A Retrospective Look: Dune, by Frank Herbert

Thanks to a recent discussion with Mulluane from Dragons, Heroes and Wizards over at Pinterest, I’ve been thinking about this book, one of my all-time favorites, and one of my rare multiple re-reads. I think I revisited it almost as much as I did Lord of the Rings, which is interesting, since Dune might very well be my iconic science fiction book, as LOTR is for fantasy.

Interesting because – and that was part of the discussion I mentioned above – Dune‘s genre has long been the subject of debate, my idea being that it stands on some undefined middle ground between the two: the action unfolds in a very distant future and concerns a vast galactic empire, spanned by ships that travel enormous distances almost in the wink of an eye, and yet the technology is… subdued, for want of a better word, and  is never the focus of the story. Many references are made to the Butlerian Jihad, the movement that banned the use of computers and stressed the powers of the human mind, and such powers are reflected in the use of Mentats – humans who have been trained in logical thought – and the abilities of the Bene Gesserit, the all-female secret society working, slowly but surely, toward their mysterious goals.

These elements, coupled with the murderous political intrigue that constitutes the backbone of the story, the internal strife between the Empire’s noble houses and the amazing world-building underlying the concept of Arrakis, the desert world, would not be out of place in a fantasy novel, and the same can be said about the protagonist’s story-arc: Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib goes from sheltered heir of House Atreides to religious leader of an oppressed people seeking freedom, passing though the harrowing grind of loss and betrayal.    Moreover, there is a heavy emphasis on esoteric powers, prophecies and melange-induced prescience: all concepts that can be found in many fantasy storylines…

Apart from the debate about genre, that I believe will go on for as long as Dune remains one of the pillars of spec-fic literature (and that’s a good way to label it, nicely skirting the issue…), the question I asked myself is: what makes this book so unforgettable, and what compels me (and others) to go back to it time and time again?

One of the reasons must be its timeless quality: Dune is almost 50 years old, and yet does not show its age, as some of the classics of that period do.  Frank Herbert’s language, though sometimes ponderous and convoluted, does not carry a time stamp that immediately identifies it as a product of the mid-sixties.  Some of its themes, as well, are even more actual today than they were at the time of the first publication: the war for precious, finite commodities that engenders political schemes and conflicts is something modern readers are acquainted with in many ways.

But I think that the characters are the real magnet of the story: what’s amazing, and also very modern, is that most of them – if not all – are not totally likable people, are not “hero material” according to an old-fashioned, black-and-white concept. And yet we, the readers, root for them and want them to succeed.

Seen through today’s filters, Paul Atreides – who ultimately exploits the Fremen’s desire for freedom riding a corpus of religious legends he tailors after his needs – would not be so different from GRR Martin’s Tyrion Lannister, just to quote one of my favorite examples: not a bad guy, but not a good one either. Just the right blend of light and darkness that makes today’s “heroes” more interesting, and believable, despite the shadows lurking behind their backs.

All of the above are good reasons, granted, but sometimes the need to analyze a story makes us forget the main one: we are captivated by it because it’s a great story, a compelling tale of honor and betrayal, of sacrifice and determination, love, hate, passion and wisdom. And let’s face it, that’s all that matters in the end, isn’t it?

2 thoughts on “A Retrospective Look: Dune, by Frank Herbert

  1. I've heard the term “science fantasy” used for a blend of science fiction and fantasy. Usually it's applied to things like Star Wars, or Andre Norton's Forerunner, or Anne McCaffrey's Talents, where there are enough space ships, planets, and advanced technology to “feel like science fiction,” yet enough “powers of the mind” that work like magic because science sure can't explain them. Occasionally Pern gets included, despite being mostly lower tech. {Smile}

    Anyway, it sounds like this Dune might fit, too? {Curious Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin


  2. Yes, I think that “science fantasy” might be a great definition, especially where mind powers are concerned, or the constant theme of prescience and precognition that run through the book. Not to mention the epic quality of the story… 🙂


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