All good reasons to read it. But if (like me) you’re a writer yourself, you’ll want to ask – how did he do that? After all, we’d all like to emulate the success of Dune! Or at least skim a little off the top.
Strangely though, I’d never actually read it until recently – it was always one of those things that I intended to do, but never quite got round to. Until I picked up the ‘Gateway’ Kindle edition that included all of the first six Dune novels (for a bargain price), and read through them all. Always with the question in the back of my mind, what made Dune so special?
Was it, perhaps, the sheer epic scope, or the effective world building that underlays the story? Dune itself introduces us to a vast interstellar Empire, with politics, economics and history all woven in to give it depth and substance. Over the following novels we see how the events of Dune and their consequences bring change on a huge scale.
But others have done epic and world building just as well, perhaps better. Asimov’s Foundation series preceded Dune and had a similar scale. Vernor Vinge, for my money, does epic better than anyone else. So what else has Dune got?
Well, it has depth. Certainly more than many SF novels. It’s noticeable that, although Herbert was very particular about documenting the effects of technology on human societies, he skimmed over the details about how these things actually worked. (There’s not a single description of a starship in the whole six volumes, unless I missed it!). He was interested in far more profound matters, like (for example) the future of the human race – and what is human anyway?
There is quite a lot of philosophising involved. With some writers, I might have suspected this of being mere padding, just there to add to the atmosphere – but Herbert had credentials, he thought deeply and wrote accordingly. Perhaps a bit too deeply. I confess to having skipped some of these passages, and the ones that I did read I didn’t always understand. Herbert may well have been profound, but for me he could also be obscure. The dividing line between the two is often unclear, particularly as it is set differently for each of us, and it may well be that those things that I would have edited out for the sake of story pace, are the very things that made the Dune series so powerful for some people.
As a Christian, I was particularly interested in the religious aspects of Herbert’s universe. It’s all too common for writers in all genres to be superficial in their portrayal of religion, sometimes not even including it in their world building at all. In contrast, religion plays a huge part in Dune and its sequels. However, it is often portrayed in a cynical light. It’s corrupt, or its just a means of manipulating populations.
Herbert was from a Roman Catholic background. He later converted to Buddhism. So he had some personal knowledge of religion and it’s power to control people, and that comes through very strongly. Especially in the actions of the Bene Gesserit, who not only invent religions to serve their own purposes, but who also function in some ways like a religious order themselves – albeit one with no discernible faith in any god.
Yet it is in the Bene Gesserit that we come to see what might be Herbert’s most important message. For after thousands of years of rejecting love as a weakness, through the course of these books they slowly begin to see it as of much greater power and importance than they had realised.
Scope, world building, depth – the Dune books have all of these. They are also noticeable for introducing ecological issues. Nowadays, everybody knows the word, even if they don’t agree on climate change. Back when Dune was published in 1965, this must have been a strange and exciting new idea. Even reading it today I was fascinated by the wonderful imagined life cycle of the great sandworms and their smaller progenitors, the sandtrout, and how they could turn an entire world into desert.
In all of this, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the novels are also good reading. Exiting, well plotted and with brilliantly developed characters. I was caught up in the story (in spite of the obscure philosophising!).
The plot of Dune itself is fairly straightforward: Duke Leto Atreides takes control of the planet (Dune) only to be betrayed by House Harkonnen in alliance with the Emperor. However his son Paul escapes and learns to live in the Desert with the Fremen. Under the influence of the drug Melange, he gains the ability to see into the future and with this talent leads the Fremen to victory over the Emperor and the Harkonnens. It’s a classic tale of betrayal and justice, good against evil, the victory of right over wrong.
The following books follow the descendants of Paul Atreides and trace the future history of the human race across thousands of years, with a plethora of heroes, villains, mysteries and dangers along the way. And having finished those six books, I’m glad that there are still more to read!
But does any of this supply the answer to my original question? Does this explain why Dune was – is – so successful?
None of these things, in and of themselves are conclusive. It is a combination of them – plus probably other factors that I’ve overlooked – that made Dune what it was. And also, I think probably timing. 1965 may just have been an ideal time for a book like this, a time when a lot of people were open and receptive to its ideas, its style and its vision.
But maybe there was one other thing. Another factor that somehow resonated with people, which stuck in their minds. A visual image that was with me before I’d even read the book, something picked up through other references, perhaps through the David Lynch film.
Dune conveys to me a picture. Giant sandworms powering through the desert sands, with the wild Fremen worm riders on their back. It is at once exotic and powerful. It symbolises the story and perhaps in some ways transcends it: you don’t need to read the book to be struck by it.
That has to be the goal for a writer: to create an image like that, a picture which captures the imagination and sticks in the mind. Perhaps that’s what I need to write the next Dune!