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.

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35 responses to “The 50th Anniversary of Frank Herbert’s Dune

  1. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with your review. I first read Dune in the 1980s and was totally hooked on the arid ecology of Arrakis and have just reread it and found it to be every bit as potent and enjoyable. Have mixed feelings about the David Lynch film version and even the TV mini series with William Hurt as Leto Atreides I and then latterly James McAvoy as his grandson, Leto Atreides II, in Children of Dune, do not remotely do the original books justice.

    • Hi Agnes! I’ve missed the TV version so I didn’t realise James McAvoy was in it. I was wondering whether I should get it on DVD after rediscovering the saga. The thing is that the world that Herbert created is so rich and complex that it’s almost impossible to bring it to the screen successfully. I’m now working my way through the sequels and I’m pleased to say that Dune Messiah is just as good as the original!

      • It was a very young McAvoy! TV series looked too brazen and artificial for me. I think it’s the details in the books that bring Dune to life and TV and film only gives us a broad-brush representation. Yes, you get hooked, read them all and then it’s over, kinda leaves you a little bereft!

      • Speaking of TV adaptations, I do think that George RR Martin learned a trick or two from Dune too. Like Herbert, he’s unafraid to kill off a major character at the drop of a hat. Those meetings of Paul Muad’dib’s council in the later books are also very reminiscent of the meetings of the small council in Game of Thrones.

    • “Water fat”! That’s so true and it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot too (kind of subliminally) since I read the book. It’s the first thing that a Fremen admires in an off-worlder.

      • Of all the SF and fantasy I’ve read in the last 30 years, this novel ranks as one of the most memorable. IMO, the Fremont were as realized as Tolkien ‘ elves.

      • I completely agree. Apparently, Herbert himself related most closely to the Fremen leader Stilgar, which makes a lot of sense.
        I think in another 50 years or so, Dune will be seen as a classic work of literature in the same way that the works of HG Wells and Jules Verne have shrugged off the sense that they’re not serious because they’re Sci-Fi.

      • It’s a shame how so many great literary works will get passed over because of the “stain” of genre. Case in point, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

      • I shall place The Left Hand of Darkness on my to-read list right now. Somehow Ursula K. Le Guin has passed me by up till now, but perhaps 2015 is the year to catch up on these neglected classics!

  2. This has been on my bookshelf for years, I have almost read it a few times but changed my mind…you may be the decisive voice in my ongoing battle to decide whether I can be bothered or not. I have avoided the film version because I prefer my David Lynch films to be mental.

    • But the film version is mental! It doesn’t make any sense at all. Apparently Lynch recorded four hours of material and had no say over the final cut, hence the chaotic mish-mash that resulted. I love the film actually even though I didn’t understand it before I read the book.
      Like you, I waited years before reading it, but it is great! I am now hooked on Herbert’s books in a way that I haven’t been hooked on an author since discovering Raymond Chandler.

      • Ah, I thought it was more conventional but if it is mental I will have to give it a go, after reading the book of course. I am looking forward to getting involved in the books, especially the appendices.

      • The film is so bizarre that when they released a TV version of it, they added a voice-over commentary to tell you what was going on. Lynch was so enraged that he demanded to be credited as “Judas Booth” as the screenwriter.
        If you like Twin Peaks, the film is also fun because you can spot lots of the cast in Dune too. And then there’s the wonderful Francesca Annis…

  3. I read this as teen and remember it being a bit of a grind for me to finish. But that was a long time ago and I’ve been thinking about giving it another go now that I’m older and wis-, I mean older. Did you know Iron Maiden wrote a song about Dune called To Tame A Land?

    By the way, I finished Grapes of Wrath, and although I don’t retract my recommendation, I must modify it – you wouldn’t like it. If you already feel Steinbeck is too depressing, Grapes of Wrath is not the book for you.

    • Oh you’ve saved me a slog there then with the Grapes of Wrath! I thought it would be a bit gloomy.
      I think Dune is worth another look. It is still complex because of the wealth of detail that Herbert brings to the world, but it’s also a page-turner. Perhaps it’s also easier to read now because these days we are familiar with a lot of the Arabic terms that Herbert uses, which would have been unknown to most people in the west a few decades ago.

  4. Thanks so much for this fabulous post, and for the follow on my blog. It’s going to reveal my age, but I remember fighting over the family copy of Dune as my mother, brother, sister, and I all tried to read at once. Dinner was full of conversation about sandworms and melange, punctuated with shouts of “No, don’t tell me. I haven’t gotten that far yet.” While my poor father just went on reading his latest Louis l’Amour and tried to pretend he was in a different family. Good times.

    • That is wonderful! I think Dune must have been really mind-blowing when it first came out, long before other desert planets like, ahem, Tatooine in Star Wars.
      Ah, Louis l’Amour. I remember seeing those in the newsagent’s when I was a little kid. I bet it wasn’t his real name!

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