On trying to read Dune

Matt Wedel is constantly telling me I need to read Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi epic Dune.  I’ve never been keen because of the vast number of sequels, but I finally gave in to his repeated requests and started on it last night, on my Kindle.

I got as far as page 4.  Since the Kindle shows small pages, I guess that’s part way down page 2 of a printed copy.  Here’s why:

Yes, Paul.  What is a gom jabbar?

And what is a Kwisatz Haderach?  Or a Bene Gesserit?

That was page 3.  Now on to page 4:

Holy poop, Frank — throw me a bone here!  Maybe we could have just one or two words in English?

Srsly, we all recognise that when you start reading a new book, you’re going to have to learn a couple of words, if only the names of the characters.  (“Paul” I can cope with; “Thufir Hawat”, not so much).  But really — this is not a novel, it’s a memorisation test.  Do I really want to work that hard?

Well, I will plough on — give it another three or four pages and see whether things improve.  But here is my real point.  If these noun-phrases — “gom jabbar”, “Kwisatz Haderach” and all — turn out to mean something specific and interesting that can’t be directly translated into English, then perhaps learning the vocabulary will prove to have been worthwhile.  But if “Kwisatz Haderach” just means “king” or something, I am going to be annoyed at the pointless additional cognitive load.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

55 responses to “On trying to read Dune

  1. I haven’t read Dune in ages, but it’s awesome, so hang in there. IIRC, after introducing the main players there isn’t too much more alphabet soup, and the plot is fully entertaining. The original Dune was a page turner for me, I couldn’t put it down.

  2. Rest assured, “Kwisatz Haderach” isn’t just “king” or something like it. Dukes and emperors are just called “duke” and “emperor”.

    Yes, the vocabulary load in Dune is high, but in my opinion well worth it (although my perspective may be skewed because I first read it when I was in my early teens and my brain was far more pliable than now).

  3. That’s the downside to eBooks: The print version includes an extensive glossary of terms, explaining them.

    And very few of them can be directly translated.

  4. I know that I experienced the same reaction when I attempted to read the book. I abandoned my attempt during the first chapter.
    I came back to the book, persevered, and was rewarded with a book that I have re-read several times and is among my all time favourites.
    I do think that the early pages are a hurdle, which could be smoothed out; they are a flaw in an otherwise glittering gem.

  5. Dune is an exercise in world-building. It does at least make it easier by having as a central protagonist a young boy moving to a new planet, so he discovers all the weirdness of Dune at the same time as the reader; it’s not an unrelenting infodump.

    Read Dune, definitely. The rest you can skip; maybe read Dune Messiah and God Emperor of Dune, maybe Children of Dune. Although they’re significantly different from the first one, and the subsequent novels are more different stll.

  6. NoobixCube

    If you had the print edition, I’d advise a quick trip to the glossary in the back. Everything IS explained all in good time, but the book does assault you with new information in the opening chapters. You hit the ground running in Dune, and the meat of the story starts a few chapters in, instead of halfway though the book like some other recent reads of mine.

  7. Imagine you’re thrown on another country, planet, galaxy or universe. I assure you that on day 1 nobody will be there to provide you with a list of special words and characters.

    — MV

  8. Steve Moody

    I found the book very heavy reading but i did enjoy it. I’ve read a couple of the sequels as well but didn’t really find them that good.

    I may be in the minority here, but i would prefer to watch the David Lynch movie of Dune rather than read the book now. Dispite it’s flaws i find it an enjoyable film.

  9. You should probably stay away from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem then :).

  10. Anathem is the very next book that Matt wants me to read … He just won’t let me rest. As it happens, I actually own a big, fat hardcopy — I picked it up as a freebie at the ALA meeting in Anaheim a few years ago — but having looked at the first few pages I couldn’t persuade myself to leap in. One day, I’ll do it. But I need to plough through Dune and Torchwood first.

    On Anathem, see Adam Roberts’s brilliant review at http://punkadiddle.blogspot.com/2009/02/neal-stephenson-anathem-2008.html

  11. You’d hate Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. :)

  12. Dune is supremely worth the read. As Sam Kington said, it’s (partly) an exercise in world-building. It’s set in a world about 20,000 years into the future and while there’s much that’s familiar, but much that’s alien about the humanity that exists in that imagined future.

