Goodbye, Old Shoes
Miles Coverdale, Bob Dylan, and The Foot of Pride


Usually when I write about books I put the author's name in the title of the post along with the title of the book. But in a few cases it seems superfluous. Doesn't everybody know that Frank Herbert wrote Dune? Or is the fact that I think so only a manifestation of my own insularity? 

Anyway, he did, and the claim I've seen that it's the most famous of all science-fiction novels is probably correct. Also the greatest? I don't know about that, but I'm not really in a position to judge.

Last February I saw the 2021 Denis Villeneuve movie which dramatizes the first half (roughly) of the novel. The second film was to be released this fall, and I made up my mind to read the book again before then. I was in the midst of doing so when I saw an announcement that the film will be delayed until March of next year. Oh well--maybe I won't have forgotten it completely by then. 

I said "again," and there is a little bit of mystery about that for me. I definitely read it around 1976, for what I think was the first time. But when I was in high school in the mid-'60s I was a science-fiction fanatic, and subscribed to Analog magazine, in which Dune was serialized at the time. As best I can tell from Wikipedia, this was done under two different titles, two years apart. The first, called Dune World, appeared in 1963, in two installments; the second, Prophet of Dune, in 1965, in five (!) installments. I'm pretty certain that was during the period when I subscribed. I even seem to remember this cover:


Yet I have no memory of reading it. If I didn't read it, why not? If I did, why don't I have at least some fragments of memory about it? Is it possible that I found it too complicated and slow-moving and gave up after reading only a little? I won't say that's probable, but it is certainly possible. There is, obviously, no way to answer that question, but it bothers me.

The book is indeed by science-fiction standards, at least those of the early 1960s, complicated and relatively slow-moving. I conjectured in my post about the film that it probably spent more time on spectacular action than the book. That was an understatement. There is in fact not a great deal of action in the cinematic sense in the book. The attack on the Atriedes family, which occupies a significant portion of the film is and is indeed spectacular, happens mostly offstage in the book. There are other such instances. Perhaps this is something of a Star Wars effect. But Dune is definitely not space opera ("a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, with use of melodramatic, risk-taking space adventures, relationships, and chivalric romance"), which Star Wars is.

The emphasis in the book is not on action but on a complex web of political intrigue, family and dynastic relationships, religion, ecology, and a sort of psychological mysticism. I won't bother with any further summary. Most people who are at all interested already know the basics of the plot, characters, and fictional world; anyone who doesn't can get plenty from Wikipedia.

That fictional world is a pretty impressive achievement. I don't think Dune is in the same literary class as The Lord of the Rings, but it bears comparison in the complexity and thoroughness of its imaginary world. When I say "bears comparison" I don't mean "is equal to"--on a 1-10 scale, if LOTR is a 10, then Dune is a 7 or 8. As far as I know Frank Herbert did not go so far as to create entire languages (which in Tolkien actually preceded the stories to some extent), nor is the history developed in as much detail, though I would guess that more of it is filled in by the many sequels.

The treatment of religion is also an interesting comparison. As all literarily-minded Christians know, religion does not exist in The Lord of the Rings, and yet the book is profoundly Christian. In Dune, on the other hand, religion is very explicitly everywhere. Yet it is in a sense not religious at all, but a sort of cultural tool, half-manufactured by worldly powers, especially the order of women called the Bene Gesserit who have a plan, implemented over centuries if not millennia, for producing a messiah-sort-of-person by directed breeding. And it's relevant to the book only through its effects on culture, and on behavior in general. Any notion of a transcendent spiritual reality is left very vague and very far in the background.

I recall that when I read the book in 1976 I scoffed a bit at the obvious way much of the culture of its Fremen, inhabitants of a desert planet, was drawn from Arabian culture, or others of the Middle Eastern deserts. That was unfair, and a result of my own ignorance. In those days I did not recognize such words as "jihad"; if I had, I would have realized that the Fremen are not copied from Arab-Muslim cultures, but rather are explicitly descended from them.

