DUNE – Frank Herbert (1965)

Dune (Folio Society)I’ve read Dune for the first time 7 years ago. A year later, I finished Chapterhouse on the day Iain Banks died. I loved the series so much, I tried some of Herbert’s other books too – they all proved to be duds, except for Soul Catcher. I even read what Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson concocted as what was supposed to be the finale, Dune 7 – the so-so Hunters of Dune and the god-awful Sandworms of Dune.

Rereading is always a risk, and I hardly do so. Taste evolves. The thing is: when I first read Dune, I wasn’t that well versed in science fiction. I’d read about 5 Culture novels, Anathem by Stephenson, maybe the Foundation trilogy. I might have been easily impressed. 7 years later, I’ve read a whole lot more of speculative fiction: about 240 titles says my Worlds Without End database. I’ve tried to be broad in my approach, reading older stuff and newer stuff alike. Today, I’m a different judge.

This time, I read the fantastic Folio Society edition, which has an excellent essay by Michael Dirda, and an interesting afterword by Brian Herbert. It’s good to see confirmed that Dune indeed was revolutionary. A book much longer than most other novels of its day – other titles were only a quarter to a third of Dune‘s 215,000 words. That meant an expensive book – “in excess of 5 dollars”, the highest retail price yet for any science fiction novel. And it was not only revolutionary because of its size – it was also an untold commercial succes. While initial sales were slow, it got the Nebula and Hugo awards, and by 1970 the book began to sell well. The sequels became bestsellers too, with sales running into the millions. By 1979 it sold over 10 million copies, and when David Lynch’s 1985 movie adaptation was released, Dune reached no. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, 20 years after its first publication. Frank Herbert was “the first [science fiction] writer to obtain such high level of readership.”

So, what has this reread told me? What to write about the most lauded science fiction book of all time? Well, easy! That it is within rights and reason to call this one of the greatest books ever – if it falls into your taste range.

My guess is that it will still be read a century from now.  Dune has a timeless quality: ditching computers was a genius move by Herbert. In Destination: Void – which was first published in Galaxy Magazine around the same time as Dune – Herbert took the opposite route, embedding a great thriller in pages and pages of computer babble. Even though that babble was realistic at the time, it utterly fails today. Not so with Dune.

There’s hardly anything that can age in this book. Some have argued that the feudal structure of the galactic empire is unrealistic for a far future human world – and as such dated in the 21st century – but that is an utterly naive, Western centrist thought. If the last decade has taught us something, is that we should not take democracy for granted – especially not as global turmoil has only just began at the dawn of disruptive climate change. Who’s so arrogant to claim they have a clear grasp on the arrow of time? Hegel fans? Hari Seldon?

Before I’ll try to shed some more light on why this book remains such a joy to read in 2019 – brace yourselves for a 5444 words analysis of both form and content – let me tackle a bit of critique first. I’d rather have that out of the way, and let the rest of my text be an unapologetic celebration of Herbert’s creation.

(There will be some spoilers throughout, including minor ones about the next 3 books in the series.)

Not everybody likes Dune. Blogger Megan AM, in her 2014 review on From Couch To Moon, worded her problem with the protagonist, Paul, as follows:

If he’s cold, the reader doesn’t care what happens to him. If he’s infallible, he’ll survive every conflict. Wrap him up in a nice blanket of spiritual powers and preordained destiny, with a powerful clan to serve him, and you’ve got the makings of a demigod whose story is predetermined. Dune is worthy warning against allegiance to charismatic personalities, but it’s D.O.A.

Gender pops up a bit further in her review:

Unfortunately, I suspect that many Dune fans actually admire the unearned arrogance of our rich noble-born leader. I worry that Paul’s behavior toward his women and his clansmen actually appeals to many males in the SF community. Paul is in control of everything—his emotions, his actions, his thoughts… even his followers. Even Paul’s mother recognizes his calculating moves as manipulative and unfair. “You deliberately cultivate this air, this bravura,” she charged. “You never cease indoctrinating” (p. 620). How incredibly appealing to a young male…

I think both issues are partly the result of a biased reading – admittedly, something we are all prone too. Yes, older fiction is up to “contemporary dissection” – but the text itself has its rights.

I fully agree that the hero in Dune appeals to readers because of his control, among other things. But there are two problems in Megan’s gendered reading. First are some facts residing in Dune itself. Also Jessica – and to a lesser extent Chani – are in control. They too are heroes of the book. There are other characters who are just as calculating and manipulative, and some of them – all of the Bene Gesserit – are female. Focusing on Paul’s male biological sex seems strange in that light. Moreover, when Paul becomes the Kwisatz Haderach, Herbert explicitly frames this as a fusion of 2 genders, Paul becoming both taker and giver, male and female. Sure, one could debate the problematic dichotomy of that – but either way these facts show the analysis of Megan is a bit superficial.

A second problem is Megan’s own portrayal of “young males” and “many males in the SF community”. I’m sure there are quite a lot of women too who want control over their emotions, thoughts, actions. I think Megan too easily frames Paul’s behavior as a problematic masculine ideal.

