Dune. Arrakis. Desert planet.
From the enigmatic epigraph’s at the start of each chapter, to the swirling hints of Christian, Islamic and Buddhist religious, and the dark suggestions of an advanced future without technology, Dune is a stunning achievement.
It’s an Absolute Truth that Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1969 classic novel, is the greatest work of science-fiction ever put to paper. The sci-fi equivalent of Lord of the Rings, Dune is a without competition, a fully realised world of ecology, history, and human societies that interact and devour one another. Dune is the finest the genre has to offer, of that there is no doubt or argument.
Dune tells the story of Paul Atreidies and his rise to through the houses of power to the position of messiah. On the surface Dune is a traditional story of one boy’s development from childhood to absolute power, but it’s told with such precision and imagination that it can only be imagined that Frank Herbert experienced the planet of Arrakis first hand.
And to a certain extent, he did. Dune began as an essay on the ecology of sand dunes, and it was only later that Herbert developed it into a serialised novel, and finally a series of books.
I first read Dune around ten years ago, and it made a lasting impression on me. As with works such as Tolkein’s Lord of the Ring, the world of Paul Atreidies and the planet Arrakis feels as though it has always been, that these are some ancient myths being passed down to a waiting audience.
A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.from Manual of Muad’Dib by the Princess Irulan
But it’s the ways in which Dune is told which is most effective. The very first line is written by a character who doesn’t appear until much further into the story. The writer has a central role in the novel, but at this point we are completely mystified as to who this person is or why we should care. It’s only on the second reading that we fully understand the context of the writing. At the beginning we know none of these characters — are they even people, who is Muad’Dib, what are the Bene Gesserit, what is Arrakis?
But for me the most fascinating aspect, and a thread which weaves through all six books, is the deliberate cultivation by external forces of religious as a lever of influence. In Dune, Frank Herbert, brilliantly describes the creation of legend and how the ecology of a world is intimately related to the development of the myths of the inhabitants.
Dune is an intricately woven story of political intrigue, religion, science, and history. As the story progresses over the series of books, we learn that this isn’t a completely fictional universe for a far flung future with very real ties to current history.
Frank Herbert has a particular cadence to his writing which is as cautious as it is deliberate. The characters are intelligent beings and describe specific thoughts and carefully consider actions.
Despite being set in the distant future, the world of Dune is remarkably disparate in technology, and the technologies which do exist are carefully woven in the human narrative of the story. This was a deliberate decision by Herbert to focus on the politics of humanity, and it works brilliantly.
The few technologies which do exist, the galaxy spanning high-liner vessels, or the Txelaxui clone techniques, are limited by and control by human limitations. In Dune, the Butlerian Jihad demonised thinking machines, which are now demonised across the universe, replaced instead by the human mentat — a human capable of inhuman calculations and prescience.
The Dune universe is strange and yet oddly familiar.
While the mainstream popularity of Dune is muted compared to other novels and movies, the book’s influence on pop culture is plain to see. Star Wars, for example, has reflections of Dune throughout — the desert planet, the sarlacc pit, the ability to influence another through only the use of voice, but it never attained the same mainstream success. Even more recent films such as Marvel’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy have very stark references to Herbert’s work. You can’t get away from Dune.
If you’re a fan, the first three books in the series are essential reading, and the fourth to the sixth excellent, but lesser novels. Anything outside of these should be ignored, as later novels written posthumously by Herbert’s son are not so great.
With a Dune movie currently in development, and a new release of hardback novels to support it, this seemed like a good opportunity to give Dune another read through, my fourth in the last few years, and analyse it in more detail. What makes Dune so enduring as science-fiction, but at the same time it still hasn’t caught whatever light is required to make it the mainstream masterpiece that it should be.
I’ll be writing more soon.