Frank Herbert’s classic and hugely influential Dune spawned several increasingly inferior sequels, not to mention imitations in print, film and television, and a couple of massively disappointing adaptations (David Lynch’s 1984 movie, and the later miniseries). However, for me, the original book remains my all-time-favourite science fiction novel.
For the uninitiated – in the year 10,191, the most valuable substance in the Universe is the Spice Melange, found exclusively on the desert planet Arrakis. This Spice is essential to space travel. Consequently, competing Imperial Houses battle for control of Arrakis. On one side are the seemingly noble House Atreides, and the reprehensible House Harkonnen are on the other. Both have, to a greater or lesser extent, repressed or exploited the tribal peoples of Arrakis, known as the Fremen.
When the Machiavellian Emperor feels threatened by the popularity of Duke Leto Atreides, he orders House Atreides to occupy Arrakis and mine the Spice, whilst conspiring to assist House Harkonnen to launch a sneak attack on them. Against this background of political skullduggery, Duke Leto’s son Paul arrives on Arrakis and discovers his arrival has been foretold. He may (or may not) be a genetic engineered messianic superbeing destined to free the Fremen from their oppression.
Dune is a truly magnificent, epic read. What makes it work so well is the sheer level of detail in Herbert’s world, with every planet, character, culture and custom meticulously thought through. The story is dramatic and exciting, and contains a number of fascinating potential allegories, particularly considering it was written during the Cold War. For instance, one might suggest House Atreides represent the US and House Harkonnen the USSR, but although they are broadly presented as goodies and baddies respectively in the opening stretches of the novel, this changes considerably as Paul’s journey unfolds, and things get a lot more complex.
The Fremen could be taken as an allegory of Middle Eastern Arab tribes, and obviously the Spice is oil. Paul becomes the Fremen messiah, leading then in a “jihad” against the Emperor. However, this is no simple “Chosen One” type story, as it transpires the only reason the Fremen have these prophecies in their history is because the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood implanted them centuries earlier, knowing they were manipulating political bloodlines to create this genetic superbeing. Their long term goal was to use this individual to take control of Spice on Arrakis for their own ends. However, their schemes backfire when Paul decides he will not be their puppet. Instead, he genuinely liberates the Fremen – even though he foresees this will lead to catastrophe in the long term, with a bloodthirsty interplanetary crusade that will kill millions. The irony is wonderful (and something completely lost in both screen adaptations).
In addition, the Spacing Guild (perhaps symbolising world banks) are determined to keep the Spice flowing, so they collude with the Emperor in his scheme to destroy Leto Atreides. They are aware of the Bene Gesserit scheme so also want Paul killed.
As you can see, the plot takes some unravelling. But it’s well worth it. There are great action sequences, often involving the giant sandworms that dwell on Arrakis, as well as full-blooded political and religious drama, and even a touch of romance. There are also some surprisingly heart-rending moments of tragedy along the way.
As science fiction, this is refreshingly different as it eschews aliens and robots. The former are absent entirely (unless you count mutant Guildsmen or the giant sandworms) and the latter are referred to only in passing reference to history. In the Dune universe, humans once relied too much on technology and were eventually oppressed by their machine creations. Humanity then rose up against the machines then renounced robotics, computers and the like, regressing to Feudalism and relying only on the most basic and essential technology (such as space travel between planets). The new powers to emerge from the revolution against the machines were the Spacing Guild and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood.
If I had to pick nits, I’d say the occasional Americanism irritates me (for some reason fantasy world characters need to speak Queen’s English) but such moments are very few. If you haven’t read Dune, I hope this has whetted your appetite. Give it a go, but I recommend ignoring all the subsequent books (although immediate sequels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune aren’t bad). Incidentally the title is another name given to the planet Arrakis.