    Dune is one of the few books that I consistently re-read.

  13. Spaceman Spiff

    Gom Jabbar – a poison needle, very fast acting and invariably fatal. All it takes is a scratch.

  14. Spaceman Spiff

    I’ve read, and enjoyed, all the Herbert Dune novels. However, I read them all on hard copy. I do read a lot of ebooks these days, but I think that Herbert and Tolkien should be enjoyed in a more traditional format – a hard-bound book in an easy chair with a nice glass of wine.

  15. Yet another reason why e-books suck. As others have mentioned, the dead tree version has a glossary.

    Anyway, being an intelligent guy, you should presume that Herbert will explain the words sooner or later. I did when I was 16yo and figured it all out. Same with the Hobbit and LOTR: lots of strange names and words which soon were explained or I eventually interpolated for myself.

  16. I’ve read the first three, and believe me it gets way way way worse :D That being said, everything gets (sort of) explained. It’s a not a bad read read anyway, although a profoundly weird one. “Mystic” is what I would call it.

    But while we’re at book recommendation, you must absolutely read A song of fire and ice if you haven’t already. I discovered it trough the HBO series and I love it, by far my favorite work of fiction ever.

    Btw, geriatric is actually an english word ;)

  17. Thanks to all who have encouraged me to stick with it. I will.

    Norswap, I know that geriatric is an English word; but “geriatric spice” is not a meaningful English phrase! Thanks for the Song of Fire and Ice; I have to say I am wary of anything described as a “series of epic fantasy novels”.

    Ron, my experience in general has not at all been that e-books suck. Since I got my Kindle, I’d guess that about two thirds of all my reading has been on it; the rest has mostly been comics and technical articles which the Kindle just doesn’t have the display for. When it’s just text, it’s fine.

    Spaceman Spiff: a glass of wine, really? For Tolkein, I find a good ale more appropriate.

  18. With the exception of “Kwisatz Haderach”, “Bene Gesserit” “gom jabbar”, everything you list is a proper noun. Two place-names (one of which is explicitly defined / described immediately after being mentioned), two family names, and two “company” names (including Lansraad as a “company” here), and the name of a character.

    And one of your circled phrases (“geriatric spice”) is completely english.

    Is it really all that much?

  19. First, Obviously, you should read Dune.

    Many of the odd terms in there are actually taken, or adapted, from Arabic and Hebrew. “Kwisatz Haderach”, for instance, is an approximate transliteration of an ancient Hebrew expression, which literally means “Jump of the way”, a miraculous shortening of a long road for a traveler. Herbert didn’t use this expression literally, of course. You’ll get enough information about it as you go along. But just imagine the surprise of someone reading the Hebrew translation and bumping into something like this! :-)

    Sam here mentioned the book Riddley Walker. Now that’s one hard-to-follow text! But I assume it will be easier for British readers. It’s the only book I’ve ever seen that you can’t read – you have to listen to it in your head. Only then does it start to make sense.

  20. “geriatric spice” is not a meaningful English phrase!

    Eh? Literally it’s the “Spice pertaining to old people”. From there it’s not a great leap to the metaphorical meaning.

  21. I remember when I gave Gary Jenning’s Aztec to my grand-dad. He desisted to read it after the first few pages, put down by so many exotic names and terms. But grandpa was an old man, in his last years of life indeed, and without much reading, I’d expect more from you Mike ;-) Dune is a bit heavy in the beginning, and (differently from Tolkien) you won’t find carefully designed languages so there’s no nerd motivation factor to endure the first chapters. Still, the terminology is very important as an immersion factor – just like Dune’s map and other things, it contributes to make you feel teleported to a very distant, but very real universe.

    Dune is a totally unique book living in its own category, there’s simply nothing like it.

