The 50th Anniversary of Frank Herbert’s Dune

Where the dunes began, perhaps fifty meters away at the foot of a rock beach, a silver-gray curve broached from the desert, sending rivers of sand and dust cascading all around. It lifted higher, resolved into a giant, questing mouth. It was a round, black hole with edges glistening in the moonlight.

The mouth snaked toward the yellow crack where Paul and Jessica huddled. Cinnamon yelled in their nostrils. Moonlight flashed from crystal teeth.

Back and forth the great mouth wove.

Paul stilled his breathing.

Like one of the massive sandworms that stretch across the desert planet of Arrakis, Dune is a vast creature. It looms over the bookcase, dark and forbidding, its very girth putting off the casual reader who dares to dabble with its 200,000 odd words. Finally, after forty years, I have dared to pick up this huge volume, only to find the novel to be a surprisingly easy read. Put simply, Dune is the finest science-fiction novel of the twentieth century.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Duke Leto Atreides, ruler of the temperate planet Caladan is gifted control of Arrakis, a desert world and only source of the spice melange: a critical resource for the whole galaxy. House Atreides are displacing the existing rulers, the cruel Harkonnens, who are loath to abandon their cash cow after almost a century of occupation. What follows is a bloody vendetta, a brutal civil war triggered by treachery most foul.

Rising from the ashes, the Duke’s son and heir, fifteen-year old Paul must seek justice knowing that the Harkonnens are little more than a cat’s paw, working of the will of the galactic emperor who is controlling the action from the shadows.

Beyond that action-packed plot, lies a more complicated, deeper message of ecology, and how to live peacefully and responsibly with the world’s natural resources. Published in 1965, Dune was part of the nascent green movement, coming three years after Rachel Carson’s best-selling Silent Spring, which first alerted many people to the terrifying impact of pesticides such as DDT.

“Laboratory evidence tends to blind us to a very simple fact,” Kynes said. “That fact is this: we are dealing here with matters that originated and exist out-of-doors where plants and animals carry on their normal existence.”

Herbert’s great genius is to show us not a ravaged world, a lost utopia, but rather a dead planet that has none of the advantages of our own. Slowly, painstakingly, he builds up an awareness of all the factors that are necessary to provide support for life, always underlining the fact that ecology is a system and we are just one component within that.

Constructing the novel in this way means that the book is not a cudgel used to browbeat a foolish reading public. Instead it is a primer in how we can repair the damage done to our world and restore the ecosystems that we have lost. This is just one of many reasons why the book continues to be relevant today, fifty years after its original publication.

In other amusing ways, Dune is also a creation of its time, the hippy trippy sixties. Large numbers of characters spend their lives in a sort of trance. Defining moments come when people start snorting the spice and head off on journeys into the inner mind that leave them in a comatose state for months.

It’s not all peace and love, and Herbert shows a sang-froid regarding his characters that puts George R.R. Martin to shame. A large part of the cast have been stabbed, gassed or nuked to death by the end of this novel and this is only the first one in a continuing series. Exactly as in Game of Thrones, when characters die, you feel a genuine sense of frustration and sadness because they seem so real in their hopes and ambitions for the future.

Beautifully written, elegantly plotted and brilliantly conceived, Dune is a classic not just of its genre but of all literature.