Ben Smithgall

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Software and data at Spotify. Previously with U.S. Digital Service and Code for America.





Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune

By Frank Herbert

Finished reading on April 30, 2019

I have not posted any new books here for quite some time: I’ve been working my way through The Power Broker, which is a real beast of a book. It’s physically difficult to read it; I have to put it down because it weighs something like four pounds, meaning that it’s extremely difficult to take with me on the train. It’s also quite heady stuff, I hope to finish the book by the end of the summer and write a review here by then.

In any case, I’ve been filling in the time rereading some of the books from the Dune series. The original Dune is somehow a masterpiece, despite what seems like Frank Herbert’s best effort. His style can lead to absolutely nonsensical sentences and extended paragraphs filled with mystical nonsense. Dune succeeds, in my opinion, for the same reason that the sequels fail: there are a raft of interesting and compelling characters that you cheer for, a wonderfully evil villain, and the presence of something greater. The whole book is chock full of mystical nonsense, but it still manages to have an interesting politics and commentary on the nature of power.

The later books, though, lose a lot of the strength of the original because most of the interesting characters die or are sidelined. In their stead are a troop of increasingly bizarre new characters. The best example of this is Duncan Idaho: the sword master who trains a young Paul Atredis and dying to save his life. In his original character, Idaho is deeply loyal, but flawed: pointing his suspicions in the wrong direction and showing a weakness for spice beer. He has a compelling arc and redeems himself; dying to save Paul and his mother. In the later books, though, he is somehow brought back to life as the human computer “mentat.” His weaknesses have been erased and replaced by superhuman computational capabilities.

This is generally true across the board, there is a lot of weird powering up that seems to happen in sequels: all of the major characters who move the plot in a significant way, and it leads to a weird blurring of the characters as they all become supercomputing geniuses with perfect control over their minds and bodies through various forms of the same trainings.

Even with this, though, I still re-read the original Dune once every few years, and with that in mind I find something new every time I read them. The first book stands out among science fiction because as great works of science fiction do, it helps us to understand ourselves amidst the realm of the possible.