Apr 8 2009 10:15am

Dune: Science Fiction for Fantasy Fans

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.

Richard Fife
1. R.Fife
Hmm, well, allow a "I read Fantasy only" kinda guy to chime in here.

Yes, I've read Dune. I loved Dune. Part of it was the truest part of the "Science Fiction", the technology that is plot integral, which is the technology that allows for FTL travel and personal body shields and makes projectile and energy based weapons nearly useless. That means, yes, there is sword/knife fighting, albeit somewhat odd. That makes it kinda awesome there.

One technical point I feel compelled to point out (and I am sure others would as well), the Spice itself doesn't make the FTL travel. Science made that, but the Spice allows the navigators to safely use it, kinda like the Force let Anakin fly in the pod races (to reference a bad movie). The idea of Spice folding space came out of the movie with Sting and Patrick Stewart. The true magic of the spice (aside from its geriatric property), was that it gave prescience and future-sight.

As to the sequels, they take you for a loop, so "Reader Beware" and there is lots of discussion of in it the "What Series do you Like" and "Better to have loved and lost" threads that have been posted recently.

But yes, as a person who typically prefers Fantasy, Dune is a very good read as it does blend alot of fantasical elements in.
2. Krueck
This was actually the first science fiction book I had ever read after Robert Jordan immersed me in the world of reading. I was a strict Fantasy reader myself, but only because I had not given SciFi its chance.

I have since read the series twice and even diverged off into some of the prequel/sequel books. This book definitely opened me up to the world of scifi, and now I am an avid scifi fan because of it.
3. dcole78
As said elsewhere if you read this just read the first one, the ones after that get waaay to fantastical and just odd. They also seem to take a different thematic path than the first one. Honestly they made me rethink what he was trying to say in the first (which can be good if by the end it becomes a unified message) it didn't here. Honestly I don't know how anyone can be enjoying the prequals, they are awful and change some of the most important characters in ways that don't make sense.

Oh and you are correct the sandworms are huge (think skyscraper size) and the Harkonens (the evil dudes) are wonderful.

STAY AWAY from any movie or TV version of this. None have done it justice and I have just about decided it is impossible for any to do so.
Ronald Hobbs
4. dustrider
To second R.Fife's comment. one of the bits that make it more sword and sorcery than most SF is that, well, they use swords.

so the intimate physical nature of hand to hand combat that many action fantasy fans appreciate is well and truly preserved.

For those that haven't read the book and wonder how hand to hand works in an age with guns and lasers:
basic premis is that most armies use personal shields, which block anything moving over a certain speed, e.g. bullets, arrows and the like, and also have a rather drastic reaction to being hit with lasers... sorta nuclear scale. so lasers are pretty much never used on the battlefield as if you're close enough to light it up, you're close enough to be turned into a little pile of ash.

So, prophecies, swords, magical abilities of persuation... if you as a fantasy fan liked those elements of say star wars, Dune is like that without Mr. Lucas's influence.

Yet then theres the sequels. Maybe Lucas was involved.
mark Proctor
5. mark-p
I mostly don't read science fiction because a I spend lot of the time going yeah but that couldn't work. But with fantasy I usually don't care if some guy has magical powers which break the laws of physics.
Having said that a few of my favourite books are scifi, and I generally prefer scifi films to fantasy films (even if i do annoy the people with me by pointing out the plot holes)

Dune is pretty good, its along time since I read it but as far as I remember its more of a fantasy book with a few advanced technologies.
I tend to be in the only-reads-sci-fi camp, though my leisure reading recently has been expanding into murder mysteries. I also thought the first novel was great...such a complete new world it included fragments of historical texts and required a glossary in the back. Reminded me a bit of Asimov's Foundation series in that sense. Though, like most of you here, it seems, I couldn't make it past the first of the sequels.

If you are interested in works that straddle the fantasy/scifi divide, Roger Zelazny wrote a lot of that. He wasn't one for big books, but Jack of Shadows took place on a world that had stopped rotating, where the dark side was a realm of fantasy while the light side was the technoscience, we-don't-believe-in-magic side. The hero is pretty engaging and it's a super-quick read. His best of that ilk, though, would have to be Lord of Light, a Hugo winner from '66 or so, about a group of spacemen who set themselves up as gods modelled on the Hindu pantheon, to be worshipped by the untechnical native population, until there is a rift between the gods of those who want to actually inhibit the development of the people and those who want to encourage them.

