Achieving the level of creativity and having the courage to invent something completely new is hard. Usually we regurgitate things we have seen and most stories are the rewriting of other people’s stories. Most fantasy is an attempt to rewrite Tolkien. Most Science Fiction perhaps Star Wars.
This makes ‘Dune’ special. In his epic Frank Herbert built a new world, Arrakis – Dune – a spice land harsh and dry and brutal which produces the substance, melange, to which all the universe is addicted. And the Fremen, the ancient denizens of the desert who ride the great worms which produce the spice and call the harshness their homes.
This book is about water. We live on a planet where water falls from the sky; and cannot imagine the desiccation of a land where dead bodies are drained of their water before they are buried, where everything is measured in the amount of water bartered and traded and smuggled. For the Arrakins, spice is everywhere but water is scarce.
The only criticism I have for this novel is that Herbert used the Arabs as a model for his Fremen. By sprinkling words like ‘umma’ and ‘jihad’ through the novel it was obvious he was writing about them; which then made the reader think that perhaps this was a platform piece (like Avatar was when it became clear it was a paean to nativism against exploitation of mining companies – and therefore tiresome). When this shift occurs it becomes impossible not to superimpose the complicated politics of the Middle East upon his novel, and that was unwelcome.
Besides, a better model for the Fremen would be the Tuaregs – the deep desert people of the Sahara linked more to the ancient Phoenicians and Finnish than the Arabs, the blue men of the desert who make their living transporting goods back and forth across the great sea of sand.
Nevertheless, Dune was an extraordinary novel and easy to read and highly recommended. Not everything needs to be transcendent.