Tag Archives: analysis

CHAPTERHOUSE: DUNE – Frank Herbert (1985)

This is the 6th & final post in a series on my reread of the Dune books. It became yet another lengthy text of about 10,700 words. I’ve also written long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune and Heretics of Dune.

My text on Dune itself focuses on the issue of Paul as a tragic hero, without free will, and has some notes on the book as a literary construction. The one on Messiah compares it with the first book, and also looks at its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and at the relationship between prescience and the absence of free will. The article on Children is over 10,000 words long and deals with the tragedy of Alia, change as a key concept in the series, a Nietzschean morality beyond good & evil, and Amor Fati, among other things. My text on God Emperor is nearly 9,000 words and examines Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot. It also examines the nature of the supposed cautionary tale Herbert meant to write, and the introduction of non-mechanical world building in the series – contrasting with its prior central theme of the absence of free will. There’s also bits on the mechanics of no-room shielded prescience, the Golden Path, change & creativity, and various inconsistencies in the novel. I’ve written 11,600 words on Heretics, among other things, the text 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 in Dune. I try to explain why I liked this book best of the sequels so far, even with all its shortcomings. It ends with a section 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.

I’ve tried to keep overlap between this final text and the previous ones to a minimum, so if you’re interested in a deep desert dive, please read those first.


Chapterhouse Dune Frank Herbert (Schoenherr)“Truth is an empty cup.”

People change. 10 years ago I read the Dune series for the first time, and it became my favorite series ever. In 2019 I started my reread of the series, and now I’ve finally come to the end of that project, finishing Chapterhouse: Dune, the 6th book. 10 years ago, I thought Chapterhouse was the pinnacle of the series – today, I think it is its nadir, and I would not call the series as a whole a favorite anymore.

In what follows, I will first try to explain why I think Chapterhouse: Dune is the weakest of the bunch. The bulk of this post will be an analysis of the book’s main themes, and their relation to the previous books.

For starters an examination of the Bene Gesserit. The main question I still had after reading Heretics was about their intentions, and I’ll check how Odrade’s emotions play out in Chapterhouse as well. I’ll also look into the question of free will again – the main issue of the first Dune. I’ve written shorter sections on change & creativity – change being the series overall constant, on Nietzschean morality – yet another recurring theme, on the obscure & conflicted nature of Mentats and, finally, on Herbert’s obsession with bureaucracy, something that popped up in Heretics already.

Before I wrote my actual analysis, I lined up 85 quotes with a total of 5500 words. Not all of those made the cut, but the text is quote heavy nonetheless. If you don’t want to read quotes, just skip them: in most cases, you should be able to follow my reasonings without them.

I’ll end with a short assessment of the series in general.

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SEVEN SURRENDERS – Ada Palmer (2017)


Seven Surrenders PalmerNormally I read more than 15 other books between installments of a series, but as I was so hooked by Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer’s debut, I decided to read book 2 of Terra Ignota quickly.

Seven Surrenders is not a stand alone novel, and this review isn’t stand alone either. If you haven’t, please read my review of Lightning first – in which I try to explain why that book nearly flabbergasted me.

To cut to the chase: this review will be less raving. While I loved the bulk of Seven Surrenders, a few problems did arise, and taken as a whole – the two novels are one story playing out over a few days only – I can’t give it the full 5 stars. Some of that will be nitpicking. All things considered, it still is a strong 4.5 star read – not a mean feat by any measure.

It is only in Seven Surrenders Palmer shows her true hand: while there were hints of it in Too Like the Lightning, this part makes it fully clear this series is an over the top, theatrical series, heavily influenced by the pulp side of Japanese anime. Not that Palmer writes only for effect and show: she also wants to articulate serious thoughts. And even though she manages to do that, those thoughts also form the heel at which this kind of reader will aim his arrow.

More on that in a minute. Let me be loud and clear first: together, the first half of Terra Ignota – there are 4 books in total – is audacious, daring, dazzling, intricate, high octane, entertaining, dense, a bit pompous, at times soapy & melodramatic, original, fresh. A full on recommendation for anybody in for challenging science fiction. I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy the two remaining books, but as Palmer walks a tightrope, we’ll see. For those who were still on the fence after reading Too Like the Lightning, if that didn’t grab you, Seven Surrenders will not change your mind: don’t even bother, I’d say.