To end this first part of my review, let me get back to Megan’s first quote. Paul is “cold” and “infallible”, a “predetermined” “demigod”, and all that could make readers not care for him. Megan is fully right about the predetermined part, but I think exactly that is one of the crucial strengths of the book – I’ll get to that in more detail after the jump.

Yet cold and infallible? One could maybe argue about cold –  it is partly in the eye of the beholder – but again, the text itself has its rights. Paul gives moisture to the dead! He does mourn his father – he only has to postpone it, due to the situation he is in. That doesn’t make him cold. It makes him tragic. He has intense friendships with Stilgar and Gurney Halleck. Near the end, he is upset by his mother’s cold shoulder. He struggles emotionally with his own role. And maybe most importantly: he loves & respects Chani deeply, in an explicitly tender way – the ending pages are proof of that. I agree Herbert doesn’t devote lots of page time to these aspects, but they are there. Clearly.

A reader is well within his or her right to think Herbert should have devoted more time to the characters’ emotions – and granted, characterization is not the book’s main focus – but the claim that Paul is cold is not how I experienced it.

One cannot argue about infallible though. Paul fails. He fails spectacularly. Yes, he dethrones the emperor, he marries the princess. But all that is just superficial pomp, not at the heart of this story. It strikes me as odd that Megan AM didn’t mention this. Paul’s failure is even double.

One: his own son is killed. It is one of the pivotal moments of the book – even without taking into account the strong emphasis Herbert puts on the importance of genes and bloodlines. More so, the death of his firstborn is one of the pivotal moments of the entire series, with possibly galactic repercussions. “He felt emptied, a shell without emotions. Everything he touched brought death and grief. And it was like a disease that could spread across the universe.” Two: Paul’s main drive in the book is to prevent the jihad, yet he fails to do so. That only becomes fully clear in the sequels, but still, it is spelled out explicitly multiple times.

Herbert didn’t write Paul as a true masculine infallible hero. He is noble-born, strong and superbly trained, yes, but he is more than that, and morally ambiguous. It is when his firstborn son dies that – maybe? – Paul embraces jihad as cosmic revenge for all the suffering he had to endure. “Something seemed to chuckle and rub its hands within him. And Paul thought: How little the universe knows about the nature of real cruelty!” Herbert doesn’t spoon-feed it to the reader. It is unclear how to interpret that italic sentence, but either way, it is one of many that makes Paul human – somebody this reader could connect to.

Before I’ll dive into a more substantial analysis, the following needs emphasis: reading Dune was even better the second time around. One part of that is that I was familiar with its world – the first half can be tough on new readers that don’t know what’s going on. Another part is that I have become more experienced as reader, seeing both the book’s literary mechanics and its philosophical implications much clearer – and because of that I appreciate it all the more.

Books that can be reread don’t hinge on novelty & surprise alone. There is no better testament to what Herbert achieved artistically. Please join me in celebrating the how & what of Dune some more!

I’ll first highlight a few technical issues: Herbert’s prose, his plotting power – including a detailed case study of the first knife fight, between Paul and Jamis. After that, I’ll zoom in on Dune‘s tragic philosophical content.


Herbert wrote in a pretty stark style, and his efficient prose never gets in the way of the story. That is not to say Herbert doesn’t use language to enhance the story. Like Tolkien, Herbert made a serious, well researched effort to enhance realism, paradoxically by twisting his English, and adding fictional or borrowed words – either way steeped in real world linguistic traditions. I won’t delve any deeper, as lots has been written about that already.

I want to highlight something else, less talked about. Dune‘s prose is – another paradox – efficient and made difficult by all those items in the 20-page glossary, but there are also flashes of poetry that pop up here and there, like cactus flowers in an arid landscape. I’ll leave it at one quote.

To the east, the night grew a faggot of luminous gray, then seashell opalescence that dimmed the stars. There came the long, bell-tolling movement of dawn striking across a broken horizon.


It never occurred to me, but Michael Dirda points it out in his introduction: Herbert  followed what Carl Gustav Jung and Lord Raglan established as a recurring sequence in the hero’s life cycle: “a birth surrounded by mystery, evidence of special gifts, exile in the wilderness, conquest of monstrous beast, a near-death experience followed by the assumption of a new identity, and finally a triumphant victory over old enemies before an enigmatic disappearance and subsequent apotheosis.”

Herbert’s decision to ground Dune in archetype makes that he cannot rely on the general plot to hook the reader. We feel more or less what will happen, generally speaking. This is not necessarily bad – Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet were also well know stories in Shakespeare’s time. So how does he keep the reader engaged to a story that is utmost unoriginal when presented schematically?

A big part of the answer is obviously Herbert’s tremendous imagination: yes, he uses a typical Jungian outline in a messianic melodrama space opera setting, but his imagination – both qua overall world building that tends to the Fantastic, as in numerous Hard SF details – colors the framework in such a way that it transcends itself.

But much has been written on Herbert’s imagination already, so let me focus on another important piece of the puzzle: the way Herbert structures Dune‘s plot.

