Frank Herbert | Ace Books | 1965 | 544 pages
What more can really be said about Dune? Rereading Frank Herbert’s saga after a thirty-year break [gasp!] confirms its position as a cornerstone work of science fiction, a multi-layered classic of politics, religion, and epic world building.
Although a complex and rewarding work on a number of levels, it is not–as some critics may suggest–an overly difficult work, even in its initial chapter. The first chapter is a slow burn, introducing characters, settings, and concepts at a measured pace. Readers needn’t rush to the back-matter dictionary for unknown terms, however, since context eventually reveals the necessary meaning of Gom Jabbar, Lisan Al-Gaib, Kwisatz Haderach and other initially mysterious references.
A lengthy dinner party held by the Duke Leto Atreides, the Lady Jessica, and their son Paul, early in their new rule on Arrakis, illustrates the many machinations swirling under the surface etiquette of their society, Water peddlers, stillsuit manufactures, smugglers, and imperial bankers all compete for positions of power, positioning themselves—overtly as well as covertly—in the struggle evidently to come.
The fate of Duke Leto has been foretold, and an atmosphere of impending doom permeates the first chapter, instilling a deep sense of foreboding all the while readers are getting to know the characters and their world. Game of Thrones readers will probably even discover something of an empathetic link connecting Duke Leto to their own doomed Lord Eddard Stark. Heady ruminations on the nature of power ultimately give way to headlong action when the prophesied betrayal finally arrives, and Paul takes flight across the unforgiving sands of Arrakis.
Chapter two, Muad’Dib, details the Fremen world much like the first chapter established the world of the Atreides. Fleeing the evil Baron Harkonnen, Paul and his mother indoctrinate themselves into the systematic order of the natives of Arrakis. Even here, world building is carried along with action sequences, from knife-fight challenges to encounters with the giant sandworms roiling the surface of the planet. Themes of environmentalism, mysticism and religious fanaticism converge with the growing legend of Paul Muad’Dib.
Paul’s constant internal monologue warns him of the dangers of religious zealotry, and of a number of possible futures illustrating the Atreides family banners leading a murderous jihad across the universe. This potential savior turned tyrant transformation presages yet another George R.R. Martin character—Daenerys Targaryen.
Undeniably epic in scope, Dune still manages to remain focused on its characters. At the outset of Chapter three, The Prophet, the timeline jumps ahead past the entire war of resistance against the Harkonnens, starting at the precipice of the final battle. While delivering some tense battle sequences, the resolution returns the setting to the former Atreides mansion, and a final battle of wills with Emperor Shaddam IV and his surrogates that echoes the earlier intrigue of the ducal dinner party.
Don’t wait for Dennis Villeneuve’s upcoming movie reboot to immerse yourself in the universe of Dune. Fifty years after its original publication, Frank Herbert’s monumental work offers an unexpectedly accessible entrance into a fully realized world of mystical intrigue, yet rises above any perceived limitations of genre. Although other science fiction (or fantasy) properties have, arguably, become more entrenched in the collective pop culture imagination, Dune remains essential and ever relevant.