Is Dune the greatest science fiction book ever written?

Is Dune the greatest science fiction book ever written?

The editor for the recently published 50th anniversary edition of Frank Herbert's classic novel, Dune, argues the case

Posted on 21st July 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien
‘The greatest’ is a phrase that gets bandied around a lot in reference to books – ‘the greatest work of literary fiction’ ‘the greatest love story; ‘the greatest book about cats’; ... And Dune is no exception. Often spoken of as the greatest science fiction novel ever written, the 900-page Dune is the weighty classic people talk about when they talk about weighty classics (weighty classics that aren’t War and Peace, anyway).

So what does it actually mean to be ‘the greatest’ anything – or, at least, to be called that? For a book, it means getting hammered into a school curriculum to be agonized over by disinterested teenagers, or poured over by keen post-graduates. It means watching the film adaptation instead of reading it; skimming the summary on Wikipedia; tuning out when people start talking about it. It means telling people you’ve read it when you haven’t. It means putting a copy on that shelf of books you’ll definitely read on your next holiday. That shelf might be rather dusty.

Talking about books as ‘the greatest’ is an enjoyable exercise, but it is also a frustrating one. Great books are intimidating, not fun. Great books are overwhelming. They’re a duty, not a joy. Dune is unquestionably a great book. But, more than that, it’s a beloved book. It’s a joy to read and a joy to talk about, and it has been for fifty years.

Being a beloved book means being a favourite book. It means that people own copies they’ve read and reread until they fall apart. It means people include it on their list of desert-island books, own several spare copies and at least one non-reading copy – either a valuable early edition or a beautiful keepsake edition. Or both; we don’t judge. It means subreddit threads and devoted Tumblrs and arguments over pints at the local pub.

Dune being a beloved book means all that and more. It means making jokes about fear being the mind-killer and doodling sandworms on the margins of your notebooks during long meetings. It means editing the Dune Wiki pages. It means having opinions about each and every adaptation ever committed – or imagined – to screen and stage.

Dune is a great science fiction novel that everyone can enjoy, no matter how casual a reader they are, or how strongly they identify as ‘not a science fiction fan.’ It boasts the scope of Star Wars, the philosophy of The Matrix, the realpolitik of Game of Thrones, the mythology of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the anthropology of Guns, Germs and Steel and the ecology of Silent Spring. Dune is huge, bold, ambitious, and packed to the brim with adventure and excitement. And monster worms, of course.

Appropriately, Dune’s story began in Oregon, 1959, when a young freelance journalist named Frank Herbert spent a few weeks researching local sand dunes for an article he was working on. He never finished the article, but he did start noodling around with an idea for a book. Fifty years after Dune was first published, however, the novel inspired by his research continues to feature on lists of both the greatest and the most beloved novels of all time.

Related books

Dune (Paperback)

Dune (Paperback)

Frank Herbert

DUNE is the bestselling science fiction novel of all time, with nearly ten million copies in print. This all-new edition of Dune features wholly reset text and an incredible new cover.

£8.99 £6.99


Liz R

PS I nearly forgot "The Night Land" and of course the works of H.P.Lovecraft. All, I would say, far more influential than "Dune". View more

Liz R
23rd July 2015
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Liz R

It's a good book, but hardly the greatest SF novel ever.

Off the top of my head, I would put the following books above it as being more influential in the field (and how else can one measure greatness in SF?)

The Time Machine
The War of the Worlds
(any earlier versions of the above written by Edward Page Mitchell :-)
Brave New World
The John Carter series
Orphans of the sky
Nineteen-Eighty Four
Childhood's End
20,000 leagues under ths sea
The Dispossessed
The Female Man
Stand on Zanzibar
The Martian Chronicles
Fahrenheit 451
The day of the Triffids
Neutron Star
Maker of Universes
To your scattered bodies go

(And in certain philosophical circles, "October the First is too late")

Personally, I would put Dune in the "second tier of great SF" - it's well written and marvellously detailed, with good characterisation - but it isn't really in the forefront with groundbreaking ideas.

And ideas are the lifeblood of SF.
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Liz R
23rd July 2015
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