The Trials of Dune
Note: The following review of the Dune book series was originally published at http://gleamingsword.blogspot.com on February 21, 2014. As the new film adaptation of Dune by director Denis Villeneuve finally approaches release in October this year, I’m reposting this piece here with a few changes. **There are spoilers ahead.**
I just finished Sandworms of Dune, the eighth and final book in the Dune series as envisioned by Frank Herbert and finished by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, so it seems like a good time to take a look back at the series and offer a review of sorts.
I started reading the series about 15 years ago, but my first encounter with Dune goes back nearly 30 years to 1984, when I had just turned 11 and my dad took me to the theater to see the movie Dune. I had a Mr. Pibb from the vending machine because that was the Golden Age, but we both went home feeling sick and spent much of the night throwing up. Bad popcorn, I guess.
Based on the first novel by Frank Herbert, Dune is about power struggles surrounding the desert planet Arrakis, home of giant worms that produce a mind-enhancing substance known as the spice melange, the most precious commodity in the universe.
The movie was too dark and weird for my dad, but even as an adolescent, dark and weird was my thing. In the years ahead, I would often rent Dune on VHS, exploring the intricacies of the plot, memorizing the lines, falling into Sean Young’s eyes, and eventually coming to appreciate the hand of David Lynch — quirky but effective casting, surreal dream sequences and rich atmospheres.
When I began reading the novels, I could clearly imagine Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, Everett McGill’s deep voice saying Stilgar’s dialogue, and the sandworms rising up and swallowing swaths of desert. Dune is one of the most distinctive sci-fi creations that I know of and one rich with analogies to the political, military, religious, economic and environmental complexities of our own world. Many were not as excited about the film as I was, but few who bother to read the book come away disappointed.
However, the book was not a total success with me. While the first half is a plunge into a strange world with wonderful beasts, rich characters, foreign cultures, battles, love affairs and a strange mechanics of power, the second half is talky, with little happening for chapter after chapter until the final battle. The climax is big and changes the Dune universe epically, but I got the sense Herbert knew where he wanted to go, just not an interesting way to get there.
I read Books 2 through 5 back-to-back sometime around 2000, and unfortunately, more of the first book’s weaknesses than strengths pervaded the series. I sensed that Herbert had a big idea around which to base each book but no idea how to portray the events leading up to and stemming from that idea. Instead, you get entire conversations of cryptic philosophical statements that a Zen master somewhere might understand and chapter upon chapter of internal monologue hinting at the wheels within wheels of the characters’ political machinations.
When an actual event happens, it’s often between books or off-screen, as it were, so you don’t get to read it. I believe it was Heretics of Dune (Book 5) that spent hundreds of pages working up to a major battle, and just when I thought it could be forestalled no longer, I turned the page to find the characters reminiscing about the big battle. Yes, it had occurred in between chapters.
I put Heretics of Dune down in disgust.
Roughly a decade later, I decided I should at least finish the original series. I read most of Chapterhouse: Dune (Book 6) while waiting for my wife at the hospital while she had tests done in the last month of pregnancy with our son. By that time, a lot more had gone wrong with the series. Dead was the rich cast of characters, cold was the human interaction, disappeared were the sandworms and the planet Dune itself! (First, it was terraformed into a green planet and then it was cooked to a cinder by weapons called Obliterators.)
Instead, we have an author grasping for new ideas that turn out to be all too like the old ones, only kitschy recreations. When Miles Teg suddenly gains the ability to move really, really fast, it just doesn’t impress like Paul’s god-like prescience. When we’ve had Bene Gesserits in their forbidding black robes and ability to mentally control their own biological processes on a cellular level, Honored Matres who wear red leotards and kill people with really, really intense sex are just tacky.
And yet, the original idea of Dune is so good that it’s hard to stay away.
When I heard that Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson were writing new Dune books, I was skeptical but intrigued. So far, they have written two sequels, two trilogies of prequels, and a number of interquels that appears to be growing even as I type these words. There’s an online ticker and every few minutes a bell rings indicating the addition of a new volume to the series. I’ve only read the two sequels, and thankfully, I can say they do a fair job of reclaiming the series from its worst moments.
Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson don’t have Frank Herbert’s bold ideas or the literary style of his better passages, but they are capable and dedicated. When I saw Dean Koontz speak at the International Comic-Con in San Diego a few years back, he mentioned co-authoring his first Frankenstein book with Anderson. He said he had to rewrite the whole thing, but at least Anderson was “professional.” Not the highest of praise, but Anderson does have an ability to turn out books that readers enjoy (my review of Clockwork Angels).
In many ways, the sequels were a relief from Frank Herbert’s often impenetrable prose. They’re intelligible, if a bit staid, and events happen right there on the page! The two authors, working from Frank Herbert’s outlines, deftly weave together plots and characters stretching back thousands of years in the Dune universe, through Frank’s original sextology and their own prequels. The inspiration and raw vision of the early books may not be present — they never hum — but enough is sustained to provide a satisfying conclusion.
I’ll be taking a hiatus from the Dune books for a while, but the interquels have piqued my interest. That copy of Paul of Dune autographed by Brian Herbert won’t stay unread forever. Falling as it does between Books 1 and 2, my favorites, I’m likely to enjoy it.
Postscript: Looking back after the passage of several more years, I feel even less positive about Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s expansion of the Dune series. My attempt at reading Paul of Dune soon turned tedious, leading me to skim the second half of the book just to see if it was all as plodding and predictable as the first half. It was. Next, I’ll try The Winds of Dune (2009) or The Butlerian Jihad (2003). Like I said, I can’t stay away from this stuff. Fans of the DC Universe, however, may enjoy Anderson’s The Last Days of Krypton (2009), depicting the events leading up to the destruction of Superman’s home planet Krypton.