Paul Atreides is just fifteen years old, and small for his age besides, but he’s not to be dismissed. Paul is bright, well trained, and the heir of House Atreides. Paul’s father, Duke Leto, is an exceptional leader who commands the loyalty of his subjects with ease, thus earning him the respect of his noble peers. Consequently, the Emperor has assigned Leto a new task: control of Arrakis, or “Dune,” a desert planet that is home to the “spice,” a substance that allows for many things, including interstellar travel. The only thing standing in his way is House Harkonnen, hastily characterized as a family of red-haired, pouty-lipped, extremely cunning sadists.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is now considered a masterpiece of science fiction, but if its setting were only slightly altered, it would be universally considered a monumental work of fantasy. It certainly offers everything a reader of fantasy could ask for, from world building to dueling to political intrigue.
There is much to be applauded in Dune, but my favorite part of the novel may be Paul’s relationship with his tutors and mentors. Paul has many mentors, and it is difficult to choose a favorite. Gurney Halleck, a troubadour swordsman, helps Paul to learn that there is no time for mood in weapons training. Meanwhile, Thufir Hawet teaches Paul to always sit so that he can see all entrances. The universe that Paul lives in is cutthroat, to say the least. Even Paul’s greatest mentor, his mother Lady Jessica, repeatedly requires Paul to take tests that involve great pain and great risk.
Although Herbert’s empire is aristocratic and decadent, it is very much a culture in recovery. This is a universe in which humans once relied on machines to do their thinking and were nearly destroyed because of it. Now, they rely on the human brain to do everything, and they readily take drugs like the spice to enable their minds for unusual tasks like seeing into the past through one’s ancestors. The Bene Gesserit is a community of women (“witches,” to their detractors) that manipulates politics through their unorthodox breeding program. Paul may be the omniscient end product of the Bene Gesserit’s manipulations, but he will have to endure many challenges before his status can be confirmed.
Fortunately, Dune is the perfect place for difficult tests. It is a harsh planet filled with sandstorms, caves, and gigantic sandworms. Indeed, only the spice, the most precious resource in the galaxy, could lead people to live here. The Fremen, who live in the desert, lead a hard life governed by hard rules. Their way of life is driven by the desperation of the desert, which Leto, Jessica, and Paul all recognize produces fierce warriors — warriors that would make for powerful allies. And because Fremen culture has been manipulated by the Bene Gesserit, the Fremen will be easily led — so long as Paul manages to fulfill a series of carefully prepared prophecies.
Today, Dune remains a classic work, and it can be approached from many perspectives. Readers can follow Paul’s rise to power as a coming-of-age story. The conflict between the Harkonnens and House Atreides feels suspiciously similar to an epic fantasy driven by a quest for revenge. The ecological determinism that Herbert describes might now be considered ahead of its time, as is its exploration of the nature of leadership. Herbert alludes to Arab culture, a variety of religions, and the politics of empire — all of which provide interesting paths for the reader. And of course Dune can be read as an action-adventure in which marauding Fremen armed with knives made from teeth ride sandworms across the desert to punish cruel villains.
Many classics are better enjoyed if readers can cultivate a specific taste. After all, the concerns (and prose) of the past do not always translate well for contemporary readers, and predictions about the future often seem ludicrous even ten years after original publication. Fortunately, Dune is an easily read work whose conflicts certainly remain fascinating today. Regardless of why or how, Dune is a must read for all SFF fans.