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Dune first editionFirst edition
By Frank Herbert
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Also called
Dune Chronicles, Book 1

First publication
1965, United States

Literature form

Science fiction, fantasy

Writing language

Author's country
United States

Approx. 188,000 words

Rising and sinking in the sand

Dune's timing was perfect. Launched in the mid-sixties around the beginning of the modern environmental movement, Frank Herbert's ecology-conscious science fiction novel and its many sequels and adaptations have ridden the public zeitgeist well into the twenty-first century.

It also helps that the mystically tinged works have coincided with the decline of established religion and rise of so-called New Age thinking in the Western world.

It could be argued in fact that the latter Dune features undercut the series' reputation for prescient progressivism.

Rather than present a future in which collective technological advance meets all challenges, as in much popular scifi, Herbert's writing projects a backwards movement in which the galaxy operates on feudal principles.

Royal families with their hereditary succession have divided up the planets, overseen by an emperor. A mix of old and very old technology. They have spaceships but no computers or electronic media. They have laser and nuclear weapons, but their soldiers seem to engage in hand-to-hand blade fights more than any other kind.

They run the universe in colonialist fashion via monopolist corporations—the most prominent being the spice-trading CHOAM company—in the manner of the old British Empire of the eighteenth century exploiting the Orient via the East India Company.

The biggest threat to their rule comes from an uprising of desert dwellers on the spice world of Arrakis, also known as Dune, led by a messianic figure. The story is sort of a cross between Islamic and druggy counterculture ideas, with fantasy staples like witches, telepathy and precognition thrown in.

The hero of the piece is that visionary figure. Son of a duke, Paul Atreides in true fantasy fiction style is the boy trained by masters of the martial and mental arts who it turns out is "the one". He's the saviour whose coming has been prophesied and who eventually leads his people to victory against some great evil. (Compare and contrast to Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Neo in The Matrix, Harry Potter, Luke in Star Wars—or the legends of Jesus or Mohammed, for that matter.)

Paul is the result of a program by the Bene Gesserit, a mysterious group of women—called witches by others—who use their finely honed powers to manipulate genetics through arranged marriages and births among the royal families. The reliance on genes is another backward trend in Dune. 

From all this, you may think I hate this book and its sequels. But just the opposite. I appreciate Dune so much that I feel duty-bound to get all the socio-political qualms out of the way first.

The anti-Asimov

The first book in the series, at least, is an absolute page-turner. Which may be surprising, given the heavy subject matter.

It's astounding how much research Herbert carried out, or how much knowledge he possessed, and marshalled into Dune without overwhelming the story. And how he organized the intricate plot, complicated characters and philosophical ideas into a novel that's so easy to follow.

Despite the quotations at the head of every chapter, and the glossary and other appendices at the back of the book, Dune never feels like a learned tract. It's never difficult.

There are plenty of suspenseful and action scenes, but most of Dune consists of dialogue and debate between the characters or within their minds. A continual moral questioning, weighing of options and strategizing occupy the characters on both sides of every conflict, more than the actual battles.

This sounds dull but it isn't at all, so cleverly is the book written. I'm not sure there's much fine writing of a literary ilk in Dune, and nothing too flashy. Just a workmanlike prose that reveals character and moves narrative ahead. Little explication and description, leaving you to pick up from the context what strange terms mean and what strange people are up to.

In this approach to style, Herbert is similar to other great science fiction writers, especially Isaac Asimov. Which is ironic because he is sometimes called the anti-Asimov, and Dune is sometimes considered the opposite of Asimov's Foundation novel and series.

While Asimov's scientifically and technologically advanced heroes explore space seeking to revive their galactic civilization from a dark age after the collapse of an empire, Herbert's superstitious desert nomads seek to bring down the empire that oppresses them. In the second Foundation novel, a character with supernatural abilities, the Mule, throws a wrench in the heroes' efforts. In Dune, Paul, the character with supernatural abilities throwing the great powers into disarray is the hero.

The Foundation and Dune novels often battle it out for the title of greatest science fiction series of all time, with fans of hard science fiction preferring the Asimov works, though the fantasy-laced Herbert books have become SF's best-selling series.

The sequels

Dune Messiah (1969) and Children of Dune (1976) were also ground-breaking sellers in the science fiction and fantasy fields. They're both impressive in many of the same ways that the first Dune is. Incredible detail, intricate plotting and subplotting, intriguing psychological depth.

Dune Messiah is also interesting because it takes a different tack from the original novel, undercutting Paul's rise to power, showing his failure. A bit of a downer. Though it prepares the way for Children of Dune, which is about the rise of the next generation of even stranger rulers of Dune—and the galaxy.

In an odd way, the books progress in similar fashion to Asimov's Foundation stories, each discrediting what has gone before in order to take the next story to a yet higher level.

What's missing though is the freshness of that first Dune novel, which was like nothing that had been seen before.

Herbert keeps adding more unexpected twists, ratcheting up the storytelling in these two sequels and the rest—God Emperor of Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1984) and Chapterhouse: Dune (1985)—to entice those who want to spend more time in the world he'd created. But with each instalment, the excitement and novelty fall off a bit. By the time we get to Chapterhouse, only the most rabid fans need continue.

And of the further sequels published by others after Herbert's death, there's little to say.

The same advice applies to would-be readers of the Dune books as has been given for the Foundation series and Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series, both of which also flew way past the trilogy barrier. By all means, read the first three books and then as far into the remaining series as holds your interest. Then stop while you still have those early wonders intact in your mind.

Which sounds like something Paul Atreides might say.

— Eric


Critique • QuotesAt the movies