Oh, Isle of the Dead by Zelazny is also excellent in that respect. Can't recommend him enough, unless your ideal scifi is Poul Anderson-style hard scifi, then you probably won't like it.


Lastly, I've got to disagree with dcoles78. Don't watch Lynch's movie instead or before the book, but apart from that I think it's great. Only complaint was that the movie didn't make me thirsty enough.
Heather Johnson
7. HeatherJ
I read Dune back in high school before I really understood the difference between SciFi and Fantasy. If you had asked me then, I would have said this is a Fantasy novel. Part of me wants to stick with that answer now, for many of the reasons in this post.

Regardless of how it is classified, this is an excellent book. The setting and some of the characters (esp. the Fremen) have stuck with me. Over 15 years after reading this book I can still vividly picture stillsuits, thumpers, completely blue eyes ... ah, the memories!
Terry Lago
8. dulac3
I love _Dune_. It scratches just the right 'science fantasy' itch for me. I'd agree that it's more fantasy than sci-fi ultimately...technically it takes place in the far future and all of the 'magical' stuff tends to have some kind of hand-wavy pseudo-science rationale behind it, but basically it has more of the flavour of fantasy, to me, than of pure sci-fi. Perhaps a big part of this for me is the existence of sword-play and the semi-feudal political structure of the Empire (not to mention the 'magical' aspect of the abilities of the various 'super-groups' of Bene Gesserit, Guildsmen, and Mentats).

I'm one of the few people who actually read, and kinda liked, ALL of the original series (the 'prequels' are an abomination), but a lot of this has to do with the fact that I think (Spoiler) is a kick-ass character and he appears as pretty much the main character throughout those later books. No argument though that the first volume is the best by far, but I'd say no one could go too far wrong reading the first three books of the series since they present a more or less complete story-arc for the rise of the Atreides family.
9. RobMRobM
Hi all - Dune is the best sci-fi/fantasy book ever written, bar none. Read it today.

For the Jordan/WOT fans, there are many similarities in the two worlds:

Citations to historical sources from pre-post events: both books
Lots of economics and ecology woven into storyline: both books
Paul/Perrin = Rand
Bene Gesserits = Aes Sedai
Head of BGs - Mix of Siuan and Elaida
Jessica = Moiraine
Baron Harkonnen = Padan Fain (but w/o magic)
Duncan Idaho = Lan
Gurney Hallek = Thom Merrilin
Fremen = Aiel
Stigar = Rhuarc
Chani = Aviendha

Probably more but that's enough for now. Rob
Adam Parsons
10. Belement
I've read the entire six book original series by Frank Herbert, but haven't quite managed to get around to the prequels or sequels as yet. Actually went along and read Kevin J. Anderson's Saga of the Seven Suns as a kind of lead up to see if I'd might like the writing style or not. So far no complaints, although need to try and find a copy of the fifth book in that series in Melbourne, can't seem to find it anywhere, lol.

And you can tell when a novel is of good caliber stays in the general consciousness of the population when you still get references to it today, like Dune Cat
Sam Brady
11. lewaah
I don't mind the prequels so much in and of themselves. As long as I can keep them separate in my head from the primary series, they're pretty good adventure yarns.
Andrew Foss
12. alfoss1540
After Lord of the Rings, I have read Dune more than any other book (about 8 times at last count - just finishing the last read in October). You are correct that it crosses so many differrent genre, it is hard to classify. I just like to call it good storytelling.

Never got therough the other books. Dune Messiah became predictable and I put it aside.

But the original is a masterpiece

Also, as far as movies, Dune has been well covered.

The first version from David Lynch was very goos as a Science Fiction piece - and acceptable if you had not read the book - Kyle McLaughlin's hair was a joke throughout the movie, but that and his smiling could be forgiven.

The TV movie kept very faithful to the book, but Paul was a little less believable than - overall a much better adaptation.
13. RobMRobM
Still no love from the WoT folk about Dune-WOT paralells. Oh well.

To add one - Duke Leto = Davrahm Bashere (if he were king rather than marshall general and had a wife with a lot more secrets and secret skills)

The main character in Dune, Paul, is more intriguing than Rand. Younger (only 15) but trained since birth by his father to lead men, by Duncan and Gurney to fight, by Thufir to act as a human computer, and by his mother with special Bene Gesserit muscle control, voice control and fighting techniques -- everyone treating him as their special best pupil. And he's a nice, thoughtful kid to boot. When the bad guys bring all sorts of bad stuff down on the Atreides family, he puts all sorts of things together in an interesting way.

