|Mother of God! A giant moving cave with teeth!
I could write this review in just one sentence: “Dune is the greatest science fiction novel ever written”.
It would be accurate.
It would be truthful.
And it wouldn’t even begin to do this book justice.
This book is not simply the greatest example of its genre, it is also a tremendously powerful social, historical, and anthropological critique, and a work of truly unparalleled vision. The real power of this book doesn’t come from its vision of a far-distant future in which Mankind has spread across the stars; it comes from the uncanny way in which Frank Herbert figured out how to take ancient mythologies and religions, contemporary concepts of what the future would hold, and the unchanging nature of Man, and turn them all into a work that still stands today as a literary masterpiece.
If for some reason you’ve been living under a rock for the last 40 years and haven’t gotten around to reading Dune, then allow me to fill in a few blanks for you. The story starts in a far-distant future- something like 21,000 years into the future from the present day, give or take- under the reign of the Padishah Emperor of the Corrino Dynasty. Humanity has seeded countless worlds across the stars, and has evolved in new and unexpected ways. The universe in which humanity finds itself is dark and dangerous; “thinking machines” (computers and artificial intelligences) have been outlawed for over 10,000 years since the end of a climactic event cryptically referred to as the Butlerian Jihad, the worlds of the Imperium are ruled over by an oppressive oligarchy, and there is a continuous, fractious power struggle between the Great Houses of the Lansraad, the Emperor, the enigmatic Bene Gesserit sisterhood, and the Spacing Guild. The latter holds a complete and absolute monopoly over space travel within the Imperium. Key to the balance of power within humanity’s Universe is the geriatric, highly addictive drug or “spice” known as “melange”. This drug is absolutely critical to humanity’s continued existence. It is available on exactly one world- Arrakis, a forbidding, harsh, exceedingly dangerous desert world on the fringes of known space. It is this world, better known as Dune, where the greatest power struggle in the history of the Imperium will come to a head.
As the story begins, the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV grants Duke Leto Atreides, of the Great Lansraad House of Atreides, a charter to take over the spice production on the planet Dune. Concurrently, the Bene Gesserit, who have maintained a highly selective breeding program to seek out and create the perfect human ultracomputer, the Kwisatz Haderach (“the one who sees all paths”, so to speak), test his son, Paul Atreides, for his qualities as a human being. As the novel begins, the Bene Gesserit believe that their eighty-generation, millennia-long breeding program is at last coming to a head. As Paul and his family leave their water-rich, peaceful homeworld of Caladan for the harsh and brutal conditions of the desert planet Arrakis, the intrigues between his family’s work and their ancient enemies, House Harkonnen, begin to emerge. These eventually come to a head about halfway through the book, with Paul, his mother, and his yet-unborn sister being forced to flee into the desert to seek refuge among the Fremen, humans who have lived on Dune for generations and have specifically evolved and adapted to deal with its extreme conditions. When Paul meets the Fremen and integrates into their society, he embraces the mantle of the legend of the Lisan al-Gaib, the one who will lead the Fremen to victory over their oppressors, and transform their desert world into a paradise garden.
If that sounds complex, believe me, it is. Truth be told, though, I can’t write an adequate plot summary of this book. No one can. It’s that good.
The universe that Herbert created with this book was, and in my opinion still is, unparalleled in its richness and depth. The sheer number of ideas that he brought forth in this book is staggering, and it will take multiple readings to absorb them all fully. In just this one book alone, he dealt with:
- The dangers of charismatic leadership, both for the leader and the followers;
- The nature of human evolution under conditions of extreme stress;
- Ecological problems such as desertification, and how to reverse it;
- The question of eugenics, and the applied use of selective breeding programs to look for specific traits in human biology;
- The fusion of Zen Buddhism and Islam into the Zensunni and Zenshiite cults (these aren’t mentioned specifically here, nor is Buddhislam; these concepts come up a bit later in the series);
- How balances of power are preserved, and how they are upset;
- How seeking the safe path at all times will eventually stunt the growth and evolution of a species;
- The growth, peak, decline, and fall of empires;
… and so much more. It’s just not possible to go into everything that this book tackles; the fact that it manages to do all of this in under 450 pages is in and of itself an incredible achievement.
I could rabbit on about this book for weeks, so in the interests of brevity, if I had to pick just one really great idea in this book, it would be the concept of the sandworm. The way Herbert narrates the life-cycle of the sandworm makes it very clear that he did a lot of deep thinking on ecological issues. The sandworm- known by the Fremen as Shai-hulud, the old man of the desert- is a truly awesome creature. In evolutionary terms, they are quite primitive- essentially they are gigantic annelids, i.e. worms, with huge segmented bodies where each segment is effectively an independent organism- yet utterly terrifying for that, growing as they do to monumental lengths. They feed on microscopic creatures called sand plankton, which in turn feed on trace amounts of melange buried in the sands of the desert. The sandtrout is responsible for the desertification of Dune, as they are tiny creatures that are extremely good at finding, and in sufficient numbers completely encysting or encapsulating, bodies of water. As the sandtrout excretes its by-products from digesting water, and water itself seeps into those by-products, pre-spice masses form in the desert sands; eventually, these masses basically explode, killing off millions of sandtrout and sending the survivors into dormant states of hibernation, to emerge eventually as small sandworms. These worms pretty much never stop growing over their lifetimes, except in the rare cases of the “stunted worm”, and eventually the Great Worm emerges to rule the desert itself. When they die, for whatever reason, their bodies return to the desert, completing the cycle as the sand plankton feed on the spice-infested remains of the worms.
The sheer depth of imagination and skill required to make this not only believable but useful within the broader context of the story is astonishing. And that is just one part of the Dune saga.
About the only flaw that I could ever find with Herbert’s writing was his odd insistence on fusing Islamic religious practices with Buddhist ones. I honestly never figured out why he did this. It makes no sense, seeing as how Islam is so completely and fundamentally hostile towards Buddhism. But, who knows, maybe in 21,000 years’ time, the current incarnation of Islam will have died out (one can only hope!) or will have adapted to survive.
As good as this book is, it was in fact the pinnacle of Herbert’s writing. Other books in the Dune series- most notably Children of Dune and especially God-Emperor of Dune, which explained the concept of Leto II’s Golden Path– were grander in scale and scope, or more action-packed (Chapterhouse Dune). Yet Herbert never managed to reach the same peaks of grandeur and imagination that he did with the original Dune, for a variety of reasons. It’s a bittersweet book in a lot of ways, because as amazing as the concepts are, there is a subtle recognition, particularly towards the end of this book, that greatness is fleeting, and that control over greatness is tenuous and illusory at best.
In summary, I simply cannot recommend this book strongly enough. It stands entirely alone as an achievement in literature. Herbert could have written just this one book and would have been forever remembered as perhaps the greatest writer in sci-fi history; instead, he continued on to write multiple sequels which, while brilliant in their own right, were never quite as good and never captured the reader’s imagination to the degree that Dune did and still does. I suggest re-reading this book many times; I certainly have, and each time, I get something new and different from it. And if you happen to know an introverted sci-fi nerd who likes to read a lot, then this is quite simply the perfect gift.
Didact’s Verdict: 5/5, though 10/5 would be more accurate
Buy/download Dune here.
Dune is indeed a classic. In the series I enjoyed this first novel but was disappointed by book two, Dune Messiah. For in Dune Messiah, Herbert kind of reversed everything that was great in the first novel; it became anti-heroic and plebeian. However, he rectified it in Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune, taking the story to unseen mythological heights. Worth the effort, I'd say, even though Herbert's way of writing can be a bit repetitious and myopic at times.