For starters, Herbert keeps it tight. The story is straight forward & linear, the pacing brisk. There’s not too many characters. There’s none of the bloated impression lots of contemporary speculative fiction makes – and yet it is hardly surpassed in its detailed world building. This is not the final paradox I will point at.

He also pays close attention to structure. The book is written as a crescendo. In itself, that isn’t special. Yet Dune‘s narrative crescendo is not limited to the overall plot, saving the typical epic battle for the ending. Also in the way he discloses information, Herbert takes care to keep the reader engaged. Only very gradually the true power and size of the Fremen become clear, to the extent that we are just as surprised as Baron Harkonnen when we learn of their true size only near the end of the book – even though we have lived with them for hundreds of pages. A lesser writer would have showed off the scope of his or her fictional world much earlier. Similarly, while we learn the Sardauker to be feared early on, Herbert dropping significant details of their gear evokes awe just at the moment we thought we had them figured out – again, near the end of the book. Most other writers would have started their stories with this kind of stuff.

Herbert shows restraint, and puts his imagination in the service of the reading experience, while other authors put their imagination in the very center of what they write.

In the grey paragraph below, I’ll try to show how the knife fight between Paul and the Fremen Jamis is a good example of how structural composition saves this scene from what is – superficially – predictable. We know Paul will win, obviously. In that respect Megan AM is right. But if you look closely to the scene, it still is an unexpected thriller, always shifting and changing, in favor of Paul and in favor of Jamis, and ending both in an expected and unexpected way. Take it as a case study that can stand for the entire novel.

At first Jessica tries to prevent the fight. Her water is accepted, but that doesn’t succeed in buying off Jamis. Jamis invokes a law, making the fight unavoidable. Stilgar ups the ante by threatening to kill Jamis afterwards, should he win. On that moment, Herbert starts introducing Paul’s weaknesses. A first counter-indication of Paul winning is Jessica’s fear – Paul is only a boy. At the same time Jessica ups the ante for Jamis, threatening him just like Stilgar did. After that, Herbert focuses on something positive: Paul doesn’t fear Jamis, and thinks he moves clumsily, as he bested him already the night before. Again a negative follows: Paul has seen a vision of himself dead under a knife. Jessica makes a final attempt to stop it, using the Voice, but this attempt is cut short and she is forbidden to speak. Then positives: Paul is trained in prana and bindu, by legendary teachers like Idaho & Halleck. He is also trained as a devious Bene Gesserit, and “looks supple and confident.”  Again negatives: he is only 15, and he has no shield. Positives: Jessica did manage to plant some fear in Jamis mind, which “perhaps” might slow him. A negative: Paul is unsure about the fighting ring’s surface. A positive: Chani tells him how Jamis parries, and reveals two of Jamis’ fighting tricks. Another positive: Paul’s supreme training resulting in instinctual reactions. Herbert then describes possible ways to win a knife fight: with point, and blade, and shearing-guard – opening things up some more. Another negative: Paul realizes the crysknife has no shearing-guard, and that he doesn’t know the breaking tension of the blade, “did not even know if it could be broken.” Another – very important – negative: Paul realizes he is disadvantaged as his instinctive reflexes are tuned to the mechanics of fighting with a shield. Jamis reveals the crysknives can be shattered. Herbert has built tension expertly, and only at now the fight really begins. A negative for Paul: Herbert describes Jamis as Death – with a body like “knotted whipcord on a dried skeleton.” “Fear coursed through Paul.” He feels alone and naked. Herbert points at the possibility of countless things influencing the outcome: some coughing, etc – again opening up the scene. A positive: Paul repeats the litany against fear, and feels his “muscles untie themselves”. The fight breaks loose, and Herbert reminds us – via Jessica – of Paul’s disadvantage being trained as a shield fighter. Paul’s counterblow – “blindingly fast” comes an instant too late, numerous times. The spectators start to think Paul is playing with Jamis. Some more fighting, and Paul can take advantage of Chani’s advice. Jamis is wounded. It only now becomes clear to Paul that this fight is to the death – he did not know this before he started, and the fight is paused for a moment. Another negative: Paul has never killed a man. Jessica is not sure he can do that. And another negative: Paul’s prescient knowledge starts plaguing him now. A positive: Jamis realizes Paul is no easy prey. A negative: Jamis becomes desperate and because of that most dangerous. A positive and a negative: Jessica starts feeling pitty for him, yet is aware at “the immediate peril” her son is in. Negative: Herbert stresses Jamis’ unpredictability. Herbert then focuses on Jamis’ fear, and Paul tries to turn it into terror – a gamble, as terror is dangerous too. Jamis tries his last trick, but Paul sees it, not only because of Chani’s warning, but because of his training. Jamis makes a mistake and Paul kills him. The fight ends, but the result is not what the reader expected: yes, Paul wins, but he isn’t heralded as a hero – no, the Fremen are very negative about the way he won. After some conversation, this misunderstanding is overcome, and the scene’s climax is Paul’s Fremen naming and acceptance in the tribe.

