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Dune by Frank Herbert (Amazon commission earned)Original 1965 Chilton Dune coverFive stars
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Buy from IndieBoundLiterary landmark and pop culture icon, Frank Herbert’s epoch-making Dune has for so long held the crown as the Most Important SF Novel Evar that to crank out yet another review simply to recapitulate the point seems superfluous, to put it mildly. Thus it falls upon me to draw everyone’s attention back to an aspect of the book that often gets lost when any artistic work has spent decades groaning under the burden of its stature: that as a story, Dune positively rocks the casbah. 

Dune landed right at the time that science fiction and the world at large were on the cusp of radical change. The second half of the 1960s would bring about colossal social upheaval and a decisive reshuffling of old orders. Among the issues engaging public consciousness were environmentalism and the wisdom, or lack thereof, of exploiting Earth’s natural resources with no thought to long term consequences. When these concerns peaked for the first time in the eary ’70s with the first major “energy crisis,” Frank Herbert, whose story here is fundamentally all about such short-sighted exploitation, found himself something of a guru among the young, politically motivated, and eco-aware. He became a popular speaker at Earth Day events, and the continued high sales of Dune and its first sequel Dune Messiah would carry over to 1976’s Children of Dune, which would become the first SF novel ever to hit #1 on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list.

But social and political relevance aside, what has made the original novel such an enduring classic? To cut through the noise, I think it simply has to do with being a tremendous story that, like the contemporaneously released The Lord of the Rings, presented readers with a narrative on a grand scale, set in a comprehensively realized imaginary world that offered not only escape, but easily understood parallels to concerns we face in our own lives. Tolkien’s epic dealt with traditional conflicts between good and evil, particularly in relation to the importance of resisting temptaton, and it centered on a hero of humble origins rising to greatness through his deeds and perseverance. (It also added the savvy, only slightly cynical acknowledgment that even the most decent among us can’t go it alone, and the support of friends is often vital.) 

In Dune, on the other hand, Herbert gave us a hero of noble birth who loses everything, only to gain a world and a sense of true greatness once his quest for vengeance is tempered by his connection to that world, and his desire to preserve it and its peoples from the ravages of ruthless greed and corruption. And it quickly becomes apparent, Herbert is not here to praise the Chosen One/White Saviour archetype, but to bury him.

By now the story should be familiar to so many readers that a synopsis ought to be unnecessary, but for the two of you still uninitiated, here goes: When the noble house of the Atreides is given governance of the remote desert planet Arrakis, its patriarch, Duke Leto Atreides, knows all too well that he is walking into a trap set by their worst rivals (and distant blood relations), the Harkonnens, who are themselves patsies of the emperor. The goal is to destroy the Atreides utterly, thereby removing a powerful and influential voice among all of the noble houses that has been the empire’s biggest stumbling block to maximizing profits from the spice mélange. a vital resource unique to Arrakis that cannot be synthesized. If catastrophe befalls Arrakis under the Atreides’ governance, such that it affects spice production, not only will the Atreides be out of the way, but families like the Harkonnens who have hoarded spice can demand massively inflated prices.

UK edition (Amazon commission earned)Leto does his best to stay one step ahead of his enemies, but he never suspects the member of his retinue who does eventually betray him. Still, even the Harkonnens don’t have full control over their inside man, and this person helps the duke’s concubine, Lady Jessica, escape into the desert with their 15-year-old son, Paul. There, mother and son join the native bands of the Fremen, whose numbers are not fully recorded in the imperial census, and who, unwisely, are dismissed as a threat by the Harkonnens. 

Paul’s journey from boy to man to messiah draws from a number of cultural archetypes, and Herbert also acknowledges the way in which saviors do not just happen, but are made. Even Jesus himself (whatever the actual person who inspired the Gospel figure may or may not have been like) would likely have been lost to history were it not for the aggressive evangelism of St. Paul. The Bene Gesserit, the all-female school of philosophers, telepaths and mystics (and eugenecists) that trained Jessica from childhood, are seeking the Kwisatz Haderach, a male capable of “bridging space and time” through perfection of their mental disciplines. (In Herbert’s future, humans have sought to enhance and perfect their minds after artificial intelligence led to war and disaster.) But in giving birth to Paul instead of the girl they instructed her to have, Jessica has angered the Bene Gesserit, who hoped to avert disaster by wedding a female Atreides to a male Harkonnen heir. Is Jessica so presumptuous to think she could bear the Kwisatz Haderach?

And yet the Bene Gesserit are not so angry that they haven’t tried to take advantage of the situation. Jessica learns that the order’s propaganda arm, the Missionaria Protectiva, has been at work, sowing anticipation of a savior among the locals. From the moment the Atreides arrive on Arrakis, she hears Paul called the Mahdi (the name of the Islamic savior) in the furtive whispers of the natives. The name Paul chooses when among the Fremen, Muad’Dib, sounds just the same. Thematically, Paul’s scenes among the Fremen are among Herbert’s sharpest commentary, as he makes it abundantly clear that, while everyone from off-planet is eager to wage war for the spice, Arrakis’ real precious natural resource is...water. The Fremen consume spice indifferently, while every drop of water, even a teardrop, is treated as worth a thousand times its weight in gold. Wrecking the environment and the elements in it we cannot live without, in short-sighted pursuit only of those resources that rake in the cash, has been a talking point of environmentalism for decades. Today, over four decades after Dune, with our own world facing monumental climate change, the story is more relevant than ever. 

Some readers have seen reflections of such historical figures as T. E. Lawrence in Paul, and it’s possible that Lawrence’s autobiography, the pompously titled The Seven Pillars of Wisdom— as well as the desolate vistas of the movie it inspired, Lawrence of Arabia — influenced Herbert here to some degree. But unlike Lawrence, an egoist who very deliberately constructed and sold his own heroic myth, Paul Muad’Dib takes a long time to feel fully confident in the role that is thrust upon him. He’s a conflicted messiah, far moreso even than Jesus. Whereas Jesus preached enthusiastically that he came not to bring peace, but a sword, it’s the “sword” part of the deal that most troubles Paul. Among the visions of his own possible futures that plague him, enhanced by his consumption of the spice, the most fearful are those of bloody jihad, massive unstoppable carnage in his name.

You’d have to be a blind fool to deny that Herbert’s worldbuilding here has influenced nearly every epic-scale SF and fantasy series to follow. Herbert created what was, in 1965, the most complex backdrop of politics, economics, religion, science, philosophy, and culture to inform an SF novel to date. With a rich cast of supporting characters and imaginative fauna, like the legendary sandworms, helping to realize his creation, Herbert wrote a quintessential adventure saga that was, and still is, as thought-provoking as it is purely enjoyable. For first time readers, diving into Dune takes a bit of acclimating, regardless of any previous exposure to the universe through (ugh) its movie or game adaptations. The book has a style accessible yet literary that respects the reader’s intelligence, something the publishing world of 1965 didn’t quite expect from SF. (Dune was rejected by major publishers, whose editors complained they couldn’t understand it, and it ended up published by Chilton, known for their automotive manuals!) A number of storytelling devices, like hearing the characters’ internal monologues, aren’t really in vogue anymore.

But such stylistic indulgences do not diminish the value of the story, both as glorious entertainment, and as the novel that took science fiction at a turning point in its history and transformed it forever.

Followed by Dune Messiah in 1969, and in 2008 by an all-new “direct sequel,” Paul of Dune, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.