  22. Randy Hudson

    Since someone warned you away from Riddley Walker, if only jokingly, let me warn you not to miss it. The language difficulties are quite different: the whole thing is written in the English dialect of an Iron Age culture in Britain many centuries after a nuclear holocaust. Once you get used to it — sounding it out helps — the novel a fantastically good read. The language itself is a lot of fun: for instance, two officials of the would-be government are the Pry Mincer and the Wes Mincer. And an appropriate motto for a programmer’s blog: ‘Sum tyms bytin, sum tyms bit.’

  23. There’s one other problem too: Dune isn’t very good, at least once you’re over, say, 18.

  24. Erik Anderson

    I know exactly what you’re going through Mike. My grandmother gave me the Dune trilogy as a Christmas gift when I was thirteen. It wasn’t until my third or fourth try two years later that I finally made it past page 50 and was rewarded with one of the best reads of my life. Those three books and the fourth, “God Emperor of Dune”, gave me an intellectual “high” and were my introduction to science fiction. It was for the same reason as you that I had a difficult time getting into it. The same reasons hobbled my attempts at “The Hobbit” as well. I’ve since reread both series multiple times.

    A couple of follow-up notes:
    * I was less than impressed with “Heretics of Dune” and haven’t felt the need to continue reading the series, its sequels, or prequels;
    * The David Lynch film version of “Dune” (1984) was horrible. I can only assume it watchable if one was stoned but I wouldn’t know;
    * The (2000) adaptation of “Dune” and its (2003) sequel “Children of Dune” were much better and closer to the books;
    * “White Plague”, a non-Dune novel by Herbert about a bioengineer who creates a virus that kills women and releases it in Ireland in vengeance against the IRA, started out great but tailed at the end. Still worth the read though;
    * “The Jesus Incident”, another non-Dune novel, was interesting for its concept of “Ship” but I honestly don’t remember much else from it.

  25. Osvaldo Doederlein writes:

    Still, the terminology is very important as an immersion factor – just like Dune’s map and other things, it contributes to make you feel teleported to a very distant, but very real universe.

    Wait, there’s a map as well? Curse this wretched e-book edition!

    This makes me think … It always seems wrong to me that Amazon (and other merchants) sells Kindle edititons of books for only marginally less than hardcopies (and nearly always for more than the price of the cheapest second-hand copy in decent condition), when you don’t get any actual, you know, things. For books like Dune they could ameliorate this by giving you a hardcopy map and glossary when you buy the e-book.

  26. This is the exact reason why I think Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is crap. It’s meant to be fictional “story-telling”, not fictional words.

  27. And after _Anathem_ you need to get on with _A Clockwork Orange_ ;-)
    I can’t comment on _Dune_, since I’ve not read it, but sometimes the wading-through-unexplained-new-word-treacle is worthwhile.

  28. I must disagree with Jake. Dune is the only novel I’ve read 20 times in my life (so far) and still enjoy. The first four I really enjoyed, the last two are not as awesome to me, and are quite different from the others, however, they are still pretty good.

  29. I felt Dune (the first) was not bad, once you got over the hump; it quickly descends into morass for later installments imho ; but don’t let a bit of memorization get in the way; its part of the mythos, the exploration. I mean, if you turn away Dune for some crazy vocab, it means also turning away A Clockwork Orange and Bladerunner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheap, rather) and so on .. excellent works.


  30. I don’t remember a similar torrent of neologisms in Do Androids Dream?.

  31. Jargon is a common immersion technique across the sci fi and fantasy genre, the best way to deal with it is just to assume that all will be made clear and hang on for the ride. I generally read the first chapter twice so the style embeds, a technique I learned reading Trainspotting for the first time.

    Anathem was briliant by the way, your friend Alec still has my copy sat on his desk awaiting reading. I think he is wary that Cryptonomicon by the same author couldn’t be topped. Which, of course, it cannot be.

  32. >I don’t remember a similar torrent of neologisms in Do Androids Dream?.

    Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.

