In 1965 Frank Herbert published Dune, a massive sci-fi tome based on the simple idea that deserts are scary and that deadliness increases with size. A desert the size of an entire planet, Herbert imagined, would be as deadly as the vacuum of space. That concept, among others, was enough to fuel a nearly 900 page retelling of Greek mythology filled with adventure and astonishingly thorough world building.
The book is often included as one of the “great” works of science fiction because of just how unique it is. On a purely conceptual level, Dune pioneered genre standards like shield tech, which Herbert used to ensure that his far future war would be decided almost entirely by hand to hand combat, and giant sandworms that have since been replicated in Star Wars and other big-budget sci-fi cinema.
Dune also included ideas that have rarely been seen in sci-fi since, including a distinct obsession with atomics, understandable given that it was written during the Cold War, and an ever present theme of environmentalism. In Herbert’s universe humanity had fought a long ago war with AIs, and as a result artificial intelligences were banned throughout the galaxy. To compensate, humanity now trains people, known as Mentats, to do much the same thing that largely female teams of mathematicians were trained to do at NASA during the Apollo program, serve as human computers. Unfortunately, more than math is required to cross light years of interstellar space so “navigators” use a semi-magical substance called “The Spice” to warp spaceships around with their minds.
They earn a profit by selling their services to the noble houses, royal families and associated armies that ensure their power with vast stores of ancient nuclear weapons that they no longer know how to build. The Guild holds a monopoly on the warping trick, but the Spice they use to pull it off can be mined only from the desert planet Arrakis, otherwise known as Dune. When the emperor takes Dune away from House Harkonnen and instead awards the planet to their mortal enemies the Atreides chaos ensues, and the fight is complicated as the native inhabitants of Dune, the Fremen, seek to further their own mysterious goals.
While Dune certainly has its problems, including bizarre pacing and effective sidelining of several potentially amazing female characters, it is above all else undeniably original. While this writer is not necessarily prepared to say that it is a good book, it is fascinating and unique and we can only hope that the movie will be equally stunning.