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Dune by Frank Herbert

Publication date: 1965
Original language: English


Around twenty thousand years have passed since our present day, and humanity is dispersed across thousands of planetary systems. At the head of this vast empire is the Padishan Emperor Shaddam IV, a manipulative and greedy man whose fear of the power of his cousin, the Duke Leto Atreides, sets off the events of Dune.

The Emperor uses the ancient feud between House Atriedes and House Harkonnen to manoeuvre the Baron Harkonnen into assassinating Duke Leto. Leto is forced to take over the planet Arrakis, also known as "Dune", which had previously been held by the Harkonnens and is the only source of the spice melange. Melange is the key ingredient which enables space travel by giving those who take it prescient awareness, allowing them to plot safe routes for spaceships. The Harkonnens attack Leto and his house in retaliation, and Leto is killed.

The Emperor's scheming is complicated by a force unknown to him. The Bene Gesserit, a mystical matriarchal order of incredible power, whose role is to guide the path of the human race, consider Leto's son Paul Atreides as essential to their long-planned scheme to create a Kwisatz Haderach, a Messiah-figure who will possess ultimate prescience and be able to manipulate the course of history. Paul and his mother, Jessica, escape the Harkonnen attack and are sheltered by the Fremen desert tribes of Arrakis.

As Paul becomes more powerful, under both his mother's Bene Gesserit training and the Fremen's guidance in the harsh ways of desert life, he conceives a jihad against the Harkonnens, whose ruthless regime is once again in command of Arrakis. The success of his plans would mean a complete overturning of the political and social order.

Why you must read this book

There is no summary that can do justice to this book without revealing the intricate and audacious plot twists which make it such a joy to read. Suffice it to say that Herbert's vision in creating Dune is perhaps only equalled by Tolkien's in The Lord of the Rings. And, like The Lord of the Rings, Dune transcends genre, deserving the status of classic in its own right regardless of its sci-fi outer casing.

That said, this is also one of the best science fiction plots out there. It's partly old-style space opera, with a scope which spans solar systems and huge stretches of time. Unlike the usual grand narratives of the genre, however, it avoids the trap of overblown melodrama through Herbert's tightly controlled sense of narrative logic and characterisation. The tantalising links to real world traditions and cultures, particularly Islam and Zen Buddhism, are delicately interwoven through the narrative; blink and you'll miss them, but they're there to remind you that this is a possible future of your own people you're watching unfold, not some far-removed alien people or alternate universe.

Dune's ecological awareness places it at the forefront of the growing environmental movement of the twentieth century. One of the crucial issues surrounding Arrakis is the subjection of the land and its people to the spice trade. While the ruling House has plentiful water, the native peoples wear suits to recycle their own bodily excretions in order not to dehydrate fatally. The ecosystem on Arrakis is a balance of human, animal and natural life; the planet itself is as much a living being as those who inhabit it.

Herbert's imaginative reach is one for which most novelists would give their right hands. The world he creates is entirely real, enough so that you'll find yourself using its vocabulary and concepts in normal conversation; be warned, this can be embarrassing. But the small embarrassment is worth the absolute delight of reading this amazing novel.

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