Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is a stunning achievement in world-building. Frank Herbert successfully created an alien world with a complex ecology, a future political system, and even religions with detailed rituals and tradition. But more than that, he took out of that rich world a compelling and brilliant story.
In the distant future, powerful families known as Houses are locked in a complex jostling for power in the galaxy. Most of the conflict revolves around Arrakis, a desert planet that is the source of melange. Melange is a drug essential for extending life, enhancing the mind, and faster-than-light travel. When Paul Atreides and his family become heirs to Arrakis, the rival Baron Harkonnen stages a brutal attack and forces Paul and his mother to flee to the desert. There, they are taken in by a mysterious band of desert dwellers known as the Fremen. Paul learns their ways and ultimately becomes the planet's savior, seeking revenge on the Harkonnen.
That simple summary only scratches the surface of an incredible story rich in detail and complexity. It captures many of the familiar tropes of science fiction space opera, like spaceships, exotic weapons, messianic figures, and rebellion, but puts a unique spin on all of them. More than anything, the world of "Dune" feels completely real. Whole novels could have been written just about the Fremen, the mystical Bene-Jesserit, and the powerful CHOAM Corporation, but these are all treated as background material for the overall story. It's as if Herbert was writing his story for people of his fictional world, not us.
But the brilliance of "Dune" is not that he created such a wonderful world. It's that he's able to tell a great story within it without being boring or showing off. Most authors who create their own worlds can't help spending pages on their background material, essentially saying, "Isn't this cool? Look what I came up with!" Herbert doesn't do that. He only includes the details you need to know to understand the story, and focuses on giving us rich characters and jaw-dropping plot twists. His work is shown by the extensive appendixes in the back of the novel, which aren't necessary to read for the story, but which I found fascinating.
To me, "Dune" is one of the all-time greatest science fiction novels, what the genre should be.
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