Dune: A Newbie’s Guide

duneeyesDune. It’s that book about spice or whatever, right?

Yes, random person I met on the sidewalk. It’s that book about spice. Also it’s about self-reliance, religion, evolution, fate, the dangers of society hanging its future on a single leader, and our strangely innate desire to follow those leaders through whatever wild ideas they propose. But sure, spice.

Decades after its release, Dune‘s reputation has hardly dulled. Everyone agrees it’s good—even the people who haven’t read it, and those same people have the same pattern of excuses for not getting through more than a few pages. I’m determined to break that pattern.

Whether you’re Dune-curious yourself, or know someone who might be, here’s a quick rundown of the most common obstacles to diving into the best sci-fi book ever written. There’s no reason to fear Dune. After all, fear is the mind killer…

Obstacle #1: Um, what’s going on?
The in-world Dune has about 10,000 years of history behind it, not to mention all of our real world history, too. The thing is, the book doesn’t tell you most of that, it just drops you in Paul’s room and lets the adventure begin. It’s overwhelming for a very specific reason, but for many readers, it’s a barrier they just can’t cross.

To cut down on the headspin, here’s a quick pre-book history primer to provide context for those first steps.

About 10,000 years before the book begins, humans invented thinking machines. That turned out to be a bad idea: we had a big war with them and kinda won (see prequel The Butlerian Jihad for one interpretation of that conflict). From that day forward, we decided any kind of semi-smart machine was bad news. High fives all around, then it was time to explore the universe some more. People spread out and adapted to new worlds, formed isolated cultures, and started specializing in different ideologies. The Bene Gesserit, for example, worked on controlling physiological processes (among other things), somewhat similar to real world people who can control their body temperature or heart rate with just a thought. Mentats trained their minds to work like computers, and so on. All the cultural groups in Dune are still human, just with different societies and consciously cultured abilities.

On a smaller scale, the power is divided into Houses, just like in feudal times on Earth. Or, why not, like the Houses in Game of Thrones. House Harkonnen, meet House Lannister. House Atreides, House Stark. Dune pits these conspiring factions against each other, tossing in a gigantic monopolistic corporation (CHOAM) and a fading Emperor as wild cards. At the center of these struggles is spice, the most valuable substance in the universe. Without it, space travel isn’t possible, nor are half the other things humans do around the galaxy.

End primer. Start reading Dune!

Obstacle #2: The opening chapters are a slog
Dune lays out a lot of intriguing concepts in the first few pages, but does so in a mentally paralyzing way: about a dozen different plot threads are introduced, none of which are followed up on until later in the book, and vast history is referenced and utilized without providing context to help settle readers.

As is the case with any good piece of literature, the form and structure mirror content. The protagonist, Paul, is ripped from his watery home and sent to a harsh desert world. The reader is similarly tossed into an inhospitable climate, helping push a little emotion off the page. The book begins as an unfriendly read because Paul is in an unfriendly world. Heck, everybody there is, so why should the text be all hot cocoa and fuzzy blankets?

The first few chapters can be a struggle, but there’s an exponential payoff just ahead. Paul gradually acclimates to his new environment, as do we. The jargon gradually makes sense, the Bene Gesserit and Fremen terms start to click, and we begin to feel the tiniest bit at home. For a few chapters, we’re all on the same level. Then, Paul surges forward to attain his status as prophet, leaving us to eat his spice dust. We followed his journey from lost boy to Muad’dib, but now we couldn’t catch up to him if we tried. We are his followers, just like the millions of people on Arrakis. That’s not an experience you can convey if you coddle the reader from the opening chapter.

So, yes, the first chunk is forbidding. But the most rewarding journeys often start with a little grit.

Obstacle #3: Frank’s writing style is stuffy
Most of Herbert’s work conveys a sense of progression without actually moving events forward. You read a chapter, you get a sense something has shifted, but for the life of you, you can’t tell what. Some authors produce action-packed page turners, some, wild and exciting thrillers. Frank Herbert produces intellectual intrigue, the kind that sticks with you for years. Doing this properly requires laying a foundation, teasing out ideas, and building philosophies one concept at a time. There are no shortcuts. There will be uncut paragraphs of philosophical dialogue. But hey, at least there won’t be a test.

Dune spends 200 pages building events to a sharp edge, drops in a paragraph where everything in the universe unwinds, then spends another 200 pages explicating the near- and far-reaching consequences. The dense writing helps build intrigue for that sharp turn. It keeps us engaged, though not necessarily excited. A lot of modern books have gotten us used to the inverse of the 200/1/200 pattern (all action, one quotable line of pop philosophy, all action). Not getting that small, instant payday can be off-putting. But the big, distant payoff is worth it. So is the mental revolution you’ll have after digesting the contents.

There really isn’t a workaround for not jiving with an author’s writing style. The best advice is to stick with it, and realize that each half-understood line of dialogue builds to a larger final understanding. Frank’s got your back. Press on.

Obstacle #4: The plot is too complicated
Early on, Duke Leto makes a reference to the political movements among the Houses, describing them as a, “feint within a feint within a feint”. They make one move, only to reveal that was a cover for another, which was itself a cover for yet another. You’d need a spreadsheet just to track which House is pulling which string.

Dune doesn’t just hand over its mysteries. You have to read, you have to think, you have to draw your own conclusions. The answers are never layed neatly in front of you, only enough resolution to bring cursory curiosities to a satisfying completion. There’s an iceberg of intrigue floating just below, which is why it is one of the greatest mind traps ever written.

You won’t be able to follow every subplot on your first read. I’ve gone cover to cover many times, and still find nuances I never noticed before. The main story thread somehow finds you midway through, and even though it careens forward whether you understand the cause and effect or not, when it crashes home, you’re sure why.

Your first time through, you won’t know who hates whom or why. Honestly, you don’t need to know. Not yet, anyway. Resist the urge to keep track of the details and embrace the sensation of drowning in a world that doesn’t care you exist. At a certain point the book ditches the politics and focuses on the characters. Walk through it all and experience the contrast.

Obstacle #5: What’s with all the weird words?
Sci-fi and fantasy books love invented languages. It’s a simple way to build a more believable world, and it’s fun to pick up new pieces of slang. (You grok me?) The flipside is, readers won’t have any idea what a qanat is, or why the Bene Gesserit are so obsessed with this missionaria protectiva business. When mixed in with other less-than-reader-friendly characteristics, the weird words every other paragraph can be the final straw.

But Herbert does a decent job keeping readers in the loop using context. The Arabic-inspired phrases still look foreign to most people, but they flow with the text without forcing you to flip to the glossary. The real problems are the proper nouns thrown at you like a fistful of sand: where’s Ecaz and why should I care? Who’s from Salusa Secundus, and did they bring me back any presents?

You’ll do just fine the first time without knowing the details of Richese. Later, once you get hooked on the series and start your fourth or fifth reading, you can build a vocabulary and chatter with us devotees. For now, don’t worry about a thing.

Obstacle #6: It’s an old book
This is the funniest, eye-rollingest “I don’t wanna read Dune” excuse, but it’s also the most flattering. Dune doesn’t show its age like many 50-year-old novels. The text doesn’t date, nor do the concepts or storyline. If you didn’t know Dune was released in 1965, I could have told you it came out in 2010. That’s a good thing, and the mark of a true classic.

There’s the key word: classic. Everybody wants to have read the classic pieces of literature, but no one wants to actually sit down and read them. Dune landed a spot on that pedestal in a surprisingly short amount of time. It’s one of the few sci-fi books to hold the honor, and it didn’t need movie franchises or action figures to pull it off. Just a genuinely good story.

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