The first time I ventured into science fiction was when I picked up Frank Herbert’s Dune in an old library somewhere. I was in 6th grade. I didn’t know what I was picking up, only that it was thick and smelled musty and important, and it had that crinkly sort of cover like library books did. The library doesn’t exist anymore, but every time I pass that area, I think about that first copy of Dune that I read.
I ended up reading the series in middle school, one book after another, usually on the bus ride to and from school. Even though I was way too young to understand all of its deeper philosophy, I loved the characters and settings and story.
Dune whisked me away to Arrakis, a desert planet where water was so scarce that the native people wore stillsuits to recycle their own bodily waste into water. It was a new world to the teenage hero, Paul Atreides, who had just moved there with his parents. His mother, Jessica, was supposed to carry on the Bene Gesserit breeding line by producing a girl, who would then give birth to a sort of superbeing. But Jessica had skipped a generation by producing a boy, and it was unclear whether he was the messiah people had been awaiting or if Jessica had ruined the line for good.
Dune also had fantastic villains with names I loved, like Harkonnen and Feyd Rautha and Rabban. When Paul’s father was killed and Paul’s life threatened, he and his mother escaped their mansion to take refuge in the desert. There, they met the native Fremen and started a new life for themselves. The Fremen began to worship Paul as their native messiah, and it became clear that he had special abilities.
A lot of this revolved around the drug melange — and this is where the fantasy aspect really comes into play in the otherwise sci-fi world. Melange gives long-time users prescience. This is why the Guild uses it to fold space-time and allow interstellar travel, but its pilots are horribly mutated from the overuse of melange. On Arrakis, where melange is common, users have all-blue eyes that gives away their habit. And when Paul was exposed to this drug, he gained stronger prescient abilities than anyone had seen.
I fell in love with the Dune universe fast. And it’s funny that my favorite things about it — the names, the landscapes, the giant sand worms, the special orders like the Bene Gesserit and the human computers called mentats — all of those things are still what I love when I re-read the first novel. I also loved that chapters began with excerpts from court writings and official biographies, describing the characters and situations as they appeared in the historical records much, much later. I even wrote down the “Fear is the mind-killer” quote and memorized it as a teenager.
I’ve watched the Dune movies and miniseries since, but none of them quite capture the magic of the books. I would love to see Dune adapted for the big screen someday and done well. (Who knows what happened to that Peter Berg project…) Or made into a really epic video game or television series. But I certainly don’t need those things. Escaping into books is enough when the books are this good.
I’ve read and watched and video game’d a lot of science fiction since then, but Dune remains one of my favorite science fiction series. It’s considered one of the best — maybe the best of all time — for good reason. For me, it opened my eyes to other worlds for the first time and taught me to suspend my disbelief for them. I’ve kept that with me ever since, and I believe it’s helped me appreciate all the other fantastic worlds I’ve encountered in fiction.