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 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 author of that line 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 religion as a lever of influence. In Dune, Frank Herbert brilliantly describes the artificial creation of a messianic mythos and how the ecology of Arrakis world is intimately related to the development of the beliefs held by its inhabitants.
Dune is an intricately woven story of political intrigue, religion, science and history. As the story progresses over the series of six books, we learn that this isn’t a completely fictional universe but 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. His style of story telling gives us an omniscient view into the minds of his characters, each with their own political and personal desires.
Despite being set in the distant future, technology in the world of Dune is remarkably disparate. And the technologies which do exist are carefully woven into the human narrative of the story. This was a deliberate decision by Herbert to focus on the politics of humanity, instead of being wowed by impossible flying machines and teleporters, and it works brilliantly.
In Herbert’s future, a war known as the Butlerian Jihad, demonised thinking machines, which are now banned across the universe, replaced instead by the human mentat — a human capable of inhuman calculations and prescience. The few remaining technologies (the galaxy spanning high-liner vessels, and the Txelaxui clone techniques, for example) rely on the human mind augmented by the geriatric spice, which is found only on Dune.
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 Dune never attained the same mainstream success. And even 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.