Dune is commonly cited as the world’s bestselling sci-fi novel. Many also argue that it is the greatest. While I myself will not make that claim (I’ve read far too many excellent novels to ever even consider picking just one) I find myself disinclined to argue with that statement. I will say that Frank Herbert’s masterpiece is by far the most imaginative work of sci-fi I’ve ever picked up.
Good science fiction walks a tightrope between making things too familiar and making them relateable. Dune somehow manages both. The world of Dune is a human empire that stretches across the stars, yet functions in a very feudalistic manner. It’s somewhere abouts the year 10,000 and everything has changed, from science to technology to religion, and all of it described so that if you’re vigilant you can really learn a lot about this world. At the same time, for the most part Herbert avoids the dreaded “people telling each other things they should already know” pitfall.
The novel begins on Caladan, a watery planet ruled by Duke Leto Atreides and his family, the concubine Lady Jessica and their son Paul Atreides. You quickly learn that a.) things are not as they seem with House Atreides’ move from their traditional home on Caladan to be “rewarded” with control of Arrakis, a desert planet where moisture is so precious its natives (and anyone venturing outside the cities) are forced to wear “stillsuits” that reclaim the body’s otherwise-lost moisture, a planet where workers harvesting the precious melange spice have to dodge the gigantic sandworms that roam the desert and will swallow a mining facility whole. And b.) you learn that there are some mighty strange inhabitants of this future society we are being shown. There are the Fremen, the native inhabitants of the deserts of Arrakis and a force not to be underestimated. There are the Bene Gesserit, an order that mostly resembles the Aes Sedai of Robert Jordan’sWheel Of Time series (Anyone? No? Okay, they’re an all-female Jedi Order. Better?) and have been manipulating the various noble houses’ lineages in hopes of creating their (for lack of a better word) messiah–an aim they may or may not have achieved with the birth of young Paul. There are the Harkonnens, another noble House locked in an age-old feud with House Atreides and the previous rulers of Arrakis. There is the Guild, the organization that controls all space travel and answers to no one but themselves, not even the Padishah Emperor himself. There are the Mentats, men trained to be intensely logical reasoning machines (for all mechanical intelligences such as computers are taboo after an ill-defined war in the distant past) who are nevertheless still governed by the most basic rule of computing–garbage in, garbage out.
I cannot say much more without giving away plot details. What I will say is that the novel is meticulously plotted, an intricate weave of political maneuvering in a system that doesn’t actually exist outside of the imagination. The complexity is astounding, and leads to my one real caution about the book–its not for the faint of heart. The book requires your complete concentration or you will get completely lost and have to go back to find what details you missed. As such, and to facilitate such intricate interactions between the characters, Herbert ditches the literary convention of having a single POV character for any given scene. You may find yourself, in the course of a seemingly meaningless coversation between six or seven people over dinner, in the head of every person present in order to more clearly understand what is going on and where their minds are going with the multiple layers of subtext. It’s done well, but it makes the book a bit more challenging than it would otherwise be. Additionally, there is a lot of new vocabulary you will have to learn. Fortunately, Herbert does a good job of defining things in the text without being annoying–I actually found the glossary in the back distracting after a while for anything but going back to double-check meanings I was already supposed to have learned.
There is a good deal of violence throughout the book, though I didn’t find it gratuitous. Likewise sexual innuendo. Its there, it just isn’t necessarily stuck in your face or played for obscenity. There may have been some language, I really don’t recall. If you’re old enough to make it through Dune in all other regards, I doubt you’ll find it problematic.
So yeah. Dune is technically the first work in a series, though I’ve had conflicting reports on how far through the series I should read. Some reccomend stopping here. Others say that Dune Messiah and Children of Dune are also worthwhile, completing Herbert’s originally-conceived trilogy. I’ll probably pause there for a while before moving on to the other sequels and prequels done in the ages since, if only because the initial trilogy was all I found at that garage sale last year. I haven’t read any but the initial work yet, but thus far I can heartily recommend!