Published in 1965, Dune won the Hugo Award in 1966, and the first ever Nebula Award for Best Novel. In fact, Dune is the biggest-selling science-fiction book of all time, yet, receives comparatively little discussion in popular discussion, and undoubtedly, far less than it deserves.
However, Frank Herbert’s series of novels has undoubtedly left resonances in mainstream media, those of which can be seen in contemporary film, television and of course, literature. For instance, ideas relating to inherited ancestral knowledge and the notion Kwisatz Haderach can be seen even in 2018’s blockbuster hit, Black Panther. Moreover, many Sci-Fi conventions and tropes, seen in the Star Wars franchise to Terminator and even The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, have been shaped by Dune. Specifically, Dune is part of a 6-book series of novel, but for the purpose of this review, I will discuss Herbert’s first foray into the world of Arrakis.
Shaping Sci-Fi Conventions
Dune is set in an imagined future, amidst an interstellar empire (hence the Star Wars connections), and tells the story of a young Paul Atreides, heir to the noble House of Atreides. The narrative begins when Paul is granted control of the desert planet, Arrakis, which is home to the spice, ‘Melange,’ the most important and valuable substance in the known universe. Accordingly, the story follows a series of political machinations and acts of treachery that attempt to undermine Paul’s hold on Arrakis. Along with an exploration of the Machiavellian aspects of human nature, Dune explores a wider array of philosophical concepts, is greatly inspired by religion, technology and environmentalism. In fact, the political movements found in the novel are reminiscent of what’s great about Game of Thrones, also echoing its depth of lore and world-building.
Setting & Context
To be specific, Dune is set after a war between man and machine, and since, the Butlerian Jihad has stated all computers illegal, decreeing that ‘thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind.’ This is almost a prophetic precursor to the preoccupations with artificial intelligence that frequent even today’s news stories. Since there are no computers in the world of Dune, the galaxy is run by a feudal system, wherein men, and their capabilities are prized over technology. Specifically, men with superhuman analytical abilities (such as the protagonist, Paul Atreides), called Mentats, have taken the place of computers. By contrast, the Bene Gesserit, a religious order of women, develop mental and physical abilities akin to intuitive superpowers and omniscience. Moreover, the Bene Gesserit are subject to a strict breeding program, with the intent of giving birth to the Kwisatz Haderach, an all-knowing man, who can see both masculine and feminine lines of ancestral knowledge, while also possessing the ability to glimpse into the future. Crucially, each of these ideas are crucial to the unfolding of the plot, to the ownership of the prized Melange, and the ethics behind its usage.
More on Melange
Taken from the French word for ‘mixture,’ Melange is spice that grants both longevity and precognitive powers, ‘mixing’ together one’s understanding the future with their perception of the present. Melange is found exclusively on Arrakis, otherwise known as Dune, and is present in the atmosphere, sand and even food of the planet. In such case, the inhabitants of Arrakis are addicted to the substance, and can only survive upon its repeated consumption. However, given Melange’s value and effects, it is coveted by many factors in the galaxy, included the Empire, rival noble Houses, and The Spacing Guild, the Galaxy’s monopolistic trading sector. For example, The Spacing Guild, despite being limited in their lack of computing, have built warships that travel faster than the speed of light, and hence, travel backwards in time. Melange, therefore, is the only way the guild can look into the future and pre-empt their path ahead. Unsurprisingly, the pursuit of Melange is a pivotal aspect to the novel, and is handled in an intelligent way, rather than being presented as a ‘deus ex machina’ type plot device that so many sci-fis are subject to.
I hope to have set up some of the themes that help set-up the richly layered experience of reading Dune. Simply, Herbert achieved a great amount; masterfully intertwining notions of power, colonialism, environmentalism, and philosophy in a labyrinthine plot. However, it could be understood if a reader is overwhelmed when first reading Dune, in terms of the sheer content to unpack, the unfamiliar terms (explained in its appendices), and by Herbert’s weighty narrative voice. That said, Dune absolutely rewards commitment, and the further you advance in the novel, the more acquainted you feel with Herbert’s world, and the more fluid the rest of the rest of the text becomes.
In fact, in conjunction to your reading of Dune, I recommend viewing an online book club dedicated to the novel. The YouTube series, hosted by Comic Book Girl 19, is an excellent companion to the book, deconstructing many of its themes, elaborating on its concepts, and providing clarity on what can be an intimidating first foray into the world of Arrakis. Dune Club’s first session covers pages 1-59, and is followed by 11 further videos on the same YouTube channel. Moreover, Comic Book Girl 19 is continuing the ‘Dune Club’ with Frank Herbert’s second novel in the Dune series, Dune Messiah, later in 2018.