Dune takes place thousands of years in the future, when humanity has developed interstellar travel and populated many planets, but all of them began with ours. There are no "aliens" in the universe of Dune; every person is homo sapiens, though some have mental powers developed to a superhuman degree. The interstellar human society has reverted to a basic and ancient tripartite pattern: emperor, nobility ("houses"), and everybody else.

What it does have, which I don't think other science fiction of the time had, is psychedelic drugs, or rather drug: the substance called "spice" which is the foundation of the entire economic and political order. Frank Herbert had obviously had some experience along those lines--or if not, he knew people who did. There is a strong hint here of what would soon become known as the human potential movement. In that respect, as well as in its ecological focus, this strikes me as a very "Sixties" work. If I remember correctly, I first encountered the word "ecology" in Analog or some other sci-fi context. (Why do I remember that, but not whether I read Dune? Memory is a very hit-and-miss thing.)

In spite of what I said about the well-constructed world, I was left disappointed in my curiosity about certain things. In order for an interstellar empire to exist, there must be, one way or another, faster-than-light travel. Most science-fiction at least does a bit of hand-waving to explain this, usually one of the many variants of the "warp drive." Dune does not. The whole economic and political structure of the empire rests on the mysterious drug called "spice" which enables the powers of the monopolistic guild of navigators who alone can pilot interstellar craft. What's involved in that navigation, and how does the spice enable it? The book offers only the suggestion that it has something to do with the perception of possible future events. I suppose it's asking too much to want more information about that, just as it's asking too much to want to know how a warp drive works (though that doesn't stop people from trying).  

And about the famous sandworms: it was only a passing remark in an appendix that answered one question that kept occurring to me as I read, which was "what do they eat?" Answer: "sand plankton." Really? There's enough of that to support creatures that may be a quarter of a mile long and a hundred yards in breadth? Well, okay. But then why do they need all those extremely long sharp teeth? How and why does a plankton-eating creature attack and swallow anything that moves with single-minded intensity? How and why does it swallow a mobile factory or a spacecraft? How does it move at speeds which seem to be at least thirty or forty miles an hour while completely buried in sand?

Maybe I missed some of these answers. Maybe they're answered in the sequels, of which, as I mentioned, there are a lot. Herbert himself wrote five, and his son Brian has co-written, with Kevin J. Anderson, a number of others. I'm not sure what that number is; over a dozen, I think.

All in all, my reaction to Dune is much the same as it was 45 years ago: yes, it's impressive; yes, I enjoyed it; no, I'm not a devotee. I don't rule out reading the first sequel, Dune Messiah, but it's doubtful. 


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I just finished reading Stranger From a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. I've owned the paperback for likely 25 years or more, and it claims on the cover of my edition at least to be "The most famous science fiction novel ever written". So there you go. I actually sort of enjoyed it. It will sound odd to say this but I also recently read The Catcher in the Rye, and they seemed sort of similar simply because of the period in which they were written. One is of course much better than the other.
All of that to say that yes I have read Dune, back in Junior High School, so really not that far from your 1976 date when you think you might have also. I recall it being complex and enjoyable, and none of the movies have seemed that interesting to me. After reading what you wrote above I think it is probably because the interesting stuff is maybe "unfilmable" so to speak, leaving action sequences that have now been filmed at least three times and so feel tiresome to me. Even though of course Villeneuve does them better than the first two directors did.
I do want to read Dune again, but I still haven't recovered from all the grokking of the past few weeks...

Ha. "most famous" is arguable, but for quality I wouldn't even put them in the same class. I read Stranger when I was in college and thought it was absolutely terrible, which was funny because on the face of it I should have been receptive to its proto-hippie message. I thought most of that was silly but in general just didn't think it had a lot of literary merit.

Catcher in the Rye, on the other hand, I suspect to be a fairly good book. I put it that way because I haven't read it since my teens, when I liked it a lot. Later on I thought that was probably just an adolescent thing, but I've thought about it now and then over the years and some of what I remember seems worthwhile. I've been thinking about re-reading it.

I read 'Dune' in the early 80s, and its sequel as well. Tried to read the 3rd installment but gave up and never went back. I have to admit that I've never been much of a s/f fan so that may have something to do with it.

I remember liking Lynch's 'Dune' film not because it was a great movie, but because it was so weird and interesting. Of course he eventually distanced himself from it, and I have no idea what I'd think if I watched it now.