    — MV

  33. This is hysterical, too, for Dune fans (who are pa`rents anyway) who haven’t seen it… http://goodnightdune.com/

  34. Philip Howell, “Bene Gesserit” is a proper noun, the name of an organization of meddling old biddies, to simplify the hell out of it. (A *twenty thousand year old* organization of meddling old biddies. And you can tell. This is an organization that doesn’t just have traditions, it doesn’t just have legends, it *builds* legends and founds religions, *routinely*, for its own possible future gain. They even have a procedures manual and department devoted to such things!)

    I hope they at least provide you with the appendices. They’re of almost as much importance to the field as the book itself, as one of them includes the first, and to my knowledge, only disquisition on fictional ecologies until _After Man_ in the 90s. (Sure, the ecology of Dune makes less sense the more you think about it: but still, the man tried to come up with one. That’s unusual enough.)

    Erik, _The Jesus Incident_ is a sequel (to _Destination: Void_). Unfortunately the former book is mostly notable for its claustrophobic atmosphere and as a demonstration of why you really shouldn’t try to write a book describing the construction of an AI in detail when you don’t know the difference between hardware and software and appear to be fuzzy on the very existence of the latter.

  35. Geriatric Spice is Geri Halliwell’s stage name.

  36. WyrdestGeek

    Well… if you’re going to not read it, I wouldn’t not read it because of all the made-up words. The book does have a glossary. That might be one of those that doesn’t do so well as a Kindle. They should’ve made those words be clickable and linked to their definitions in the glossary.

    But enough about that–I did read Dune and I read a couple of the sequels. I have a friend who is in to Dune in the most major way.

    In the end, I found it hard to really get invested–even after a few books. The world-verse-thing created is fascinating, but in the end the characters felt too cold. There wasn’t anyone I could really root for. I liked some of the strong female characters, but they usually either went evil or just got written out as the story progressed. *shrug*

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  37. I’m firmly in the Dune +1 camp; I think it’s the best SF novel of all time. The vocabulary (and multiple titles and names for characters) (and technologies whose odd characteristics are only explained in passing, as befits ‘everyday’ technology) does contribute to the density, but it’s worth it.

  38. Part of the game with SF is to create a world that’s sufficiently different to be interesting, but not so different as to be inaccessible. Then the writer has to get the reader into that world without first giving a complete lecture about it.

    Part of the pact is that the reader will, to some extent, expend brainpower working out what’s going on while also reading the story, while the write promises to “play fair.”

    It’s a complicated deal, and some writers do it better than others. Dune is probably worth reading, but is certainly a good example of introducing ideas and objects without giving detailed explanations – you acquire understanding as you go.

    And if you don’t like it for this reason, don’t go anywhere near The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. It’s an absolute master of this technique. I’m reading it for the third time already, and I’m *still* getting revelations about what’s going on. When a writer is good, it’s not merely worth the effort, it repays the effort many times over.

  39. You probably don’t want to go near anything by Cordwainer Smith either. After all, his first story, _Scanners Live in Vain_, establishes alienness in part by introducing numerous hypnotically weird neologisms in the first *paragraph*.

  40. Dude! if made up names make you dizzy don’t ever get neat the silmarillion by Tolkien, that would be the thousand page headache, hahaha.

  41. judge, I can’t tell whether your are serious, or just pointing out my inconsistency: just in case you didn’t know, I did recently wrestle with The Silmarillion, and came out of the experience richly rewarded.

    So what’s the difference? First, Tolkien had earned the right to demand that work of me: Lord of the Rings has some of the same thing, and it has richly repaid me through the years, so I had reason to trust that the same would be true in The Silmarillion. Secondly, I had the sense from the beginning that, in a sense that find hard to pin down, Tolkien’s names mean something, whereas what I am getting so far from my very, very early-stage reading of Dune is much more that they are just sequences of letters. I could be wrong.

  42. what I am getting so far from my very, very early-stage reading of Dune is much more that they are just sequences of letters. I could be wrong.

    You _are_ completely wrong. Plow ahead with an open mind and be richly rewarded.

  43. @IdoG.
    “Kwisatz Haderach”, for instance, is an approximate transliteration of an ancient Hebrew expression, which literally means “Jump of the way”, a miraculous shortening of a long road for a traveler. Herbert didn’t use this expression literally, of course.

