All Runner-Ups Are Equal In The Eyes Of The Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviewer.
It’s pretty hard to compile all of the awesomeness of Dune into a few short paragraphs. This essay has made me realize I made a terrible mistake in writing my senior thesis in college on something that was not Dune. There isn’t a single major that isn’t represented somewhere in Herbert’s masterpiece. Ecology, feminism, politics of every stripe, linguistics, history, religion, physics, on and on and on. And of course, philosophy. Some of the other great science fiction/fantasy novels are good because you can read them over and over, and they’re classic comfort reads. Dune is like that as well, but despite the fact that you might know every word by heart, (Which I’m not saying I do because that would make me a crazy person. Right?) new ideas can be pulled out of it with every re-read.
One of the main things little nerdy Magic the Gathering playing Star Trek watching me enjoyed the most from Dune when I first discovered it was the merging of fantasy and science fiction. This was a fairly revolutionary idea when Herbert first released Dune in 1965. The anachronism of a huge galactic empire filled by medievalesque fiefdoms who did battle with energy shields and daggers combined the best of both worlds. Herbert turned this into a larger and more complex imaginary universe than practically any other before or since. He also started his story right in the middle, while George Lucas was still in high school and Star Wars episode IV was over a decade away.
This leads to the least awesome thing about the Duniverse. The subsequent books written by Frank Herbert weren’t just great. They were also weird, confusing, over-pontificated and a little bit nonsensical. Dune works as a standalone, but once the other books are added in the quality goes down hill pretty quickly. And once Frank’s son Brian began adding to the series, allegedly after finding thousands of pages of notes in a safe deposit box after his fathers death, the real crap started being published. Hollow, one-dimensional characters, with very little of the realism and moral ambiguity that made the original Dune so awesome went along with a boring formulaic plot, the end result being a chore that one read just to get to the end. The end of the series made Lost’s finale look like freaking Citizen Kane.
My point here isn’t to denigrate Dune, but to accentuate it’s greatness. It’s like if Bill Gates had first created Windows, and then rounded out his career by inventing the Snuggie and the Segway, yet was still revered as the most brilliant man of his generation. The Duniverse has coasted on Dune’s awesomeness for over fifty years. Terrible sequels can’t diminish it’s quality, nor can weirdly fantastic movies that feature both David Bowie and Patrick Stewart. The reason for it’s success, besides the normal features popular books possess: intricate plots, fully developed characters, etc, is it’s depth and real intelligence. Frank Herbert spent much of his life living in the Pacific Northwest where he owned a plot of land he performed ecological experiments on, attempting to live a carbon-neutral life long before greasy people thought it was cool. When he described Liet-Kynes attempts at transforming Arrakis from an uber desert into a paradise, he knew what he was talking about. When the Orange Catholic bible was discussed and explained, it wasn’t something he’d fabricated off the top of his head, it was the synthesis of his childhood of Catholicism and adulthood of Zen-Buddhism that was talking. The wars fought over the melange spice had strong resonance in his time, when similar battles were being fought in the middle east over oil.
That’s the point I guess. You can examine the gender politics of the Bene Gesserit and Landsraad, or just appreciate the sweet scenes where Paul murders the shit out of people. You can question the limits of prescience and good government, or just love the political thriller feel of kanly between the Atreides and Harkonnen. A book that has survived over two dozen sequels in print and on the screen, (including a new movie going into production next year) has a lot of qualities that work for a lot of people. I’m pretty sure the biggest testament to the awesomeness that is Dune will most likely come in the future. In a thousand years when all that’s left of our society is leftover Chicken McNuggets and nuclear waste, our half human half pygmy shrew overlords will probably worship Thetan Tom Cruise, Mormon Jesus, and the Great Maker.