The cover from my 1984 paperback edition
My wife asked for a book recommendation last fall, and I gave her my paperback copy of Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction novel, first published in 1965. She laid it on an end table, where it remained undisturbed for a week, long enough for me to decide it was time to read the book again before seeing the new movie adaptation.
It’s a marvelously complex text — I remember feeling overwhelmed on first reading it several decades ago, in a pre-Wikipedia era where reference guides weren’t readily available. Numerous characters, so many factions, references to centuries of history, technology both futuristic and otherworldly, healthy discourses on science, religion, psychology, and interstellar politics… there’s a lot going on in this novel. It’s not an easy read, and for that reason I consider it the science fiction equivalent to James Joyce’s Ulysses. On the fantasy side, the award goes to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
How does the novel work? Why has it inspired five sequels by the original author, a dozen or so sequels and prequels by other authors, a renowned televised miniseries, and now a second film? I think the novel continues to appeal because for all its complexity, there’s a very simple story that grounds the reader. The journey of Paul Atreides is a typical bildungsroman, featuring a young man who is at times entirely likable and at other times fully terrifying. He’s an unforgettable character, and his development is the reader’s guide through all the complexity.
On this second reading I noticed a distinctive feature, one which would probably be flagged by this era’s editors and writing handbooks and fiction workshop leaders. Never change character perspective, within a story or novel chapter — I’ve seen this “rule” against what’s often called head hopping invoked numerous times. But in “Dune,” Herbert routinely goes into the heads of several characters within a chapter, sometimes even in a single paragraph. It happens so often that I now refer to the author as Hopalong Herbert. The lesson here, I believe, is that good writing isn’t about following rules.
My wife did eventually start reading the novel and had a similar reaction to mine on my initial trek through this fascinating yet intimidating work. I advised having Wikipedia open on her phone while she read, but she couldn’t work up the interest to go beyond the first 20 pages. I can’t blame her — reading should be a challenge, but when it seems too much like work then there’s probably better things you should be doing. She is interested in seeing the new film when it becomes available on one of our streaming services, so its entirely possible she could become as intrigued by this story as I was when I decided to give the work another shot.