Sunday, September 1, 2013

Rereads: Dune

When I was a youth, 99% of what I read was fantasy and science fiction. We didn't have the most money, so any such book that came into the house, I'd read over and over for years. In this occasional series, I take up some of those old and treasured titles and give them a read after fifteen or twenty years to see how I feel about them now.

This one's a big deal. Frank Herbert's Dune is one of the biggest books in the world, not just in Science Fiction, but in general. Millions of copies sold, dozens of related books, a big screen movie, a television mini-series or two with crazy hats, a board game or two, and dozens of imitators.

So why was I underwhelmed?

Let's examine the situation. I probably read Dune the first time when I was ten or so, as with a great many of these books. It's a really dense book for a ten year old, even one who'd been reading at a college level for a couple of years, and probably I didn't grasp all of it at the time. I tore through it all the same, and through the next three books (Dune Messiah, Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune). The other two "real" Dune books didn't exist when I read the series; and none of the seemingly endless supply of related titles put out by Herbert's son with a co-author (read: the actual author) were even nightmares yet. Many times I reread them all, especially when Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune appeared. But within a couple more years, by the time I was say sixteen or so, I was done. I never really read them again, I don't think; it's possible that I gave Dune one more read at some point, and God Emperor also (I think that's the best of the series, or I did...who can say, now?)

There's the movie to consider, as well. David Lynch did a very strange adaptation: big budget, prestigious cast of mostly little known (good, theatrical) actors, massive inaccuracies. I've seen that a dozen times, at least, so many that when I imagine the characters they look like Brad Dourif

 or Sting

 or Sean Young.

 And that's where the problem arises. The movie is wrong in so many places, stupid in so many more, and changes things to make them so bad it's almost funny but not quite. And's got some powerful imagery. And it cuts out a lot of the blah,blah,blah of the book.

Did I mention that blah,blah,blah yet? No? Well, there's a lot of it. Dune is a "philosophical" sort of novel, of the same kind as the Foundation series, for instance. Note the quotes, though. It's not really philosophical, or particularly smart. It's pretty dumb, really. But it imagines itself to be smart, and so it goes on (Herbert goes on, to be factual) at great length about this or that or the other thing, and none of it is particularly interesting, really. Clumsy politics, goofy environmentalism (here I must note: good on Herbert for having any such thoughts at all), drippy religious stuff, silly economics. There's something of a good novel inside (obvious: it has outsold my wildest imagination of what good sales could be) but it's bogged down with so much bonus stuff that has to be kind of hand waved away, or apologized for, or just skipped over.

I can remember doing that a lot when I was younger. Skipping over whole books, in fact: the second and third, to get to the fourth. But even Dune and God Emperor of Dune are laden with the same problems as the inferior entries that I scorned to reread.

So was this a reread I enjoyed? A mixed bag. There were bits I really liked a lot, bits I found eminently readable but didn't really relish, and bits I didn't care about. Mostly I thought it needed to be about 200 pages shorter; that it would have benefited from a few less details and systems and patterns and suchlike; and that I really wish there were more of some of the characters and less of others. But that's not the case, of course. It's a classic as it is, whether I really love it any more or not, and sadly I don't.

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