Dune by Frank Herbert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading Dune for the first time over 50 years after its publication is a weird experience. On the one hand I can easily trace the evolution of its now classic storytelling components in so many modern stories. The slain king. The deposed prince. The hero’s journey. The evil rulers. The mind powers. The natives. The rebellion.

It’s the original (maybe?) white savior story, where Paul Atreides is forced to flee into the arms of the native population of Arrakis, the volatile desert planet. Paul is easily able to exploit their religion, becoming their messianic figure and leading them to a revolution over the entire planet.

Frank Herbert supposedly demonizes Paul’s actions and calls them into question. Maybe that’s true of the sequels, but in the original Paul is absolutely the protagonist who can do no wrong. Literally he succeeds at everything he does, whether he’s dueling hostile Fremen, leading armies across the desert, or finding love and marrying a princess. We’re supposed to root for him the entire time as he takes his vengeance against the invading Harkonnens, even when the climax includes a duel against a character whom he’s never even met before.

With little drama in Paul’s journey from deposed prince to leader of the native Fremen, the entire middle of the book drags. Thankfully Herbert crafts an intriguing sci-fi setting that’s as much medieval and alien as it is futuristic. Fighting with knives and shields, riding monstrously gigantic sand worms, and taking drugs to gain prophetic powers are all hallmarks of a fantasy series, not a science fiction one. The blending of the two genres is Dune‘s greatest success, and most recognizable in the Star Wars series.

But setting alone does not a great story make. Ultimately Dune lacks interesting characters, dramatic stakes, and exciting moments. Without the benefit of nostalgia, I can’t see Dune as anything other than an important foundation from which other stories improved upon.

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