Audiobook Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

August 6th, 2007 | Posted in General

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As an avid reader who has almost no time to read, I was overjoyed to discover audiobooks were something I could listen to at certain times when working on projects in the studio. I’ve said before that I can’t listen to an audiobook I have not already read, because the necessity of concentrating on what I am working on means I have to tune in and out of what I am listening to… and with books I have already read I can do that without having to rewind because I missed something. Actually I enjoy revisiting old favorites every few years anyway, so audiobooks let me do that while in the studio. Lately I have been spoiled by the ease and simplicity of downloaded audiobooks on my iPod, which is hooked into my small soundsystem in the studio via a nifty dock with a remote control for easy pausing when the phone rings. I have dozens of audiobooks on my ipod ready for listening to uninterrupted by the necessity of switching cassettes or disks every 45 minutes or so. I have even figured out how to transfer those audiobooks I own that are available only on CD into iTunes for playing on my iPod (more on that in a later post… possibly tomorrow).The problem with audiobooks is that a comparatively small number of books are available, unabridged, in recorded form. I hate abridgments, and refuse to listen to them… it’s like reading a Cliffnotes rather than the real book. Sadly a number of my all time favorite book series were unavailable in any audiobook form. I was quite pleased to discover a few weeks ago that Dune, by Frank Herbert, had just been released unabridged on audiobook.

Dune is the first book in a sweeping science fiction series by Herbert that follows the saga of the Atreides, a noble family that is part of a human race that purged itself thousands of years early of all machines that imitated human thought or performed functions the human mind could perform. Computers and calculators are outlawed, and the result had been the formation of schools, ruling class families and sects that have trained humans to the limits of their mental and physical potentials. These different factions scheme for wealth and influence amid a universe of political, economic and social intrigue. At the center everything is the brutal desert planet Arrakis, known by it’s inhabitants as Dune, which is the only known source of a spice substance called melange. Melange is a drug that prolongs life, expands consciousness and enhances the super-mental skills of it’s consumers. In conjunction with it’s limited availability, that makes it the most precious substance in the universe. Arrakis is the only source of the spice, and the family that controls the spice planet wields great influence.

Dune opens with the Padishah Emperor ordering the Atreides to take over the planet Arrakis from their blood feud enemies the Harkonnens. Duke Leto Atreides and his consort, the Lady Jessica, travel with their armies and household from their ancestral planet Caladan to Dune with their 15 year old son Paul, to take over spice production. Jessica is a disciple of a quasi-religious female organization called the Bene Gesserit, one of the schools that arose from the rebellion against machines. The Bene Gesserit are trained in various and fantastic methods of minute observation, body control, combat and other skills that seem like witchcraft to the uninitiated. The Bene Gesserit are involved in a long term and complex breeding program that is aimed at producing a male Bene Gesserit, the Kwizatz Haderach, a kind of super being. Jessica was supposed to bear a girl by the Duke Leto that would be mother to the Kwizatz Haderach, but out of love for her Duke she gave him a son. Paul is a gifted child, but a dangerous unknown to the Bene Gesserit plan. Meanwhile the Harkonnens, a sick and twisted ruling family led by the sadistic Baron Harkonnen, are secretly involved in a plot with the Emperor to betray the Atreides and destroy them. Dune itself holds many secrets and plans within plans unfold as the true nature of the spice is revealed.

Dune was groundbreaking science fiction in the 60’s with it’s elaborate examinations of political intrigue, economic and social themes and environmental geo-science. I have to warn anybody who might be thinking about reading it that if you are expecting shoot-em-up laser-cowboy action, lightsaber duels or wizened, green, ass-kicking elfin aliens you will be sorely disappointed. Dune is a slow burning tale with a lot of examination of concepts like the potential of human evolution, class systems, religion and heady sci-fi theories. There’s action as well, and good action at that, but there’s also a lot of transcendental, heavy stuff that makes it an acquired taste. Personally I love that stuff, a long as the story behind it is an intriguing as this one. Herbert has created a universe that is truly unique, and alien in a way that might be quite believable of our race thousands of years from now.

The audiobook is also fairly unique, as it’s done as a kind of half dramatization. It’s advertised as “unabridged”, but thanks to a cast of actors as opposed to a single reader most of the “he said” and “she whispered” words are left out and given over to the actors to get across. Not an easy task as one of Herbert’s literary signatures is to provide mental dialogue in the form of italicized thoughts for the characters, so we are privy to their thoughts as well as their words. They get around this by having the narrator read the “she thought”‘s after most of those those mental narratives, although in some cases the actors do a good job of vocally ‘italicizing’ those statements.

Overall the audiobook is well produced and easy to listen to. There are some quirks. The odd thing about this book it that sometimes the cast speaks the character’s lines, and sometimes it’s just a narrator doing them. I can’t understand why they did that. It’ very distracting. Pick one of the other. There is even one sequence between Baron Harkonnen and his nephew Feyd-Rautha where part of the conversation is by the actors and part by just the narrator. One thing I also noticed was how annoying the chapter intros are when they are read to you. Each chapter in Dune is prefaced by a quote that is supposed to be taken from various books written by a character called “The Princess Irulan”. When reading the book it didn’t bother me, but by the end of the audiobook I was thinking “how many %$#*&$ books did she write, anyway??”

Dune is just the first of 6 books by Herbert that span many thousands of years and follow the saga of the spice and the continuing evolution of the human race. I was happy to discover a website, Duneaudio.com, which claims that the entire Dune saga is scheduled for unabridged audiobook production over the next year or so. I you are a fan of Herbert’s Dune series you will find the audiobook enjoyable.

Comments

  1. Mark Hill says:

    A very eloquent review, Tom. Dune, the rest of the original trilogy, (and the follow-up books) is something that I enjoyed immensely in high school. The idea of revisiting it, without the time investment required for re-reading it, is attractive. That is odd about the narration/character dialogue switch offs…but the fact that they employed actors is terrific.

    I hope this sort of thing leads to other sci-fi classics of that era, (like some works by Heinlein, Niven, Asimov and others), being given a similar treatment.

    Would love to hear more about the CD-to-ITunes-IPod process. (I’m guessing it’s more involved than simply uploading a music CD to Itunes, etc.)

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