I finished Dune over a week ago, but I haven’t written about it yet because I’ve needed time to process it. As I mentioned in my review of the Alice books, it’s very hard for me to describe what I like about a well written story. When talking Dune over with a friend I said a good story is like a magic trick. Dune is a good story, and is my favorite book from this list so far.
So what is so great about Dune?
For starters, Herbert created this detailed, rich, living universe. A lot of critics talk about Dune as an ecological novel, or a political novel. It’s hard to miss these associations. The planet Dune is also called Arrakis, which in the film version is pronounced “Iraq-us”. The spice found on Arrakis enables space travel. It makes a clear point about the relationship to certain desert lands on our own world and the travel enabling substances we get from them. But in addition to this very contemporary subject, the world of Dune contains a vast, multi-tiered political system. The story is not simply hero and villain. There are numerous parties, each with complex motivations for their actions. There are religious influences ranging from the amalgam of popular earth religions represented by the Orange Catholic Bible; to the part nun, part mystic, part spiritual manipulators of the Bene Gesserit; to the prophetic and zealous faith of the Fremen.
And inside this world Herbert constructed live these vivid characters. There is Lady Jessica, who rebels against the Bene Gesserit out of love for her Duke and her son. And there is Paul Atreides, the legend that the Fremen have been waiting for. My aforementioned friend told me that Herbert said Dune is a story about a man playing god (and she ought to know, as she contributed essays to The Science of Dune). In Paul this theme is excellently carried out as he fulfills the prophecies in order to gain the devotion of the Fremen, even while fearing a time in the future in which he foresees zealots committing atrocities in his name.
Dune is great because it is more than just the well-developed world, more than the characters, more than the plot. All these elements combine just right to create an atmosphere. While reading this novel I kept thinking of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. These stories aren't particularly similar, but both give me a sense that while I'm reading the book, I'm living in the story. I have a tendency to multi-task my reading - I might interrupt my progress in a novel to read magazines or comic books on the side. I found with Dune I did not want to be sidetracked in this way. I wanted my full focus on this one novel. That's the magic trick, the thing that I can't point to and say "here's what's so great about it." Whatever it is that makes it impossible for me to put a novel down, or to leave it for a while to look at other stories, or to stop thinking about it all the time, Dune has it.