I'm a fan - can't help it. I did my own re-read two years ago and loved it again. Read it (especially you Erdick). Rob
14. ArabiaTerra
Slightly off-topic but another excellent sci-fi/fantasy crossover is The Saga of the Exiles by Julian May. Sci-fi setting but pure fantasy story loosely based on Irish legend.
16. RobMRobM
lfcd @6. Ah, Zelazny.... Enjoyed Lord of Light, and and the first Amber series (the second spun a bit out of control for my taste) -- which are plainly fantasy books to my taste -- as well as more Sci-Fi/alternate world stories such as This Immortal, Damnation Alley and especially his short work A Rose for Ecclesiastes. Always have the bitingly cynical but ultimately good hearted protagonists (very much reminiscent of Mat from WoT books except they smoke cigs rather than a pipe). Rob
17. Freakzilla
The author misunderstands how spice is used by the Spacing Guild.

Guild Navigators do not fold space, Holtzman Generators do. The spice enables the Navigator to see into the future and be assured that they will survive the trip.

The Prescient Navigator replaces the Navigation Computer, he in no way propels the ship.

Even Paul's prescient ability is broken down in technical terms. He has human computer (mentat) abilities he has secretly been trained for since infancy. When exposed to the spice, a consciousness expanding drug, he can see all possible futures, not THE future.

There is no MAGIC in Dune and that is what seperates it from fantasy.
Bill Reamy
18. BillinHI
I'm actually a crossover from sci-fi to fantasy: I started with Heinlein too many years ago to think about and went through Asimov to Zelazny. I have most of Heinlein's and Asimov's books plus a lot of Arthur C. Clarke's as well. I don't remember how I got into Lord of the Rings (my first real fantasy read) but I have re-read it several times now and still enjoy it thoroughly. A friend got me started on Wheel of Time just a couple of years ago and I'm on my second re-read, following along with Leigh's blog and cannot wait for the final novel to be released - even though it will be three novels and won't all be out until 2011.

As for Dune, I have been through the whole series several times and while I agree that the first book is the best, the rest that Frank Herbert wrote ain't half-bad either. I'm not super analytical when I read, but I seem to recall that most of the stuff in the prequels (which I did enjoy, if not as much as the original series) was at least mentioned, if not referenced in some detail in the original series. I could easily be wrong on that one however.

I was quite pleased to get the wrap-up of the series (Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune) even though I saw the ending coming.

Anyhoo, good writing is good writing and there is a lot of it out there in all kinds of different genres. In my distant past I've read stuff as varied as historical fiction (Van Wyck Mason, etc.), spy thrillers and a wide variety of murder mysteries.

Enough already...
19. DouglasCohen
Hmm's been many years (about 10) since I read Dune. It appears I lifted that "folding space" tidbit from the movie without realizing it. My mistake and those who pointed it out are correct. The Holtzmann Generator allows space propulsion as Freakzilla points out.

That said, none of this changes my assessment that this is science fiction that fantasy fans can appreciate. Whatever science is in this is very barebone and there are still a lot of elements in this book more commonly found in fantasy tales.

Fantasy fans, do not be scared off by the mention of the Holtmann Generator!
20. RobMRobM
DouglasCohen - thanks for a good post, by the way. Enjoyed it. Rob
21. Nikki M
Dune has been one of my favorite series since I first read it when I was 12 or so (at least the first 3 books, didn't even know about the later ones until 5 years ago or so). I re-read them every couple of years and always enjoy them. Recommend them to everyone!

Some other fantasy/sci-fi cross-overs: Anne McCaffery, Lois McMaster Bujold, Roger Zelazny, some Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury (his are spooky too!).

