Frank Herbert’s Dune, fifty years after its first publication, still stands as one of the giants of science fiction, and rightly so. I could go on at length about the social and political import of this book, but others have done it before me, and better. So I’ll share my more personal experience.
A long, long, long time ago, when I was in high school, my experience with science fiction was largely limited to Star Trek on TV, Star Wars paperbacks, and Voltron. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Star Wars. Except for the prequels. I digress.
In my sophmore English class, there were the remnants of a class set of Dune books. These four or five identical paperbacks had been coated in contact paper and stamped on the inner cover with the high school’s name. They were falling apart, and had been repaired several times over with tape. Unfortunately, whatever English class they were for, it wasn’t my English class. These books sat unused on the back shelf, very near where I sat.
One day our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whose awesomeness deserves a whole separate blog post) wasn’t there, and we had a substitute. Whatever we were doing that day was horribly boring, so out of desperation I picked up this tattered old paperback with a funky seventies cover. Those first words caught me like a marlin on a gaff hook.
A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Maud’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time; born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV…
I’m sorry, Mr. Phillips. I stole that book. I stole it so hard. I still had it until just a year or two ago, when it finally disintegrated. I think I read it in three days, skipping minor annoyances like schoolwork and sleep. Then I went to the library and found the sequel.
Dune was my gateway drug into the best of Golden Age sci-fi, the world of Heinlin, Asimov, Clark, and Philip K. Dick. Dune hit me like a brick upside the head. It was so… grown up. The intelligence of the plot, the subtlety of the character’s interactions. (a feint within a feint within a feint) Superheroes whose powers came from nothing more than discipline and training. The massive, coherent, sprawling galaxy, so different from the laser-pistols-and-warp-drives fare I’d known until that point, so intricately layered, so flawlessly executed. Its portrayal of a deep, nuanced interstallar economy, and subtle galactic feudalism that Star Wars could only pretend to. And yet, unlike many other intellectually rich sci-fi novels I’ve come across, it was still a damned page-turner.
I’m realizing that I could go on for far, far longer about how much I love this book, and how it shaped my views of so many things: economics, ecology, politics, power… but I’ll end now, with one of the many gems that have stayed with me through the years.
“Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘Now, it’s complete because it’s ended here.’