I first read Dune when I was just entering my teens - and I loved it. I can’t pretend that I understood it fully, and I certainly missed many of the key themes and messages within in as I learned on later re-readings, but it’s a heck of a story despite following a fairly simple outline.
The Atreides House are awarded custodianship of the desert planet Arrakis from which a mystery ‘spice’ called melange comes. This spice is needed to allow ships to navigate the vastness of space, so not only is it crucially important that it continues to flow, but there is great prestige in being the House who controls it. The other Houses are understandably annoyed by House Atreides gaining this control and House Harkonnen tries to assasinate the lot of them. The son of the family, Paul Atreides, is forced to go on the run, hide among the natives and discover that he is the chosen one… Pretty formulaic, no?
On the surface, it’s a political intrigue, a thriller with a man on the run for his life, and an ecological allegory that’s only more timely now than it was when it was written. And yet it’s justifiably a classic of the genre (Science-Fiction in case you didn’t realise) published back in 1965.
He who controls the spice controls the universe.
Under the surface, it’s a masterpiece of world-building. It’s the first book I remember reading where everything wasn’t explained, nothing was handed to you on a plate. Obviously this is very common in fiction, but coming straight from my previous reading where everything was neatly explained, with no unanswered questions, it was revelatory. (When I was the right age for YA, the genre wasn’t nearly as developed as it now is, so you tended to go from ‘kids’ books to adult fiction which was sometimes jarring like this).
Paul is a ‘fish-out-of-water’ when he joins the Fremen in the desert, learning their ways and coming to understand the nature of the planet. So far, so typical - you learn as he learns. What opened my eyes was the world he had left behind - we got glimpses of it, hints of intrigues, history and prophecy that give you the impression that the entire universe really is rolling along behind the scenes, and we just don’t have time to dig into it now. I still love whenever a book or movie seems to inhabit a real place they don’t feel the need to shove in your face shouting look, look at all the work I did!
In fact, if you take all the published books in the series, the Dune universe stretches over 15,000 years - and you do really feel as if that time exists somewhere…
Now it’s not flawless - the dialogue is clunky, people are prone to pontificating in ways no human would ever do, the science is over-explained even as it’s not explained at all - but these are something you either get over or you don’t. You might tell yourself this is how language has evolved so far into the future, or that Herbert’s just not that good at it. But this is one of the books where the words just act as a means for the ideas and imagery to get into my brain, and I can look past the problems and go and visit Dune again.
And there are a lot of quotable lines - not least the ‘litany against fear’ which has become a mantra for many people overwhelmed by emotion or anxiety over the years:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
This book has a reputation for being unfilmable - the same world-building and sparse explanations that readers love don’t always translate to the screen - but that hasn’t stopped people trying. Most famously, David Lynch tried in 1984 - and the resulting film can most kindly be described as a ‘cult classic’. There are those who love it (mostly fans of the book who can overlook the gaps, I believe) and those who feel it’s a nonsensical mess.
Rather better is a little-known mini-series from 2000 - though it’s still hardly a masterpiece. Every translation from book to screen inevitably suffers, and with a dense, layered source material something has to give.
And yet this year (2020) there will be yet another attempt - we shall have to wait and see if Denis Villeneuve of Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival fame can do any better! He has the Sci-Fi chops…