With daily reminders of the intensifying effects of global warming, the spectre of a worldwide water shortage, and continued political upheaval in the oil-rich Middle East, it is possible that “Dune” is even more relevant now than when it was first published. If you haven’t read it lately, it’s worth a return visit. If you’ve never read it, you should find time to.
Like the best science-fiction and fantasy novels, “Dune” creates for the reader a complex, fully-realized universe. … This is … a universe of Machiavellian realpolitik, science fiction through the prism of the Cold War. There is little that is cute or cuddly: no furry-footed Hobbits, no teddy-bear-like Ewoks. (In fact, the cutest thing you’ll see in a copy of “Dune” is the author photo: bald, bearded, and smiling, Herbert could pass for one of Tolkien’s dwarves.) Even the hero, young Paul Atreides, stuns his mother with his unsentimental reaction to his father’s death. Instead of grieving, he immediately begins plotting the overthrow of his adversaries. This is terrain that is familiar to readers of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Herbert’s scheming, backstabbing villain, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, would be perfectly at home among the Lannisters of Westeros.
Perhaps one explanation for “Dune”‘s lack of true fandom among science-fiction fans is the absence from its pages of two staples of the genre: robots and computers. This is not an oversight on Herbert’s part but, rather, a clever authorial decision. Centuries before the events described in the novel, humans revolted and destroyed all thinking machines. “The god of machine-logic was overthrown,” Herbert writes in an appendix, “and a new concept was raised: ‘Man may not be replaced.’ ” This watershed moment, known as the Butlerian Jihad, resulted in a spiritual awakening, which put into place the religious structures that ultimately produce the messiah, Paul Atreides. There is no Internet in Herbert’s universe, no WikiLeaks, no cyber war. This de-emphasis on technology throws the focus back on people. It also allows for the presence of a religious mysticism uncommon in science fiction. It’s a future that some readers may find preferable to our own gadget-obsessed present.