Another of Herbert’s methods to keep the reader engaged is simply the right dose of pulp at the right time. He doesn’t shy away from it. I think this keeps the story flexible, and provides some light and air in a book that is otherwise oppressive. Some of these things are fairly superficial – like Leto & Paul’s first encounter with a worm when the carryall coincidentally is down: spectacular and convenient, but not really important to the story. But other things – like Vladimir Harkonnen’s cartoonish evil nature, or the sandworms that are attracted by shields, or the entire part Dr. Yueh and his Suk conditioning plays – are crucial for the book.

I’ll take that last one as an example of how this mechanism works: the Duke needed to die, and devising a more believable – less pulpy – way, might have taken up more page time, bogging things down.

(On a side note: one has to wonder if the behavior of the Baron could not be considered to be at least possible, and as such realistic, given the nature & possibilities of absolutist rule, and insights like the high level of psychopathy among CEOs? Maybe there is truth to the cartoon archetype?)

Similarly, there is the spice itself. Call it an unobtainium or something akin to the philosophers’ stone, but as a plot device it is both extremely pulpy and a genius stroke by Herbert. Spice melange controls all the factions in the book, but for different reasons. The Fremen need it (for bribes, to enhance vitality, and as a staple material to make plastic, cloth, food seasoning, …) The Bene Gesserit need it (to unlock genetic memory). Baron Harkonnen needs it (for money & power). Paul Muad’Dib needs it (to see the future). The Spacing Guild – and by extension everybody else – needs it (for space travel).

In a way, it’s more powerful than Tolkien’s One Ring to rule them all, at least as addictive, and its origin – in essence the excrement of embryonic sandworms – is so outrageous, that it takes real guts to use something like it in a serious book.

Herbert’s use of pulp again shows he knows what needs to be done to tell this story well, not restrained by the seriousness of serious literature. So yes, Dune is a typical Jungian hero story, but it is expertly composed, written in a style that suits it. It’s enduring powers are structural, not superficial. The content seems odd – giant sandworms on a desert planet in a feudal far future – but again, that’s only surface level. When we dig deeper, we again find something essentially real: one of humanity’s basic, timeless conundrums.


I have long held the suspicion that what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined.

At a basic level, everybody understands that reality is deterministic: if an egg falls, it breaks. If you drink alcohol, your behavior changes. If our heads are chopped off, we die. Physical and chemical laws – via evolution – give rise to biology, behavior and society. That knowledge is a problem for our consciousness, for we feel in control.

As freedom is inherent in so many human claims, our basic understanding of reality short circuits with our basic perception of ourselves. It is humanity’s most basic problem – already acknowledged centuries ago by numerous strands of religious Predestination.

Recurrent readers of this blog know that I tend to find examples of this in many of the books I read. I believe the problem is the very bleeding heart of tragedy. It will not surprise you it is the core of Dune.  

Recurrent readers of other Dune reviews will have found the usual references to other themes: environmentalism, ecology, oil, “critique of the myth of the hero” and religious fanaticism. It’s what keeps this book fresh, they claim. It’s about the Middle East! It’s about climate change! Etc. And while such claims definitely have merit, they miss an essential thing. I think the central theme is Paul’s prescience – and how this is tied to determinism. It is that what keeps the book fresh forever: it grounds Dune firmly in a reality we will never escape.

Dune is an ecological book, indeed, but not only in the Greenpeace way. Dune stresses the importance of ecology: the environment, conditions, surroundings, milieu, external factors, what have you. Factors that determine the way organisms succeed or not, that restrain their evolution, and that – ultimately – guide their internal make up.

The imperial planetary ecologist Liet-Kynes – arguably the most wise of all of Dune‘s characters, and the grandfather of the later God-Emperor – knows this: “When God hath ordained a creature to die in a particular place, He causeth that creature’s wants to direct him to that place.”

In his essay, Michael Dirda writes that Dune is “a serious moral fable about the foreseen and unforeseen consequences of the choices we make”. He stresses the choice element, but misses the trap Paul is in. When we talk about a hero discovering his or her destiny, what do we actually mean? What is ‘destiny’ else than another word for ‘determined’? It is not because we make choices that these choices are made in freedom.

And Paul, walking behind Chani, felt that a vital moment had passed him, that he had missed an essential decision and was now caught up in his own myth. (…) He felt a new sense of wonder at the limits of his gift. It was as though he rode within the wave of time, sometimes in its trough, sometimes on a crest – and all around him the other waves lifted and fell revealing and then hiding what they bore on their surface.

Let’s not forget that Paul is the result of a breeding program – a deterministic process par excellence. Other key elements of Bene Gesserit praxis rely on the same idea: the principle of the Missionaria Protectiva is deterministic in outlook. So is their weirding Voice: certain soundwaves trigger deterministic responses.

Let’s also remember that Paul doesn’t want jihad, but understands the necessity: “the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes. And the race knew only one sure way for this – the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path: jihad.”

As such, Paul – paradoxically in control over every nerve in his body – is just a helpless pawn in a biological proces: ‘race’ (i.e. the human race) becoming a blind, subconscious determining factor. “All humans were alive as an unconscious single organism in this moment (…)”.  “And Paul saw how futile were any efforts of his to change any smallest bit of this. He had thought to oppose the jihad within himself, but jihad would be.”

