A timeless classic is a term that should be uttered rarely. Timeless implies you could pick it up today, read it in ten years, and still come away with a new perspective, a new rage at a book that challenges you politically, socially, and spiritually. DUNE, the grandfather of modern science-fantasy, in my opinion, of course, is the black sheep of the pulp Science Fiction family that ran away from a raygun shooting, fish bowl shaped, space helmet wearing universe of tomorrow. Instead, it is a morality play in line with Shakespeare, a political examination of tyranny, prophecy, good intentions, and how a tiny, insignificant planet holds the real-politik resource to create or destroy galactic dynasties with a simple drop of an atomic bomb. Even if its vision of the future is a wrong-way mirror compared to the projections of today, it cannot be overstated how vital, how genre-changing it was to the language, the imagery, and the soul of Science Fiction. DUNE deserves all its accolades both in terms of story, theme, character, and its sprawling, fully realized false future that never came to be.
DUNE (Amazon), the first in a long series of novels by Frank Herbert, tells the story of humanity millennia in the future. Certain technology is suspect, due to dark atrocities brought about by atomics (atomic bombs and other atomic-powered technology) and robotic uprisings, in the vein of contemporaries like Arthur C. Clarke. The universe is ruled by a galactic emperor who divides planets into the stewardship of noble houses. Within this viper’s nest of nobles clashing against each other, there are monastic orders like the Bene Gesserit, an all female order of psionically gifted matrons manipulating a genetic conspiracy for millennia, who vie for influence and control within the Galactic Padishah Empire.
The story begins with Paul Atreides and his family, House Atreides, being awarded custody of Arrakis, the sole planet where the most important resource in the galaxy, mélange, is harvested and cultivated for a variety of medical, economic, and social benefits. In reality, as Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, realizes, it is an elaborate trap plotted by House Harkonnen, the ruling family of Arrakis and the Atreides’ bitter rivals for generations, and the Emperor Shaddam Padishah IV. From this opening move begins a struggle between the Atreides, the Harkonnens, and the other factions involved in the planet Arrakis’ fate.
The novel is told from a variety of diverse POVs. They range from Paul Atreides, the messianic protagonist and heir of House Atreides, his mother, Lady Jessica, a concubine and renegade Bene Gesserit who protects her family and vassals from all, the disgustingly vile but wickedly humored Baron Vladmir Harkonnen, loyal Duncan Idaho, Shaddam IV’s conflicted but determined plot to crush his potential usurper, Duke Leto, and several other characters.
In response to this move, Leto allies with the Fremen, local tribes who have a deep connection with the sandworms, the iconic, native beasts of Arrakis, and users of spice. Over the course of several years, the Atreides go from a height of power, to a downfall, to a triumphant but bloodstained victory at the end. Without going into too many spoilers, the primary plot focuses on Paul, the upstanding but naively arrogant heir, and his journey to a messianic figure whose actions both shape the planet and him, his family, and his descendants for centuries to come. A mixture of political machinations, character exchanges, and thrilling fights against the backdrop of a feudal, future world, DUNE’s plot combines them all into what can truly be described as an epic in the classical sense.
The beauty of DUNE is each character plays a role in shaping Paul’s destiny, their own one, and the planet’s fate. Jessica undergoes her own revelations and hardships, Duncan Idaho is tested for loyalty and love time and again, Leto faces the consequences of his good intentions, Shaddam must examine his own entrapment as the most powerful figure in the universe. All these characters and side players have their roles to fulfill in this inevitable conflict.
DUNE is a political tragedy of epic proportions. It displays the spectrum of human morality, of good intentions punished, of hubris rewarded, then casually crushed. In addition, the primary narrator of the story, Princess Irulan, provides meticulous notes, commentary, and laments her own role in the story and her relationship with Paul and his family long after the events of the novel.
Part of the reason DUNE is so iconic is because its worldbuilding, researched, analyzed, and executed by Herbert, is so surface level explored, it betrays a vaster history, a web of complex motivations, historical events, triumphs, and failures interwoven on the microscale conflict of Arrakis. DUNE’s universe did not exist to support Paul’s story, rather, his story is merely another great event in the struggle of mankind. It is a vital one, but as future novels show, it’s only the beginning of another period of violence, upheaval, and redemption that eternally repeats.
Every piece of clothing reflects the status, affiliation, and greater history of the setting, every casual mention of Islamic fused Christianity, an off-shoot, militant Buddhist revival, the fear and restriction of atomics, of the potential return of robotic intelligences, reveals the attitudes and perceptions of the setting, which then influences the characters’ own motivations and behaviors. DUNE is a near perfect fusion of setting and character existing in harmony. It’s why, even with nomadic, psionically empowered raiders riding giant sandworms (which is awesome, by the way), DUNE feels fully realized as a future, at the time, that could’ve existed millennia from then 1965.
Another reason why DUNE is so satisfying is because it tells a complete story, an epic standalone, which didn’t necessarily need a sequel. As a proponent of standalones, I loved the fact DUNE chronicles its epic tragedy in a single volume, rather than cutoff at page three hundred eighty-five and buy the next part, DUNE: THE DARK FALL ’67. That said, DUNE is not without its flaws.
It’s a political tragedy. Large sections of the novel deal with HBO Game of Thrones before Game of Thrones styled double, triple meaning, innuendo laced conversations, asides (it’s very Shakespeareanesque), and other, potentially dry scenes. It’s not a pew pew war story, it’s a methodical examination of politics, social cohesion, and “deep” themes. The prose is, while not obscure, potentially dense, off-putting with symbolic discussions, themes of history, conflict, etc. If you’re looking for a fast read where you can shut your brain off and enjoy people kicking butt against evil aliens, well, this is likely not the novel for you.
Other quibbles, including a particular end section that has massive story impact, are sidestepped by the narrator. There are some parts of the novel I felt could’ve been summarized more, an unnecessary POV scene cut here, but in its defense, DUNE is not an overly long novel. The science, if you can call it that, is firmly in the realm of STAR WARS and BUCK ROGERS, even earlier sword-and-planet stories like A PRINCESS OF MARS (EBR review here). People ingesting space cocaine to enhance their psionic abilities, egg-headed space navigators in weird jello tanks–it is a somewhat dated view of science. Then again, science often is wonderfully bizarre, too. Still, DUNE doesn’t aim to be a hard SF story, instead, it’s soft in its exploration of cultures, conflicts, and institutions in the same vein of contemporaries like Urusla Le Guin’s LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. Still, these are minor flaws that don’t undo its gestalt.
DUNE is, without a doubt, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, because of its scope, ambition, and fusion of the literary and its entrenchment in the SF genre. Space opera junkies, cultural explorers, armchair political analysts, it has a little bit of everything to satisfy and keep you going until the conclusion of its thematically perfect ending to a bittersweet story of destiny, politics, family, that deconstructs its own mythology, which then shows the dangers of just tyranny and deifying even the best of intentioned rulers.
What are you waiting for? Read this timeless classic and decide for yourself if the hype is real.
- Recommended Age: 14+
- Language: The occasional swear here and there, but rarely coarse or extremely vulgar
- Violence: Quite a fair amount: there are assassinations, poisonings, immolations, decapitations, and other descriptive scenes throughout the story
- Sex: Implied in some scenes, but tame at worst