When I was in middle school, I visited a tiny library in a very tiny town near where I lived with the intention of finding a new book to read. I visited a lot of libraries growing up. As an avid reader, I was always looking for some new book to devour, but I didn’t have a lot of recommendations other than whatever my teachers had me reading at school.
So on this occasion, I chose a book based on a few important factors: a.) how big it was, b.) how it felt when I picked it up, and c.) how it smelled. I liked long novels in crinkly covers that smelled like old musty parchment paper. I was a weird kid like that, though I have faith the rest of you who were also nerdy children can relate!
It’s a magical feeling, finding a book you like based on such a sensory experience. It’s very tactile. It’s almost like the book is choosing you. In this case, I found a thick book in what I think was a pale blue cover. (Or maybe it was the one pictured here, because I remember that edition well.) It was a novel called Dune by an author named Frank Herbert. I read the first page or two. It seemed interesting enough — but more than that, the cover of the book was in that old-library laminating material that made it crinkle in my hands. And it smelled musty, like it had lived a long time already. Like all good stories should.
So I checked it out of the tiny library and started reading it. I remember taking the bus to and from school every day, and being one of those shy kids who always wanted to get a seat to myself. The last row had a single person seat, which was the white whale of my bus rides as I rarely got it, especially on the way to school when I wasn’t the first stop.
Luckily, in 6th grade I had a friend who was equally nerdy. She had long, straight brown hair and a sweet face, and despite being friendly toward everyone, she also enjoyed reading on the bus. This was quality time for us. We would sit next to each other whenever we could, and though I’m sure we talked sometimes, what I remember most are all the times we sat in silence, with our separate books in our hands, totally absorbed in stories while the rest of the bus wailed and laughed and screamed all around us.
Dune was my first science fiction book. I was already obsessed with Lord of the Rings, after my 4th grade teacher read us The Hobbit. (She was awesome and also taught us line dancing.) So I had that side of me that loved diving into a story that let me explore new, fantastic places. I didn’t need reality. I wanted an adventure that this world can’t quite bring us.
If you haven’t read Dune, first off, you should. It sets the bar very high for what science fiction can be — it is probably the most original sci-fi world I’ve ever encountered. There are quite a few sci-fi worlds I love — Mass Effect, Star Trek, and Firefly, to name just a few — but all of these seem to pinch elements from elsewhere, creating unique concoctions out of existing worlds. For Firefly, that’s a pinch of the Old West. For Mass Effect, it’s a pinch of… well, maybe Star Trek and its aliens. But Dune brings a flavor I haven’t seen before or ever seen emulated since.
For one thing, Dune is a book about prophecies. The first scene shows 15-year-old hero Paul Atreides as he undergoes a painful test to see if he is the “Kwisatz Haderach, the intended result of a breeding program to create a male who can see the future. Later, on his new planet Arrakis, he is considered the prophet the local tribesmen have been waiting for.
What really attracted me was the language. The book is filled with beautiful words and names — Lisan al Gaib, Muad’Dib, Bindu suspension, hunter-seeker, Gom Jabbar, crysknife — that provide insight into this fictional world, as well as hints about who Paul really is and the future. Some words seem to draw sounds from Arabic, but this is a vocabulary all its own. There’s power in the language Herbert uses to populate this world, and it somehow manages to sound both familiar and exotic at the same time.
Beyond that, the book deals less with machines and more with genetics. While most science fiction I have read focuses on technology, Dune is set in a time after the machines have been wiped out in a terrible war. People now know better than to create any machine in the likeness of a human mind, and so instead they have physical and mental training programs, breeding programs, and even drug-induced enhancements to create people with heightened abilities. Human computers are called Mentats. There’s also a sisterhood of women known as the Bene Gesserit who, through breeding and intense training, have seemingly superhuman powers. And for Paul, his mother’s Bene Gesserit breeding and training combine with Arrakis’s unique spice, melange, to give him prescient abilities.
All of this is magical to me even today, as I reread Dune for probably the fifth or sixth time. But as a 12-year-old it filled me with an even greater sense of wonder. I had never escaped to a place quite like this before.
To make Dune even more unique, it’s also a book in which ecology plays an active role in the story. The planet Arrakis that takes center stage is a desert world where water is more valuable than any other currency. Locals wear stillsuits, which recapture expended water so it’s not wasted. When someone dies, their water goes to their tribe. To spit at someone is to honor them with your water. And that’s not even getting into the unique features of the desert — such as the giant sandworms who, attracted to rhythm, will come from miles away to devour those who make the sounds. Herbert’s inspiration for Dune was a trip to the Oregon dunes; the idea of sand swallowing entire cities was fascinating. You can definitely feel the power of the desert as you read Dune. It’s a character all its own.
The thing is, Dune is a complex novel with prophet heroes, warrior leaders, political scheming, romance, and warfare. There are lengthy scenes discussing corporations, political houses at war, armies and alliances, and I’m sure as a 6th grader, I didn’t follow everything. But I remember feeling like I did understand it. I might not have comprehended every twist and turn of conversation at the Atreides dinner table, when Paul and his mother Jessica unraveled political schemes — but I understood the assassin’s tool called the hunter-seeker that nearly killed Paul. I understood the villains’ basic motivations and why Paul was seen as a chosen one. Even at that age, I knew that this story was big and important, with larger-than-life characters who felt foreign but still real to me. I had a tangible sense of this desert and its dangers — not just the sandworms, but the simple lack of water too. I understood characters’ addiction to the spice. I could picture the evil Baron Harkonnen, in suspenders that compensated for his obesity, and I wanted Paul and his new Fremen allies to triumph. The story may have been complicated, but the world-building took over my imagination.
After reading the first novel, I went on to read the whole series. I don’t remember which ones I checked out of that tiny library and which ones I bought at good old Borders bookstore, but I fell in love with the world they brought to life. (I remember having particular fun reading about Paul’s sister Alia in the second and third books.)
That series — perhaps combined with the also amazing Disney TV movie Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, though let’s be honest and admit it’s not quite at the quality level of Dune — made me a science fiction fan. I’m still one. I started a blog in part because of my love for this genre. For years after reading it for the first time, I was constantly in the middle of a re-read. I’d set the book down for weeks at a time but I’d pick it right back up where I left off, remembering everything, because I knew the story so well back then.
It’s now been at least 10 years since I read Dune. It’s about 17 years since I first picked it up, and I’ll admit it’s exactly as I remember it yet totally fresh. I see it with new eyes, because I understand it so much better now and have so many more opinions about its themes. I can’t wait to write about my thoughts as I reread the original story, and I’d love to hear from anyone else who is a fan. If you haven’t read the series, I recommend at least the first book. So you know what all the fuss is about. =)
PS: You can find all the artwork above from this amazing Dune concept art page.