Emily Gilman

Making Stuff Up and Writing It Down Since (Before) I Learned How to Write

In which I am about seventy pages from the end of Dune.


So I’m reading Dune. I’m nominally reading it for work, but I’m also reading it because I meant to have read it ages ago (if a certain former professor of mine is reading this, I’m sorry), and because I write fantasy more than science fiction but it’s still an important work in the field, etc.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of friends who love Dune. They love it intensely. It is possible I have recently seen a picture of a toddler holding a worm with an appropriate Dune reference as the caption, because I am friends with the kind of people who do that with their kids. My friends are also all smart, interesting people for whom I have a lot of respect, and whose respect and affection I value highly.

Which is all to explain why I feel more than a little nervous and/or guilty admitting that I keep expecting to love Dune, and I just . . . don’t?

Let me clarify what I mean by that, or rather what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that I’m finding it dull: on the contrary, I’m finding the interplay of religion and politics and ecology very interesting on an intellectual level. I don’t mean that it’s poorly written: the writing often feels abrupt to me, but in a way that suits the harshness of the physical and social environments depicted (and I’m generally a fan of writing whose style either reinforces or complicates its subject). I don’t even mean that I’m sorry I volunteered to read it for work, though my friends could tell you that I seem to do a lot of putting off reading in favor of re-watching Leverage or (finally) reading Questionable Content. (Though, actually, there are a whole lot of Dune references in QC, many of which I would be missing if I weren’t reading the book right now.)

When I started the book, however, I expected to love it. I expected to start reading and get hooked and be unable to put it down. I expected to immerse myself in the story and refuse to come out. I expected to be reading it a lot faster than I have been, and I expected that by seventy pages from the end I’d be anticipating rereading it someday.

Instead it feels like homework. I mean the good kind of homework — the kind that has you continuing to think and learn on your own so that you have something to discuss when you come to class the next day — but homework nonetheless. Maybe it’s because I’ve been slowly working on educating myself about Islam and about the Middle East but am still in the early stages of that process, so a lot of words are jumping out and snatching my attention away from the story. Maybe it’s because when I started reading Dune I was reading in small chunks, so I never really built up momentum. Maybe it’s because the language suits the story but isn’t the kind of language I personally fall in love with, nor is it the kind of language I find next to invisible. Maybe I just have too many other things I’m excited about right now.

Reading it has, however, had one unexpected benefit: it’s been the kick in the butt I needed to get working on my own writing again. It’s kind of funny, actually — I’m used to the art that makes me want to write being the art that I do love. Instead I find myself reading and thinking, “Yes, this is very interesting, but the parts that interest me mostly do so because of how they relate to this other story in my head, and right now I’m a lot more invested in that other story.” I find myself thinking that I’d probably get a lot out of rereading the book at some point, but the thought of forcing myself to do so just makes my research reading look that much more appealing.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, though I’m pretty sure it’s not the obvious moral. (“Read your metaphorical vegetables, kids, because they’re good for you even if you haven’t developed a taste for them yet!”) Perhaps I wish only to confess to you, my brothers and sisters (and siblings of non-binary genders), my failure to get it. Perhaps I’m waiting for someone to say that thing that will cast the book in a new, more flattering light, like that time I was complaining about having to read The Song of Roland again and my friend protested, “But it’s awesome! It’s like an action movie!” and suddenly the verse after verse of interchangeable guys cleaving each other in two from their heads through their horses clicked for me.

Or maybe I just needed to say, “Hey, this is where I am right now, but I need to hold myself accountable for those last seventy pages before I can move on to something else.”

4 thoughts on “In which I am about seventy pages from the end of Dune.

  1. It’s a good book, and one which I have enjoyed, but I think it’s very dated nowadays and it definitely comes from that era where science fiction was a bit less integrated with the rest of pop culture. I love the political intrigue at the beginning, but it does feel very distant from its characters at times and a bit staged, almost like a play. I think it’s worth reading for the sheer influence it’s had on a lot of other things (much of the Warhammer 40k background was borrowed heavily from Dune) but it’s definitely not as good an experience as other books. Also, the sequels and prequels are almost all terrible.

    • I think “distant” and “staged” capture a lot of why I’m not more excited — I’m used to books giving me more interiority for at least one character, but especially with Paul and Jessica there’s a lot of “that was correct” or “that was incorrect” or Paul thinking a million steps ahead of everyone else and very little emotional context. And that would be fine if it were a stage play, because then I’d get tone of voice and expression and all of those other clues to give me a sense of who these people are, but as it is I’m feeling kind of stranded, and that was before the sudden two year jump.

      Are they (the prequels/sequels) terrible? I did jump to the back to read Brian Herbert’s afterword and I liked the idea of seeing our hero Paul’s dark side moving forward, so that’s disappointing to hear.

      • I’ve found that kind of narrative presentation quite common in Golden Age SF – great ideas, but the characterisation is very flat by modern standards. The difference between Dune and The Forever War, 9 years later, is really noticeable. I’m cherry-picking a bit, but still…

        I found the sequels got more and more ridiculous and pretentious. Some people like them, but I found they got more distant and less comprehensible. I wouldn’t say avoid them as such, but be wary…

        • Yeah, that makes a lot of sense — I’m still trying to get up on my classics-of-sf/f reading, so I appreciate the context. I think also that I will choose not to feel guilty about not bothering with the sequels and spend my time and energy on all the books already sitting around my apartment waiting to be read. (And old favorites, but those always have a tendency to jump to the front of the line… 😉 )

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s