it. (And, yes, I am eager for the film to come out.)