Published in 1965, Frank Herbert’s Dune is considered not only a grandfather, but by many the greatest sci-fi novel of all time. A fully realized world that fascinates for the imaginative creatures and civilizations that inhabit it, the novel’s greatest appeal remains the base social circumstances motivating the plot’s quest for political power. Space opera of the xth degree, this formula inspired generations of books and films to come, including George Lucas and Star Wars, not to mention myriad sequels and prequels in the Dune universe. (The latest number of books stands at seventeen and counting.) The original, however, remains the best.
In the Duniverse (sorry, couldn’t resist), Arrakis occupies a unique position. The substance ‘spice’ is found and mined on the planet’s endless deserts, unavailable anywhere else in the galaxy. Spice enhancing the powers of the mind as well as the length of one’s life, he who controls Arrakis controls the universe. The politics of power playing out against this interstellar premise, Dune tells the story of the Atreides family and their struggles for position amidst realpolitik. Coups, assassination attempts, and outright military attacks are par for the course in the planet’s capital. Trained in the arts of physical combat as well as mind reading, the son of House Atreides, Paul, soon finds himself embroiled in the fight for planetary power in ways he can never imagine, the inhospitable desert calling his name as events escalate.
The imagination invested in Dune is its strongest aspect. The Arab-esque cultures vibrating on the streets, the intrigue of court life in the palace, the technology skimming the deserts and mining spice, the stillsuits the people of Arrakis’ deserts live in daily, the constant threat of sand worms just below the surface—in all of these ideas Herbert displays no shortage of imagination detailing the world he envisions. Everything fresh and original, the only derivative aspect of the novel’s setting and motifs is the Middle Eastern feel of naming and religion.
Likewise suitable to such a desert setting, the theme of environmentalism finds a prominent position in the novel. The Fremen who inhabit the desert live in rhythm with nature as opposed to those living more technologically advanced lives in the scattered cities of the desiccated world. Herbert’s emphasis on the sacrifices these people make in order to survive has real meaning in our world today. The Middle East of the 21st century, particularly the water soaked oases being developed in the middle of deserts, should take note of the restraint and wisdom the Fremen exhibit facing their environmental circumstances.
Possibly pinched from a daytime series, the storyline of Dune is not unique, however. Melodrama off the charts, Herbert will not win any awards for originality in plot. Though effectively drawn, Dune’s characters serve the story, i.e. pawns to be moved rather than personalities to be sympathized with. As Darth Vader would later become, the story contains some evilly evil bad guys who exist for none other than evil reasons. Events and plot outcomes sensational as result, space opera is a more than suitable tag for the book.
Dune’s writing is also problematic at times. Its rough edges, while carrying the story, must be handled with patience. Herbert’s agenda for discussion, primarily the politics of power, has a harshness over-emphasized by occasionally digressive philosophizing. An aspect that becomes exponentially worse in the sequels, it rears its ugly head on few enough occasions in Dune that it can be glossed over, however. Neither beautiful nor prosaic, Herbert’s tale remains intriguing for the aforementioned reasons.
In the end, Dune’s reputation as one of science fiction’s greatest books is grounded. Combining uniquely fantastic and futuristic ideas with mainstream plotting, its readership grows while continuing to inspire generation after generation of space opera. Writers like Dan Simmons, Alastair Reynolds, or Iain M. Banks would not have such an easy time in the business, perhaps not even an impetus for their ideas, were it not for Herbert’s universe. While lacking consistent style and smooth characterization, Dune remains great entertainment that scratches at the surface of something deeper.