So, taking stock, Too Like the Lightning remains a favorite book. As a series though, based on my reading of Seven Surrenders, I doubt it will eventually match The Book of the New Sun or Anathem as an intellectual achievement of speculative wonder. That’s because there’s also something more fundamental to be said than nitpicking. The biggest problems I experienced have to do with some of the philosophy underlying the books. To explain that I will need to spoil certain parts – including spoilers for Lightning.

It might seem strange for a book I thoroughly enjoyed, but the rest of this review will generally be critical – as I said, check the first review for the laudatory part, all of it still stands, even with the caveats I’ll voice after the jump.

For those readers that turn to this blog for critical analysis, this is were I start my dissection of Terra Ignota. Obviously some of this criticism might change after I read book 3 & 4, but as I also draw a lot from interviews, I’m pretty confident the bulk of what I’ll say will also apply to the full series. And even if certain things will change significantly in the remainder of the series, I hope in that case my analysis will remain interesting to map how certain themes progress throughout the series.

I want to warn you: I’ve written 8600 words. You may not want to read it all, so I’ve provided sections with a heading. Amongst other things, I will discuss the series’ metaphysics – tied with Mycroft’s status as a narrator, its seemingly essentialist outlook, the embedded case study of utilitarian ethics, the nature of J.E.D.D., the question whether this utopia could devolve into war, a gender issue and the books’ politics, intrigues and world building.

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BEWILDERMENT – Richard Powers (2021)

BewildermentEvery intelligent, well-informed human that trusts the global scientific community and that recently became a parent undoubtedly will have had the same question staring him or her in the face: why did I knowingly bring a child into this world, a planet on the brink of catastrophic climate change, during the onset of the 6th mass extinction?

Richard Powers, 64, having no children, also felt the need to write a book related to that 21st century existential parental question. On the back cover it is posed like this: “At the heart of Bewilderment lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperilled planet?”

I will end this review with my own answer to these questions – being a father of two toddlers. Before that, there are 3000 words about Powers’ attempt – ultimately a failed and defeatist answer, in a novel that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. I’ll try to judge the book by the ambition that Powers’ expressed himself in various interviews.

But first, the question of genre: Bewilderment should appeal to most science fiction fans, at least on paper.

The father-protagonist is Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist who theorizes about life on exoplanets. Aside some talk about his actual research models, spread throughout the 278-page novel are about 25 short chapters that speculate about possible alien worlds.

The book is set in a slightly alternate today – not in a near-future, as I have seen claimed elsewhere. The novel’s story takes about one year, and Earth’s population is said to be 7.66 billion, so that would be somewhere in 2018. It’s basically our own time, but there are a few alternate events concerning a thinly veiled president Trump, and some existing technology that is used in a bit of a different manner as today. There are only three instances of such technological futurism, two of which are just details and perfectly possible already. The third however is central to the story, and while the technology does also already exist today – decoded neurofeedback (DecNef) – its described effects are totally speculative, even within the boundaries of the story itself, and as such it gives Bewilderment also a sparse magical-realist vibe.

Aside from the speculative content – I’d say this is slipstream rather than full blown sci-fi – Powers also incorporates references to science fiction, most importantly to the 1959 classic Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Theo Byrne is vocally proud of his collection of 2,000 science fiction books, Stapledon‘s Star Maker was “the bible of my youth”, and also the Fermi paradox is one of Bewilderment‘s themes – yet another staple of science fiction.

What’s not to like, fandom?

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HERETICS OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1984)

This is the 5th post in a series on my reread of the Dune books. It became yet another lengthy text of about 11,600 words, the longest in the series so far. I’ve also written long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune.

My text on Dune itself focuses on the issue of Paul as a tragic hero, without free will, and has some notes on the book as a literary construction. The one on Messiah compares it with the first book, and also looks at its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and at the relationship between prescience and the absence of free will. The article on Children is over 10,000 words long and deals with the tragedy of Alia, change as a key concept in the series, a Nietzschean morality beyond good & evil, and Amor Fati, among other things. My text on God Emperor is nearly 9,000 words and examines Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot. It also examines the nature of the supposed cautionary tale Herbert meant to write, and the introduction of non-mechanical world building in the series – contrasting with its prior central theme of the absence of free will. There’s also bits on the mechanics of no-room shielded prescience, the Golden Path, change & creativity, and various inconsistencies in the novel.

