I don’t read much sci-fi, so it’s taken me a longer time to get around to reading this book than it did for me to read a lot of “classics” on the fantasy end of the spectrum.
I can see where the inadequate and too-predictable comparisons to Lord of the Rings came from – the world-building in Dune is superb. Herbert doesn’t over-rely on it, however, tending to reveal only what’s necessary and leave a lot implied, which is much to his credit; the appendices reveal the depth of detail that underlies the main work.
The plotting and structure of the novel are also strong points, the sense of inevitability of the outcome – carried by the passages from books about Muad’dib, written after the events of the story, that prelude each scene – but the uncertainty of how it will come about mirroring the form of the main character’s own prophetic skill. This is weaker in the first section of the novel, “Dune”, the whole plot of which is chiefly laid out in an early scene where the Baron Harkonnen reveals his plans to his nephew Feyd-Rautha; rather than increasing the dramatic tension of these parts of the book, I found the knowledge worked against it, making the characters actions seem driven by the need to follow this plotline.
The weak point of Dune, I found, was not so much in characterisation, but in the portrayal of these characters. Perhaps it’s the reader’s eye accustomed to modern styles, but I did not feel that Herbert often succeeded in depicting his characters’ emotions and reactions convincingly. Moments of high emotion, such as when Paul believes himself and his mother doomed after the loss of their survival kit, came across as abrupt and unnatural, and often ran against the image given elsewhere of the mental faculties of the characters in question. That particular scene failed in my mind not because the character panicked despite his training, but because Herbert up to that point failed to adequately show the reader Paul as a youth still learning to use his abilities.
With the excellence of the world-building and plotting of the novel, it’s clear to see why Dune is remembered as a classic of science fiction. But I feel it’s more an example of great storytelling than of great writing (though I don’t consider it badly written by a longshot).