Dune Retrospective

It is difficult to overstate just how important Dune is to science fiction. Originally published in 1965, Frank Herbert’s seminal masterpiece won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. In addition to being a huge game-changer of the genre, Dune remains the best-selling science-fiction novel of all time. It casts a long shadow over the genre; the single ecosystem of Star Wars’ Tataouine is a clear nod to Arrakis,  and other sci-fi classics such as Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass also draw heavily on the book. What is the appeal of Dune and why has it lasted so much longer than that of other books?

Dune is set in a far future in which interstellar travel is made possible through consuming the mind-expanding ‘spice melange’. Melange originates from one planet only, the desert world Arrakis, also known as Dune. 

The novel follows Paul Atreides, whose family settles on Dune when his father is appointed the planet’s new ruler. However, the rich resources of Arrakis mean that House Atreides soon comes under attack.

Paul’s father is murdered, forcing Paul, the heir apparent, and his mother to escape. They only survive by joining the ranks of the native Fremen, who hold him as a messiah figure. Eventually they overthrow the new rulers of Dune, leading Paul to intrigue his way to becoming Emperor of all of humanity.

Published in the mid-1960s just before the advent of the flower power generation, a novel about a mind-expanding drug captured the mood of the time. The clear Middle Eastern allegory (Herbert based the Fremen language on Arabic) added to the novel’s relevance. Since then, the fascination Dune inspires in authors and readers alike has allowed it to maintain its high status. Dune has also inspired artists in other mediums, David Lynch directed and filmed an adaptation in 1984, and in 2000 the Syfy Channel produced a three-episode TV version.

Dune has also inspired many video games, particular Westwood Studio’s Dune 2. Released in 1992, it was one of the first strategy-based video games and established a lot of the conventions that strategy games still use today. Dune 2 was an important precursor to Westwood’s seminal Command and Conquer: Tiberian Dawn which was released three years later. It seems that whatever medium Dune is adapted into, it sets the mould for how things will be done in the future.

Today, Dune remains consistently popular, but significantly lags behind in followers when compared to famous sci-fi franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek etc. This is partly because Dune is a lot less accessible than these stories. The book is long and does not go out of its way to explain what is going on. Instead, the reader is immersed into a strange world of ritual, mysticism and political intrigue. You are never quite sure what is real and what is illusion, what is fantasy and what is science. Dune is a book which tests the reader and does not give easy answers. It is no wonder that it has inspired artists to create great works and technical innovations. Sadly, its esoteric nature prevents it from being as popular as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Dune was the first ‘grown-up’ novel I read aged 12 and it opened my mind to the amazing world of the science fiction novel. I was already a huge Star Wars fan but Dune showed me the how complex and imaginative the sci-fi novel can be when the author is able to create a whole world and immerse the reader in it. Dune is perhaps the best example of this experience of complete immersion in book form.

What is lacking is a screen adaptation which captures how magical the book is to read. The David Lynch version captures the mood of the novel but drops most of the plot to fit into two hours, while the 2000 TV adaptation maintains the plot, but fails to translate the mood accurately. Many fans feel that an adapted that captures both could catapult the novel to the same level of popularity as Lord of the Rings but it has always eluded audiences.

Chilean surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to adapt the book in the mid-1970s. Despite putting together an impressive team including Orson Welles, H. R. Giger, Salvador Dali and French comic book legend Moebius, he was unable attract funding. Perhaps Jodorowsky could have successfully translated the book into a film or maybe he would have just added to the opaqueness which surrounds Dune. For those interested, the recent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which explores the story of this would-be adaptation, is really worth a watch.

Dune may not be quite as famous a work as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but it still stands as a titan of the genre. This masterwork hardly needs a blockbuster film adaptation to maintain its popularity. With each generation, thousands of science-fiction readers rediscover the book and love it. I frequently tell my non-genre-reading friends that if they want to read one SF book, it should be Dune, as it’s a true pillar of science fiction.