Dune is a cut above other fiction--so much so, that it's insane.
For a story that takes place in a fully-created, fully-realized universe, it's incredibly intimate. The characters are intriguing. The dialogue is fantastic! I even used an exclamation mark, I was so sincere! The politics are not just...tricky, feints-within-feints, as Paul would say, but to an extent that the reader can understand. The politics are part of the story, and as such, Herbert took great care in easing the reader through that story, showing what is important, what may be important, and so on.
The fall of Duke Leto Atreides will forever be one of science fiction's greatest stories. I say the fall, because everything following that first act arc was a little bit...less exciting. Still awesome, but not as driven, not as intriguing, not as...dangerous. As soon as the act is over, you know that Paul will have his revenge, and the rest of the book is simply that happening.
One thing I have always remembered about this book is how little I enjoyed Paul once he becomes Muad'Dib. He is constantly talking about seeing the future, how special he is, how horrible that all is and so on. Whiny whine whine. This is where Herbert pulls terms out of his butt and we have to subscribe to a fictional religion where Paul is the savior. Very trippy stuff that shouldn't happen with other normal characters—huge swings in character from between the first act and the second, where Paul suddenly sees all kinds of things and becomes this hardened wise Jedi guy.
And yet this kind of pays off in the end. When Paul pulls everything off, his great victory is at hand, he's done the impossible, this is when the Chosen One should get everything he wants, right? The girl, the friends, the adoration, the power, the happiness, etc.? WRONG. This may be the second-greatest genius of Dune—Paul as a tragic figure. The final scene, where Paul pulls everything together, is the culmination of all of Paul's problems, as well as the resolution of all the story's conflicts. His mother can't hardly empathize with him anymore. He can't even feel grief at the death of his son, a son named Leto who was named after his father Leto, another man he didn't allow himself to feel grief for, and yet the reader loved him.
I think this disconnect I've always felt with Paul is intentional, that Herbert WANTS us to feel disconnected from him. We were meant to love Leto, the man who trusted, who did what was right no matter what and fought as hard as he could against impossible odds—and he dies. We were meant to agree with Gurney as he points out to Paul that an Atreides should value lives over equipment, over political power, unlike this new Paul Maul'Dib. We were meant to see with Gurney's eyes how Paul becomes something quite less than ideal in order to accomplish the epic achievements that were set before him.
Paul isn't the hero of this book—Duke Leto is. Paul isn't the hero, he's the one who must do what needs to be done, much like Batman in the Dark Knight. (Somewhat like him.) You can't root for him, you can only empathize for him—more like Oedipus, I'd imagine. Leto is the hero, Paul's the tragic hero.
That move is what makes this a 3.5 instead of just a 3. I'm not diggin' the mysticism, but I can see why it's in there. But that twist, that driving question of “What really makes a hero? Do we really need heroes? Can we always be heroic?” apparently turns into those three questions. It's subtle, I think—I like to think—subtle enough that I never got it in my previous reads of Dune, but it really hit me this time.
The amazing world that Herbert created, the memorable characters, and the fantastic writing—not to mention those classy epigraphs—all combine with that heroic questioning to make Dune a cut above the rest, a classic story with weight and power, and most importantly, a 3.5/4 on my scale.