Personally I think Lynch's Dune is fun (as opposed to good), and really because of its inherent weirdness a more enjoyable watch for me than the new one. The new one just looks amazing!
I don't know what I was expecting from Stranger, Mac. It was certainly a weird book, and funny. Of course Salinger is much better; what they had in common was that 1950s perspective and use of antiquated idiom and situations.
I had last read Catcher in 7th grade English, and was worried that I would despise Holden Caulfield as an older adult. Pleasantly, I did not, and found it to be a quite interesting easy read in content hard to compare to anything else, at least that I can think of. Surely there must be hordes of imitators through the years; but it is quite distinctive.
Dune is too. I own all of the original Herbert series in small paperbacks that I picked up at secondhand shops through the years. My plans is to read them, but all of these years on I have still only read the first one time. I'm sure like so much SF/Fantasy series the author will spend pages and pages repeating themes begun in the first novel.

I found sf in general to be pretty disappointing after my teenage fascination faded away. By the time I read Stranger late in college, my literary standards were much, much higher, and Heinlein just didn't make it. Now and then since I've read some more recent stuff but offhand don't remember being very enthusiastic about any of it.

I saw Lynch's Dune back in the '80s sometime. I'm wondering how now--maybe rented the video tape? Anyway, I don't think my impression went much further than "weird." I may take another look at it sometime, just because it's Lynch.

My first exposure to Dune was the Lynch movie, which I didn't particularly like when it came out. But now I think it straddles the line between genius and absurdity.

I read the original six books - I liked the first a lot. The second was disappointing. The third was completely incomprehensible. The fourth was weird but at least had a plot. 5 and 6 were sort of fun - not as difficult as the earlier ones (or maybe I didn't care anymore).

I would sort of like to reread the books, but there are so many ahead of them on my list (and I don't read that much anymore).

I'm disappointed that the next movie was delayed. I skipped the first one because I wanted to see them together. Oh well - what's a few more months?

That means you were going to stream them, I guess. They would probably be enjoyable in a theater. Or maybe not--they might be unpleasantly loud, as seems often to be the case these days.

Sometimes I'm a little shocked when I recall the days when the first run of a movie was typically your only or at least best shot at seeing it, ever. Maybe it would turn up on late-night tv at some point. And on tv it would be only a shadow of itself.

By "together" I meant in the same week. Not sitting down for 6 hours to watch them both. I'm assuming at least some theaters will show part I when part II is out. But I probably won't drag myself out to see either one when I streaming is so much more convenient. Convenience probably dilutes the experience, but it also makes it much less annoying. :)

Yeah, I assumed you didn't mean all at one sitting. Three hours is about my limit for that. Although there may have been a couple of instances in which I watched more than three one-hour episodes of video page-turners like The Wire and Breaking Bad in one evening.

I sort of like the idea of a six-hour marathon, but realistically I'll probably watch an hour and a half a night.

My son and his friends did an Ava-Tár double feature. He's not planning to to anything like that again. He liked Tár and hated Avatar, but overall it was just too much at once.

Those are vastly different, aren't they? I guess the double feature was suggested by the pun, or whatever you would call that play with the names?

Yeah - they're completely different types of movies and the double-feature was indeed suggested by the names. The plan had been to see Avatar first since that worked with the word-play, but they couldn't get the schedule to work. Which was probably better since they saw the better movie before they were tired. The whole thing sounded tedious to me, but the young folk seemed to enjoy it (well, except for the second movie :))

I read Dune for this first time this past summer.
What disappointed me most was the writing. With minimal editing, it would be at least 10% shorter.
I was glad to have read it at last, but I'd have been gladder had it been shorter.

I'd be happy to see Dune 1 and 2 on the same day provided there'd be a break between them. Really couldn't bear to watch something like that on the small screen unless I had no other choice.

I thought it was fine on the small screen but then maybe I don't know what I missed.

I didn't think of it in terms of length, but Herbert's prose definitely gets no praise. Adequate is the most I would say.

