Over 50 years after its initial publication, Dune remains one of the most exotic sci-fi epics ever written. Set some 20,000 years in the future, it portrays a future that resembles the Middle Ages more than Star Trek. The galaxy is ruled by an emperor, along with several powerful feudal houses, the Space Guild corporate monopoly over space travel, and the Bene Gesserit religious order, all locked in an uneasy balance of power. Dune itself chronicles the struggle for the planet Arrakis, source of the crucial “spice” drug, as well as the rise of a new politico-religious leader, Paul Atreides. Of course, for many, the stars of the book are the giant sandworms, huge creatures hundreds of meters long the are both revered and feared by the local Fremen people.
Frank Herbert’s writing style is rich and exotic. Each chapter begins with a quote from history or religious books in the Dune universe, putting the story in context. Interestingly, these quotes often “spoil” the book; we learn about important events long before they appear in the novel. This gives the story an epic feel, as if we are reading about a critical moment in history rather than merely a passing adventure. For the first-time reader, this can seem to drain the story of any suspense. For example, readers learn the identity of the traitor to House Atreides long before the Atreides themselves do. It helps to understand that Dune is more a book about “how” than “what.” There are no surprises in this book. Rather, the joy in reading it comes from seeing how extremely intelligent characters struggle to overcome complex problems.
Speaking of the characters, they are incredibly well realized. Paul Atreides, Lady Jessica, Stilgar, even Baron Vladimir Harkonnen are all complicated beings who have multiple goals at any given time. It is clear that humanity has evolved during the intervening millennia because the mental acuity of even the slowest characters is far beyond the ken of living humans. That said, I do wish we got to see the characters outside of “crisis mode.” For the most part, the characters are so busy responding to the political crisis of the day that there’s no time for a lighthearted or relaxed moment. Aside from Gurney Halleck, Paul’s weapons tutor, who likes to sing ballads, none of the characters seems to have a hobby. Again, Dune isn’t so much a book about falling in love with characters as it is learning to respect them.
Almost 50 years after it was first published, Dune remains unique both for the depth of its world-building and the intricacies of its plot. One of the reasons it has lasted so long is because its political, social, and religious commentary seems relevant to each new generation. At its core, Dune is a story about the dangers of charismatic leadership, blind faith, and overdependence on scarce natural resources. It helps that this is one of the most quotable sci-fi books. Herbert litters the pages with “pearls of wisdom” (my favorite: “He who has the power to destroy a thing controls it absolutely.”), which collectively could serve as a textbook in machiavellian politics.
My journey through Dune continues next week with a look at David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune…