There are few novels as singular and unique as Frank Herbert’s Dune. The 1965 sci-fi epic was originally published as two separate novels in the long-running Analog magazine. After the two were serialized, Herbert tried to find a publisher for the novel as a whole, and was met with nothing but rejection. Of course, it made sense that something so different and daring caused the industry to scratch their heads.
But thanks to small press Chilton Books (who were, at the time, known for publishing car manuals and reference texts) and a slow-build cult following, the novel eventually won the inaugural Nebula Award and tied with Roger Zelazny’s The Immortal for the 1966 Hugo Award.
Dune is set in a feudal interstellar society, in which prestigious families maintain control of different planets. It focuses on Paul Atreides, part of the Atreides family, who have accepted stewardship of the deadly desert planet Arrakis. It is in every way a dead-end and potentially impossible role, yet Paul’s father takes the assignment believing he has little choice.
The planet also happens to be the only source of the spice, or mélange, a drug that enhances human mental faculties, extends life, and is the source of interstellar travel and multidimensional awareness. This makes taking control of Arrakis quite the dangerous undertaking. What results is a complex political, religious, and sociological epic.
In anticipation of Denis Villeneuve's Dune adaptation, which hits theaters in 2021, I finally read Herbert's classic. I carved through its complex layers, and emerged with many, many opinions — but when it comes to Dune, who doesn’t have lots of opinions?
What I Loved About Dune
I was absolutely floored by the complexity of Dune's world, particularly Herbert’s decision not to spoon-feed anything to the reader. Initially, it felt like reading extraordinary yet almost-waterlogged prose. But after the first couple of chapters things finally clicked into place, and I was totally committed.
Dune is a book that asks the reader to do some effort in return. I may not have been able to keep up with all the name-drops or details going in, but I certainly appreciated everything the vivid universe spun around me. Ultimately, the world was so palpable I felt as if I'd dived head first into a country’s politics without any warning.
Paul is far more than the “hero” on his “hero’s journey.” Paul is the heir to the Atreides family. He must battle for the future of himself, his family, and… here’s where the hero’s journey kicks in a bit: the fate of the entire universe.
The thing is, though Paul does grow into the role of the hero, he exhibits all the trauma and tension that comes with facing the nefarious and often corrupt areas of society.
The novel highlights a central human flaw
Herbert addresses the very essence of what we see over and over again in tales of power. Humanity desires so much of “success” by way of something they can own and possess, that power almost always results in corruption. Herbert deeply explores this desire for power, and how leaders almost always fall victim to their own ambitions.
A society focused on craft
The world of Dune takes place after a horrible galactic civil war that eradicated robots and machines.
Instead of its citizens being crushed and commodified by a civilization increasingly at the whim of the technology, a person chooses a craft and it becomes their life. They devote all their energies to the chosen craft and aim to increase their skill to the point of perfection.
Imagine what a writer could do, given the actual time and space (and the mélange, too) to write and create stories. Actually, they probably would create a universe like Dune. I think Herbert was trying to tell us something…
The Importance of ecology
Long before the formal creation of climate change fiction, or cli-fi, Herbert wrote ecology and environmentalism into his universe.
In fact, Herbert was directly inspired by a trip to Florence, Oregon, where he became so enamored by the dunes that he wrote an article, “They Stopped the Moving Sands,” about them.
The environmental narrative Herbert crafted goes above and beyond even prime cli-fi examples like J.G Ballard’s The Crystal World, Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy, and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
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What I Didn't Love
The double-edged sword of dense worldbuilding
The worldbuilding of Dune is, truly, a love and hate kind of thing.
It’s the beauty of being able to lose yourself in all the history and terminology of Herbert's world that made it such a cornerstone for so many fans. However, it also creates a barrier of entry for even the most bookish readers.
Over-explanation versus suggestion
When Herbert fully renders one aspect of his complex universe, he often over-explains. His conception of the world's qualities is confusing, and creates friction when there really shouldn’t be. Many novels avoid this trap by using psychological suggestion to fill in worldbuilding gaps, rather than actually detailing everything to ensure an ironclad explanation.
Herbert doesn't go this route. One example: the Bene Gesserit have a penultimate form, in which they are able to control literally anyone. Herbert might have been the first to explore the concept, but we how have the Force from Star Wars and countless books that utilize some sort of persuasion and influence.
The Force is only explained as much as is needed, whereas Herbert goes into such detail building the culture surrounding the Bene Gesserit that their actual magical power ceases to make any real sense, since it doesn’t track with the world’s rules and stakes.
Dune was way ahead of its time. Much of its achievements have now become archetypes and mimicry across the many seasons of science fiction that came after it, including landmarks like Star Wars.
By the time I read Dune, I couldn’t help but anticipate archetypes, spotting them with ease.
Dune saves itself for its complexity, but still, so much can be found and predicted long before the narrative gets around to doing the expected. To me, Dune is a victim of hype and fandom: the surrounding culture and reaction overshadows the actual experience so much that you can’t separate the two.
Let’s hope the 2021 adaptation will act as a fresh reset, introducing Herbert’s universe to new readers that haven’t had the experience blown for them.
The book was written during a different time, and as such issues of identity and inclusivity that we're conscious of in 2020 are not necessarily well-explored in Dune. This is to be expected to some extent. The classics hold up for their merit and what they achieved, yet much of the culture the author grew up in still shines through.
Dune plays quite heavily for the male readers and man, it shows. There’s also certain cringe-worthy moments where the writing is one-dimensional and hackneyed, especially with regards to the treatment of characters of different sexuality and gender.
There have been numerous attempts to bring the rich world of Dune to the big screen. Many know of David Lynch’s odd and ultimately underwhelming 1984 spiritual adaptation, in which Lynch took many liberties and leaned on the surreal.
There was also the more recent 2000 miniseries by John Harrison. Additionally, auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) was inspired to adapt Herbert’s vibrant universe. Early work on the project included everyone from H.R. Giger to Salvador Dali, but, after extensive preproduction, Jodorowsky failed to get the film off the ground. The entire ordeal was chronicled in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.
About 65% through the book, I started to understand why Lynch failed to adapt the novel, Harrison failed to capture the essence of the universe, and Jodorowsky couldn’t get the funding he needed to actually do the book justice. It’s because it is a book that truly aligns with its original medium.
But that was then and here we are, in 2020, with a glimmer of hope. Denis Villeneuve is adapting Dune into a two-part film. The first part was set to enter theaters this fall, but has since been pushed back to next year.
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Though I hope for the best for Villeneuve’s attempt, Dune is a universe captured extraordinarily on the page.
Readers want so much for any adaptation to show what we saw in our head while reading the book. But Herbert’s universe is meant entirely for our imaginations, and perhaps that’s where it may always be best, as a personal extrapolation of the source material.