Dune: A Cautionary Book Review

I have often described the novel, Dune, written by Frank Herbert and published in 1965, as a “dad book,” as most white, middle-aged dads I’ve met all seem to have read it. After encountering so many dads who were part of this unofficial Dune book club, including my own, I wanted to see what was so encapsulating to them and the many other non-dads who love it. Having read it and seeing the newest film adaptation, I am reminded of everything I loved and hated upon first reading it. 

Photo Courtesy of Penguin Random House

In the first installment of this whimsical science fiction series, we follow Paul Atreides and his journey to regaining his dukedom after an assassination attempt, the downfall of his father, and his realization of magical powers enabled by the girlboss all-women witch cult known as the Bene Gesserit. It is perhaps no coincidence that Paul’s last name, Atreides, is a romanized version of the ancient Greek word “Ἀτρεΐδης,” meaning “son of Atreus” in reference to King Agamemnon. This ancient mythological figure gained infamy by way of his greed for power, and Herbert’s naming of this family line coincides with the dominating theme of power struggles throughout the novel. 

The compelling narrative of a boy and his mother on the run from a powerful empire propels readers to keep flipping page after page in one sitting. The world is carefully constructed and thoroughly explained, and this world building comfortably establishes the novel in the genre of science fiction. The descriptions of the desolate, sandy desert planet most of the story takes place in make you thirsty just reading it, and the intricacies of the locals’ technological suits and drilling equipment make for an immersive experience. 

The characters all speak like real people speak and have mannerisms that bring them to life rather than smother them on the page, thanks to the dynamic and lively writing. My favorite characters might just be the giant killer space worms living on Arrakis, one name of the aforementioned desert planet, and overall the depictions of the human characters are bright and believable… for the most part. 

My biggest problem with the novel is also what likely made so many dads love it: Dune suffers from “chosen-one syndrome.” Though he might have a badass last name fitting for a science fiction character, the lead’s first name is one of the most generic names I’ve ever heard of. This is not the only thing that makes Paul an easy self-insert archetypal character, however, as his characterization takes a pretty stunning turn once he learns how to control his magic powers. Suddenly, he goes from a somewhat naive-but-promising young boy to a mature man with an assertive leadership attitude and full control over his magical abilities. I found this turn to be rather jarring, and this may be due to the pace quickening about two thirds of the way through the book. 

This character change can be mostly attributed to Paul’s new mastery of his magical powers, which can be credited to the women of the book. Women are oversimplified in their characterization as a byproduct of this “chosen-one syndrome,” as this supposedly very independent, all-women run witch cult is then stripped of all that promising feminist power so a male savior can swoop in and save the world. This savior is obviously Paul, and he sees absolutely no problem in playing their handsome hero. His mother, very creatively named Jessica, would do literally anything for him and does pretty much everything for him. She certainly has her moments of absolute elegance and cleverness, but this doesn’t save the novel from a full feminist redemption. 

Dune definitely makes a great science fiction read if you’re looking for something with a dramatic plot and highly descriptive, logical world building. The royal scandals and plotting, the espionage and assassination attempts, plus the vivid, lively characters have solidified Dune as a must-read, especially if you want to fit in with your dad’s friends. 

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