Usually when I write about books I put the author's name in the title of the post along with the title of the book. But in a few cases it seems superfluous. Doesn't everybody know that Frank Herbert wrote Dune? Or is the fact that I think so only a manifestation of my own insularity?
Anyway, he did, and the claim I've seen that it's the most famous of all science-fiction novels is probably correct. Also the greatest? I don't know about that, but I'm not really in a position to judge.
Last February I saw the 2021 Denis Villeneuve movie which dramatizes the first half (roughly) of the novel. The second film was to be released this fall, and I made up my mind to read the book again before then. I was in the midst of doing so when I saw an announcement that the film will be delayed until March of next year. Oh well--maybe I won't have forgotten it completely by then.
I said "again," and there is a little bit of mystery about that for me. I definitely read it around 1976, for what I think was the first time. But when I was in high school in the mid-'60s I was a science-fiction fanatic, and subscribed to Analog magazine, in which Dune was serialized at the time. As best I can tell from Wikipedia, this was done under two different titles, two years apart. The first, called Dune World, appeared in 1963, in two installments; the second, Prophet of Dune, in 1965, in five (!) installments. I'm pretty certain that was during the period when I subscribed. I even seem to remember this cover:
Yet I have no memory of reading it. If I didn't read it, why not? If I did, why don't I have at least some fragments of memory about it? Is it possible that I found it too complicated and slow-moving and gave up after reading only a little? I won't say that's probable, but it is certainly possible. There is, obviously, no way to answer that question, but it bothers me.
The book is indeed by science-fiction standards, at least those of the early 1960s, complicated and relatively slow-moving. I conjectured in my post about the film that it probably spent more time on spectacular action than the book. That was an understatement. There is in fact not a great deal of action in the cinematic sense in the book. The attack on the Atriedes family, which occupies a significant portion of the film is and is indeed spectacular, happens mostly offstage in the book. There are other such instances. Perhaps this is something of a Star Wars effect. But Dune is definitely not space opera ("a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, with use of melodramatic, risk-taking space adventures, relationships, and chivalric romance"), which Star Wars is.
The emphasis in the book is not on action but on a complex web of political intrigue, family and dynastic relationships, religion, ecology, and a sort of psychological mysticism. I won't bother with any further summary. Most people who are at all interested already know the basics of the plot, characters, and fictional world; anyone who doesn't can get plenty from Wikipedia.
That fictional world is a pretty impressive achievement. I don't think Dune is in the same literary class as The Lord of the Rings, but it bears comparison in the complexity and thoroughness of its imaginary world. When I say "bears comparison" I don't mean "is equal to"--on a 1-10 scale, if LOTR is a 10, then Dune is a 7 or 8. As far as I know Frank Herbert did not go so far as to create entire languages (which in Tolkien actually preceded the stories to some extent), nor is the history developed in as much detail, though I would guess that more of it is filled in by the many sequels.
The treatment of religion is also an interesting comparison. As all literarily-minded Christians know, religion does not exist in The Lord of the Rings, and yet the book is profoundly Christian. In Dune, on the other hand, religion is very explicitly everywhere. Yet it is in a sense not religious at all, but a sort of cultural tool, half-manufactured by worldly powers, especially the order of women called the Bene Gesserit who have a plan, implemented over centuries if not millennia, for producing a messiah-sort-of-person by directed breeding. And it's relevant to the book only through its effects on culture, and on behavior in general. Any notion of a transcendent spiritual reality is left very vague and very far in the background.
I recall that when I read the book in 1976 I scoffed a bit at the obvious way much of the culture of its Fremen, inhabitants of a desert planet, was drawn from Arabian culture, or others of the Middle Eastern deserts. That was unfair, and a result of my own ignorance. In those days I did not recognize such words as "jihad"; if I had, I would have realized that the Fremen are not copied from Arab-Muslim cultures, but rather are explicitly descended from them.
Dune takes place thousands of years in the future, when humanity has developed interstellar travel and populated many planets, but all of them began with ours. There are no "aliens" in the universe of Dune; every person is homo sapiens, though some have mental powers developed to a superhuman degree. The interstellar human society has reverted to a basic and ancient tripartite pattern: emperor, nobility ("houses"), and everybody else.
What it does have, which I don't think other science fiction of the time had, is psychedelic drugs, or rather drug: the substance called "spice" which is the foundation of the entire economic and political order. Frank Herbert had obviously had some experience along those lines--or if not, he knew people who did. There is a strong hint here of what would soon become known as the human potential movement. In that respect, as well as in its ecological focus, this strikes me as a very "Sixties" work. If I remember correctly, I first encountered the word "ecology" in Analog or some other sci-fi context. (Why do I remember that, but not whether I read Dune? Memory is a very hit-and-miss thing.)
In spite of what I said about the well-constructed world, I was left disappointed in my curiosity about certain things. In order for an interstellar empire to exist, there must be, one way or another, faster-than-light travel. Most science-fiction at least does a bit of hand-waving to explain this, usually one of the many variants of the "warp drive." Dune does not. The whole economic and political structure of the empire rests on the mysterious drug called "spice" which enables the powers of the monopolistic guild of navigators who alone can pilot interstellar craft. What's involved in that navigation, and how does the spice enable it? The book offers only the suggestion that it has something to do with the perception of possible future events. I suppose it's asking too much to want more information about that, just as it's asking too much to want to know how a warp drive works (though that doesn't stop people from trying).
And about the famous sandworms: it was only a passing remark in an appendix that answered one question that kept occurring to me as I read, which was "what do they eat?" Answer: "sand plankton." Really? There's enough of that to support creatures that may be a quarter of a mile long and a hundred yards in breadth? Well, okay. But then why do they need all those extremely long sharp teeth? How and why does a plankton-eating creature attack and swallow anything that moves with single-minded intensity? How and why does it swallow a mobile factory or a spacecraft? How does it move at speeds which seem to be at least thirty or forty miles an hour while completely buried in sand?
Maybe I missed some of these answers. Maybe they're answered in the sequels, of which, as I mentioned, there are a lot. Herbert himself wrote five, and his son Brian has co-written, with Kevin J. Anderson, a number of others. I'm not sure what that number is; over a dozen, I think.
All in all, my reaction to Dune is much the same as it was 45 years ago: yes, it's impressive; yes, I enjoyed it; no, I'm not a devotee. I don't rule out reading the first sequel, Dune Messiah, but it's doubtful.