I was thinking about Dune recently.
Dune is one of my favourite books (also movies, even though they are so different). It is one of the few great works of genre fiction that so many subsequent authors draw from that somehow manages to seem cohesive and powerful even today.
Dune remains an unfinished series for me. I loved Dune Messiah, but was disappointed by Children of Dune. I have not had the heart to continue on into the series, despite most people saying it gets better.
Even as a standalone book, Frank Herbert’s Dune is impressive, dealing with topics that we are grappling with even now, in grand fashion.
- Extractivism: Dune has strong overtones of the age of industry, with the primary driver of conflict in the book being a resource of incredible scarcity and potence: spice. Control of the planet is vital to the Emperor and all of humanity since the spice is the basis of interstellar travel.
- Fanaticism: In Dune and Dune Messiah, the religious, tribal fanaticism of the Fremen is presented as a potent force. Despite everything man has learned and accomplished, it is the power of his irrational impulses and prejudices that produces the greatest fears. Sound familiar?
- Automation and AI: In Dune you read in passing of the Butlerian Jihad, a great religious upheaval against thinking machines and robots of all kinds. The Jihad rids known space of AI and sentient machines, but also sets humanity back into a kind of dark age. While Herbert’s view of automation and machines was often repeated in later scifi, his replacements for machinery in the genetic coding of the Bene Gesserit and things like the human computers known as mentats were very inventive. Star Wars has sentient robots but they fight wars like they are in the 1970’s and seems to indicate that they change very little of everyday life, Dune tackles these changes head on and builds a more cohesive universe.
- Transhumanism: Cloning, genetic modification, and outright shedding of one’s humanity figure deeply into Dune from the beginning. Herbert toys with the idea of prophecy heralding a certain needed sequence of genetics in Paul (or Leto II) and muses on the idea of clones and a human being becoming something else through technology or symbiosis. This is a surprisingly modern idea.
This along with the culture clashes, the philosophy and the deep politics of the series have made it stand out in my mind.