Dune Turns 50: Is It Still Relevant?

illustdnEarlier this year, Frank Herbert’s  “Dune” celebrated fifty years since it was first published in novel form – it had previously been serialised in Analog magazine from 1963. My first exposure to the Dune universe came through the David Lynch movie, and I got my first copy of the first book shortly after that. As a teenager, I found myself reading the book as a novelisation that wasn’t written by Alan Dean Foster. Over the next decade or so, the novel was on my high rotation – I read it at least every other year – and I started to discover the other themes and ideas.

As a man now in his forties talking about a book I’ve read since my teens, the question becomes: is it still relevant? Some would say the basic premise – a bunch of fanatical killers sitting on the edge of the desert waiting to destroy civilisation – would be fairly relevant, given recent events. However, there is more to this book than that. There is enviromental change,  politics, leadership, hero worship, the dangers of messiah, addiction,  and resource management. I read the novel this year, and discovered that many of the ideas in book are something that have become part of my philosophy in life. When you look around and see the blind worship of those we see as heroes, and how that power can be harnessed and abused, Dune remains very relevant. Many have commented on the ecological side of the novel, which is certainly a main theme – but given the feudal universe in the novel, there is a lot of deception; something the characters note to themselves as they talk about feints within feints and plans within plans.

And what of the novel? It can come across as a little simple.  The noble good Atreides , the evil Harkonnens headed by a pedophile, the servile Fremen Stilgar . These characters can sometimes come across as a little wooden in places, placing plaititudes here and there. Once the novel gets going, they do tend to flesh out a little better , espically Paul and his struggle with who and what he is becoming. Where the novelt excels is in description – although describing a desert doesn’t seem all that hard in theory –  Herbert created an ecosystem that was logical and true to itself. There are prey and predators, all evolved to survive in the desert and to hunt every trace of moisture they can.

Away from the planet, there is a formed society of kings, dukes, merchants, spacing guilds, sisterhoods, the whole shebang. The shaping of this larger universe is helped by the use of quotes of fictitious books at the start of each section which not only sum up the theme of the next bit, but expand our understanding of the larger universe. The impression created is that this story takes place in a book bigger than it actually is.

This is a book that has maintained its appeal over the years because there is so much in it. You can read it as I first did – a rollicking Space Opera – and then read it again and see the subtle things going on in the book. If you haven’t read “Dune” in the last twelve months, do yourself a favour. Read it.

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