Fear Is the Mind-killer: On Deciding to Read Dune

Book cover of the 2021 movie tie-in edition

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” — Litany Against Fear

In 2016 I realized that I had a big gap in my reading history: classic science fiction. I also turned to the genre during a time when the world seemed especially upside down. Sci-fi, in both the best of times and the worst of times, helps us to make sense of what we’re experiencing in real life through escapism and allegories alike. Blade Runner 2049 was on the horizon, and I’d never read anything by Philip K. Dick, so I started with his well-known novel from 1968, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?. Simple enough. It’s only a little over two-hundred pages, after all. Moving along in my quest, a good friend of mine who’s a big Dune fan kept telling me I should read it, but I was resistant. Published in 1965 and cited as the world’s bestselling science fiction novel, Dune has a reputation, and its presence looms large. A tome to say the least at over 800 pages (give or take a couple of hundred, depending on the edition), I would glance at it on bookstore shelves, convinced that it wasn’t for me. Besides being intimidated by the page count, I had also fallen prey to the often repeated commentary about Dune: that the plot is impenetrable, the storyline is confusing, and the writing is dense. By 2018, a new Dune film was in the works, so I finally decided to give Frank Herbert’s epic novel a go.

To my complete surprise, I was immediately drawn in to the story through Herbert’s descriptive and often lyrical language. I was particularly taken with the introductions to each chapter that are presented as written by the Princess Irulan, a sort of story within a story that provides bits of necessary background. I had been afraid that Dune would be boring, but instead I found a story that was unlike anything I’d ever read. Parts of it are a little long in the tooth, sure, but I think that’s to be expected in a novel that works to create this level of worldbuilding. Yet, at its heart, Dune is simply a Bildungsroman, or a classic coming of age novel. Amidst all the mentions of the spice, sandworms, balisets, ornithopters, and stillsuits is the story of Paul Atreides and his perilous journey to assume his destiny as leader of the planetary Empire. Yes, there’s also plenty of discourse about the novel as a white savior narrative and criticism of the films. Others have also called attention to the ways that Herbert explored the dangers of climate change before it became a mainstream issue decades later. Great literature always yields plenty of commentary, and Dune is no exception.

Although the new film had already been announced, when I started reading Dune there wasn’t a lot of chatter on social media about it yet. I thought it would be fun to “live tweet” my experience with the book so I started a Twitter thread.

Just as the slow blade penetrates the shield, soon enough I was a part of the Dune fandom. Perhaps it goes without saying at this point, but Dune lends itself incredibly well to meme culture. Now that I’d read the book I could understand and have a laugh at references created by other fans. And in a way that I could never have predicted, Dune became even more special to me because I found out I was pregnant while in the midst of reading it. So much so that our daughter’s middle name is Irulan. Although many fans consider Irulan to be a background character, I felt deeply connected to her ability to forge her own path despite the odds and her desire to preserve the Empire’s history. Dune is also the story of powerful women like the Bene Gesserit, Lady Jessica, and Chani, whose lives are explored in detail as the novel unfolds. In this way, Herbert shows us that no man is an island and that the experiences of those surrounding him deserve just as much exploration.

So if you’ve seen the new film and want to get a better handle on things then you have plenty of time to catch up before part two hits theaters in 2023. I chose to read Dune on my Kindle because I’ve conquered other long books in that format since it allows me to not become distracted by a looming page count. But you can take your pick from the many different versions published over the years. The 2019 Ace edition provides a fun immersive experience with a newly illustrated dust jacket and endpapers. It even has page edges stained in Fremen blue. There’s also an audiobook and even a graphic novel.

It’s been fun seeing all of the takes on the Internet about the new Dune as people encounter the story for the first time. If that doesn’t prove that Herbert’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel stands the test of time then I don’t know what does. But it’s also frustrating to see so many writers repeating the same tired things about it just for the clicks. If you’ve never tried to read Dune before then how would you know if it’s dense or impenetrable? I get it, though. Like a lot of other science fiction, Dune has its own unique vocabulary that definitely seems strange at first. But Frank Herbert was a journalist and researcher himself who understood a reader’s hunger for knowledge, and he included three appendices to further explain the history and machinations of Dune along with a glossary of terms that are used throughout the novel. You can’t say he didn’t try to set us all up for success in navigating his text. I’m a big believer that certain books find us at exactly the time in our lives when we need them the most, and Dune was definitely one of those books for me. I can’t say that it will be the same for you, but I hope if you decide to give reading Dune a try that you’ll open your mind to navigating a beautifully written story that is more relevant than ever.



Claire is an academic librarian in Houston, Texas. She has also worked at a public library and with special collections and archives.

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Claire Sewell

Claire is an academic librarian in Houston, Texas. She has also worked at a public library and with special collections and archives.