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Monday, November 23, 2015

Dune

I finished Dune today. Next books up are Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Don Quixote, and Dune Messiah.

Dune is considered by a good number of critics to be the best science fiction novel ever written and is pretty much universally considered to be in the top 3-5. It is also reportedly the best-selling book in the genre.



After reading two pages, I thought someone was screwing with me. I'm not even exaggerating; I went around to various web pages to make sure that the terrible pages I was reading on my Kindle were actually the beginning of the fabled novel. It turns out they were, even though they basically exemplify the two problems that make the worst novels of the genre unreadable: (a) an attempt to seem profound, leading to text which was clearly intended to be sophisticated but reads more like someone only just coming to understand the basic rules of English grammar and (b) an abundance of made-up words with no context to aid an attempt to understand them. To demonstrate (a) and a healthy amount of (b), I need only quote the first paragraph:

“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of the Maud’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born of the 57th year of the Padishah Emporer Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.”

As if that’s not enough to get most readers to stop immediately, it then proceeds to use all of these words over the next page and a half, with no further clue as to what they mean: untuned baliset, Kwisatz Haderach, bird-bright ovals, gom jabbar, CHOAM Company, glowglobe, “the geriatric spice, mélange”, faufrelauches class system, caid, and bashar. Plus the names: Thufir Hawat, the Atreides, Duke Leto, Dr. Yueh, and the Harkonnens. All in a page and a half. I will mention that there is a glossary, but I really don’t view that as a good thing. Readers shouldn’t have to flip to the back of your book to understand what you’re saying, plus it’s a huge pain on a Kindle. My irritation here could be unfairly increased by the fact that I read Infinite Jest, with its hundreds of end notes (mostly pointless, all obnoxious), and then Lolita with annotations (useful, but disruptive to reading flow) and then this. Ultimately, this was largely a moot point.

After those first two pages, it’s like a switch is flipped. The language becomes coherent and the made-up words are reduced, explained, and reused to allow the reader to come to an understanding. Once I could understand what was happening, I couldn’t put it down. The plot was compelling, the characters interesting, and the world building struck a strong balance between the two extremes that sci-fi and fantasy authors often have a tough time avoiding: (1) leaving me no clue of how things work or (2) basically making me read an in-universe civics textbook. It’s not perfect. There are still made-up terms used occasionally that seem to lean on the glossary. That being said, I can definitely see why people hold this book in such high regard, and I look forward to the next five books in the series (I don’t plan to read the works the author’s son wrote after his death). I’m interested to hear if people think they hold up to or even exceed the original. I’ve read various opinions.

Dune was rejected by over twenty publishers before being picked up by a small printing house best known for car repair manuals. I wonder if those publishers quit within those first two pages, and how many readers might have done the same. I wouldn’t blame them, but I’d also encourage them to give it another try if they enjoy sci-fi. Frankly, I also think this book would be enjoyed by most fans of authors like Tom Clancy if they can tolerate sci-fi and fantasy elements. I also wonder what the author was thinking. You’re supposed to hook readers in the beginning, not scare them away. Maybe he only wanted truly committed readers to enjoy his book. It’s a mystery to me.


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