I’m really struggling to summarise Dune because the mythology created by Frank Herbert is so rich. In fact, I understand he spent about five years researching before writing this tome. Anyway, first a little background. The known universe is governed by a series of feudal houses, with an emperor reigning supreme over them. Central to the novel are House Atreides and its enemy House Harkonnen. As the story commences, the emporer gives control of the desert planet Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune) to House Atreides. The move from the water-rich world of Caladan to the dry wastes of Arrakis dramatically changes the life of young fifteen-year-old Paul Atreides. The native people of Arrakis, known as the Fremen, wonder if he is their long-awaited messiah, according to prophecy. The planet’s main commodity, a powerful substance called “spice melange,” which has many uses across the universe, begins to have a strange effect on Paul. He starts to see visions, and wonders if he could indeed be the messiah of the Fremen. Meanhile, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is plotting the downfall of House Atreides and the takeover of Dune, but he hasn’t counted on who Paul really is.
There’s a lot going on in this novel, and it’s a joy to read. I found myself taking my time with it because I didn’t want it to end. I loved being in this strange mythology. What’s clear is that the author isn’t making this up as he’s going. He has thought long and hard about the ecology, religion, culture, politics and technology of this world of his. It’s as breaktaking as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. If there is one weak spot in the whole package, it’s in the very clear-cut roles of good guys and bad guys. House Harkonnen, and all its members, is thoroughly immoral, led by the Baron, who is an obese man with a liking for young boys. He is saved from being a two-dimensional villain by the depth of his cunning. The war between the Atreides and Harkonnens is a too-simple battle of good versus evil. This polarised viewpoint, in my humble opinion, isn’t a true reflection of wars in the real world and was the only disappointment in a work of brilliance.
If your introduction to Dune has been the 1980s David Lynch movie, I can tell you that the book is so much better. I decided to watch the director’s cut of the movie after reading the novel, and it felt like watching a summary. A visual feast, but a poor attempt at storytelling. The novel is a far bigger and more personal story. The more recent mini-series does a better job than the movie, and is a fairly faithful adaptation, but I don’t recommend watching it before reading the book, as the book is a superior experience.
So many novels are forgettable, but Dune stays with you like a memory. It’s not often that I have such good recall of events and character names. Frank Herbert wrote six Dune novels before he died. I’m looking forward to Dune Messiah.