Frank Herbert’s Dune is the highest selling science fiction novel of all time – and for good reason. With an epic story, complex characters and world building to rival Tolkien, Dune effortlessly keeps its place as one of the greatest stories ever told.
In a distant future where all computers have been banned, humanity relies on a substance known as the Spice to inform their decisions. When consumed, the Spice can give its user a small glimpse at possible futures and is thus used for war strategizing, space flight navigation and other activities that we would use a computer for today. The Spice, however, can only be produced on the desert planet of Arrakis, otherwise known as Dune. When the Emperor unexpectedly takes control of Arrakis from the vile Harkonnens and gifts it to the noble Atreides, Paul Atreides uncovers a sinister plot that could change the fate of the universe.
Dune is very much a science fiction novel but Herbert twists the genre’s conventions in interesting ways. Spacecraft are a prominent part of the world; they are used to move characters across the universe and smaller craft are used in-atmosphere to travel over long stretches of land. However, because of a machine rebellion thousands of years in Dune’s past, everything – including the spacecraft – are void of computers. By doing this, Herbert removes the dependency on computers but fills the gap with the Spice. The Spice is not technologically controlled at all, which is something that was new for science fiction in the 1960s. Authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke used advanced technology as a driving point for plot in most of their stories, but Herbert uses as little technology as possible. In fact, Dune as a whole can be perceived as Herbert’s response to the techno-obsessed 20th Century.
Another science fiction convention that Herbert uses deftly is that of the Chosen One or Hero’s Journey. While this is a trope used in many different genres, it has been most prominent in science fiction with the cultural influence of ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Matrix’ and even Dune itself. In short, the Hero’s Journey is about a young peasant that is suddenly thrust into a larger conflict and must defeat a tyrannic oppressor. Religious subtext is often added to the Hero’s Journey and the ‘Hero’ is also revealed to be a ‘Chosen One’. Herbert’s take on this is not only surprising, but it is also a caricature of Christianity. While Jesus is a pure figure that was sent down by God to save humanity, Paul Atreides is a Messiah who has been refined and perfected through generations of planned breeding.
Paul Atreides is not only a great example of Herbert’s complex symbolism but also an excellent showcase for his superb characterisation. Paul starts the story at the age of fifteen but ages to about eighteen by the end of the story. This makes Dune, like many Hero’s Journeys, a coming of age story. However, Paul’s character is what makes this coming of age story so relatable. Paul is flawed, but not in the trope-laden way that many modern characters are. He is flawed because he is realistic. Herbert understands that, in the real world, people make the wrong decisions constantly, and that is how he writes Paul. There are many times throughout the story where Paul is faced with a decision that will have a major impact on the world and a few of those times, he makes the wrong decision. These wrong decisions get other characters killed and they put Paul in grave danger, but not once does it feel like Paul made a stupid decision. Paul, like any real person, makes decisions based on what he believes to be true and what he believes is right. This relatablilty isn’t just true for Paul. Each character has clear motivations and aspects that make them unique but also familiar. The evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is the typical evil villain of the story (with an even more typical twist). He wants something that the protagonist has and develops an evil scheme to obtain it, but he has some quirks that give him a step up above all the other Evil Barons of Fiction. While he is the main villain, he is not the most powerful. Instead, he is relegated to a second in command position. This shift allows him to have an anxiety that many trope-filled villains don’t. He constantly questions the allegiance of those around him and when his enemies, die he isn’t gleeful; he is relieved. This makes him more relatable to the average reader too. Glee over death is not something many people can relate to, but relief for the disappearance of a threat is.
Paul Atreides is not only a great example of Herbert’s complex symbolism but also an excellent showcase for his superb characterisation.
The strongest character overall isn’t Paul or Baron Harkonnen. The strongest character is the planet Arrakis itself. Arrakis is a completely desert planet, hence why it is given the nickname Dune. Very little plant life survives and only feral humans can survive outside the boundaries of the city, but Herbert doesn’t describe it as a wasteland. Herbert describes Dune as a living ecosystem where not much survives but everything that does, contributes in its own way. The feral Fremen savour every drop of water and hide pools of it, hoping to make the desert green with plant life. The monstrous worms feed on humans and animals that wander but in return, they develop the Spice that is so important to humanities survival. It feels like a plausible world where everything works together. And that is perhaps the best way to describe the novel itself. Frank Herbert has crafted complex characters within a complex world and it all works together to create a beautiful masterpiece.
By Frank Herbert
$22.99 pb, 577 pp, 9780340960196