Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Dune, by Frank Herbert

This week I'm taking a second look at what's widely considered to be a landmark book in the genre of science-fiction, Frank Herbert's Dune, a gigantic space opera that if nothing else is responsible for giving us the idea of spice as a tradeable commodity in the space future which has turned up in other sci-fi works. This is actually the first of an almost insane number of books and I'm planning on downloading more audiobooks in this series from the library when I get the chance, just to see what all the fuss is about.

As I said, this is actually a second look at the series for me because I originally read read Dune back in high school and I remember not really liking it terribly much. Taking a second look at it I'd say that the book has grown on me somewhat and I've got a better understanding of it, but I can still see where it has some serious problems. Dune has been occasionally described as the Lord of the Rings of space opera, and I can see the parallels between the two works. Both have insanely detailed universes with thousands of years of backstory and lore that are hinted at indirectly through the narrative but you never really learn specifically what those things are. For example, there's the Butlerian Jihad against thinking machines, which is mentioned in passing as ancient history in the remote past, but we never learn more than the barest details. (At least in this book, anyway.) There's also an extensive vocabulary, some of them words Herbert created, some of them not, which are included in a not always helpful glossary in print editions of the book. The result is Herbert creates a world, much like Middle Earth, that feels like it has considerable depth. You may not entirely understand what's going on and spend an inordinate time in appendices and apocrypha trying to sort through and understand details, but it's a world with as much depth and complexity as our own. If nothing else, Dune is a masterpiece in the exercise of world-building. Or more properly galaxy-building.

For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of Dune, the story focuses around Paul Atreides, heir to the Duchy of Atreides who's also the Chosen One. The actual term is kwizats haderach but it's just easier to say Chosen One. So the story focuses, at least partly on Paul becoming said Chosen One, which is okay but I think it's honestly the weaker of the plot lines. The other one is an economic and political drama focusing around the planet Arrakis where House Atreides is sent. Arrakis is a desert world and the only source of melange spice which extends human life and is extremely addictive, making it the most valuable resource in the universe. House Atreides stands to make a great amount of money from being the governors of Arrakis, however it is a trap by their old enemies, the Harkonnens, who plan to shatter their power and eliminate the Atreides. What ensues is a battle between Harkonnen and Atreides for control of Arrakis and, ultimately, the spice.

One of the biggest complaints I have about the book, and has been mentioned by other people who have read it, is that the book really doesn't allow suspense to exist in the book. For example: within the first three chapters of the book we know that House Atreides is going to Arrakis; we know that it's secretly a trap House Harkonnen has made with the help of the Emperor to crush House Atreides; we know that House Atreides knows that it's a trap by House Harkonnen and the Emperor to crush their power and are planning accordingly; we know that House Harkonnen knows that House Atreides knows that it's a trap and so has a secret traitor planted which who we're immediately told who it is and why they're betraying House Atreides. Seriously, that's all in the first three chapters, and it only gets worse as the book goes on and Paul starts being able to see the future. And of course every chapter starts with a quotation from a work about Paul's life afterwards so you know he's going to make it out okay, more or less. So it definitely removes any sense of suspense in the book and I can see where it would get difficult to read.

Another issue, leaving aside the insane amount of world-building and vocabulary-dumping, is that we're often given different characters' internal monologues, sometimes multiple characters during the same chapter. It's perfectly fine to tell stories from the perspectives of multiple characters and it's been done before and since, but in this case the shifts can be downright jarring and confusing at times because they happen with little warning. So much like Lord of the Rings, its writing is not necessarily the book's strongest suit and if it weren't for the amount of work Herbert had put into the book's universe it probably would have been mediocre at best.

As for the audio book in specific, the biggest problem I had was the narration. For whatever reason the people who created the version I listened to decided to get multiple voice actors to provide voices for characters in the novel. However, the voice actors are used fairly infrequently so the regular narrator has to take over for at least half the book, possibly more, and provide a variety of voices for the characters. I can even cite an example where in the space of one chapter they went from using just the narrator to using the voice actors to using the narrator again to using the voice actors again. And it had a weird side effect for me by providing two separate interpretations for one character. Specifically the voice actor they got for Baron Harkonnen had a very deep, manipulative, evil genius voice that makes you feel like he's a force to be reckoned with. However, the voice the narrator used makes Harkonnen come across as a bumbling old fool with delusions of power rather than the mastermind. It's...confusing to say the least and I really wonder why the creators of this audiobook decided to shell out for voice actors if they were only going to use them for only part of the book.

Overall, Dune is okay and while I can understand the fascination and adoration it receives, I wouldn't say it's fantastic. Herbert put an insane amount of work into building the universe of his story and making it feel like a real, breathing, living world. However the writing can be weak or confusing, the plotlines aren't as richly developed as they could be, and Herbert basically tells us what's going to happen before it happens so there's no real suspense to the story. If you like space operas there's probably stuff in here you'll enjoy, but I can see how it would have a limited appeal.

- Kalpar

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