I was talking to my wife one day about this book list and she made the point that if I were to reread these titles today, they may not make the same impression on me. I cannot deny this. Art speaks to each person based on his or her experiences and change through time as our perspectives change. I have been moved to tears by some seemingly innocuous things I’ve read or seen due to my emotional landscape and the troubles I was dealing with at the time. But rather than make an argument based on some objective value (which is impossible anyway) I am going to delve into these critiques subjectively, since, what matters most to me about these books is how they have affected me.
For most of my life, Frank Herbert’s magnum opus took the top spot on my favorites list. It has not fallen to no. #2 due to something greater coming along — it simply hasn’t aged as well as no. #1, which resonates with me more strongly. Still, Dune is the very definition of epic masterpiece—the kind of book that leaves a permanent impression on young minds (I was in high school). I was introduced to Dune by an older friend who insisted that it would change my life. At the time, I didn’t see how a book, any book, could have such an impact. I was wrong. For me, Dune was and is everything a great book should be. It not only holds multiple layers of meaning, from philosophy, religion, science, economics, and culture, but seamlessly integrates these qualities into an action packed adventure with heroes, villains, and a good ol’ fashioned good guy vs. bad guy plot line. Dune can be read by a twelve year old or a seventy year old and each would come away with a different yet equally moving experience.
In 1965, long before Star Wars or Star Trek defined the science fiction epic, Frank Herbert created a world just as splendorous. Unlike the giants of the genre, Asimov and Clarke, Herbert paved the road for science fiction and fantasy in creating not merely a glimpse of a distant future but a fully realized world set upon tens of thousands of years history. The result feels prophetic but exotically remote—as if Nostradamus looked so far forward into the future that any lingering trace of society as we know it becomes unrecognizable. There is brief mention of Earth, yet it holds the same significance as Babylon for us. There is still Catholicism (oddly enough) but no form of Catholicism anyone would understand. Of course there’s also giant (and I do mean giant) worms, travels through space by meditation, and the spice drug melange which gives the user glimpses into the future.
Frank Herbert wrote five sequels, but none managed to capture the magic of the original. Upon reading it, you might think the author used melange himself (LSD, perhaps?). It’s that convincing. A movie and a mini-series were both produced and both were epic failures. What Dune did successfully manage to produce, however, is a generation of imitators and a great deal of inspiration for writers (myself included). Even video games like Halo and (more recently) Mass Effect, with their complex back stories, species-related conflict, political intrigue and ethical quandaries owe much to Herbert and his successors.