If you’ve made it to adulthood and haven’t heard of Dune…what’s your secret? I have to know! Few science-fiction classics have permeated public consciousness the way that Frank Herbert’s famous novel has. Sandworms, spice, and spacefolding—the words and the concepts alike have been borrowed and recycled time and again. The book, to put it plainly, is popular.
It may come as quite a shock, then, to learn that the book was rejected by more than twenty publishers. When it was finally accepted, it was by Chilton Books, whose bread and butter consist of auto repair manuals. (Full disclosure: I’m referring to publication as a novel here. The story was previously serialized in Analog magazine; in a just world, that would instantly guarantee that some publisher would snatch it up, but this—like Herbert’s Arrakis—is not a just world.) Its themes may be tropes now; but in the early 1960s, this ecology-driven work was new and unfamiliar, and very much a hard sell. Herbert didn’t shy away from that or compromise in any way—with his own history of ecological work on the sand dunes near Florence, Oregon, he unashamedly dedicated the book to the ecologists engaged in such labors. It would be two more decades before saving the world—from an environmental standpoint—would be fashionable.
Dune, however, is not about saving the world. The story simply assumes a world where conservationist measures are an absolute necessity. That’s the backdrop; the story is political and religious. Wait! No! Don’t run! Frank Herbert had a gift for taking those themes and making them intriguing. The desert world of Arrakis, colloquially called “Dune”, sits at the center of every major power conspiracy in the known universe, and for a very good reason: its ubiquitous spice, melange, is the source of the mystical prescience that allows faster-than-light travel, as well as a host of other powers in various special-interest groups—and it can be produced nowhere else. Melange is a waste product of the planet’s enormous, building-swallowing, man-eating sandworms, which live nowhere else in the universe. The story begins when the galactic emperor, Shaddam Corrino IV, displaces the noble family in charge of Dune—the Harkonnens—and replaces them with their ancient-but-weaker rivals, the Atreides. It’s a trap, however, designed to destroy the Atreides, who have long been a thorn in the side of the Emperor as well. The Atreides heir, Paul, was secretly bred by a religious group, the matriarchal Bene Gesserit as a step toward their long-awaited messiah figure, the kwisatz haderach, the “one who shortens the way”; but unknown to the Bene Gesserit, he is the Kwisatz Haderach. In the end, he upends the empire, seizes power, embarks on a bloody jihad (a term that likely had less political weight in the real world when Herbert wrote the book), and sets the galaxy on a long path of predestination and fate.
It’s been nearly twenty years since I read Dune, and my memory required a little refreshing before writing this entry. Prior to that first reading, I was only loosely familiar with it via the David Lynch film adaptation, which I had watched as a young child, and which famously took some notable liberties with the story. (It IS David Lynch, so of course it did—but then, his experience here eventually gave us Kyle MacLachlan in the role of Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, so I cannot complain.) It’s hard for me to look back on this volume without filtering it through the lens of what came after; and by that I mean both Frank Herbert’s incomplete Dune saga, and his son Brian’s supporting and concluding novels (written with Kevin J. Anderson, and based at least loosely on notes left by Frank Herbert). A word of caution, should you wish to continue the series: those two categories are two very different animals. Frank Herbert’s novels are nearly universally revered, and justifiably so; Brian Herbert’s novels are nearly universally reviled, at least by fans of his father. I personally think that’s a bit unjust; I found them to be great books on their own, but a bit deservedly overshadowed by the original series. Nowadays there are more books by Brian and Kevin than the original series contains; but quantity doesn’t make them superior.
The later entries cover thousands of years of future history, and greatly expand on the themes of predestination, fate, and prescience (that is, future-sight, a hallmark power of those who use the spice). Herbert was setting up for some kind of titanic conflict at the end; some unknown enemy still waited, of which the readers had only received hint. Compiling various sources, Brian and Kevin posited in their novels that the true enemies were the thinking machines against which humans had once fought, now returned in great strength and power. Frank, unfortunately, never got around to telling us; he passed away before he could write the final volume. At any rate, there is none of that in the first volume, which is limited to the life of Paul Atreides on Arrakis, and not even all of that. With that limitation, the book can be notoriously confusing to some, as it simply hurls its readers into the morass of intrigues without a life preserver. I, myself, find it to be the least interesting book in the series; but don’t let that discourage you; we’re dealing with a high bar here. The entire series is good, so to call this one the least interesting is no insult at all.
The bottom line: Dune is a fantastic classic science fiction story in its own right; a great political novel; and, perhaps most importantly, it kicks off one of the truly great series in sci-fi history. Its effect on the course of science fiction has been profound; of all the series out there, perhaps only Asimov’s Foundation series, which we will cover in a few months, is its equal. I feel compelled to hold back any more details of plot and character, for the simple reason that this is not an obscure book—if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? You may struggle through it sometimes, but you won’t be disappointed.
Note: Unfortunately, unlike Foundation—which appears as an entire saga together—none of the other Dune novels made it onto the Great Reddit Reading List. That’s a pity; and if you have opportunity to continue the series, I highly recommend it. God Emperor of Dune is my personal favorite, though the others are great as well. ~Timewalkerauthor