It can be difficult deciding what to say about a beloved classic. Many times the reason for public endearment is because of age, newness, or just plain joy in the material at hand. Many of the books and movies I loved as a child and teenager I now find painfully dull or overwrought with cliche. Much of my original introduction to fantasy I have been loth to return to. Terry Brooks, David Eddings, and Robert Jordan, each in succession slowly formed me into the person that I am today and each of them has slowly made me see the redundancy and repetition that is their meme. Even Star Wars has begun to pale as I age so that Luke’s wanton dispatching of justice at the end of a lightsaber becomes misguided violence and the stories begin to lose much of their emotional impact.
Other books from my adolescence have faired better. I first read Tolkien’s The Hobbit, followed by The Lord of the Rings when I was eight years old. I read them again twice more as a teenager and each time loved them more. Since then I have read them many times and find that the power of prose and the beauty of Tolkien’s imagination and storytelling becomes only more powerful with every repetition.
Thus I approach Dune with all of this in mind. I read this as a teenager and enjoyed it as a sort of fantasy-like science fiction adventure. What I have come to realize is that I didn’t understand it. I liked the young protagonist who leads a revolution and becomes emperor. I loved the swords used in the future and the prophecy and the mystical powers afforded by the Spice.
I completely missed the history of the Dune universe, the lack of computers — and explanation for such — and the fact that the prophecy was a creation of a controlling group of puppeteers.
I feared that Dune would not hold up, that I would see the cracks and the sheer lunacy that other formative authors of my youth have shown. However, I think that the opposite is true. Much like I am now too old for Terry Brooks and David Eddings I was too young for Dune when I was sixteen. I just didn’t get it.
Back then it was a fun adventure, ultimately unimportant and forgettable. Now I see why it is one of the most loved classics of the 20th century. Dune is something powerful and transcendent. Frank Herbert created a universe and world exploding with depth and history and crafted a story to show us a tiny portion of that depth with such skill that he would never be able to match his own achievement.
Because Dune is a rare masterpiece, a work of immense import and also brilliant and precise language. What makes Dune so powerful is Herbert’s supreme command of prose. In the hands of a lesser author the voice control of the Bene Gesserit, the sword and knife wielding space travelers and the hyper-minded mentats would have been juvenile fantasizing — but when told in such exquisite style (reminiscent of the great Leigh Brackett) they become real and the world of Dune springs up all around and suddenly sandworms thunder underfoot and ornithopters flap across the sky while the Spice glistens in the bright, hot rays of the sun.
There’s more. There’s the social commentary, the environmentalist message about the dangers of ecological tampering. There are the little bits that hint at a much deeper universe with throwaway lines about the Butlerian Jihad and the ban on making machines in the image of the human mind and the history of the great houses and the Padishaw Emperor.
I could also talk about how Herbert seems to be one of the few people capable of pulling off the omniscient viewpoint without making it jarring. I could talk about how he effectively rewrote epic fantasy in a space traveling setting — before Star Wars — and even has a good reason why people fight with swords in a universe of lasers and guns.
I could talk about Herbert’s adept depiction of character that made such legends as Duncan Idaho, Paul Atreides and Vladimir Harkonnen instantly memorable. Pushing each of them to be just shy of tipping over the top into cartoons so that instead they lodge into the mind and stick there forever.
I could talk about how formative this book has been for science fiction and how it is nearly universally revered.
But none of that really matters.
If you’ve read Dune before (or tried to), read it again, it will be worth it. This is one of the few books that needs to be reread. At every age you will discover something new and your world will be brighter. If you haven’t read Dune, you need to. Read it. Read it again. This is one of those books that will endure for many ages of men.