Is Dune the greatest science fiction book ever written?

Posted on 21st July 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien
The editor for the recently published 50th anniversary edition of Frank Herbert's classic novel, Dune, argues the case
‘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.


Jeremy G Hunter

Dune is an epic in every sense of the word. I experienced it as an audiobook. The narration was mixed quality but the way the narrator placed emphasis, the background music and timing were fantastic. I intend to read the book version but this will be affected by my time listening to it. It truly is a joy. You don't just read Dune. You experience it. You picture it. You think it.

There are few stories that pull you in so deep that, at the end, you are left a little adrift and have to return to the real world, a little part of you disappeared when you turned the back cover, a part which hadn't read the book, and you're not getting it back now you've finished. Dune is one of them. View more

Jeremy G Hunter
12th October 2018
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