Here’s a sci-fi scenario for you: a young man stands under alien sun(s). He’s a messiah figure. The planet he’s living on is a ball of sand, rock, sun and danger. There’s a mystic order who wear robes, aristocracy in space, and a bunch of conniving asshats who don’t like freedom or hope. Which franchise am I referring to?
It’s Dune, obviously. The novel so inspirational every wannabe wordsmith in the genre has taken something from it, consciously or otherwise. There’s a strain of sandy DNA in every sci-fi book published after Dune, to the point of crippling child support payments.
Genetic metaphors aside, Dune has an enduring legacy that belies how obscure it is in the pop culture ecosystem. The number of people who’ve bought a copy and failed to finish it is staggering. So why is such an influential work so under-read?
Simply put, everything that made Dune an enduring classic has been ruthlessly plundered by successive generations of authors and filmmakers. Hardly a bad thing, of course. The rich ideas present in Dune, and in its sequels to a lesser degree, simply cannot be curtailed to a single series or prescribed to a single author.
But what makes Dune most compelling to me, and many others throughout the years, is the idea of false sainthood. Paul is engineered to be a messiah figure through generations of scheming, manipulation and murder… And yet he turns out to embody every aspect of his own legend, which begs the question of whether he should be called a messiah at all. It’s a scathing takedown of personality cults and an examination of colonialism that still resonates today. Few of Dune’s successors bothered to include these aspects, and they’re all the poorer for it.
It’s a matter of cultural context that makes Dune so original compared to its contemporaries. Although he was a cousin of Joseph McCarthy, Herbert profoundly disagreed with the latter’s policy of blacklisting suspected communists. One of the main themes of the Dune saga is a distrust of charismatic political figures — a concept that resonates now more than ever before. Even his invention of the Bene Gesserit, an order of mystic jewish-coded nuns, was a revolutionary move in an era where womens’ representation in SFF was mostly lacking. Also, they’re way cooler than Jedi. Just saying.
There are also the three Dune films to consider: one was never made and is legendary anyway, one is yet to be released, and the other has Sting prancing around in his underwear, which makes it legendary for a different reason. Lynch’s version is bizarrely endearing, but arguably the sheer scope of Dune and its setting could only feasibly be adapted with modern technology anyway. That, or an absolutely staggering budget, which would have seen it make an epic loss running against that lovable underdog Star Wars.
Frank Herbert occupies that weird cultural blind spot alongside Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber: authors foundational or massively influential to their chosen genres, and yet relatively unknown outside of their fandoms. Dune references are now being made third-hand, with pieces of media referencing something that referenced Dune without realising Dune was being referenced at all.
But more than an important foundational brick in the edifice we call science fiction, Dune is simply a very good adventure story. It’s a true epic in the mould of something like The Count of Monte Cristo; a fantastic story of betrayal and revenge told against one of the most memorable and haunting backdrops in the genre. Read it, if you haven’t.