Dune has never been unconditionally admired

Friday, October 29th, 2021

In the spring of 1984, the American Booksellers Association held its annual convention in Washington, and Washington Post critic Michael Dirda was there:

One evening, Book World — The Washington Post’s then stand-alone literary supplement — hosted a cocktail party on the roof of the paper’s now demolished headquarters at 15th and L streets NW. As I wandered around, doing my feeble best to be sociable, I noticed one gentleman standing alone, looking a bit overwhelmed but also vaguely familiar. It was Frank Herbert, whom I didn’t at first recognize because he had recently shaved off his iconic beard.

At that point I simply abandoned my attempts at glad-handing. Over the next hour Herbert and I sat in the fading sunshine and talked and talked, though only a little about “Dune” because our conversation kept drifting back to Jack Vance, Herbert’s good friend and probably the most imaginative world-builder in postwar science fiction. That conversation led me to suspect that “Dune” was, in part, Herbert’s attempt to rival Vance by envisioning every aspect of an alien civilization, including its people’s clothing, cultural traditions and religious rituals.


As a hotshot young editor back in 1984, I didn’t allow many weeks to go by before phoning my new buddy to see if he would review a book. Given that David Lynch’s then much-anticipated film of “Dune” hadn’t yet been released but was already in the news, I asked Herbert to write about a splashy, comparably promoted fantasy novel, Stephen King and Peter Straub’s “The Talisman.” In the end, he didn’t much like it, not that this mattered. Just getting Herbert to review it was a minor coup and we featured his piece on the front of Book World.


As a novel, “Dune” has never been unconditionally admired. I know sophisticated readers, devoted science fiction fans, who can’t stand it, finding Herbert’s prose inept, the action ponderous, and the whole book clumsy and tedious. But sf readers are contentious, often cruelly so, and nearly all of the field’s most beloved novels and series also have cogent and vocal detractors: Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy is dismissed as period pulp; Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” preach either militaristic jingoism or pretentious ’60s claptrap; Samuel R. Delany’s “Dhalgren” is well nigh unreadable and Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” too subtle, too theological, too clever by half. Perhaps so. Yet imaginative works that people still argue about — and “Dune” certainly belongs in this category — demonstrate their continuing vitality and relevance. They remain — to borrow a vogue phrase — part of the conversation.

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