Book review: Dune
Catherine Stone reviews the popular science fiction novel Dune, in light of its recent film adaptation.
Frank Herbert’s Dune was a pretty intimidating book on my to-read list for a while, being a classic in one of my favourite genres and my Mum’s favourite as a teenager. I picked it up in anticipation of the new film and was blown away. Seeing Dune (2021) in the cinema was incredible – the high production value, talented cast, epic visuals, and action really enriched the story.
From winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards shortly after first publication in 1965 to being named the world’s best-selling sci-fi book in 2003, Dune has an enduring appeal that makes it one of the most popular and influential science fiction novels of all time. Despite extensive world-building and a complex plot, the book never loses its page-turning thrill. The story of Paul Atreides – duke, prophet, and messianic leader – and his journey through space politics and destiny has resonated with many people.
Dune has an enduring appeal that makes it one of the most popular and influential science fiction novels of all time
While containing amazing examples of futuristic technology such as the ornithopters (imagined in the film as dragonfly-like machines), stillsuits, and heighliner starships, Dune focuses on the politics of humanity – the book begins with Paul being tested for humanity with Gom Jabbar. Spice gives human Mentats the superhuman data processing and intellectual abilities needed for interstellar travel and planet governance. In Dune, Mentats replace supercomputers which were outlawed after the Butlerian war, during which Artificial Intelligence waged war on humans. Herbert confidently explores mankind’s technological anxieties and humanity’s fragility.
The politics of Dune are imperial: a remote emperor orbited by competing Houses vying to extract power from a chaotic universe in a dance of treachery akin to Game of Thrones. House Harkonnen is the sworn enemy of House Atreides and they compete for control of the planet Arrakis – the main narrative is periodically interrupted by ominous scenes showing the destructive plans of the Harkonnen Baron.
The politics of Dune are imperial: a remote emperor orbited by competing Houses vying to extract power from a chaotic universe in a dance of treachery akin to Game of Thrones
The Fremen of Arrakis are the only people who can survive in the Arrakean desert. Their harsh customs match their unforgiving environment, but they are also bound by strong solidarity and codes of honour. Paul and his mother Jessica survive among them as he becomes a messiah, fulfilling his destiny as ‘Muad’Dib’ and Jessica her role as Reverend Mother.
The most innovative aspect of Dune is Herbert’s extensive attention to planet Arrakis and its ecology – he explores the consequences of damaging the ecosystem in pursuit of valuable melange, also known as spice. The character Kynes is a planetologist whose dream is to transform Arrakis into a type of Eden through ecological development – a process known to later science fiction writers as ‘terraforming’. It was inspired by Herbert’s study of the Oregon dunes and explained fully in one of the appendices.
One of my favourite things about Dune is the temporal aspects of Herbert’s writing style, which the film cannot fully replicate. The narrative is interspersed with the writings of Princess Irulan from her histories of Arrakis and biography of Maud’Dib, which creates a tension between voices from the past and present. The third-person perspective allows the reader to experience the rise and fall of characters, regimes, Houses, and empires almost dispassionately, and reinforces the theme that ‘greatness is a transitory experience’. This is developed further in the sequels, which chart time long after Paul’s death and legacy. Princess Irulan is possibly my favourite character – she occupies a fascinating space in the narrative that subverts your expectations once you discover her fate.
One of my favourite things about Dune is the temporal aspects of Herbert’s writing style, which the film cannot fully replicate
Paul gains his powers through painful and slow progress; I find his development throughout the novel extraordinary. Timothée Chalamet plays him very well, perfectly capturing his vulnerability, and in Dune Part 2 we will see him as a more hardened and powerful Paul. By the end of the book, Paul reconciles his destinies of leader as the Fremen, Kwisatz Haderach, and heir of House Atreides, making large political gambles. His rise to power is enabled by his Bene Gesserit and Mentat training, as well as his own actions and decisions. He is a compelling yet flawed character, as even once having achieved his superhuman abilities he is not infallible. Dune asks us to question the ability and the righteousness of individuals to change history. As Herbert said in 1979: ‘beware of heroes’.