Early in the novel, Paul reads a part of the Orange Catholic Bible out loud:

‘Think you of the fact that a deaf person cannot hear. Then, what deafness may we not all possess? What senses do we lack that we cannot see and cannot hear another world all around us? (…)’

This foreshadowing to Paul’s later sixth sense, so to say, doesn’t need to be interpreted as religious or metaphysical. For what is Paul’s prescience, all things considered?

In essence it is his ability to instinctively feel – or unconsciously calculate, don’t forget that Paul has mentat powers too – possible deterministic pathways. His prescience doesn’t always work conclusively – not because reality doesn’t work in a deterministic way, but simply because of the complexity of countless factors and feedback loops.

The prescience, he realized, was an illumination that incorporated the limits of what it revealed – at once a source of accuracy and meaningful error. A kind of Heisenberg indeterminacy intervened: the expenditure of energy that revealed what he saw, changed what he saw.


For the first time, he was caught up in the thought that he might be part of a pattern more involuted and complicated than his mind could grasp.

The paradox of determinism is uncertainty: reality is too complex. Kynes knows this too:

‘You never talk of likelihoods on Arrakis. You speak only of possibilities.’

It slows Paul down in certain moments, but it also gives him naive hope. Paul is a tragic hero: he takes the imperial throne to prevent jihad, but he already knows it is impossible.

Terence Blake – in a comment to an article of his on French philosopher François Laruelle and science fiction – describes Paul’s struggle, and points at a (preposterous) fix to determinism Herbert envisions in the later novels:

For me the quantum aspect of Dune is Paul’s vision of time (shared partially by many others) as composed of a huge network of branching possibilities, to the point of making this quantum time part of the very framework of the novel. Paul is constantly trying to break the prophetic vision by bifurcating, but finally gives in to it. He does not choose Leto’s Golden Path. A second point comes out in later novels, with Leto’s breeding programme to produce human beings whose actions are unpredictable both to prophetic vision and to artificial intelligences (quantum computers?) waiting on the outskirts.

Two final thoughts on the mechanic worldview in Dune.

The Fremen are clearly idolized by Herbert. In appendix II on the religion of Dune, it becomes clear that they have no concept of guilt. Generally, the concept of moral guilt stems from the idea that one could chosen to act differently – it is why determinism is frowned upon in an judicial context.

And it’s well to note that Fremen ritual gives almost complete freedom from guilt feelings. This isn’t necessarily because their law and religion were identical, making disobedience a sin. It’s likely closer to the mark to say they cleansed themselves of guilt easily because their everyday existence required brutal judgments (often deadly) which in a softer land would burden men with unbearable guilt.

This is a great passage, uniting ecology (“hostile landscapes”) and ethics (judgments as necessary behavior). The lesson of the Fremen applies not only to Arrakis: all life always acts trapped inside a context.  

Brain Herbert writes of his father that he “recalled reading somewhere that ecology was the science of understanding consequences. (…) With a worldview similar to that of an American Indian, Dad saw Western man inflicting himself on the environment, not living in harmony with it.” It is clear that consequences have causes. As such, Dune was a warning against Western man’s error in underestimating the way we are part of the fabric. Pardot Kynes, father of Liet-Kynes spelled it out loud and clear:

‘A planet’s life is a vast, tightly interwoven fabric. Vegetation and animal changes will be determined at first by the raw physical forces we manipulate. As they establish themselves, though, our changes will become controlling influences in their own right – and we will have to deal with them too. (…)’

The fact that Liet-Kynes – in his dying, delirious moments – thinks “accident and error” are “the most persistent principles of the universe” doesn’t take away one bit of all that: also accident and error are the result of causes.

Let me get back to Megan AM one more time:

But overall, my biggest complaint is the incessant, italicized internal monologue, which often switches characters mid-dialogue. I can’t help but think some of the tension would be restored if Herbert had dumped this device to allow for some mystery in his characters’ thoughts, particularly in a tale where gray morality rules and ethics is completely absent. But instead, it’s all splayed out for me, like a gutted sandworm drying on the hot sand. No mystery.

I can’t argue with this, as it is a matter of taste. But to me, the mystery of Dune is not what characters think, nor is it the plot. The mystery of Dune is the mystery of ourselves: that giant blind spot that makes us feel free in a reality governed by laws – on all possible levels.


Is this blind spot the “frequent hollowness at the heart of all our lives” that Dirda writes about in his essay? He might not realize it, but I guess so. There is indeed no humor in the novel – except that small part where the Baron wonders if Alia is a midget. Dune indeed is steeped in a “tragic sense of life”.

Vladimir Harkonnen sees himself as a bringer of truth. In the later novels, Leto 2 – his great-grandson – might very well be seen as similar. 

He saw himself  suddenly as a surgeon exercising endless supple scissor dissections – cutting away the masks from fools, exposing the hell beneath.

So what is left? Princess Irulan wrote down the following, in the Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib.

The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself.

Maybe bitterness, scorn and mockery is all that is left to someone who lost his firstborn son, someone who sees how things really are.


