Diving Into Dune

Reading the books in advance of the upcoming movie

September 6th, 2021

I’m really excited about the Dune movie coming out next month. I have a hunch that I’m going to love it, based on how much I'm enjoying reading the books right now.

It also helps that I’m already an unreserved fan of the director, Denis Villeneuve, and all of his movies I’ve seen so far - Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049. He’s got the perfect approach for this type of material and makes the kind of films that I make me want to go the movies in the first place, the ones that work best on the largest IMAX screen you can find and take their time to let the experience wash over you.

It’s a courageous decision to take on a story so dense and wide-reaching that it was long considered unfilmable. The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune chronicles a legendary Hollywood project that failed in spectacular fashion, despite having raised almost $10 million and corraled an incredibly talented group of people with ambitious ideas.

Jodorowsky's version of the film is arguably the most famous movie to never get made. In an interesting bit of karma, the efforts did not go to waste. The extensive writing, art and storyboards went on to directly inspire the production of Star Wars, Alien, Terminator and The Fifth Element, with some of the movies even sharing the same original team members.

Reading The Novels

Yet despite all of this hype, the Dune books were a major hole in my sci-fi game until now. I’m not entirely sure why; you’d think that a techie nerd that was a voracious reader all through childhood would’ve discovered at least the first book, since it’s widely considered to be the best novel of it’s type.

Maybe it’s because I’d grown up as a massive fan of Isaac Asimov instead? His work is more of the typical futuristic stuff with robots and computers. Or maybe it’s a generational thing - I grew up with Star Wars, which I now realize is like the kiddie version of Dune.

Whatever the reason, I finally dove into the novels a few weeks ago and boy am I glad I did. I’ve read the first 3 of the 6 and the trilogy is simply stunning.

I’m a stickler for avoiding spoilers, so here’s a high-level rundown of a few things I’ve noticed so far.

  • It really is Star Wars for grownups. But I’m also seeing it reflected in so many other parts of culture - Neo becoming a blind martyr in The Matrix, the polarized siblings in Shang-Chi trying to save the soul of their father, etc.
  • There’s a strong subversion of the hero myth. It examines familiar tropes in a very self-aware way and then goes in very different directions, especially after the first book.
  • The world-building is on epic scale and quite literal: ecology and environment are front and center. I can see why it first got popular from being recommended in The Whole Earth Catalog. It reminds me of work like “cli-fi” author Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, a near future take on how rising sea levels impact all levels of society in unexpected ways.
  • It’s the first interesting take on religion that I’ve read in ages. The central premise is an observation that at least three of our major religions were born in the desert, so there might be a formative impact of difficult environments on the culture and beliefs of a people. Hard times create hard people that create good times for everyone else that follows. Stoicism writ large.
  • It’s sci-fi that doesn’t feel like sci-fi. Dune seems like it was written as an intentional counterpoint to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. They both start from a similar premise about decaying empires and takes it to very different directions.
  • This is a weird one but I can’t help but think that the spice drug is caffeine! Michael Pollan makes a convincing case that the world’s most popular psychoactive drug (it’s consumed by 90% of the planet) is what helped kickstart the Industrial Age.

At this point, I’m totally engrossed in this universe and the movie is going to be a bonus. I just started the fourth book - God Emperor of Dune - and can’t wait to see where this goes.