Dune is one of those books that I knew was considered a classic. Growing up I had a friend who was an avid sci-fi reader. He had Dune and other books from the series on his shelves. I always thought I’d read it eventually, that it was one of those books that are so important that you need to read.
This summer I found a paperback at a used book sale and dove in. And dove right out after 30 pages.
I thought maybe I was just impatient and didn’t give Dune the proper time to grab me. There must be something great about it, I thought. It has a 3.92 rating on Goodreads. Of 1374 ratings on Amazon over 1000 of them are 5-star ratings.
Sci-fi novels are a lot of work. Think of what a sci-fi novel has to do. Sci-fi settings are often, literally, not of this world. Where does Dune take place? In space? A sand planet? What’s the political situation like? If a reader like me goes in with his knowledge of the world as determined by present time, they are going to get lost very fast without some kind of hand holding.
But sometimes sci-fi novels don’t feel like a story. They feel like an author daydreaming about what the future could be like, letting their mind run wild at the expense of keeping a reader engaged. To me that gets tiresome. I gave up on Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom for that reason. (WOW. People can backup their brains and have cloned bodies! Wait, what’s this about again?)
I think something similar happened to me with Dune. I think that’s happened to me with every sci-fi novel I’ve ever tried to read. I read that Star Wars book Shadows of the Empire when I was a teen, but I already understood the Star Wars universe and played the N64 game.
If all a reader knows of a world is what’s taken place or is likely to take place on planet Earth, then how can you best explain something like what the fuck a sandworm is?
30 pages into Dune and I found myself confused. I understood the basic premise—some kind of spice that makes space travel possible is in in rare supply and in high demand. Sounds kind of like the story of Christopher Columbus. I suppose the more modern example is the mining for diamonds and coltan in Africa.1
So I tried to think of it like that, but still couldn’t get into the story. I had heard that the beginning of the book can be slow, “but Dan — you just gotta stick with it. It’ll make sense soon.” To me it felt more like a barrier that said “this isn’t for you. Go back to Stephen King or something your puny brain can handle.”
I gave up Dune, the book. It wasn’t for me. Yet I was reassured that, hey, I could just watch the movie.
Which I also gave up after 20 minutes. It was pretty bad.