And one story that by...the first 3 Dune books...Matrix! Watch the last movie and then read Children of Dune.
Ryan Thistlethwaite
22. shintemaster
I first STRUGGLED through the Dune series as a 10 year old and have re-read them several times more over the years. Unlike many others I am a big fan of the rest of the Frank Herbert books. Dune was the necessary catalyst to get the story going - however the others evolved. I personally find God Emperor of Dune to be an amazingly complex and moving book - almost a philosophical treatise wrapped in fiction for mass consumption. I think the later books evolved and were more complicated, in some ways it worked and in some it didn't however I have a lot of time for Herbert's willingness to try and push the boundaries of fiction rather than just churning out more of the same Dune story.
The so called 'prequels' and ending are to use a descripter from the Duniverse - abominations.
23. DouglasCohen
RobM @ 20, thank you very much. One of these days I need to revisit that book. It really is one of my favorites. I've noticed similarities to WOT as well, but I didn't bring them up as that could easily be the sort of thing demanding its own post.
build six
24. build6
Ok... I love the book (enough that I bought all of the sequels even though I liked none of them the way I liked the original), and I've not found any interviews with the author that might have answered what I am going to say: one thing I've always felt about Dune, is that it seems to me the book Frank Herbert was writing changed in the process of his writing it.

The way it started out seemed a bit more of a "young adult adventure" kind of book, but then eventually morphed into something much more. Tonally there are distinct "breaks" in the book. It seems to me in part a side-effect of writing books in pre-word processor days, since I'd imagine that, today, if there was a "change of direction", the author would go back to the beginning and start editing to make it more homogenous?
25. ibrock
Hey! I'm 40 and read Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune waaay back when I was a teen in the 80s.

One of the most interesting things about Herbert was that when compared to Clarke and Azimov (the only two peers he had in his lifetime) was that where they promoted a variety of hard-Scifi entrenched in the issues of physics and chemistry, Herbert was more interested in ecology, biology, sociology, and psychology, and even comparative religion.

In Herbert's works the issues of consciousness and how it shapes self and society were always more central than, say, physics (e.g. how to land a spacecraft on the end of a spinning cylinder cf. Rendez-vous with Rama) or engineering (e.g. how to control an artificial intelligence syllogistically c.f Azimov's 'Robot' novels).

Frank Herbert is as much a fantasist as Ursula K. LeGuin or Doris Lessing: that the worlds they all created are vivid and present inconsistencies just like our own. Herbert was different, in as far as his worlds were textured and exotic.

Before the X-Files there was The Santaroga Barrier, before Stargate or SG:1 there was the Dosadi Experiment and Whipping Star.

The White Plague stands along side The Handmaid's Tale in exploring a world of gender decimation.

Read Herbert's other novels too: yeah they seem dated now, but that's because so many of his ideas were scavenged by others and have become main stream.
David Lev
26. davidlev
I bought this book a while ago but haven't read it yet. I'm one ofthe readers who prefers fantasy to sci fi, but I bought it because I think myself I noticed subconsciously the fantasy-like setting (I've seen the movies). I look forward to reading it.

also wondering what would be a good example of the reverse of this i.e. fantasy that sci fi readers would like. I suppose Pern might count, altho really that's sci fi masquerading as fantasy again. Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is Song of Ice and Fire--except instead of "science" as its basis we have an entirely fictional history. This history serves as background to the story, and it is incredibly important, even tho it's stll background material. The more you read, the more you learn and the more things begin to make sense: Most of what happens in the books is a result of a complex ar that happened 15 years before, and this has affected how various noble families think of one another. I like it immensely, because it is so internally consistent. Also, GRRM is an awesome writer just in general
27. RobMRobM
ibrock@35. I enjoyed Dosadi experiment very much, its predecessor Whipping Star less so. Great exposition in Dosadi of a underlying theme of Dune -- what happens if you had millions of people placed for many years in the most hostile imaginable environment and what would happen if they could ever escape confinement. And I loved the concept of the BuSab -- in a universe when governments tended to get things done too quickly for proper contemplation, there needed to be a "Bureau of Sabotage" created to slow things down. Rob
28. IowaBoy Core
If traditional science-fiction scares off those who prefer fantasy, consider that most of the "science" in Herbert's novel are the soft sciences of sociology, ecology and religious studies. If sci-fi is the examination of the effects of technology on humans and human society, "Dune" in a way explores the effect of a lack of technology, and how other human abilities, devices and social systems grow to fill the void.

if "Dune" is still too sci-fi for you, I'd suggest Gene Wolfe's "Shadow of the Torturer," a sci-fi story set in a positively medieval far-distant future. If you don't read closely -- and you should, because Wolfe' prose calls to mind the line from "Angela's Ashes" where the narrator says reading Shakespeare is like having "jewels in my mouth" -- you could even miss the sci-fi underpinnings of the story (well, at least until you get to the fourth book).

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