I’ve tried to keep overlap between this text and the previous ones to a minimum, so if you’re interested in a deep desert dive, please read those first.


Heretics of Dune (Schoenherr)A view that’s pretty pervasive is that the first three books are the best, and that Herbert kinda lost it afterwards. I don’t buy into this narrative. While I enjoyed Messiah, I also thought it was a dumbed down version of what Herbert did with Dune itself. Children had a great story, but also felt a bit convoluted and unclear. The overarching plot in the first two sequels is straightforward however, with a time frame that’s united, and characters that easily tie into the first book. As such it is fairly easy to grasp. It is only with the unplanned fourth book, God Emperor, that Herbert truly takes another canvas and paints something new, 3500 years after the original trilogy, and in the process he puffs up the attempts at philosophy. I think that book fails as philosophy, but at the same time it is a testament to an outrageous imagination. It’s understandable that readers who read Dune mainly for the action and sensawunda got bogged down in God Emperor, and cut their losses. But it’s also shortsighted, as Herbert picked up the pace again with Heretics.

Word has it Herbert planned another trilogy to finish the entire series after the pivotal God Emperor, and indeed, the story of Heretics of Dune is immediately continued in Chapterhouse: Dune. Frank Herbert died in 1986, but it’s not that hard to imagine he had indeed one final volume outlined – something his son Brian and Kevin Anderson tried to cash in with Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. And cash there was, as Herbert “received what was said to be the biggest contract ever for a science fiction novel” for Heretics of Dune. It came out in March 1984, right after his wife Beverly died of lung cancer on February 7th. She had been battling the disease for 10 years.

Now that I’ve reread it, I feel that Heretics resembles Dune most of all the sequels. It’s not dumbed down nor convoluted, it’s fairly clear, and it again has the right mixture of imagination, action and political scheming. But while Dune for me was a straight 10 that even got better when I reread it, Heretics doesn’t even come close, even though it is the best of the sequels I’ve reread yet.

In what follows, I’ll first dissect some of the novel’s problems. At the end of that section is my overall appraisal of Heretics, and an examination of certain parallels qua plot & personnel with the first Dune, so this first part of the analysis doubles as a review of sorts. As the dissection will deal with the pulpy plot, I will have to spoil some of it.

Afterwards, I’ll examine some of the book’s core concepts. As Heretics puts the Bene Gesserit front and center, I will try to gauge their motives first, however murky they are. Also heresy, variation & love get a section, and the final focus will be a major shift in the series, as this time, 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, in the sense that they might even be incompatible. This is no fault per se: about 20 years have passed between writing Dune and Heretics, and it would be odd for a writer to still hold the exact same beliefs after two decades. As change was such an important concept of the series so far, it is also fitting.

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GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1981)

This is the 4th post in a series on my reread of the Dune books, and it became yet another lengthy text of about 8,720 words. I’ve also written long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune.

My text on Dune itself focuses on the issue of Paul as a tragic hero, without free will, and has some notes on the book as a literary construction. The one on Messiah compares it with the first book, and also deals with its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and with the relationship between prescience and the absence of free will. The article on Children is over 10,000 words long and deals with the tragedy of Alia, change as a key concept in the series, a Nietzschean morality beyond good & evil, and Amor Fati, among other things.

I’ve tried to keep overlap between this text and the previous ones to a minimum, so if you’re interested in a deep desert dive, please read those first.



God Emperor of Dune (Brad Holland)Before I’ll zoom in on Leto’s conceptual character, and questions about prescience, the nature of the Golden Path and the question whether the world portrayed in this book is mystic or mechanical, I’ll try to write a proper review of sorts. If you’re also interested in the more philosophical matters, or in the various inconsistencies introduced in this novel, read on afterwards.


How to assess God Emperor of Dune in the series? In my recollection I thought Dune was by far superior to the 2nd and the 3rd book, but when I finished the series, I thought book 5 and 6 were the best. God Emperor is the only book I don’t have specific memories about anymore.

So far, my rereads have more or less confirmed my feelings: Messiah is dumbed down to the point it became bothersome – even though the emotions saved it in the end; the intrigues and Alia’s character make Children an above average read, even though conceptually it is a bit of a mess, and Herbert didn’t achieve the same purity of message as he did with Dune itself.

