Lots of us read across the board when it comes to speculative fiction. Others are pickier. There are those who say they “only read fantasy” or “only read science fiction” or “only read horror.” I could argue with those of you falling into these categories, telling you how you should expand your speculative horizons, how you’re missing out on some great stories, and so on. But I’m not going there—too big and unwieldy of a debate would ensue. Instead, I’m going to try to get some of you “I only read fantasy” readers to stick your proverbial toe into those science fiction waters of wonder. In particular, I’m talking to you lovers of secondary fantasy worlds. I know, I know. You prefer dragons to rockets, magic to science, and someone wielding a sword is way cooler than someone firing a laser gun. I get that, I do. While I’ve enjoyed plenty of science fiction, I feel the same way. So trust me when I say that if there was ever a science fiction novel for you, the secondary world fantasy fan set in his/her ways, Dune is it.
Why Dune you ask? To begin with, Dune was written by Frank Herbert, who is widely considered one of the greatest writers to ever grace the field of speculative fiction. Second, Dune was first published as a novel in 1965 (a shorter serialized version appeared in Analog Magazine before this) and over forty years later it remains in print. Third, I’ll mention that Dune carries some respectable heft, which many of you folks like because you want to “fall into” a long book.
If you’re still reading that’s good, though I’d imagine it’s still with a wary eye. So let me move into the hard sell. Dune takes place in a far-flung future where thinking machines have been outlawed (recall when this was written and this concept becomes even cooler). Hence there are serious limits on the super-science gadgets and the techno-babble. Good, right?
Keep listening. Humankind occupies the farthest reaches of known space. It is a mighty empire, comprising many planets, and it is ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shadam the IV from his home-world of Kaitain. Normally such an intergalactic empire requires spaceships and such, FTL drives or some other super-science means of travel. Well, in this world there are indeed spaceships, but for long-range travel, these ships are reliant on a substance known as melange, more commonly referred to as Spice.
The Spice is the most valuable substance in the universe. It expands life and extends consciousness. It is also responsible for the transformation of the Guild Navigators. The Guild Navigators were once human, but over time their massive Spice consumption has turned them into something else, infusing them with inhuman abilities. Their most important ability is that they’re able to “fold space.” Basically, this allows them to create a temporary but stable wormhole from one point to another, enabling ships to move throughout the universe. It makes the empire possible. It makes civilization possible. It is the oil of this universe. But there are no plausible scientific explanations for how the Spice enables men to do these things. It is such a fundamental part of this far-flung future that the reader is expected to accept its function instead of questioning the science behind such a thing. In other words, it is a fantastical premise Herbert inserted into a science fictional world to enable him to tell the story he wanted to tell. It’s woven into the tale so smoothly and on so many levels that most science fiction fans accept its use despite the lack of technical explanations and its seeming implausibility, and most fantasy fans just straight-up appreciate the fantastical resonance of this substance.
The Spice exists on only one planet called Arrakis, or Dune. Dune is one of the most inhospitable worlds in the entire empire. It is a desert world regularly pummeled by storms that can tear the flesh off a man’s bones. The natives of this world are the Fremen, a hardened people who live in various tribes, or sietches. Their numbers are vast and they are extremely hostile toward outsiders. But it isn’t the brutal sun, the desert winds, or the Fremen that are the greatest dangers on Arrakis. No. That would be the giant, giant (yeah, they’re that big) sand worms, creatures that live in the deep desert, burrowing through the sands with all the ease of a fish through water. Little is known about the sand worms, except by the Fremen, who worship the great worms as gods.
Now let’s talk a little bit about Paul Atreides, the protagonist of this novel. Paul is the son of Duke Leto Atreides, who has risen to a position of great power among the other nobles. In fact, his power has become such that the Padishah Emperor has come to see the Duke as a threat. So he is handing Duke Leto the keys to Dune, placing him in charge of all Spice production. Given how valuable the Spice is, this might seem like a foolish maneuver, but it is part of a vaster political game meant to topple the Duke from power.
Paul is fifteen years old when the novel starts. Very early on we learn Paul might be the Kwisatz Haderach, a product of a centuries-old breeding program orchestrated by the Bene Gesserit, an extremely powerful sisterhood of women with strange and awesome (some believe mystical) powers, who are some of the most powerful political players in the universe. However, if Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, he has been born a generation too early, because Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit herself, defied the orders of her superiors and provided Duke Leto a son instead of a daughter.
Now this possible Kwisatz Haderach, who would represent the ultimate genetic achievement of traditional human breeding, is going to live on the most important planet in the universe, where he’ll be surrounded by a substance that is known to alter and expand consciousness. And it just so happens that the Fremen have an ancient prophecy about an off-worlder who will unite the tribes and lead them to greatness (I’m simplifying the prophecy). Put all of this together and the universe shall be changed forevermore.
There are at least five important plot threads I haven’t even touched on with this overview, and more than a dozen key characters I haven’t mentioned (including the main villains, who are awesome). But even with these basics, you can see how for all of its science fictional elements, the bones of this story give off a major fantastical vibe. Think about it: a strange and powerful substance of great value that provides wonderful gifts to its users …armies of desert warriors …giant sand monsters …prophecies …a sisterhood many believe to be witches …a society of navigators shrouded in secrecy who open portals to places far away through their strange abilities …any and all of examples would be perfectly at home in a fantasy novel. They’re all in Dune and I’ve only given you the slightest taste of how complex this universe and story are.
Dune is one of the most multilayered novels you’ll ever read. There are enough plot threads and twists to satisfy the most demanding epic fantasy fans. The world-building is detailed enough to throw down with the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin. You are also provided a small army of fascinating characters. But it just so happens that this novel leans a little more toward science fiction, so this is how it’s always been marketed. But the science fictional elements shouldn’t bother you fantasy fans, not the way Herbert handles them.
Dune holds up quite well as a standalone novel, but if you want to read more when you finish it there are five more books in the series. There is also a host of prequels and additional sequels written posthumously by Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, and co-author Kevin J. Anderson. Some folks just like the original novel, others have enjoyed some or all of Frank Herbert’s sequels, and still others are enjoying these recent additions by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson. But just about all fans will agree the original novel is the best of the bunch. I am no exception. Dune is one of the true jewels in all of speculative fiction, and if you’re a secondary world fantasy fan who has never dabbled in the sf trade, I can’t recommend a better place to start. Scratch that. If you haven’t read Dune, no matter what your reading preferences are, I can’t recommend it enough.