One of the most fascinating books I’ve recently read is Dune. Written by Frank Herbert in 1963 it challenged the standards of the science fiction genre at the time, and set a new vector for its development. Before Dune, science fiction writers placed possible technological advancements and their effect on humanity at the core of their narrative. Individual characters served to illustrate and interact with the powers of new technologies, but there was no soul searching or character arc. Frank Herbert let the technical detail fall by the wayside and brought the inner world of his characters to the foreground, thus paving the way for a subgenre that would later be called “soft sci-fi” as opposed to “hard sci-fi”.
The action of Dune is set in the far-off future on a desert planet that plays a crucial role in the economy of the multiplanetary Empire. The planet, Dune, is the only source of a precious substance called “spice” which allows for space travel, thus making the planet the cornerstone of the Empire. The plot centres around two powerful families who fight to dominate the planet, as well as native people who have inhabited the land since the dawn of time.
The action, however, is not what makes the book shine. It’s the atmosphere of the world that draws you in. While reading, I could feel the blazing sands blowing in my face and smouldering heat burning my skin. I could feel the thirst rising in my throat and could calculate the value of every drop of water. These sensations were kindled by emotional and detailed descriptions of various rituals of water preservation on Dune, that sometimes border on insanity. Personally, I find the desert a magnificent and mysterious place; so it seems, did the author. And his powerful images bring that landscape alive.
Apart from plunging into the desert life, the reader also dives into the inner world of the characters. They think … a lot. Their actions and even utterances are accompanied by an inner monologue meandering from past events to present judgements, suspicions or intentions. I don’t think it’s to everyone’s liking, and may appear overdone – indeed, it was well parodied in South Park – but it’s an integral part of what makes this book very special.
A little fly in the ointment is the author’s failure to balance superb description and psychological scenes with action sequences. Not that there weren’t any. They just did not read as thrilling as they could have, had it been Pierce Brown, for instance, who wrote them. Chasing and fighting either drag on or is so short that you don’t know where the resolution came from.
I think I have sort of cheated you by writing all the above as if these impressions came from reading. It was the audiobook I so immensely enjoyed. Audiobooks might indeed affect the perception of a work of fiction since they are another lens a reader looks through. I wouldn’t want to exchange my listening experience for reading, because the narration was marvellous and helpful in visualising the story. As I listened, my imagination was travelling across the desert sands, and my mind was engaged in the inner conversations of the characters.
Now I agree that every sci-fi enthusiast must read Dune, and I agree that any screen adaptation is doomed for disaster, but like all the fans I hope the new director, Denis Villeneuve, has managed to turn the tide and create a film true to the book and its voice.