Similarly, after rereading God Emperor, I simply don’t have very outspoken feelings about it. It was an okay read, and by any standards Leto is a remarkable character – maybe the strangest character I have ever encountered in fiction. That by itself is an achievement.

The novel is often portrayed as heavy on philosophy, and I can understand what people mean by that, but I’d rather say it is sprinkled with tidbits that make you think, instead of calling this a philosophical book. Often these passages are mildly intellectually stimulating, but at the same time, taken at face value, generally take the form of sweeping generalizations about humanity. Because they often lack nuance they more than once made me shrug – Herbert’s attempt at Nietzschean aphorisms do succeed once in a while, but they don’t fully compensate for the main structural weakness of this book. Continue reading

CHILDREN OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1976)

I’ve written a lengthy analysis of Dune, and of Dune Messiah too. My text on Dune focuses on the issue of Paul as a tragic hero, without free will, and has some notes on the book as a literary construction. The one on Messiah compares it with the first book, and also deals with its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and with the relationship between prescience and the absence of free will.

I’ve tried to keep overlap between this text and the previous ones to a minimum, so if you’re interested in a deep desert dive, please read those first.


Children of Dune Di Fate

“The landscape which met their gaze was beyond pity, nowhere did it pause – no hesitations in it at all.”

There is something relentless to Children of Dune. It was the most difficult hurdle yet in my project of rereading the entire series.

It is a bit of a surprise this became “the first hardcover best-seller ever in the science fiction field” and also won the 1977 Hugo, because there is undeniably truth in David Pringle’s assessment of the book being “convoluted stuff.”

There’s a paradox to this very review and how it determined my reading experience, and it has to do with that convolutedness. Because I knew I wanted to write this text, I read Children carefully – maybe too carefully, taking notes, trying to figure things out. Especially in the second half of the book, that left me gasping for air at times, unable to figure out what Herbert wanted to do, lost in the mystical ramblings about visions and futures, focusing on inconsistencies or what I thought were inconsistencies. It took a bit of joy out of reading.

At the same time, I did like the overall plot a lot, and could see Herbert had actually managed to tell yet another great story with perfect pacing, especially when the action kicked in: his characteristic style of cutting between short scenes with lots of dialogue somehow delivered the goods again. All that left me with about a 3 out of 5 stars tally, a bit in line with when I first read the series, and I then thought book 2 and 3 were the weakest of the six.

But when I started to reread (and reread and reread) all the quotes I had marked to get a better grip on the book’s difficult stuff, I actually understood more of it, and most inconsistencies dissolved. So yes, this review at times wrecked my reading – instead of just riding the flow, I focused too much on trying to understand – but in the end it also reconciled me with the book. That leaves me with a 3.5, maybe 4 star rating, because I still think Herbert could have cut back some on the mystic philosophy, without actually hurting its core.

In what follows, I first tried to write something of a review of the book: strengths, weaknesses, characters, you know the drill. I primarily focus on Alia as tragic figure, and also discuss an important thing that remains unclear & possibly inconsistent: Paul’s relationship to the Golden Path.

For those that want to dive in even deeper, after that first part, I zoom in on four very specific subjects: how I think ‘change’ is the central concept of this book, the prevalence of a Nietzschean Amor Fati, the book’s relationship with Nietzsche’s morality beyond good & evil, and finally, free will and its relation to Leto II’s specific version of prescience.

Both parts are a spoiler bonanza, but I guess this kind of writing will not appeal to those who haven’t read the books anyway.

The text is heavy with quotes, but I wrote it so that you can still follow the logic if you skip them – except once, and I’ll warn you there. The quotes are for the die-hards. I had 9504 words selected out of the book, of which I used about 6200. Add to that my own 4400 words, and abracadabra …another long read, totaling 10630 words. It is what it is, I couldn’t help it. A full, thorough discussion of the book needed those.

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DUNE MESSIAH – Frank Herbert (1969)

Dune MessiahI’ve always considered the Dune series the best SF I’ve ever read, but as I read it fairly early in my ventures into SF, a reread is in order. Do my past opinions still hold, years & years and books & books later?

