Epic in scale. Epic in vision. Epic in ideas. Dune’s place as the greatest science fiction novel of all time can be attributed to these three phases. Whilst the other contenders that are frequently thrown around as the best ever (such as The Demolished Man, Ender’s Game, Foundation, 1984, The Forever War, etc.), Dune surpasses them in all aspects from writing style, story and, most overlooked in the genre, depth of character.
What really sets this apart from other books is its length. Whilst this has never ensured consistent quality (quite the opposite in many cases), Herbert has filled the 600-odd pages with superb prose that never wanders, never sags and always is delightful to read. The story is told from multiple points of view (often changes occur within a paragraph), so we learn effectively about the characters but we are never confused by this style. Every thought is recorded for our digestion which means the characters of Dune are wonderfully complex, each with their own nuances and failings. However I don’t imply that the book is full of dense, terse, symbolic writing that would make English graduates salivate. Rather the plot moves along with a large amount of dialogue and the subtle action sequences ensure even the most impatient reader is never bored.
The story revolves around Paul Atreides of the House Atreides. In a galaxy far away and far into the future, Dune features no aliens and few of the usual SF trappings. This is essentially a character-driven story so a hard SF fan may not enjoy it to the extent that I (and others) have. As we follow Paul and his family relocate themselves to the planet Arrakis/Dune as new rulers, much of the first act is concerned with the ducal court that surrounds Paul. At this point it could easily be classed as a fantasy novel because of the abundance of swords and of the royal hierarchy, ritual and betrayal. But it is definitely grounded in science fiction with its limited use of force fields, flying vehicles and highly-conditioned individuals that can perform extreme logical computations.
The most enjoyable part of the book for me was when the natives of Arrakis/Dune (the Fremen) ride the massive sand worms. Where Herbert got the idea for them I don’t know but they take the book to such a higher level that any comparison with Lawrence of Arabia seems redundant and misguided. One definitely thinks of T.E. Lawrence throughout the book with the galactic Emperor being the Ottoman Sultan, the spice melange being oil and the CHOAM corporation being OPEC etc. But after a while Paul’s ascent to greatness is unique and distinctive and is genuinely inventive.
I have not read the other 5 or so sequels, let alone the prequels written by Brian Herbert and have no intention to do so. For me, Dune is a standalone novel that needs no further explanation with other pieces of literature (save the fantastic glossary included, which clarifies everything you need to know). Very few books deserve a five star rating. This is one of them.