Reading by Ear: Dune

Dune by Frank Herbert
read by Simon Vance and cast



The library at my high school didn’t have that much of a selection when it came to fiction—just three waist-high aisles. (This was not, as I briefly entertained, to cut down on canoodling; there were plenty of ceiling high shelves over on the nonfiction side.) But it was the only library I had constant access to until I was about sixteen, due to a family vendetta against the public library over a fine. (Not mine, obviously, but Madame McBride never forgets.) That was perfectly alright, since I wasn’t really reading much beyond occasionally inhaling a Jodi Picoult novel in a day, whatever was assigned for the school’s book club, and the occasional Heroes fanfic.

It was a thin media diet during those early years of high school, but, somehow, I determined that I needed to read Dune. How, I no longer recall. I imagine it has something to do with my first disastrous attempts to watch Star Wars and being utterly confused at the Special Edition DVDs. But I did read Dune. And Dune Messiah. And Children of Dune. I even wrote a paper about Paul Atreides for school.

But six or seven years later, much of it has evaporated from my memory, beyond the Bene Gesserit liturgy against fear (as brilliantly quoted in Wilfred) and the horror of the toddler Alia remembering thousands of past lives. Alia is the reason this novel has become pared with Interview with the Vampire in my mind, since both feature—albeit with varying levels of focus—strange, alien, adult-minded children. So it’s not as if I can see if Dune lives up to my memory, because there’s not much of a memory left to live up to.

Dune is a lot of novels. (In fact, the first trilogy was supposed to be a single novel before Herbert spaced it out; it’s sort of a reverse The Lord of the Rings that way.) It’s a science fiction novel whose science is not astronomy or engineering but ecology. It’s a sweeping space opera focused on the petty politics of the nobility. And it’s also a riff on the Mighty Whitey trope.

Ultimately, the first Dune trilogy deconstructs that tired trope, by going into some very dark places to show what actually happens when you play prophet with another culture. But Dune itself doesn’t, because it can’t—that story must stay in place long enough for Paul to ascend to the rank of Emperor. There’s some effort made on the front end by having the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood plant outworlder messiah narratives wherever they can just in case it’s needed sometime in the future. That played during the sixties, but not so much now. And that’s because Paul has the added mightiness of being the Kwisatz Haderach: the male who can see all pasts and futures through the lens of all eyes, not just female eyes like the Bene Gesserit themselves. I did find that odd on my first reading, and still find it wobbly now.

Still, despite its dated politics in this singular outing, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into here. Dune has the all the political intrigue of an installment of A Song of Ice and Fire, and the constant switching of perspective also feels like an influence on that series. While we spend the bulk of our time with Paul, it’s his mother, the Lady Jessica, who feels the most human, struggling between her love for the man who will not marry her, her training, and her love for her children. Seeing Paul through her eyes sets up the rest of the trilogy. On this reading, I particularly noticed Herbert’s fascination with the concept of programming the human mind as easily as a computer. The Bene Gesserit plant suggestions and control with only a voice while Mentats calculate on the spot. It’s a tempting idea, although one that I think might get damaged as the trilogy progressively gets darker and darker.

This is the first audiobook production I’ve listened to where I don’t hate the music! It focuses largely on soundscapes, not score, which is absolutely the way to do it. There’s the sound of the winds passing across the dunes, the ethereal backing for Princess Irulan’s chapter introductions, and a full cast. A full cast that, I might add, dips in and out, presumably for budget reasons. Important scenes are voiced by the entire cast, but then other chapters are narrated entirely by Simon Vance. His narration is lovely, but it does get a bit jarring when a single character has two different voices.

Bottom line: Dune, while undoubtedly a product of its time, remains a sweeping, engaging epic. If you’d like.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

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