Reading the original Dune novel


With the second part of the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune now with us, I have been re-reading the book and oddly I’ve done it in two parts. I’d hoped to finish it in 2021 to post just before the first film was released but circumstances meant I had to stop half way. So, in a way that paralleled the film this year I’ve finished the book and completed this post before the second film! It’s a hefty tome as you might imagine and despite the reach of the movies there is still some material left out though this is not one of those book versus film comparison articles. Rather I wanted to re-live the novel itself.

When I was a teenager, I read Dune more than once amongst several keynote science fiction novels that interested me back then. Now that the new film version was finally arriving in cinemas, I thought I’d dig it out of the sand and give it another read. It’s a big commitment for me as I rarely get time to read anything more than short articles online or in a magazine but a commitment I wanted to make. Wonderfully I read the same copy I had all those decades ago. Nothing else remains from those days as I’ve never been a collector (though given the prices some old stuff now goes for perhaps that was a foolish way to move on) but somehow this book- and its sequel Dune Messiah- were never thrown away. I suppose that says something about them.

It runs for 456 pages in all, excluding several appendices detailing background on the planet Arrakis and the terminology of the Imperium, themselves fascinating. I wouldn’t really look at them before you read the book however as they give away plot points and even the birth and death dates of significant characters. I suppose if you’re a skim reader they’re an ideal cheat though they will not provide you with the meat of the story. Frank Herbert is a writer who likes different languages, the etymology he brings into play echoes several countries not least Middle Eastern terminology. Anyone reading will have their own pronunciation going on in their head! It begins simply enough, The Atre ides house, one of many making up the Imperium are to take their turn holding the desolate desert planet Arrakis in “quasi-fief” replacing sworn enemies the Harkonnen’s. The advantage? They get to mine the ultra-valuable spice called melange. The disadvantages? Well, it’s a horrible place and the Harkonnens may have left traps.

Before leaving fifteen-year-old Paul must undergo a test called the Gom Jabbar, described in Herbert’s appendix as “a poison needle tipped with meta cyanide” “used by Bene Gesseritt proctors in the death alternative test of human awareness.” Or, in Paul’s case, you put your hand in a box that appears to burn it to a crisp but actually it’s an illusion albeit a mighty powerful one. This scene is where the oft hash tagged phrase “fear is the mind killer” comes from. He is also surprised by a sudden `attack` from one of his father’s most loyal officers gurney Halleck emphasising the dangers he is heading into. Herbert spreads these ominous portents amidst quotes from holy texts.

As you can tell It takes a while to get used to the rhythm of the storytelling especially as it weaves in and out of several character’s thoughts often about the other person in a conversation. Yet this soon turns out to be a valuable tool enabling an easier understanding of the culture and traditions of the world we’re delving into. It’s also an effective way of creating tension in what might otherwise be a lot of conversations filled with exposition. This is particularly appliable to Doctor Yueh whose dilemma creates a more sympathetic character than you initially take him for. There’s a riveting conversation between the man who has been Paul’s teacher and Lady Jessica (Paul’s mother) in which the doctor’s guilt is like a tide he is trying to stop but he can’t. “That, at least, was truth” he thinks more than once when he can be honest.

Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert is excellent with what brief but informative descriptive passages. Where someone like Charles Dickens for example (and I say this as a Dickens fan) will take paragraphs to describe every nook and cranny or every defining facial feature, Herbert prefers economy so we don’t read about the journey to Arrakis, instead Herbert offers a sentence about lady Jessica’s luggage and mentions “shadowed carvings,” “deeply recessed windows” and “arched ceilings.” It’s enough to paint a vivid picture. The value of water on such a stark planet is also emphasised. Paul is soon in danger from an attempt to kill him with a Hunter- Seeker, a remote-controlled piece of metal designed to kill. We also start to learn about Arrakis’ mysteries- of Fremen who have totally blue eyes due to their intake of melange and enormous sandworms.

