Sunday 23 February 2014

Dune by Frank Herbert

I'm continuing my series on rediscovering great books of my childhood. After Watership Down and The Hobbit, we now have Frank Herbert's Dune. 

Herbert's writing wasn't as instantly engaging as Tolkien's or Richard Adams'. Dune is full of odd names and terminology — come to think of it, so were The Hobbit and Watership Down — yet in Herbert's case, the prose is somewhat dense and awkward, difficult to get into.

But as soon as we reach Chapter 2, which introduces the evil Baron Harkonnen and his plans to destroy our heroes, the Atreides clan, the story achieves escape velocity. Herbert does something brilliant here. He immediately tells the reader the identity of the traitor in the Atreides' midst. 

So we spend the next 160 pages in a state of agonising suspense watching the characters we care about sleepwalk towards their doom, before the betrayal is finally (and bloodily) enacted and the trap is sprung.
As soon as we arrive on the planet Arrakis (Dune to you) Frank Herbert's prose really takes flight. His descriptions of the desert world bring it to vivid life: "chasms of tortured rock, patches of yellow-brown crossed by black lines of fault shattering. It was as though someone had dropped this ground from space and left it where it smashed." And "the cliff lifting golden tan in the morning light." It's obvious that, as with Edward Abbey, here we have a writer who loves the harsh beauty of his desert landscapes.

Herbert is also adept at evoking the futuristic machinery and technology, making it seem real through the use of small, telling detail. Like the personal force fields that act as shields to protect the wearer as Paul and his trainer fence with rapiers: "The air within their shield bubbles grew stale... With each new shield contact the smell of ozone grew stronger." 

Or his depiction of the ornithopters they use to fly over the barren deserts of Arrakis. Herbert makes them seem real through small, subtle detail ("the craft creaked as the others clambered aboard") and then he deploys them in the great sequence where they have to evacuate a massive Sand Crawler vehicle because of the approach of a giant worm, bent on their destruction. The personnel pour into the Duke's squad of small ornithopters and take to the skies: "Aircraft began lifting off the sand around them. It reminded the Duke of... carrion birds lifting away from the carcass of a wild ox." 

And the wonderful portrayal of the gargantuan worms themselves, their "uncaring majesty" as they go sliding through the sand.

However, what really keeps the reader entranced is the intoxicating combination of action and suspense as Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica are plunged into peril after peril while they discover this strange new world.

Add this beautifully conjured world to an irresistible adventure story and a fascinating array of concepts and you begin to see the elements which make Dune such a classic.

I'm delighted that another beloved book of my childhood has withstood the years so well.

(Image credits: As usual, I have taken a selection of the covers from Good Reads. And, as usual, many of my favourites were either missing or inadequate images. So the cover of the copy I'm actually reading, with the big gold lettering by Howard J. Shaw and the Gerry Grace art featuring the guys riding the worms — spoiler alert! You shouldn't put stuff like that on the covers, you silly publishers — is from a mysterious Russian site. Beware pop-ups if you go to it. The lovely Illustrated Dune cover, with art by the great John Schoenherr, is from the blog of Schoenherr's son Ian. Just as Pauline Bayne was the finest illustrator for the works of Tolkien and for Richard Adams' Watership Down, Schoenherr was the perfect Dune artist. The magnificent John Schoenherr cover for the original Analog magazine serialization (entitled Dune World) is from the excellent Ski-Ffy. The handsome Gollancz 'yellow jacket' 50th anniversary hardcover image is taken from eBay.)


  1. Ha! Last week I mentioned Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels and you replied that it was a funny coincidence
    because Ben Aaronovitch is a fan, and this week you
    write about ' Dune' which, coincidentally, I have recently
    been thinking about reading. Your article has made me
    decide to go ahead and read Frank Herbert's novel.
    Thank you.
    Best regards.

  2. I'm really enjoying Dune. I may write another entry on it when I finish it this week. And then on to the sequels!

  3. If you make it as far as Heretics I'd be interested in your opinion. It's my favorite and I couldn't tell you why.

  4. Hey Al, on your recommendation I shall proceed as far as Heretics... that was still by Frank writing solo, correct?

  5. Yes. I'd recommend total avoidance of Brian Herbert's sequels. I tried a few but they are largely awful, simple space adventures set in the Dune universe.