In a Nutshell
Imagine a dune. What do you see?
If you're like most people, you probably see a big pile of sand. But this one guy, Frank Herbert, saw something else entirely. During a visit to Florence, Oregon, in 1957, Herbert visited the Oregon Sand Dunes to research an article titled "They Stopped the Moving Sands" (Afterword.13). The article was never complete, but the research took hold of Herbert's mind, and an idea for a story began boiling in the back of his brain.
The rest is history.
Well, not exactly history. Herbert would spend another six years researching and writing the story ignited from a simple visit to the Oregon Coast. Then the story would initially be published piecemeal in Analog magazine between 1963 and 1965, before it was finally released as a full-fledged novel in 1965. The novel was called Dune.
Dune told the story of a young man named Paul Atreides and his life on the planet Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune. Paul starts the story as a gifted young man who eventually grows up to become the leader of a rebellion and a religious messiah, all in an attempt to avenge his father's death.
Sound familiar? That's because it's a familiar plot—we've all experienced it in some fashion. What separates Dune from more traditional science fiction is the breadth and richness of imagination Herbert filtered into his fictional universe. Herbert's exploration of the ecology of Arrakis did not just focus on nature. "[P]olitics, religion, philosophy, history, human evolution, and even poetry," all these things signified for Herbert the world of mankind (Afterword.34). Each has its place in the Dune universe, and each plays a significant role in the destiny of humanity.
And now the rest is history. Upon its release, Dune became something of an instant classic, joining the ranks of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Lord of the Rings as a must-read novel for the 1960s college crowd (source). It also provided Herbert's career with the get-up-and-go it needed: Dune went on to win the Hugo and the Nebula award in 1966, making it the first novel to receive the honor. Herbert himself would write not one, not two, but five sequels (of, we have to admit, varying quality).
Oh, is that all?
Not by a long shot. Dune would continue to grow in the decades following its initial release, evolving from simple book series to full-fledged franchise. After Herbert's death, Brian Herbert, his son, and Kevin J. Anderson would increase the Dune series to almost 20 novels and going (they aren't finished yet). David Lynch directed a movie adaptation in 1984, with Kyle MacLachlan leading an all-star cast as Paul. In 2000, John Harrison adapted his own made-for-TV film, which aired on the Sci-Fi channel, staring John Hurt as bangarang Duke Leto.
Almost, but we have to mention video games like the real-time strategy Dune series by Cryo Interactive. Oh, and let's not forget the music Dune inspired, such as Klaus Schulze's Dune album. Man, Dune even served as a major inspiration for Star Wars. Star Wars, people! Now, when you're recognized as an inspiration for Star Wars, you kick your feet up and have a drink, because buddy, you've earned it.
Why Should I Care?
Who is your hero? Is it a professional athlete? A religious figure or philosophical thinker? Perhaps a political leader or social activist? Maybe even a fictional character or two? Consider that figure while we discuss why you should care about Dune.
In Dune, the character of Paul Atreides is a hero to many people. For House Atreides, he's the rightful Duke, the one who will bring power back to the defeated family name. For the Fremen, he's the messiah, the one who will lead them out of the grip of tyranny and into a new paradise. But Paul Atreides—for all his talents and abilities—is just a man. He's as frail and fallible as the rest of us.
By focusing on the character of Paul Atreides, we are offered a glimpse at the reality of heroes and the legends that surround them. For all his successes, we see that Paul's failures are numerous, too. In fact, the legend that surrounds Paul blows his successes way out of proportion. And for all Paul's abilities, he can't really solve the problems facing the people who worship him. He can barely handle his own.
Dune isn't saying we shouldn't have heroes like Paul, but it is asking us to take a closer look at the people we prop up as heroes and the reasons we worship them as we do. Can we really expect an elected official to solve the nation's problems? Should we be angry at movie stars or athletes just because they are less than superhuman, or because their moral compasses don't always point toward righteousness? How much faith should we put into the legends of our religious figures?
All questions that could use a good answer or two. But first things first: let's read Dune.