My reread of Dune itself was a fantastic experience, and before reading this review, I politely urge you to read my 5000+ word analysis of Dune – it deals with the question of determinism & Paul Atreides as a tragic hero, among other things, and I’ll talk about those themes here too.

I remember that when I first read the sequels, I thought Dune Messiah and Children of Dune to be a lesser affair than Dune itself. I also remember feeling Herbert got into his full stride again with the final 3 installments.

We’ll see how all that holds later, but my feeling on Dune Messiah turns out to be more or less the same. I really liked it, but it’s not on the same level as Dune: 4 stars, instead of 5. It’s also of note that I liked it a bit better now than the first time around.

I’ll try to keep this text under 5000 words, so that’ll be all for the introduction. In what follows, I first compare Dune Messiah to its big brother: why exactly is it a lesser book? That part is the proper review, so to say.

Afterwards, I’ll zoom in on a few things for those interested in a deeper analysis. I’ll first write about Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, and how that ties into Paul being a tragic hero. I’ll finish with a discussion on determinism & free will in Dune Messiah – even though I’m starting to feel I’m beating a dead horse on this blog, especially after my massive post on the same subject and Lord of the Rings. The last two parts will be heavy with quotes.

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LONG FORM FICTION ANALYSIS


This is a list of longer articles of a more scholarly nature, some are +5,000 or even +10,000 words. Most touch on philosophical matters.


Frank Herbert

On Paul as a tragic hero, and determinism as the foundation of Dune, amongst other things.

A comparison between Dune & Dune Messiah, a part on Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence in relation to Messiah, and how that ties into Paul being a tragic hero and not an Übermensch. I end with a discussion on determinism & free will in Messiah.

For starters Alia as tragic figure, and a discussion about an important thing that remains unclear: Paul’s relationship to the Golden Path. After that, 4 specific subjects: how I think ‘change’ is the central concept of this book, the prevalence of a Nietzschean Amor Fati, the book’s relationship with Nietzsche’s morality beyond good & evil, and finally, free will and its relation to Leto II’s specific version of prescience. Over 10,000 words in total.

Starts with a regular review, and after that examines Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot. Also examines the nature of the supposed cautionary tale Herbert meant to write and the introduction of non-mechanical world building in the series, contrasting with its central theme of the absence of free will. Other topics are the mechanics of no-room shielded prescience, the Golden Path, change & creativity, and it takes a critical look at various inconsistencies in the novel. Over 8,700 words in total.

11,600 words. Among other things, the text looks at Herbert’s narrative bluff, and examines the Bene Gesserit’s motivations. It 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 try the explain why I liked this book the most of the sequels, even with all its shortcomings. The most important focus of the analysis is 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.

10,700 words. 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. Ends with an reflection on the Dune series in general.

Yoon Ha Lee

On the morality of writing & enjoying violent fiction.

Hilary Mantel

On the conflict between the two world views underlying the novel: pragmatism vs. Plato, and a wee bit on free will.

Ada Palmer

8,600 words on the first half of Terra Ignota’s metaphysics – tied with Mycroft’s status as a narrator, its seemingly essentialist outlook, the embedded case study of utilitarian ethics, the nature of J.E.D.D., the question whether this utopia could devolve into war, a gender issue and the books’ politics, intrigues and world building.

Richard Powers

3,000 words on why the defeatist Bewilderment fails the goals Powers has set for himself with this clifi-ish short novel. Amongst other things a matter of hubris about the power of literature, and of content that is out of focus.

Kim Stanley Robinson

A lengthy, analytic review backed by lots of fragments from recent KSR interviews.

W. Olaf Stapledon

On the conceptual & philosophical content, and its science fictional relevance.

J.R.R. Tolkien

A detailed exploration of LOTR‘s most basic problem: its internal contradictions viz. free will, and Tolkien’s own messy thinking on the subject.

Gene Wolfe

5,500 words on a reread of TBotNS, focusing on the narrative trap Wolfe has set, and my theory that his literary sleight of hand serves a religious/mystical goal, much more than it is the supposed puzzle for the reader to unravel. There’s also a short section on free will, and it ends with my overall appraisal of the book’s enduring appeal.

Not as long, but with a coda that is a response to Wolfe’s delusional reactionary politics as he expressed them in a 2001 essay on Lord of the Rings.

 


Consult the author index for all my reviews, the index of non-fiction & art book reviews, or my other lists.

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.

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