If Arrakis is a metaphor for reality, reality is a paradoxical thing. Early in the novel Thufir Hawat sees “this planet as an enemey”. At the end of the book, Paul realizes Arrakis is an ally too, as he unleashes the sandstorm upon his enemies.

There are numerous tidbits of wisdom in the book – Herbert maybe tried to cram in too much, too overtly. Let’s be mild in our judgement here – the guy wrote all 544 pages on a typewriter.

The Guild navigators, gifted with limited prescience, had made the fatal decision: they’d chosen always the clear, safe course that leads ever downward to stagnation.

Their choice is not a free choice, as their limited prescience made them do so. A few pages later, the same taught is formulated in another way.

‘The eye that looks ahead to the safe course is closed forever,’ Paul said.

This is the hope of Dune‘s lesson. Even though everything is ecology – everything is embedded, the result of causes – this does not mean the way is always clear.

This mitigates our lives: we are determined, but we are not prescient.

the attitude of the knife (Dune quote).jpg

Sandworm (Sam Weber)

To continue my analysis of the Dune series, please read my text on Dune Messiah – also over 4500 words: tackling its ties to Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence, Paul’s tragedy & determinism; my text on Children of Dune, which is over 10,000 words and deals with the tragedy of Alia and Amor Fati, among other things; my analysis of God Emperor of Dune, 8,700 words with a focus on Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot, an examination of the Golden Path and a critical look at various inconsistencies in that novel; and my 11,600 word analysis of Heretics of Dune, that, among other things, looks at Herbert’s narrative bluff, and examines the Bene Gesserit’s motivations. It also discusses love, heresy and variation as themes in the novel, and looks at how the book’s characters are permutations of those of Dune. I explain why I liked this book the most of the sequels, even with all its shortcomings, and try to shed light on a major shift in the series, as in Heretics, under the influence of Einstein and quantum theory, Herbert casts prescience not as something passive, but as an active, shaping force. This sea change alters the ontology underlying the series drastically. I also look at an underlying principle Herbert uses: perception shaping reality. The final text on Chapterhouse: Dune has 10,700 words. It has an assessment of the book’s shortcomings, plus a further examination of the Bene Gesserit, a section on free will and shorter sections on change & creativity, on Nietzschean morality, on the obscure & conflicted nature of Mentats and on Herbert’s obsession with bureaucracy. It ends with an reflection on the Dune series in general.

Click for my other Herbert reviews:

Dune Messiah (1969)Children of Dune (1976) God Emperor of Dune (1981)Heretics of Dune (1984)  Chapterhouse: Dune (1985)  //  Destination: Void (1965) The Santaroga Barrier (1968) – Whipping Star (1970) Soul Catcher (1972)The Dosadi Experiment (1977)

I’ve also tackled Hunters of Dune (2006) & Sandworms of Dune (2007) and wrote about Villeneuve’s 2021 film Dune: Part One.

Consult the author index for all my other reviews, and this is a link to my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature, and here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews.

64 responses to “DUNE – Frank Herbert (1965)

  1. Pingback: FAVORITE SCIENCE FICTION BOOKS | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

  2. “In a way, it’s more powerful than Tolkien’s One Ring to rule them all, at least as addictive, and its origin – in essence the excrement of embryonic sandworms – is so outrageous, that it takes real guts to use something like it in a serious book.”

    Yep. Well said; it is such a subversive element!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I think the sequels only make the series more subversive. Try explaining the concept of Leto’s God-Emperor phase to people that have not read the books… I think it’s maybe the most crazy character I have ever come across in everything I’ve ever read or seen.


  3. Ah, Dune! I read this several times as a teenager and loved it every time. And I’m going to have to reread it for my Hugo project eventually … I’m a bit nervous that I may have grown out of it, but reading your post makes me think I’m going to enjoy it just as much as I ever did. 🙂 I particularly enjoyed your breakdown of the knife fight and your discussion of Determinism.
    Bormgans, you always give me so much to think about! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cool post! I think you’re right that determinism was a big part of Dune’s philosophy. I clearly need to re-read it, but my impression when I read it all those years ago was of an entrapment – which is to say, I felt Herbert was deeply pessimistic in his view of humans as animals ruled by their genetic makeup and environment, but endowed with consciousness, as it only resulted in their awareness of their own entrapment.

    I value Dune very highly as a great work of art; but the very traits that you find so precious I find a bit off-putting, as Herbert’s wordlview is quite removed from my own; as you know, I’m not that fond of determinism 😉

    I am very interested in learning something about the ancient Greek influences on Dune – tragedy, Atreides, etc. Do you know of any such sources, Bart?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! Your first paragraph hits the spot, at the beginning of the novel with the Gom Jabbar test, the Reverend Mother Giaus Helen Mohiam explicitly speaks about the difference between “humans” vs. “people” (animals), which has to do with this awareness.

