Let’s Read! Dune, Part One

Good news: I think I’m going to love this book, which is good since I’m going to be writing quite a lot about it over the next month. Bad news: I have to figure out how to keep my posts on it to a reasonable length; Dune is a pretty dense book, with a lot to analyze and talk about.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m breaking the book up into twelve sections of approximately forty pages each, and I’m treating each section that is headed up by an epigraph as a chapter, which is probably how I’ll refer to them even though they aren’t actually called chapters in the book. Today’s reading was pages one through forty-one in my edition of the book, which is broken up into five of these epigraph-headed chapters.

Each epigraph—seemingly all from the works of a fictional historian, Princess Irulan—introduces an idea, event, or point of view that is central to the following chapter, which is pleasant so far, though I’m somewhat concerned that the epigraphs will get tiresome as the book goes on. I’m not a huge fan of using epigraphs in this fashion in general, and I’m similarly not a fan of including lots of excerpts from fictional literature in fantasy and sci-fi. I know it’s a part of worldbuilding for some writers, and I’m sure some people love that crap, but I would be just as happy with simple chapter headings or short, evocative chapter titles instead. I’m perfectly capable of figuring out themes and stuff on my own, and these kinds of epigraphs always feel a little too much like authorial hand-holding to me. Still, it’s been a long while since I’ve read anything that uses this particular stylistic flourish, so it hasn’t worn out its welcome quite yet.

One thing that’s already notable about Dune is how dense with information Frank Herbert’s prose is. It’s really surprisingly lovely, and every page is full of wonderful descriptive language and whole treasure troves of metaphor and symbolism. It’s a science fiction novel written in the language of fantasy, with a tendency towards an almost mystical aesthetic, in spite of the book’s world being very high technology. My only complaint about the writing so far is that Herbert does seem to repeat phrases in ways that don’t seem particularly deliberate. It’s as if he just really likes certain imagery—such as the Reverend Mother’s “bird-bright eyes” which appear several times in the passages she’s part of. That said, I might not have noticed it if I wasn’t doing a sort of close reading of the text.

While there’s a ton of information packed into these first forty pages of the book, there’s actually not a lot of things actually happening. In fact, there’s essentially only a single actual event in the first five chapters: the boy Paul Atreides’s test with the Reverend Mother. The rest is character introductions, worldbuilding, and set up for the Atreides family’s imminent travel to Arrakis, which still hasn’t actually occurred yet. In a less well-written novel, this could make for a slow start, but Herbert’s style is engaging enough that he pulls off this exposition heavy beginning. I kind of wish already that I had broken the book into smaller sections to write about, but at the same time I didn’t want to stop reading when I got to the end of today’s section. I can already tell that it’s going to be hard to keep from rushing through the whole book in a single sitting.

The sheer lack of women in most of the seminal genre works by men is a major factor in my not reading much of that stuff at this point in my life. Often, if women do appear in these older works, they’re treated poorly in the narrative and written to conform to various sexist (and often downright misogynistic) ideals. It can make for boring (in the absence of women) and/or infuriating (with the presence of sexism) reading. So far, Dune looks as if it may fall into the latter category, though it’s not nearly so bad as some other books of its time period.

To start with, at least, women figure largely in Paul Atreides’s early life, though I have a sneaking suspicion that they won’t continue to appear so prominently in the story. His mother, Jessica, is a sort of nun or priestess, part of the Bene Gesserit, a school of politics and eugenics that I guess plays a large part in the administration of order in the Dune universe. Jessica was actually supposed to have a daughter who could have been married to the heir of the Atreides’s rivals, the Harkonnens, but she instead chose to give birth to a son, Paul, who she believes could be the “Kwisatz Haderach,” a sort of prophesied Chosen One. She’s raised Paul and provided him with special training in order to prepare him for the test he faces in the opening chapter. So far, Jessica is also a staunch advocate for her son, to the point where it’s even suggested that if he failed the test she might have killed herself, which about made my eyes roll right out of my head, but that’s not the most groan-worthy part of what I’ve read so far.

The second woman of importance so far is the Reverend Mother who administers a test to Paul in order to determine if he’s human or not, because apparently in the far future of Dune not all people are human. The Reverend Mother is elderly and wise, but also faintly cruel and rather sinister. Her interactions with Paul Atreides are mostly about establishing his status in the narrative (though not in the Reverend Mother’s eyes) as a Chosen One sort of character, and it also sets up what seems like a potentially adversarial relationship between Paul and the Bene Gesserit, or perhaps even between Paul and powerful women depending on how you choose to interpret all this set-up. Essentially, while the Reverend Mother is doubtful, Paul obviously totally is this Kwisatz Haderach figure of prophecy who is supposed to be the only man who can survive a Truthsayer drug, which will grant him powers that set him above all the women who currently hold some portion of similar powers as part of their Bene Gesserit training. I’m not sure how much the book is going to get into all this stuff at this rate, but gender definitely figures largely in the narrative Herbert is crafting here.

So far, Dune feels like a fairly straightforward Chosen One story, albeit heavy on politics so far. Paul Atreides isn’t a simple farm boy, but he does seem to have a grand destiny ahead of him and he’s introduced in much the same fashion as most other Gary Stu characters. He’s only fifteen, but he’s got a prophecy about him and he’s remarkably good at literally everything he’s done so far, which is a pretty good start for this sort of character. Still, it’s hard to mock Paul. So much of this early part of the book isn’t about him at all, and we spend most of our time with other characters and just learning about the Dune universe. I’d hate to pick on the protagonist this early in the book when there’s so much else going on that’s fascinating. While I’m not entirely sold on the whole prophesy thing, where Paul is supposed to be this great man who is marked, at least in part, by being better than a bunch of women at everything those women have been doing for I guess centuries, there’s a ton of other cool stuff in Dune so far.

The Harkonnen family, who I guess are supposed to be the Atreides family’s biggest social, political and business rivals, are introduced in the second chapter of the book, and they are so far much more interesting than anything Paul is up to. The Baron is a legitimately creepy dude, and the Mentat assassin Piter is sinister as hell. Even Feyd-Rautha, the Baron’s nephew/heir/lover, is an interesting sort of tertiary villain, though he isn’t particularly well-described, at least in comparison the Baron and Piter, who are both introduced at some length and have such distinct personalities that Feyd-Rautha’s relative taciturnity makes him more part of the background than anything else. The repeated descriptions of Baron Harkonnen’s fatness, greed and gluttony are perhaps very heavy-handed especially in light of modern trends towards less overtly and stereotypically negative portrayals of fatness, but the imagery of a man so fat that he uses an apparatus to prevent his having to carry his own weight is still a powerful symbol that sheds a good deal of light on what kind of man the Baron is.

The fifth chapter of Dune finally introduces us to the planet of Arrakis itself, although Paul and his family still haven’t started their journey to their new home. Instead of showing Arrakis to us right away, Herbert prepares the reader the same way Paul Atreides is prepared by his teacher, Dr. Yueh. It might seem like a bit too much telling rather than showing for modern readers, but Herbert’s descriptions of the planet’s environment, people, and GIANT FUCKING SAND WORMS are so vivid that you still kind of feel like you’re there. This type of exposition may be somewhat out of fashion, but it still gets the job done, and Dune isn’t old enough to feel truly archaic. Instead, it’s a novel that, at least in the first five chapters, feels distinctly ahead of its time.

That said, I’m ready to get to Arrakis already. I understand this is a politics-heavy novel, but there is some adventure, right?

3 thoughts on “Let’s Read! Dune, Part One”

  1. Just checking in to say I’m following along and rather looking forward to this. I think it’s about 20 years since I last read this.


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