Calling Dune a science fiction novel is like calling A Song of Ice and Fire a fantasy series. You’d be correct, but you’d also be running the risk of reductionism. Like George R.R. Martin’s series, Frank Herbert’s novel bears many hallmarks of its overarching genre, but none of these get in the way of a compelling human narrative. There aren’t many aliens in Dune, and most of the space travel is over and done within the first third of the book. Sure, there are sandworms in the same way Martin’s epic has dragons, but Dune remains a story about people and power.
The novel revolves around a savior, a spice and a bunch of sand. Paul Atreides’ aristocratic father takes him to the planet Arrakis (known colloquially as Dune) under the pretense they will colonize it for the emperor. Arrakis is the only source of melange, a precious spice known to create mind-expanding and life-increasing possibilities—and nearly everyone in the empire is addicted to it. They quickly discover that Paul’s father was led into a trap by the family’s nemeses, the Harkonnens, and soon Paul is on the run with his mother throughout the parched landscape of his new home. When they happen upon the Fremen, a tribe of religious nomads, it becomes apparent that Paul fits the criteria of the messiah they’ve been awaiting.
On the surface, there’s enough jargon in that synopsis to convince any sci-fi skeptic to remain skeptical. What sets Herbert’s novel against the grain is his innate understanding of the ways and means power is sought and divided amongst human beings. Paul, as the hero of the story, remains the furthest from corruption. The Harkonnens rest at the other end of the spectrum, drunk on the idea of destroying Paul’s family to increase their own land and resources. What makes the narrative compelling is how Herbert manages to paint in shades of grey, even as his tale, on the surface, is one of black and white.
Every character in the novel has a motive, and, as motives are wont to go, they are tainted as much by noble ambition as they are by greed. Paul is young and innocent, whose sole goal at the novel’s beginning is survival. Yet everyone around him desires to dictate how he should use his innate talents. His mother and her religious sisterhood (the Bene Gesserit) have molded him to possess an intellect encompassing the learning of all those who’ve come before him. His father and his compatriots have trained him to hone his skills as a leader and a warrior. The Fremen want to groom him to be their savior from the empire. So while the expected man vs. the galaxy conflict typical of science fiction exists, the main battleground is the youthful Paul’s psyche as everyone around prepares to throw unlimited power into his lap.
This allows Herbert to ask very pointed questions about the ways in which humanity’s desire to control its own destiny impacts every aspect of its existence. An oppressed group anxious for a savior establishes a religion worshipping a character we know is not a god: Is this similar to how religions develop on Earth? A desert landscape is coveted for resources with no interest in how to care for the environment itself: Are we doing the same thing to our planetary home? Even as rival families vie for power, they’re addicted to the same spice: Are the most powerful among us really running the show, or is it whatever material or immaterial god they serve?
This sets Dune apart from the run-of-the-mill space sagas. Ultimately, it’s setting more than 21,000 years in the future is the least speculative thing about narrative. Dune possesses far fewer science fiction tropes than it does ruminations on psychology and, more importantly, on why building heroes is perhaps something we shouldn’t attempt in the first place.
Fifty years on, Herbert’s magnum opus is still a bizarre work of realism in the midst of its forays into the fantastic. By creating a planet thirsty for water and populating it with both religious fanatics and imperialist factions addicted to substances unnecessary for their survival, Herbert helped us to better understand our own planet’s similar problems. It’s unfortunate that half a century later, we still haven’t truly examined the light he tried to shine. Those who forget the lessons of the future are doomed to repeat it.