Before I start, I feel I must point out, yes, I have read Dune before. This is a re-read of something I must have first come to… ooh god probably twelve years ago now. That’s slightly distressing. It wasn’t the first SF book I read, but it wasn’t far off. Unlike the first SF book I remember reading (that being Mindstar Rising, which has survived several re-reads with fond memories intact, and caused me to get a signed copy), I didn’t desperately enjoy it at the time. I didn’t dislike it, and it certainly didn’t damage my feelings for SF as a genre or I wouldn’t be writing this now, but it wasn’t exciting and wonderful. It was just… ok I guess. So when I came back to it, having spotted my mother’s very battered copy in my old bedroom, I didn’t do so with fond feelings of nostalgia. I was just curious how it would read from a grown up perspective with a heck of a lot more SF to compare it to. I mean, it’s a classic right? It’s got to be good. Teenage me must have just been a numpty. Right?
Not so much. Spoilers – 26 year old me isn’t keen either.
Part of this probably comes from the fact I’m more of a fantasy reader than SF. I love a good setting, a great idea, but I need more than that to make me love a book. I need characters, and plot. I need it to be a great novel, not just a great idea*. And for me, Dune isn’t that. I know plenty of people will disagree with me, as it is, after all, considered a classic… but it just felt flat. The characters seemed… hollow and empty. If you took out the SF setting, it felt like a mediocre novel at best. And I know coming to the older stuff having read everything that came after gives you a terrible perspective – this came in early in the tradition and didn’t have a lot of tropes to be held against it. I know that. But people have been writing novels for a heck of a long time, and doing one thing well (however early in the SF tradition you come) is not, for me, a great excuse for failing to write a good story.
Ok, that’s a bit harsh. The story isn’t terrible. It’s just not amazing either. Apart from the setting, nothing is amazing. Primarily, the problem I have is with the characters. None of them feel worth caring about. Paul is annoying. Jessica’s annoying. Chani’s annoying… you get the idea. The baddies are stereotypically bad. And no one feels like they have any depth to them. There’s no emotional feeling anywhere. They just don’t feel like people at all. Which… I suppose I could live with in a shorter book, maybe, but Dune is fairly hefty. And if you don’t care about any of the characters, it’s really hard to get behind the drive of the story. Also, none of the good guys feel particularly good. Not in an interesting way. No antiheroes or complex moral character. They just feel… like not-very-nice people. One of whom happens to be the main character. Again, makes it really hard to care. Leto seemed… okay, I guess? But that’s kind of it.
And plotwise… it’s interesting, I suppose? There are some good ideas, the setting is great, and the pace at which new stuff comes to light is fantastic. But what actually happens? Eh. The chapters all have little excerpts from books written after the plot as well… and they get really repetitive. None of the points are driven home subtly. It’s not just “oh, cool”. It’s “ok, ok, I get it, thanks, calm yourself”. It’s paced decently, and things draw… if not to a completely satisfying close then a close at least in a reasonable amount of time. There doesn’t feel like there’s too much of a rush at the end to resolution. Well, I felt like there was a little, but I think that’s partially because I could tell the end was in sight and I just wanted to get it over with. If it was an abrupt finish, it wasn’t hugely so. Which is great. But without anything being that exciting, and without caring what happened to anyone, caring if they won, or lost, or died… that didn’t really matter to me.
Frankly, I just couldn’t be bothered with it.
It sounds like I’m really getting hung up on the character thing, and I suppose I am. But it really matters. A good book is not just about a good setting, and part of the reason I don’t always get on with proper SF is that, in my experience, it is not always so concerned with getting the characters right as fantasy is. I can easily name you ten fantasy books with great characters without even trying. SF? I’d struggle. And not just because I’ve read less than I have of fantasy. Possibly this isn’t SF’s failing so much as a sign it isn’t really for me, but still… it really grates, and I think it is one of the easier things to fix. Make me care about your characters. Make me want them to succeed… or make me hate them! Or make me really conflicted about whether I love or hate them. But make me care. Please?
Next time, the complete opposite! I care very much about the characters, and it’s definitely fantasy, and I am over-the-top in love with the book. Hurrah!
* Or it needs to be about one of: Romans, Ancient Greeks, Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Mesopotamians, fake versions of any of those, people pretending to be any of those, or all of the above. You could write the worst novel out there, but if it was full of robot Romans fighting the laser-powered Egyptian gods from space, I would read the heck out of it.