I just finished reading Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune trilogy. Hailed by many as the definitive piece of science fiction, the Lord of the Rings of sci fi, the trilogy certainly has its merits. The first book, Dune, is indeed one of the most amazing science fiction books I’ve ever read.
Dune is also, I think, one of the smartest books I’ve ever read, and that, I guess, is a lot to say, considering I have read through quite a few smart books before. Dune is also easily the most underlined fictitious book I have ever read. I simply cannot read non-fiction without a pen in my hand, but with fiction I usually only pick up a quote or two. With Dune, I underlined and marked the book like it would have been a cutting-edge study on the philosophy of the mind, or something.
The first book is laden with a depth of ideas and history that is quite impressive. Like in any great book, what is not been said here is as important as what has been. The reader is baffled about this world tens of thousands of years in the future, powered with middle-ageish intrigue and a strange substance called the spice melange. It is, as great sci fi should, outright alien – and yet hauntingly familiar. The first book offers a deep, philosophical and pondering story arc that is without a doubt one of the most significant pieces of science fiction ever written.
Then the story goes on.
And what made Dune so intriguing and compelling is, all of a sudden, violently laid explicit right in front of your eyes. While with the first book, the nature of such concepts as the Guild Navigators or the Butlerian Jihad are only hinted at in the subtext, the subsequent two spare no punches. And here, I think, the Dune series pales in comparison to the Lord of the Rings. Reading the two sequels, I felt more like reading the Silmarillion than the Two Towers or the Return of the King: a mind-numbing exposition of a vast stunt of imagination, but with no human dimension to keep things interesting.
In Dune Messiah, the main character is given a hauntingly accurate prescient capability, to the extent of rendering any and all plot events completely vacant. If your main character knows already what is about to happen, what is there for the reader to get excited about? It’s like watching a film with a friend going “I told you so” every five or so minutes. Add to this the stony exposition and the wooden dialogue of the second book, it makes for a really heavy reading recommendable only to such people whose own imaginations fail to fill in the delicious blanks in the first book. As a cherry on top, while Herbert certainly had great vision, he is no Shakespeare. To this end, it is occasionally painful to see how much this second installment of the series aspires to be something like a classical Shakespearean king play.
The last book of the trilogy, Children of the Dune, certainly has its moments. The main characters, Leto II and Ghanima – little children with the history of the human kind in their heads – are quite interesting, and fortunately enough Herbert understood to steer clear of most of the prescience here. At moments, the third book does hold the promise of returning to the same kind of amazement as the first one. Certainly, here too there was much worth underlining. But here also, about half of the text could have easily been cut away.
Ernest Hemingway said that a great writer can leave much of what he wants to say unsaid. The magnificence of a great text is like an iceberg, where nine parts out of ten are submerged under water. In the first installment of the Dune series, the iceberg sails magnificently. In the second two, while still impressive, it has been lifted on deck to dry.
I think books are about imagination. And I think they are as much about the imagination of the reader as they are of the writer. If everything is laid down in plain sight, there is no much work left for the reader. In this sense, it is too bad that in his two sequels, Herbert failed to deliver what was one of the repeating motifs in his books: the feint within a feint within a feint. The first Dune was like a ballet or an elaborate fencing match, with hidden layers behind hidden layers. The two others were like a punch in the face.
But it is an interesting universe, nonetheless, what with all the intriguing aspects of technology being shunned in a space-faring culture; the logical mentats and the intuitive Bene Gesserits; the Shakespearean intrigue of the royal houses; the space-faring mercenaries who remained delightfully neutral to all the intrigue and the events that took place; and Dune itself: a hugely imaginative Saharan culture blown to planet-wide proportions where massive worms rule the sands and produce what is a combination of oil and cocaine for the future.
In terms of world-building, Herbert certainly compares to the likes of Tolkien or Asimov. In terms of story, it was a bumpy ride.
That being said, Dune itself was still one of the most amazing science fiction books I’ve ever read.
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