Dune – a seminal work of American 1960’s Science Fiction. Published in 1965, Frank Herbert probably created a universe to fit his series of books which maybe has only been equalled by Tolkien. Perhaps Dune did for Science Fiction what The Lord of the Rings did for Fantasy Fiction. Both works are heralded as being classics in the alternative novel genre, the Grand-Daddies of their fields. Frank Herbert created this universe after studying about sand dunes in Oregon and wondered what it would be like to create a desert world. Dune is set eight thousand years into the future on the planet Arrakis, a desert planet which holds great political and social importance in Herbert’s Universe. Arrakis, or Dune, produces a narcotic substance called ‘Spice’, a drug which alters ones consciousness allowing some to gain incredible prescience. It is used widely throughout the Galaxy; ordinary citizens; Guild Navigators (who without it would never be able to safely guide Spaceships and see into the future); The Bene Gesserit whom are a Religious Sisterhood and use it for mystical purposes and last but by no means least – the Fremen who are indigenous to Arrakis and have a heavy Spice diet. The melange Spice is an incredibly addictive substance and the people who use it are characterised by their deep blue on blue eyes, denoting a user. When you understand how fundamental this narcotic is to the Galaxy and its adherents, then you slowly begin to understand what importance this desolate, desert planet is to Politics and the Dune Universe.
I think it is clear that this book drew upon the 1960s drug experimenting counter-culture, as basically it is about transcending consciousness using narcotics, and I guess the Spice could be seen as the equivalent of LSD, if you want an analogy. The novel is not just about drugs however. Dune is an epic work of Science Fiction, the first novel containing such a wide spectrum of issues; religion, politics, messiahs, family feuds, conflict, ecology and space-travel are all wrapped up in Frank Herbert’s world. Also, there is this kind of paradox throughout the Galaxy (and the story); yes, the setting is eight-thousand years into the future, but Religion still plays a very fundamental role here along with this medieval kind of Feudalism, as political association is based around Family Houses. We have House Atredies, House Corrino and House Harkonnen – the three main Families portrayed in the first novel. There is not so much advanced technology, and that aspect of Science Fiction is not really what the book deals with. The book, in its appendices explains that there was a Jihad (called the Butlerian Jihad), a holy conflict several thousand years previously that had eradicated computers and I guess most of, what would be seen as, our modern technology. Computers or thinking machines have been replaced by what are known as Mentats – highly intelligent ‘human’ computers. Also, people are fighting with knifes and swords; lasers, whilst they exist along with personal protective shields, are rarely used here. You could describe this as some sort of futuristic Universe that heralds back to a Feudal age with a pseudo-sci-fi slant.
Dune basically is a hero story. A son of one of the Great Houses, Paul Atredies, essentially becomes a messiah figure amongst the indigenous Freman of Arrakis. Paul, it is clear as the book begins, is no ordinary boy; trained in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, a Religious Sisterhood, by his Mother, he from an early age suffers from visionary dreams and acts older than his age should dictate. The Bene Gesserit, for generations, have been trying to breed what is known as a ‘Kwisatz Haderach’, a male version of one of them, and a super-being who has the ability to ‘be in many places at once’. When the Atredies family arrive on Arrakis, both Paul and his Mother become revered amongst the Fremen who, in their religion and prophecy, see him as their saviour, partly due to the Atredies family benignity towards their new subjects, but also fitting into the part of their mysticism and beliefs about their saviour. So, the hero becomes their long awaited prophet and messiah, saves the planet, unleashes a holy crusade with the Fremen, deposes the Emperor and replaces him. Classic hero story ingredients. This book is seen as a classic in the sci-fi world and in some ways it’s a cross between fantasy and science fiction, because of the feudal element. The science aspect mainly deals with ecology. One of the Fremens ideas for their eventual utopia is a terraformed Dune, one where there are plants and an abundance of water, and this they believe their prophet shall lead them into, away from their harsh, strict existence they currently lead. Paul is seen to herald the beginning of this new golden age.
Having read the book in my teens, I occasionally re-read it and with each reading I gleam something new. There was a film version directed by David Lynch in 1984 and also a TV-mini series. Both I think are good, and despite its many criticisms the film is not bad, with I think, great representations of Sandworms. Great series.