Frank Herbert’s magnum opus, Dune, is one of the most enduring epics in science fiction. Since its publication in 1965 as the first of a six-book series, it has spawned sequels, movies, television series and video games and has won prestigious accolades like the Hugo and Nebula awards. Its imprint on popular culture remains indelible. It has been called The Lord of the Rings of the science fiction genre and has inspired famous works of fiction such as George Lucas’s Star Wars and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Here, I intend to look at Dune and see what it has done well, as well as some places where it hasn’t. I will give a brief introduction to the story for those who are unfamiliar with it, and share my thoughts on it positives, negative and why it has made such a large impact.
Dune is set on the desert planet of Arrakis, which is populated by giant Sandworms and is the only place where the melange – an immensely valuable geriatric spice that extends the human lifespan – can be found. It focuses on Paul Atreides, the scion of a noble house that is assigned control of the planet. When his house is betrayed and his family killed, Paul must journey into the deserts of Arrakis to seek out the mysterious local tribes known as the Fremen. There, he must become the Muad’dib, the Chosen One who will lead them to a fate greater – and more destructive – than he could possibly imagine. Dune’s greatest positive aspect is its worldbuilding. Herbert spent years creating the planet of Arrakis, and it shows.
The detailed geography and ecology of the planet, the biological processes of its animals and the culture of its native people add incredible depth to the book. Even the larger universe outside the planet has a complex political structure and detailed history. Frank Herbert is a master of worldbuilding, up there with J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan.
A disclaimer that I should add is that Dune is not a book version of Star Wars. While its creator drew inspiration from the book’s world, the themes are completely different. In Dune, the plot revolves around the disputes and battles that take place between the different noble houses. None of them, not even the book’s protagonists, are morally upright, but scheme ruthlessly against each other. A more apt comparison would be a space-opera Game of Thrones. While the setting is one of science fiction, technology is not its main focus. Instead, it focuses on the human aspect, with the driving force behind the narrative being the struggle for political dominance between the various groups in the universe. Another main point of focus is ecology, with the residents of Arrakis – the Fremen – struggling in a harsh desert where water is more valuable than money while slowly trying to make it more livable so that the future generations do not face their struggles. Furthermore, this book is a subversion of the tropes of the ‘hero’ and the ‘chosen one’. Herbert had worked as a journalist in Washington D.C. and had realised humanity’s penchant for following charismatic leaders – ‘heroes’ or ‘messiahs’ – down dark paths.
This is a theme that plays a large role in this book as well as future books in the series.However, I have my criticisms for this book. The first would be the pacing. I found the slow pacing of the book to be strange for its genre, and at times it was hard to get through. Furthermore, major events such as character deaths and even the climactic battle of the book are not shown. I would have liked to read these events happening on the page, instead of simply hearing about them in passing. Another complaint I have is the antagonists of the book. While I have said that none of the characters are objectively good, Herbert has put in efforts to make sure that the villains are almost cartoonishly evil. As a result, they lack a lot of the nuance they could have had. While I deeply enjoyed the worldbuilding of this book, I believe that the exposition – or rather, a lack thereof – is a major problem.
The book’s extensive glossary of terms is a poor substitute for an actual in-story explanation of what they meant and often distracted me from the plot. Ultimately, what I believe has caused this book’s massive success is the intricate world that Frank Herbert has created. He spent years crafting the world of Dune, a landscape that would captivate minds for generations to come. The world of Arrakis is a haunting look at what the earth could be. The ecological themes of the book are a selling point in today’s world, with increasing dread over climate change. Dune is not a light read. It is a substantially large book, with the lack of proper exposition and pacing making it a struggle to get through at times. However, if you are willing to give it a chance, it will take you on a grand, thematically rich journey.
The author is a student at Jamnabai Narsee School, Vile Parle and one of the winners of the FPJ Pen To Paper Contest this year.