Dune is one of the most famous Hugo winners, and it certainly warrants its status as a sci-fi classic. Herbert’s masterpiece is an epic – it’s the longest Hugo winner so far and more than double the length of the average winner to this point.
Dune describes a far-future, interstellar human empire in which most everyone depends on a chemical called spice that can only be obtained from a dangerous desert planet called Arrakis. There are a handful of feudal “major houses” that vie for power under the Emperor. The evil Harkonnens lure the noble House Atreides into a trap, giving them the valuable planet of Arrakis then betraying and attacking them. The heir to the House of Atreides is a teenager named Paul, prophesied to be a messiah by pretty much every interest group in the universe, and the story follows his rise to power, quest for revenge, and realization of his religious role on the inhospitable planet.
In a lot of ways, other than the occasional mention of space travel, this might sound like a fantasy novel plot. And, Dune does often garner comparison to Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. There are limitations to this analogy, but the book does work for exactly the same reasons that Tolkein’s epic cycle does – this is a fully realized world. Herbert creates a detailed universe with its own internal logic and its own rich, detailed, and often weird, cultural practices. Furthermore, what makes this novel really revolutionary is that Herbert throws ecology in the mix. He’s the first author to really put thought into how his world’s natural settings would work, what keeps them in balance, what would throw them out of balance, etc. This is a big departure from the easy terraforming of Ganymede that Heinlein depicted.
If I had to find a flaw in the novel (and I have an advanced degree in nitpicking after several years of graduate school) it’s that the characters can be a little flat. The characters fall easily into “good” and “evil” camps, and most of the novel is taken up with dialog-heavy scenes in which the good characters act terribly brave, noble and wise. Meanwhile, the evil characters spend all of their time plotting, cheating, and molesting young boys. There’s not much complexity there, and it did get a little tiring about halfway through.
Still, despite some clichéd characters and some slightly familiar fantasy tropes, Dune is an ultimately compelling and exciting read because of the thought and detail Herbert put in to building his world. There are wonderful appendices on Dune’s religion and ecology, as well as a glossary of terms, that all demonstrate the thought and care that make the work so completely engrossing.
At the same time, I have to admit that I’d be very reluctant to read any more of this franchise. I hadn’t read Dune or any of its sequels before this project, and I’m very satisfied checking the core book off my list of must-reads. This is the first franchise-spawning book that I’ve encountered (there will be more!), but, at least in this case, I feel pretty satiated with this one novel.