      As for Dune’s influences, Dirda talks a bit about it (The Golden Bough, Foundation, Anderson’s The Broken Sword, Jack Vance, Lawrence of Arabia) and more specifically about the reference the Atreides name makes to House of Atreus (and Iphingeneia, Agamemnon, Orestes), but it is only a very short passage. When I did some secondary reading for this review, nothing else on the Greek influence has come up, so I can’t help you there, sorry.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I absolutely agree, and it’s so strange for me, seeing how many readers come away with ideas about the book like these of the reviewer you quote.
      It was always fun for me to see the bad guys here defeated, and Paul avenging his father (although post 9/11 I started having more nuanced view of the type of fanaticism Fremen present), but the feeling of failure of his quest against fate… that is clear even in volume 1.

      Also, have you heard about “Calvin & Muad’Dib”?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Fremen always seemed kind of creepy to me, and this view of environmental hardship affecting the societies so that they become similarly ruthless and brutal is one I encountered in a good few books – Cook’s Dread Empire series, for example, or even Stephenson in Seveneves (albeit the latter much more superficial).

        Nooo… Should I feel worried? I do feel worried already 😆

        Liked by 2 people

      • I agree that it’s strange, but nobody escapes bias, and even more so with texts like Dune that are inherently rich, which makes multiple and even conflicting readings possible. Still, I don’t think mere perspective justifies certain readings, the text itself has its rights, and Paul clearly fails, and there are clearly controlling women in the book, etc.
        Obviously, if you’re a reader set on a Derridean deconstruction of the text who knows what one will find, but in that case it would take a much more careful reading of the text, instead of Megan AM’s superficial reading & review.
        I haven’t mentioned this in the text, but her take on the Fremen is particularly problematic & biased – in essence accusing Herbert of racism on very, very flimsy evidence – and she admits as such in the comments. It just goes to show challenging her own preconceptions was probably not an important intention when she wrote the review. If one has an axe to grind… I guess in 2014 the entire Sad Puppies frenzy maybe influenced certain readers a bit too much?

        Liked by 1 person

      • And yes, Calvin & Muad’Dib is cool, never head of it, thanks. Must have been quite some work to make it fit as it does.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice read. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Planning my first read for this in 2020… thank you for this insightfull post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The first time I read Dune was some 30 years ago, and since then I’ve re-read it several times and both enjoyed it and found new levels of understanding or new shades of characterization, so I totally agree on your definition of “timeless” for this novel. It’s not only because Herbert chose to keep clear of technology to avoid obsolescence, it’s because the purely human factor he works with never ages. More than once, in your thoughtful and thought-provoking review, you made a parallel with Tolkien’s LOTR, another timeless work, which reminds me of a comment I read recently about these two novels being a kind of… seminal work (for want of a better word) in their respective genres…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s strange that the pure human factor you talk about – and I agree is indeed the most essential part – is overlooked in lots of writing on this book, most seems to focus on the politics & ecology. It’s probably testament of the richness Herbert created, allowing different levels of enjoyment.

      I think I will reread this again too somewhere in the future, but I’ll first see how the reread of the rest of the series goes, but I have high hopes.

      Can you believe I have never read LOTR? I started in a Dutch translation when I was 12 or 13, but got bogged down. I do plan on picking it up someday, but never have found a second hand copy in English. I might have to just buy a new edition.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Man, what a great review! While you and I have some religious/philosophical differences, we definitely both agree how great Dune is 😀

    I can’t say too much, as you expressed a lot in this review.

    On a side note, how long did it take you to write this monster up? I’m really glad you noted the word count, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, thanks, much appreciated!

      From the onset, I decided to try to do this book justice by writing an as thorough review I could muster – I made a huge pile of notes while reading (I think over tenfold my normal amount, but that is on Herbert’s account, he wrote such a rich book that there’s a lot to take notes about), and that slowed my reading down for sure. As for the actual writing itself, I spend over 10 hours on it, maybe 12, not sure anymore, spread out over 5 days, and I’ve been revising for at least one hour since I published it. Oh well, it’s a hobby 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  9. “[W]hat underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined.” In a very long essay, which I shall keep coming back to (especially as I plan to embark on a first read of Children of Dune some time in 2020), this was one of many, many sentences I could have highlighted to meditate on. Thanks for posting!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the kind words, really appreciated! I look forward to your take on Children.
      I think will start a reread of Messiah as one of my first reads in 2020. I’m really interested if the later books will change the philosophical undercurrent I perceived here.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I don’t know what your comment policy is, but I did notice that the original comments by the person claiming you hatchet job’d the other reviewer are now gone. I’m curious if they kept commenting and crossed your line?

    It really is none of my business, so if it’s not something you’re comfortable with, just ignore this 😀 But if you are comfortable, I always like discussing how various bloggers deal with hostile commentors.


    • No he didn’t keep commenting, not at all. I kept them there a few days, as I don’t want to shy away from discussion – on the contrary. But I didn’t think they applied to this version of the text anymore, and removed them a few hours ago. Even with the few things I rephrased, I thought they were a tad hyperbolic, and I didn’t want that kind of negativity as the first comment. As I changed a few things, the comment did make my review better, so I guess that’s a positive, and I appreciated the honesty, but I thought case closed.

      Liked by 1 person

    • First time I removed a comment though, except for the occasional spam.

