When I was a teen-ager, I was a little obsessed with Frank Herbert’s Dune series. It’s a science fiction series with deep world-building and lots of political intrigue, and has become a cult favorite since the publication of the first book in the mid-1960s. Over the past year, I’ve been re-reading them to see how they hold up.
The series is set on Dune, a harsh desert planet with scant rain or life. The only humans native to Dune are the Fremen, a primitive people possessed of a rigorous code of honor. Despite all that, Dune is the most important planet in the galaxy, for it is the source of spice, a substance produced by sandworms, a creature that lives nowhere else. Spice extends life, so that those wealthy people who can afford to use it daily live up to 200 years. Taken in large amounts, it also allows a user to see into the future, although this is a dangerous practice as overdosing is fatal. The only ones who would take such a risk are the navigators of the Space Guild, who use the prescience provided by huge spice doses to keep from steering their ships through stars when traveling faster than the speed of light.
At the beginning of the first book, the noble Atreides family has been awarded the planet Dune by the emperor, and because of the importance of Dune, they move their capital from the lush world of Caladan to Dune’s harsh environs. The award turns out to be a trick, however, a conspiracy between the emperor and the cruel Harkonnen family to rid themselves of a pesky rival House. The head of the Atreides, Duke Leto, is killed, and his wife, Jessica, and sixteen-year-old son, Paul, flee into the desert, accompanied only by the loyal master swordsman Duncan Idaho and family bodyguard Gurney Halleck.
They find shelter with a group of Fremen, and Paul insists on risking a spice overdose so he can see how to lead his family back to power. He realizes that the Fremen, toughened by desert life, make perfect warriors. For their part, the Fremen worship Paul as a Messiah, for their legends foretell a man who will live through the spice trance and lead them to glory. With Duncan’s and Gurney’s help, Paul trains the Fremen in modern weaponry and they start attacking spice mining vessels. The empire sends legions of elite Sardaukar troops, led by the emperor himself, to put down these rebels who are disrupting the vital spice trade. Taking advantage of a massive sandstorm that renders electronic communications impossible, and leading huge sandworms that can swallow entire ships at once, the Fremen defeat the emperor’s troops and force him to surrender to Paul Atreides.
The second book, Dune Messiah, takes places about ten years later, when Dune has become the seat of the empire, led wisely but firmly by Paul and his Fremen warriors. No matter how benevolent his rule, however, some of his subjects will inevitably be disgruntled. He discovers an assassination plot against him but willingly falls victim to it after a spice trance reveals to him a terrible fate for the empire, and all humanity, if he remains alive. Sadly, his Fremen concubine Chani, who is his true love–rather than his wife, the late emperor’s daughter, whom he married for political reasons–dies during childbirth just before Paul’s own demise.
The third book, Children of Dune, follows Paul’s nine-year-old twin children, Leto II and Ghanima. Due to his spice overdose, Paul’s genetic material was altered and the children have the power to recall past lives, even into far history when humans still lived on earth. Since Paul’s death, the empire has been ruled in their name by their aunt Alia, who has fallen under the sway of the evil Baron Harkonnen. Alia has no intention of ending her regency and giving the children power, and under her the empire has become a stagnant, oppressive place filled with spies and dungeons for those who oppose her. When they discover Alia’s plot to marry Ghanima off to a nephew of the old emperor and to kill Leto, the twins hatch a plan to overthrow their aunt and assume their rightful place on the throne.
So what’s my conclusion on re-reading the series so far? My estimation of their quality has fallen a few notches from 20+ years ago, although it’s still mostly positive. I really admire the political intrigue in a galaxy that is simultaneously futuristic and medieval, and how carefully Herbert has designed his world to retain a human element, rather than overwhelming the reader with all the technology from thousands of years in the future. For instance, humans outlawed computers centuries before, and personal shields have rendered laser and energy weapons pointless. Instead, humans have reverted to using human computers called Mentats and fighting with swords. This allows Herbert to avoid a lot of clichés of space opera.
Also, the extensive, completely immersive world is super-cool, with the human computer Mentats, mutated Space Guild navigators, galaxy-spanning religious orders whose nuns possess powers of hypnotic suggestion, the various noble houses and how they interact, insect-sized robots that carry poison needles, the desert society and religion of the Fremen, the well-thought out ecology of Dune itself, and much, much more.
On the other hand, the writing style, which I suppose I didn’t care about as much as a teen, leaves a lot to be desired for the adult me. The dialogue, especially, tends towards the stilted, and the constant need of every conversation to have hidden meaning and layers of intrigue is hugely annoying.
My rank ordering of the books remains the same 20 years later, however. Children of Dune is the best, perhaps because Herbert has moderated some of the excesses of his writing style, but mostly because it contains a truly tense story (after a fairly slow start in the first fifty pages or so). The original Dune is ranked second, for its drama, mystical overtones, and epic sweep. The second book, Dune Messiah, is the weak one of the bunch, with a fairly boring story and terrible dialogue. We’ll see how the fourth, God Emperor of Dune, holds up when I read it in a few months. I recall that one as seeming almost to be from a different series, as it is set 1,000 years after the events of the first trilogy.