by Frank Herbert
I was hanging out and channel flipping with my friend Tyrone the other day, and we found ourselves watching Avatar, which I actually hadn’t seen since it came out in theaters. If you didn’t see it, I don’t want to spoil it for you (though I do want to judge you for living under a metaphorical rock), but I will say this: I think Avatar, and many other works of fiction, seem to owe a lot to Dune.
Dune is considered by some to be the greatest science fiction novel ever written- ‘some’ being my nerdy friends. Our own society is reflected in Herbert’s creation, as he imagines how in the hell we’ll be able to expand into the universe without killing ourselves. His answer is that future human society, for the most part, will be a throwback to the past. Dune depicts a feudal society nominally ruled by an Emperor, who engages in a constant struggle to maintain his power over nobles, corporations, and planets. Space is pretty much privatized and depoliticized, as the Spacing Guild is the only organization that can transport people between planets, which it does for a fee. War seems to be pretty common.
Our protagonist, Paul Atreides, is the son of a Duke who was recently granted the fiefdom of Arrakis, a potentially profitable desert planet that has more than its share of difficulties. One, it’s a fucking desert. Two, the Duke’s rival, Baron Harkonnen, is a mean jerk. Three, everyone seems to want the House Atreides to fail.
If you pick up Dune, I highly suggest reading the appendix, or at least skimming it, before you start. As a rule of thumb, I usually figure that the author put that stuff there for nerds who can’t get enough lore, and while lore can be pretty dope, it’s not really necessary for the story. I guess it’s not necessary here either- I finished the book without reading the appendix- but it’s helpful to understanding several plot points. The narrative doesn’t seem too concerned with getting you immediately caught up, either, so my advice if you get lost is to just be patient. The good news is that Herbert doesn’t need to cheat by adding in plot elements at the last minute; everything is pretty much set up, either in the appendix or in the opening chapters. I think I would find re-reading Dune rewarding, as I would be able to pick up on these hints from the very beginning.
There are, on the other hand, a few of what I like to call ‘what the fuck’ moments. I don’t mean to say they aren’t logical extensions of the plot, but sometimes things get a little strange for a science fiction story. As a matter of fact, at times I felt like I was reading a fantasy, rather than a science fiction. There’s so much talk of witches and Dukes and tribal loyalty and such that you almost have to remind yourself, “Dude, this is happening in space.”
It is indeed. If I took anything away from Dune– I’m not saying I did- it’s the reminder that technology doesn’t guarantee social progress. For all the lasguns and shields and space travel, Herbert’s story most vividly conjures up historical images such as the Arab Conquests or the Mongol Invasions. The humanity of the future is still fractured and largely impoverished, and is always just a charismatic leader away from a full-scale revolution- or jihad. The problems that have plagued humanity in the past will haunt us forever, according to Herbert.
While Dune should certainly get credit for mixing a bit of political and philosophical commentary into his science fiction novel, I would be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the fun of the story itself. There’s a good amount of intrigue and action, and unlike some fantasy writers, Herbert somehow keeps the number of characters to a minimum. The focus here is Paul, and how he deals with Arrakis, the Harkonnens, and his meddling mother. It’s his story that should have you hooked.
There are other books in the Dune series, but as for whether I’m going to read them… I’m not sure. Supposedly the next two are sweet, and the rest aren’t great, but the original is uniquely acclaimed for its mix of story and philosophical depth. To me, Dune seemed to be a complete novel. While the ending doesn’t finish Paul’s story, and is debatably pessimistic, I felt like Dune said what it was trying to say, and I don’t really need ‘closure’. On the other hand, if the sequels are half as good as the original, they’re probably worth reading.
You should check out Dune if you’re open to sci-fi or fantasy. It’s really not all that long, and is a very well thought out, coherent, deep, and downright fun book.