If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll probably have picked up the idea that I’m a fan of Dune – from Frank Herbert’s original novel to David Lynch’s film, and much of the surrounding lore, both of the fictional world of the books and in regard to other adaptions of it from Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to the early 2000s TV series and beyond (I’ve even been on a podcast talking about it).
Now though I have finally, for the first time, finished reading the entirety of Herbert’s original run of the series, written before his death in 1986, taking in Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune.
Obviously covering six books famous for their complexity in one post means I will be talking fairly generally but it seems about the only way to deal with them, and as a warning there are likely to be spoilers as it’ll be very hard to discuss some things otherwise.
The story, loosely, follows the Atreides family, a noble house in far future feudal society, from the youth of ducal heir Paul and his ascension to Emperor of the Known Universe in the first book through the ascendency of his son Leto as God Emperor.
The second three books the, set several thousand years further into the future, trace their descendants part in the ongoing events caused by the actions of their ancestors as the already complex world of the books grows even broader.
The story itself is, at its best, hugely engrossing and Herbert does a great job of laying copious groundwork throughout the series that leads to gloriously handled payoffs that, in cinema, would be classed as action set pieces.
For the most part though, even though they are often based in bloody battle, Herbert’s style presents them in a more philosophical manner laced through with the ongoing ponderings of the stories, but balances this with enough of the action to satisfy the broader sci-fi conventions.
There are points, particularly as the series goes on and the connection to the characters established in the earlier books isn’t there, where the set up feels like something of a slog but, in the end, it never fails to be worth it – ultimately leading to a strangely satisfying cliffhanger that feels like Herbert had plenty more to add to this saga (something his son has attempted to continue in recent years).
Several themes run through the series from beginning to end, in the way of all good sci-fi, reflecting the times the books were written and still bearing some great relevance now, more than half a century since the first and three decades since the last were published.
The first and most obvious of these is to do with environmentalism; basing a novel on a planet entirely made up of desert as global warming and associated water and fuel shortages were first becoming an idea in our world, this is unavoidable and is handled far better, particularly in the first couple of books, than in the film version and is never heavy-handed.
Another theme that becomes obvious as the first book goes on and then builds vastly is a religious theme. In the current world this has taken on a new light as it tackles issues of jihad and terrorism in a way I think that would not reach a mainstream audience now but still has a powerful relevance.
This does come with something of a problematic side as Paul, aka Muad’Dib, has more than a hint of being something of a colonial ‘ great white hope’ style figure to the arguably more primitive Fremen who even Herbert himself has stated were based on middle eastern stereotypes.
Particularly striking are the themes of self-identity for both the de facto heroes like Paul, Leto, Duncan Idaho and others who, as it develops, all appear trapped in a kind of pre-destiny they at once fight against but are deeply aware of.
Added to this is a streak about denuclearisation and, in the last couple of books particularly, a kind of paranoid thriller feeling clearly fuelled by and commenting on the Cold War.
All of this pulls together in something that feels like a forerunner to Game of Thrones but, rather than being set in a fictionalised history is set in a fictionalised far future, and with a lot more to say not just about the world as a whole but about issues of personality and individualism that are increasingly relevant, all while telling a, for the most part, deeply engaging science fiction story of a vast and complex universe.