The next segment sees Herbert focussing on the different approach House Atreides takes to Arrakis. We are privy to Duke Leto’s doubts about people surrounding him even Jessica. This causes him to act subtly in trying to make friends amongst the inhabitants so we see him waving away lapses of expected protocol, banning a tradition involving the waste of water and most significantly placing the safe rescue of workers on a Sandcrawler above saving the spice they’ve mined even risking his own life to help save them. “I like this duke” thinks Kynes, the Fremen who oversees overseeing the changes and is initially suspicious. Paul meanwhile seems unnaturally accustomed to the place with his training and perhaps something more enabling him to read situations accurately. A telling scene occurs when Kynes comments on how easily he has donned a stillsuit even though he’d never worn one before,

Frank Herbert is clearly not writing for children so he avoids going into a lot of detail when it comes to action segments thus when an actual sandworm enters the story for the first time it is barely described. The Harkonnen takeover a little later is presented afterwards as characters react to the fact that it has already happened. On the other hand, he enjoys the detail of character interaction. A lengthy sequence in the evening before the Harkonnens return is devoted to a dinner which is packed with underlying tension as small talk frequently threatens to become cause of argument. He shows the event from multiple perspectives, each betraying certain aspects of that person’s intent. You wouldn’t imagine this might be riveting yet it is.

The novel turns on a penny soon afterwards- the reader will have sensed the tension of a potential Harkonnen move and after tricking the reader- and Jessica- into thinking it might be happening (the culprit is a drunken Idaho) we come to a pivotal set of events in which several prominent characters are killed. I can’t remember off hand a novel which dispatches so many key people in a relatively short number of pages but Yeuh’s treachery is exposed though he has a final trick to try and kill Harkonnen. The Baron himself puts in an appearance – as originated I’d say the TV miniseries was a more accurate portrayal than the slightly over the top David lynch version. He’s a difficult villain for these times of course because being and I do feel Herbert avoids analysing him with the same forensic detail he affords Paul or Jessica or several others.

As we approach page 200 Jessica and Paul are in the desert having escaped the Harkonnen purge with some help and the story begins to move into Paul’s transformation. He becomes increasingly aware of everything as his power grows and there’s quite a sustained period where the novel becomes a survival one. Their efforts to survive in the desert bring out the more descriptive side of Frank Herbert’s writing though he’s not one to leap beyond the ordinariness of description so however vividly this is portrayed on the page it does become a bit repetitive. I’m not a fan of survival fiction in any case so this was probably always the part of the novel I found heaviest going. One episode that describes in some detail how they retrieve their supplies making me want to skip pages or at least skim read. However, there is no doubting the omnipresence of the sandworms who are mostly depicted as shifting crests of sand rather than bursting out. It adds tension to proceedings,

The interaction with the Fremen comes in an extended sequence where Jessica and Paul are spotted in the rocks and meet Stilgar. Here the novel is able to give more nuance to their meeting than a film, with Herbert’s love of italicised asides showing the shifting way the Fremen leader and Jessica view each other. Rather than go into the combat that climaxes the first film the duo first travel to the `stietch`, described ad `a meeting place in times of danger`. Travelling by night it is only when they’re here that one of the Fremen challenges Paul while Stilgar contemplates potential marriage to Jessica. The way the author delves into character’s thoughts creates such an unusual rhythm to the text. Chani is introduced in person at this point too, her job to train Paul in the ways of the tribe. The fight between Paul and Jamiis presents over four pages like a strategic plan with echoes of Paul’s training frequently revisited.

One lighter touch is that Muad’Dib  which Paul choses as his Fremen name is also the name of a jumping mouse The Fremen’s ambitions are also revealed to gradually change the climate cap  - they show Paul a large water pool in a cavern and tell him they have thousands of these dotted around. Jessica’s transformation into Reverand Mother is described across several pages as a mystical yet primal experience where Herbert’s use of different character’s perspective works really well. Its tense too because the reader doesn’t know quite what will occur

As the novel reaches its conclusion Herbert brings everything together with skill with both a large battle and a one-on-one battle. The Baron’s comeuppance is a brief as it is final and were glad to see the back of him. His misdeeds are described in some detail by the author throughout the story and will shock those who only know the story from the films. In one example he has someone killed for being a bad chess player. As matters draw towards the climax, we also see examples of Paul’s so called time vision which enables him to see possible futures.

I’d say this is not a novel even for everyone who’s enjoyed the films and I did find it heavy going and, as you can see from above, a difficult mass to review especially as its taken months to finish. From my perspective now it’s not the amazing book I once thought it was but that’s more about me than Frank Herbert who has certainly created a timeless world.



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