It's been several decades since I last read this but it's remained a favorite. I wondered if I'd still have the same regard with this read. I did.
For those new to this series, this is the book that started it all. Herbert actually had trouble selling this story to a mainstream publisher or even SF publishers. He finally sold it to a publishing house that printed car manuals primarily. And we are eternally grateful.
This is a huge concept story concerning itself with politics in a universe where several factions have unbelievable power. The universe is ruled by a triumvirate of an Emperor, a parliament of several ruling "Houses", and the Guild which pilots the interstellar craft. The action begins with the Emperor plotting the downfall of a powerful and popular House, the Atreides, which he views as a potential rival/enemy of his throne. To do this, he plots with another rival house, Harkonnen, to ambush the Atreides. The Harkonnen have had possession of a rich planet called Arrakis or Dune which is the sole source of a product called spice which is a brain-enhancing substance. They know how to mine the substance even while no one knows its origins. This substance has become a linchpin of society as the Guild requires it to pilot interstellar ships. A sub-culture called The Bene Gesserit need it in their breeding program. So, to be the sole possessor of such a product gives the possessor great power and influence. The Emperor expresses disapproval of how the Harkonnens have administered the planet so he kicks them out and gives the planet to Atreides. The idea is that forcing the Atreides to leave the safety of their planet and putting them into an environment that had been solely controlled by Harkonnen for generations should make them vulnerable to assassination. It was a good plan except for one single anomaly.
Duke Atreides never took a wife; instead, he contracted for a Bene Gesserit witch, the Lady Jessica, to be his companion and they fell in love. The Bene Gesserit had been engaged in a genetic breeding program stretching back for thousands of years with a goal of producing a woman who can see all futures - a sort of human computer. The Lady Jessica had been instructed to bear a girl-child but she chose to disobey and give her beloved Duke the son he wanted. She then proceeded to train the boy in the secret ways of the Bene Gesserit and as a Mentat. So when the family took possession of Arrakis with all its attendant traps, the Harkonnen hadn't taken into account the increased mental faculties of the young Duke or the strength of his mother, Lady Jessica. While the Duke was killed, both young Paul and his mother escaped into the desert - to meet and integrate with the desert peoples, the Fremen. And this is the real beginning of the story.
The Fremen are a nomadic people existing in a waterless environment complete with incredible technology for preserving moisture, the knowledge of the true source of spice, and a prophetic religion that is literally waiting for the appearance of someone like Paul and Jessica. As Paul matures within the society of Fremen, and thought to be dead to the outside world, he begins to understand his unique position in the time/space of his universe - he cannot control the future he sees and he cannot escape it. And his actions will affect the whole known universe and billions upon billions of lives.
The story is incredibly dense with worldbuilding that ought to be required reading for all SF writers. The degree of detail and the relationships of the Houses, the Guild, the Bene Gesserit, and the Mentats speaks to a disciplined mind who must have plotted the structure before he started the story. And Herbert was a sly dog in giving the reader just small doses of all the ways spice controls society, making the reader draw conclusions. It may be the most elegantly plotted story ever. The far-reaching consequences of Paul's and Jessica's actions beggars the imagination and still thrills this reader.
The book also includes maps and Appendixes to explain the ecology and religion of Dune and an explanation of the Bene Gesserit and their part in the debacle. These are just a few pages but, to this reader, are even more integral to this story then Tolkien did with his Silmarillion. ~~ Catherine Book
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