REVIEW: The Chronicles of Dune by Frank Herbert

Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for.

When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.

Warnings: Violence, drug usage, homophobic attitudes, underage sexuality, incest, rape, bestiality

Category: F/M, M/F

Dune is the first in a six book series known as The Chronicles of Dune, The Dune Chronicles or just ‘the Dune series’. When the new film was announced I decided to undertake the monumental task of reading the entire series- originally planning on only reading book one, I instead got sucked in to reading book two as well, and from there I made it my mission to read the whole damn series before writing a review. Of course there are more books than the original series now, but I thought I’d do the sane thing and stick solely to the canonical series as written by the original author, as those are… very much plenty strange enough. Considering that this is a review spanning all six books, it may be a doozy of a review, and will probably contain some light spoilers.

The Dune books are a rather older style of prose than is typical nowadays; spanning multiple POVs they give us a kind of top-down narration rather than putting us more intimately in the mindset of specific characters. These are books more about eras and political movements moreso than they are about people, and the writing reflects that. I tried to read the books as a teenager but found them too dry; as an adult I found it much more engaging, but it is certainly not light reading.

It is a series that is at its core about the rise and fall of powers. The first book follows the rise of Paul Atreides to power, while the second book, Dune: Messiah, is his fall. The narrative becomes picked up by his children in Children of Dune as his son Leto II rises to power, and follows Leto II’s reign through God Emperor of Dune where we see his rule, too, come to a close. A prominent pseudo-religious order known as the Bene Gesserit and other orders move more into the foreground in Heretics of Dune, and finally we see their fall as well in Chapterhouse: Dune.

It is also filled with philosophizing about the natures of humanity, the relationships between spirituality, religion, and power, and the nature of time, prescience and the concept of fate. It’s heavy stuff, and it meanders through lots of thoughts and concepts that you can just sink into and sit with for a long time after reading it, mulling it over in your mind over and over. I’m not really sure how much I agree with a lot of the ideas Herbert seemed to be playing with, but it’s certainly an ambitious work of thought exercising.

The biggest complaint, I think, with the Dune series is that because it’s more about politics, the setting, and the organizations that shape the flows of power, it lacks a lot in really letting the reader connect to its characters. This is not a character driven piece at all, and even the characters that you might consider to be protagonists or “main” characters aren’t really the point of the story. Years and sometimes centuries may pass and characters will pop in and out of the flow of the narrative with changed motivations and new allegiances, and relationships are glossed over rather than spent time with or developed. It’s hard to get into if you, like me, are mostly interested in character stories, as there is not a lot of emotional engagement with Dune.

However, it’s hard to say this is a flaw when Dune is clearly not actually intending to be a character driven narrative. Yes, the characters are flawed and often downright unlikable, with no real heroes or villains per say, but that’s a large part of the point of Dune and I feel that it would be missing the point to criticize it on this count too harshly. You may or may not enjoy the kind of story that is more about its world and its lore than it is about characters, but Dune at least does succeed in creating a compelling tone and atmosphere, even without engaging characterization. You could say that Dune is more “vibes” than story.

Of course the aspect that Dune is most famous for is its lore and worldbuilding, and this is certainly some of the most prominent aspects to the books. Dune’s setting is in the far distant future, where humanity has made it out amongst the stars and planets. Arrakis, informally known as Dune, is a sand planet that is home to a species of giant worms which both pose a danger to settlers of this planet, but also create the substance known as melange, otherwise known as spice. Spice is a psychedelic drug that lengthens lifespan, and allows users to see through the fabric of time itself, and it is the highest commodity in the known galaxy. This is the crux or centrepiece of all the politics and wars.

There is a considerable amount of backstory, and the world of Dune is legitimately fascinating and compelling. Herbert details many different cultures, lifestyles, and religious ideologies, all of which are complex and create a rich, organic tapestry. It also, however, gets incredibly strange. The first book in the series is not so strange- a lovingly crafted science fiction setting with well woven political upheavals. But each book that follows adds more and more sci-fi ideas and concepts, like enhanced clones that can have their memories restored via trauma, shapeshifters, bio-engineered living chairs, sex-cults, cat-people, and full body transformation into a worm-god just to name a scant few. Dune combines very thoughtful philosophy with rich worldbuilding, trippy as fuck drug scenes, and incredibly silly sci-fi nonsense, for one of the most unique blends of deeply strange literature I’ve ever read.

There are also of course criticisms to be made on the racial sensitivity of the Dune books- Herbert drew from a lot of Middle-Eastern culture and Islamic religion in his crafting of the setting, which can be seen as quite appropriative, not to mention the unfortunate “white savior chosen one” trope and colonialist nature of the Atreides occupation.

The other thing that Dune manages to mix in to this vast cocktail of strangeness, which also is mostly absent from book one but shows up progressively more and more in each further book into the series, is sexuality. This is one of the most outrageously sexual non-sexual book series I’ve ever read. Despite having very little on the page sex scenes (one in book five and one in book six) there is casual discussion of sex and sexuality throughout the entire series, and a lot of very strange sexual vibes. Familial relationships often veer into dubiously appropriate territory, like Paul lusting after his sister Alia or Paul’s children Ghanima and Leto II having the ghosts of their dead parents possess their bodies so that Paul and Chani can have an intimate moment, while in the bodies of their young children. Multiple characters fit the “technically a child but with the mind of an ancient” trope for varying reasons, and both the sex scenes that do make it to the page are scenes depicting the rape of young boys. It gets stranger the deeper in you get, especially once the Dominatrix sex-cultists show up, with their cat-human hybrid sex slaves.

I did really appreciate how often older women are portrayed as sexually alluring and seductive; the Bene Gesserit order seems much like the product of the imagination of a man with a mommy kink. There is so much going on sexually in Dune that one has to wonder why Herbert didn’t just write more actual sex into the narrative. Even stranger is that the actual sex content lacks much real creativity- the Dominatrix cultists don’t seem to do much other than fuck really really really good, their victims brainwashed by pussy power, and I would have liked more actual BDSM and sexual torment content if he was going to go that route. There is also some weird homophobic rhetoric in God Emperor about how gay men are evil because they become rapists, despite all the rape in these books being done by straight women. Maybe that is meant to be poetic justice? Perhaps most disappointing of all is a plot point in God Emperor when Leto II, transformed into a giant worm-mutant, falls in love with a girl but is sad because the transformation left him without a cock so he can’t fuck her. Herbert could give us rapist religious women but not, it turns out, monster fucking, which is such a missed opportunity.

Altogether one of the most unique sagas I have ever read. I both loved and hated my time with the Dune books- they were captivating enough that I couldn’t put them down and abandon the series even if I wanted to. I was trapped by them, enthralled for the full course of the length of their pages, and while I think a lot of their contents is very strange and sometimes very silly and over-pretentious, I am glad that I have read them. They’re a classic for a reason: they capture the imagination with the tenacity of a tazmanian devil and do not let you go- not even after you’ve finished reading.

Have you read Dune? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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