I read Stranger in a Strange Land when I was 19 or 20, so 1970-1. I am embarrassed to say that I thought it was wonderful. I read Out of the Silent Planet around that time, and didn't get it at all.

I read Dune a bit later, soon after I was married. Probably in 1972. I may have even read the second book in the series, but I don't think I liked them much. I saw an earlier movie, which I vaguely remember, but I keep conflating it somehow with Dr. Zhivago.

We watched Dune a few months ago, and I wasn't particularly impressed. However, we re-watched Arrival a couple of nights ago, and it was as great as ever. I kind of want to watch it again.


The court notes your regret, or at least embarrassment, at having liked Stranger. This will be taken into account at sentencing.

I only saw Arrival the one time, when it came out. I've meant to see it again but haven't done it yet. I'm fairly sure I would agree with you about it.

LOL about Stranger. The two books are about as different as can be other than both being "the most famous science fiction novel ever written".
Where does that leave Foundation? I guess it's the most famous science fiction trilogy ever written.
Arrival is way better than the new Dune movie.

Other than certain aspects of the visual style, I don't even see Arrival and Dune as being the same sort of thing. Dune (the movie) is closer to Star Wars than to Arrival.

I read Foundation in my teenage sci-fi phase and liked it, though I remember feeling like I didn't really understand it. I sampled it many years later, maybe in the '90s, when one of my children was reading it, and thought "man that was severely overrated." I thought worse than that about another bit of Asimov. Wife and one of our then-teenaged-children tried listening to an audio book of some of the robot stories and all agreed to drop it because it was so very bad.

I had that same Asimov experience with both series. Did you know that they eventually join up.


No, I didn't even know the robot stories were a series, just stories that happened to be about robots. I know it was a favorite subject of his.

Really, all three of these sci-fi giants that we're talking about are...overrated.

I looked at the Wikipedia page for the Foundation series. Didn't read it all, just sampled here and there. The story actually sounds kind of interesting. I don't know what it was that I thought was not very good about it when I sampled it in the '90s. It may have been just the quality of the prose.

I read the Foundation series again recently (in the Everyman's Library Classic edition, to make me feel a little bit better about reading it again), after having last read it sometime in my teenage high school years. And liked it overall, it was good not great. But in the second and third books enjoyed it quite a bit more when the Mule entered the story.

There is a Foundation television series that I started watching, but stopped after a few episodes. It had great production values but was just too different from the book, and not for the best.

A TDS sufferer of my acquaintance compared Trump to the Mule. I had forgotten what that suggests but having just read that summary at Wikipedia I think he had a point.

Same guy, who is apparently an Asimov fan, mentioned the tv series favorably. It’s on Apple + or some other service I don’t have, so I won’t be seeing it.

I read Foundation and Stranger in a Strange Land in college - Science Fiction Literature (or
Throw Away Dad's Money 101") and thought they were both overrated. SISL started off strong but then the hippie sex cult ruined it.

I read Asimov's robot stories in my 30s and enjoyed them quite a bit. Not that they are all that great, but there aren't that many stories about debugging.

Yeah, a friend of yours wrote a blog post about it, before he said anything, too.


I was doubting whether I had ever seen that post until I saw the picture, which I very definitely remember. Well, it was so long ago.... The other person I was referring to made his remark considerably more recently, I think after Trump was out of office.

At some point, closer to the election, you actually went as far as saying you thought Trump was going to win. I still credit you with being the only person I know of who called it, even if you meant it kind of tentatively. It was in a comment here but it would take a while to find it.

Don, all I remember about my late experience of the robot stories was an absurd and cloying treatment of a robot as a dog. "His circuits lit up with anticipation..." kind of stuff. Awful. Not an android type of robot, obviously, but some sort of much more limited special-purpose mechanical thing.

It’s been a while, so I don’t remember too many details. But what stuck with me was that a lot of the stories had to do with the interactions of the three laws and people trying to figure out how to solve the problems caused by them. Maybe that wasn’t as big a theme as I remember, but I’m sure there’s at least one story that centered on that. And I wish I could force every programmer to read it.

Heh. Apart from the three laws themselves I don't remember any of that, but I can imagine they could lead to a lot of "oops" moments. "I never thought of that," etc.

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