I’m a little ashamed to say that it took me close to four years to complete Frank Herbert’s epic Dune. Despite the fanfare and rave reviews, I initially couldn’t get past the early chapters before putting it down and moving on to something else. Inspired by the recent re-print of the Dune board game by Gale Force Nine, I gave it one more shot. Third times a charm, and I’m very glad I persevered to finally see it through and experience this seminal work of science fiction.
“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”
The complexity and depth of Frank Herbert’s world of Dune is second to none and is the benchmark for worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy. What was initially inspired by studying the movement of sand dunes in Northern Oregon for the US Department of Agriculture has developed into a rich web of cultures, politics, and spiritualism all intricately woven around the importance of Arrakis. Set in the far future, man has spread throughout the galaxy via space travel, with mankind being loosely collected and governed under the Pashidah Emperor, with individual houses vying for dominance over one another.
“Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.”
The start of Dune is a little convoluted and slow, as you are immediately thrust within the complex political machinations of the competing feudalistic royal houses surrounding the mysterious desert planet of Arrakis and the powerful drug known as spice that draws them all there. It fuels latent telepathic and premonitory powers, significantly prolongs lifespan, heightens the senses, and is highly addictive. Nearly all strata of every society in Dune is physically or logistically bound to the drug, making spice the bottom line for any transaction or engagement between houses.
“To attempt an understanding of Muad’Dib without understanding his mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, is to attempt seeing Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing Darkness. It cannot be.”
Through this political maneuvering are spiritual forces at play that set to determine the fate of the galaxy, bringing about salvation or potential destruction. After Duke Leto of House Atreides is compelled by the Pashidah Emperor to take over Arrakis from the devious Harkonnens, the scene is set for betrayal, revenge, and the fulfillment of ancient prophecies. We follow Paul Atreides, son of the Duke Leto as he comes to terms with the rapidly escalating situation, his own coming of age as a man, his right to his father’s throne, and his place within the ancient prophecies of the sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit.
“The thing the ecologically illiterate don’t realise about an ecosystem is that it’s a system. A system! A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, flowing from point to point. If something dams that flow, order collapses. The untrained might miss that collapse until it was too late. That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.”
The lengths with which Herbert explains the delicate ecosystem of Arrakis is central to the themes in the book. On the surface, Arrakis is nigh inhospitable and is defined by unstoppable sandstorms, huge sandworms that lurk beneath the dunes, and a nomadic population of supposed savages known as The Fremen. Were it not for the spice harvested there, nobody would ever consider trying to control such a hostile planet. As the story develops, the mysteries of Arrakis begin to unravel, revealing the true nature of the relationship between each of these pieces.
“There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors.”
The ecological and economic impact of placing such importance on one commodity are well explored in the novel. The whole of the imperium is run by and for control of spice, which is astounding when you consider the lives lost and lengths gone to procuring it. Despite that, such an industry continues and even intensifies through the novel. Conversely, The Fremen of Arrakis are obsessively concerned about water, with spice being a fact of life rather than the reason for it. The real world parallel between spice and oil are undeniable, especially considering the heavy middle eastern influence in Fremen culture and language. No other natural resource has had such a profound effect upon modern society than oil, and the political, social, and economic conflict that surrounds Arrakis mirrors that of the Middle East. External powers fight and struggle for dominance over resources, while the local population suffer the most from such conflict and gain little from it. Just as all the factions across the galaxy in Dune are bound to Arrakis, so too are the nations of our world directly or indirectly bound to oil from the Middle East. This commentary on the political and social impact of highly sought-after resources has only strengthened with time when you consider the intensity of the conflict and unrest in the Middle East after the novel’s publication in 1965.
“But it’s well known that repression makes a religion flourish.”
The significance and evolution of religion in the modern society is another theme of Dune. Being set within our own universe but in the far future, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity all exist in a myriad of forms, even taking on more mythic and prophetic properties compared to contemporary forms. This suggests that rather than being categorical, religion is highly malleable and expresses a culture’s needs and goals. Societies change, and religion changes with it. The notion that religion would not only still exist but be integral to culture in the future is perhaps a product of the novels time and a concept many may baulk at, but is quite interesting to consider. Under what circumstances would religion flourish in the future, and why might it do so?
“A leader, you see, is one of the things that distinguishes a mob from a people. He maintains the level of individuals. Too few individuals, and a people reverts to a mob.”
The futuristic-feudal society presented in Dune presents two main questions. One understanding of this idea is simply a product of narrative design; dukes, barons, princes, retainers, heroes, and villains make for good storytelling and conform to more traditional forms of plot and narrative, and it works very well. It’s deeply intriguing and adds great depth and meaning the larger worldbuilding of Dune. The use of royal houses also adds depth to the actions of those characters. Herbert has put in the work to craft a rich and complex history, so when the honour of House Atreides is on the line, or the reputation of the Baron Harkonnen is put into question, we clearly understand the motivations and flaws of the characters and can sympathise with their success or failure.
“The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future.”
Another reading of this idea is that it reflects the natural rise and fall of civilisations. Using our own history as an example, feudalism rose from the decline of The Roman Empire, which implies that the Imperium in Dune may be or was in decline (this is expanded upon in the sequels). This rise and fall of empires and technologies may well be an inevitable conclusion. Its an interesting twist on the notion of futurism and progress. We have come to assume that the future is synonymous with cultural and technological advancement. Bitter conflict, great strife, or unprecedented prosperity may shift civilisation in ways we cannot fathom.
“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere.”
As for the style and tone of Dune, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but found myself wanting more in certain areas. The main story was solid, suspenseful, and rewarding, and left me interested in reading the sequels. My only real criticism is that there some characters and arcs that I felt were not as fully developed as I wanted them to be. The complicated web of politics, culture, and religion is also a lot to take in, and some of this certainly was lost on me. But overall, the greatest strength of Dune lies in its importance within the science fiction genre. Frank Herbert has set the bar for worldbuilding very high, and it’s clear to see his influence and contribution to science fiction to this day. Though it isn’t my favourite novel to date, I certainly recommend Dune as a must read for any fans of fiction.