      Liked by 1 person

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  12. So glad I found you at Chris’s blog. I devoured this post and will come back for more.
    I am with you, that gendered reading… No. Sorry, I was even annoyed as you were presenting it. Great refutation.
    Many thoughts. 1. Love to see your passion for philosophy in books. I believe that’s what attracts me to sci-fi and dystopia. 2. I’m happily old enough not to care for the modern issues when reading. Maybe is my bias, but while I see a bit too much masculine presence and a bit stereotypical man characters in the little sci-fi I have read, Asimov style I call it, (the guy was that type of man), writers can’t shed who they are or how they and their times see the world. The question is, do they offer something else of value?, Something that doesn’t expire? And as you say Dune does. I must re-read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m a bit afraid to reread Foundation for the reasons you mention, but will get to it eventually. It’s as you say: you can’t unmake the context. While contemporary lenses do have merit, when applied in a moral prescriptive fashion it boils down to a kind of censorship of the past, and that seems a loss to me. Thanks for the elaborate comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with you on this. I love your last paragraph in the comment. It’s a kind of censorship and it misses and fails to enjoy and acknowledge the timeless contribution of many books.

        My worry it’s that nowadays, this pointing to the past limitations and biases is making us so blind of our own. And people are believing that what is produced now taking these sensitive issues into consideration, it’s perfect. It kills me. I don’t even read much contemporary books for this reason. It seems to be written around the intent of being mindful of certain things. Arghhhh.

        Liked by 2 people

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  14. I’ve just started listening to the audio version narrated by Simon Vance (main narrator) and am really enjoying it. I read the novel many years ago and loved it. But I’ve never got around to a re-read. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the sequels as I plan to read them after listening to Dune. I see that a lot of reviewers have mixed feelings about them. I definitely want to read Messiah and Children, at least. Are you planning to re-read them, too?
    Fantastic review, by the way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I’ll reread them all, eventually. When I first read them, I thought the final books fantastic – better than the 2nd & 3rd one. No idea what I’ll think now, I’ve changed a lot as a reader.

      Liked by 1 person

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  19. Speaking of being versed in science fiction, when I read Dune in 1965 I had been reading SF for 12 years. I liked Dune, but I did not feel , at the time, that it was better than Sturgeon’s More Than Human, or Blish’s Cities in Flight, or Clarke’s Childhood’s End, or Asimov’s Caves of Steel, or Heinlein’s Door Into Summer, or works by Phil Dick, Fred Pohl, C M Kornbluth, Cordwainer Smith, others, … not many years after Dune The Left Hand of Darkness came out , I consider that the greatest SF novel ever written, Herbert is a good writer but not in my top 20 SF writers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a very interesting perspective, thanks for sharing it.

      Part of it is just taste obviously, but historical context is a factor too, and that’s something us newer readers will never be able to experience.

      On the other hand, there is today’s context, and in that context I do think Dune has aged better than most books you mention (I haven’t read the Blish or Door Into Summer, I’ve reviewed all the titles you mention).

      As for Herbert as a SF writer: most of his non-Dune novels weren’t succesful, and Dune Messiah & Children of Dune aren’t as good as Dune, so he’s problematic to rank. Then again, most if not all authors have written duds, so I think listing individual books makes more sense. Atm, I think my favorite SF work is The Book Of The New Sun, but I should reread that to confirm my hunch. If pressed, the writer with the best track record might be Kim Stanley Robinson for me.


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  21. Good analysis, but man put a spoiler warning in there! I haven’t read past Messiah, and really didn’t want to learn about the future of Leto 2 prematurely. No hard feelings, but that’s what the text *Spoiler Alert* is for.

    Liked by 1 person

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  24. Nice piece! Having only finished Dune a few weeks ago, I was struck by how closely the characters in the trailer for this movie resembled Herbert’s descriptions of them. The same could be said for the sets, fight scenes etc. I think the films may end up with the same problem that characterised Lynch’s version, though: Paul’s tactical abilities and how he becomes the scourge of the Harkonnens largely occur off-stage – something that I think was covered by a sort of montage in the Lynch version. In fact, I’d reckon a much bigger chunk of the book is taken up with he and his mother earning the acceptance of the Fremen.

    Paul’s foresight reminds me of how certain particles behave differently if observed – ie, the fact that he can see multiple outcomes influences the choices he makes. By extension, if you can see the future you are living in a deterministic universe. Sure, there’s a certain amount of latitude in terms of which choices you make, but those choices are finite.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s something I should have included in the movie review in retrospect: Paul’s powers are totally unclear in the movie. Villeneuve gets a pass because this is only part one, but the entire prescience thing is underdeveloped in this movie. There are visions in the movie, so it’s there, but the nature of the Kwisatz Haderach becomes more clear in the first half of the book iirc. But again, hard to judge this movie as it is only part one.

      As for the nature of the prescience and its effects, I can only direct you to the rest of my reviews of the series, I’ve written at length about it, and how it changes throughout the series. Basically, my view on it is that having choices doesn’t mean freedom at all: finite and limited indeed.


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