Adrian Graham

Dune book cover, illustration of mysterious figure in desert


Okay. So, it’s time for a confession. I’ve never read Dune until now. I’ve always perceived it to be more of a fantasy novel than science fiction. Honestly, I thought it would be a ‘DNF’. Dune is written in that bestseller kind of style. It is confident, and states everything clearly. The novel seems incredibly fresh considering that it was published in 1965. This is achieved in part because it uses a slightly archaic, historical tone.

The story explores power politics within an imperial system. Its eclecticism is influenced by real-world empires like the British Empire, Ancient Rome, Medieval monarchies, Machiavelli, and Middle Eastern culture. Frank Herbert holds back on describing things too closely, or using contemporary terms for things, which might date the text. Foundation feels like a product of its time, but Dune doesn’t.

Dune is often celebrated as the greatest example of soft science fiction, and as a counterpoint to Foundation. Dune is science fiction without an IT department. There are no robots or whimsical androids, and there’s little in the way of computers (even though this is an advanced, highly technological world).

The language and the tone feels like a historical novel dressed up as science fiction. Where Foundation is a conversion about the implications of technology, Dune is a sci-fi future-history about political power.

Dune is science fiction genre’s best-selling novel. It’s had a major influence on science fiction and fantasy. It’s difficult not to see Star Wars through the Dune lens. Personally, I find it difficult not to see Dune without thinking about Flash Gordon (the 1930s cinema serial). Another precursor to Dune is the underrated A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). Dune is part coming-of-age tale, part military science fiction, and part mystical retro-futurist messiah story. It doesn’t take place in a fantasy world, it’s set in 10,191, which is about 20,000 years in our future.

Like A Canticle for Leibowitz, Dune features a religious group. In Dune it’s called the Bene Gesserit’s, which, said slowly, sounds a little like Bene(dictines) Jesuits. There are many things about the David Lynch film that I found bemusing. The Harkonnens, for example, are bizarre and outlandish in the 1984 film, like some kind of demented circus clown group. Thankfully, I didn’t get any of that in the novel. I put the characterisation of the Harkonnens in the 1984 film down to bonkers 1980s WTF.

The novel isn’t perfect. It lags toward the (penultimate) climactic battle, which is itself disappointing. The resolution is given a decent amount of space, enough time to savour the outcome. It even has time for a duel between two of the main characters. This fight scene is the story’s real climactic battle. Having the two battle sequences so close to one another reduces their impact.

There were times when I wanted more visual descriptions about the word, especially the characters. The conversations between the characters can feel like faceless talking heads engaged in a Machiavellian game. The dialogue is doing a lot of the world building and character differentiation. Even with these criticisms, the quality of the writing is remarkably consistent throughout the novel (parts of which were originally published in serialised form for a magazine, and later expanded on).

It might be a bit sudden to say this (having only just read Dune), but if you’ve read 1984 and Dune, and watched Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, you’ve probably got your three most important Twentieth Century speculative fiction and sci-fi themes covered — political repression, power politics, and the implications of artificial intelligence. You may prefer The Handmaid’s Tale instead of 1984, and the intergalactic space opera of Star Wars over Dune, or The Terminator over Blade Runner? You might want to add virtual reality as another theme, possibly in the form of Neuromancer or The Matrix, or the post-apocalyptic story as expressed in A Canticle for Leibowitz or Mad Max?

Either way, Dune’s history-inspired vision of the future, its medieval-like tale of family power and ruthless competition is right up there with the best of Twentieth Century science fiction.


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