    Yeah, but the figurative meaning in Dune is spot on. I didn’t know it was an ancient Hebrew expression; thanks for the info.

    A lot of the weirdness of Dune comes from Herbert trying to predict what kinds of institutions will be stable over timescales of tens of thousands of years. For me, one of the rewarding things about the original Herbert series (the six by Frank, I have no time for anything with Kevin J. Anderson’s name on it) is watching him put even those long-lived institutions through a process of selection.

    Tolkien’s names mean something, whereas what I am getting so far from my very, very early-stage reading of Dune is much more that they are just sequences of letters.

    After all of this, you are required to blog about what you think of Dune upon completing it. Personally, I am preparing myself to deliver the Kwisatz Haderach of I Told You Sos.

  44. WyrdestGeek

    Tolkien was a linguist. AFAIK, Frank Hubert was not. So, in that most basic sense, Tolkien’s made up strings of letters would always be capable of having the feeling of intrinsic meaning in a way that almost anyone else’s made strings of letters would not be able to do.

    But lots of sci-fi and fantasy stories have made up words in them. To me, a propensity of made up words is not predictive of whether or not it will turn out to be a good story. Made up words are at least somewhat important for good world-building.

    Although I will also grant you that when you’re hit with an opening section with 20 new words in it, it can be a tad discouraging. :-)

    IMHO, the world and politics Frank creates and the words he uses to help him do it are good-cool ones. See if you can make it through the first book anyways.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

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  46. This might be a cultural thing, I grew up in India surrounded with Indian names. So reading any English literature is a chore for me, it takes an inordinate amount of time to keep the list of characters in my head, just like you most Western names sound gibberish to me.

    Sometimes when authors refer to the same person by just the first name and then revert back to last names, can throw me off. I guess I am a bit of a slow reader. But you perfectly explained the problems I have when reading fiction.

  47. it takes an inordinate amount of time to keep the list of characters in my head, just like you most Western names sound gibberish to me.

    In the Bad Old Days of overt racism, white people had the expression “all blacks look alike”. Obviously, no one says that anymore in polite society.

    You can’t keep a good fact down, though, and in the 1980s, research psychologists discovered that the brain really *is* wired to recognize their own “tribe” and see people of other tribes as all looking the same.

    Shakeel’s difficulty with Western names is a symptom of that.

    Fortunately, “tribe” isn’t etched in stone at birth; the more you are exposed to “others” the more you see them as individuals instead of a group.

    Hope for us all!

  48. I’m from the US, so I had the same problem reading Jane Austen and Agatha Christie.

  49. And then there’s Doon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Lampoon's_Doon
    “red-on-red eyes…” etc.

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  51. Dune. Spice = Oil and everyone is either afraid of or looking for a Semitic Messiah. Look up the history of the English in the Sudan for more information.

  52. My first reaction at seeing those circled words was, “Damn, I did love that aspect of the book.” WTF -> immersion -> smug familiarity.

    Tolkein is thicker than Herbert with confusing naming. But, Middle Earth is an entire world covered in English countryside populated by English mythological creatures, where everything including the swords has three Olde English names. (I don’t know whether you’re familiar with the U.S. “Olde English” marketing fetish.)

    Whereas Dune is a planet covered by desert, where everyone speaks something like Arabic or Hebrew. Except the Bene Geserit, who obviously speak Latin. Harkonnens– Prussians, obviously. House Atreides– old European sounding way of talking about a noble family.

    Also, I think, Tolkein was trying to convey long-honored Tradition, while Herbert was trying to give the feeling of long-coexisting but still mutually alien Power Structures. Also, it’s part of the setup that you feel the stifling weight of those power structures in their galactic mutual itchy near-stasis.

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  54. Finding your post makes me want to happy-cry because I’m feeling EXACTLY the same way! This is my third time to try to pick up the book, and I haven’t made it past page 2 or 3 because of the exact words you circled. Is this the way it’s going to be all the way through the book? If so, no thanks! Everyone says how much they love this book and I’m surprised they made it far enough to even care. Given the other comments, I’ll press on, but good grief, Frank….

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