What’s in it for me? Unravel one of the most complex sci-fi epics of all time.

Despite being published more than 50 years ago, there’s been a lot of talk about Dune in the last few years.

That’s because, in 2021, director Dennis Villeneuve made his attempt at adapting Frank Herbert’s “unfilmable” novel – a challenge other famous directors before him had tried, and failed at rather spectacularly. Yet, despite a high-grossing star-studded cast, the new adaptation once again fell short of many fans’ expectations.

The problem may simply be that the original Dune is one of the greatest sci-fi novels of all time.

First released in 1965, itwas a milestone of the genre, departing from the more straightforward narratives of its time. It captivated readers with its imaginative world-building and technical detail and used its dense narrative to explore complex themes such as politics, ecology, and religion. Its cautionary tales of power struggles, technological progress, and environmental exploitation remain as relevant today as when it was first published.

In this Blink, we’ll dive deep into the book version of Dune, and show why it’s rightfully unparalleled.


The Complex Universe of Dune

Like any good sci-fi novel, Dune takes place on a strange planet in a distant future. Humans have advanced far enough to spread out among the stars, living in a feudal galactic empire ruled by a powerful Emperor and divided into several noble houses. Each noble house lives on a different planet, and their people each have distinct skills and character traits. And, of course, they’re all vying for their share of power in the universe.

Our story begins in the middle of a historic power shift. The Emperor has just transferred control of the desert planet Arrakis from the House of Harkonnen to the House of Atreides, led by the charismatic Duke Leto. Now, Duke Leto and his family must leave their bountiful home planet Caladan and take up duties on Arrakis.

Despite the Emperor’s mandate, the Atreides are still expecting some form of resistance over the transfer from the House of Harkonnen. Not only are the two Houses historic rivals, but Arrakis is highly coveted territory. It’s the only source of a sought-after commodity called melange – also known as spice, a drug that enhances mental ability. As a rare and valuable resource, whoever runs Arrakis is bound to become wealthy in the process. Something the Harkonnens aren’t expected to give up lightly.

On top of the potential Harkonnen aggression, the Atreides family must also prepare for the terrible desert heat, the dangerous giant sandworms, and the hostile native people of Arrakis – the Fremen.

We experience all this from the perspective of Duke Leto’s son Paul, who’ll soon become the hero of our story. As his family prepares for the big move, 15-year-old Paul Atreides is trying to glean as much information as he can from the adults around him.

His mother, Lady Jessica, and her former teacher, the Reverend Mother, both powerful witches of the Bene Gesserit order, reveal some disturbing future visions to Paul. They’ve foreseen that his father will die in the fight for Arrakis. But they also believe that Paul could be the Kwisatz Haderach, a messiah figure who will change the course of the universe. Paul is a rare male offspring of a Bene Gesserit witch, meaning that he could inherit legendary mental abilities. But these same abilities may also drive him to insanity or kill him. None of this news puts Paul’s mind at ease.

But the Atreides men around him are more sure of victory. His father’s strategist, Thufir Hawat, tries to dispel Paul’s fears about the Bene Gesserit’s visions. Thufir himself is a Mentat, meaning he belongs to a class of people that think with pure logic and without emotion. Meanwhile, Paul’s combat trainer, mercenary leader Gurney Halleck, tries to prepare him for the fights ahead.

Across the universe, we learn that machinations of the rivaling House of Harkonnen are indeed in full swing. Baron Harkonnen and the Emperor are actually in cahoots with each other, both looking to quash Duke Leto’s power. The Harkonnen have also stockpiled spice, and are planning to destroy the spice mines on Arrakis to monopolize the supply. Duke Leto is aware of the whole scheme – but he believes he can stay one step ahead of his enemies.

What he doesn’t know is that there’s a traitor in his midst: Doctor Yueh, the resident house physician for the Atreides family. Yueh’s wife has been captured by the Harkonnens and they’re blackmailing him with her life.


In the first chapters, Frank Herbert introduces us to the complex universe of Dune. We get acquainted with numerous characters, places, instruments, historical lore, and religious beliefs, many of which are only fully explained later. We learn about Arrakis, the silent protagonist of the novel – a hostile desert planet with little water, populated by giant sandworms and the native Fremen people. We also learn that Arrakis is the home of spice, a sought-after natural resource, and the reason why the Empire and the House of Harkonnen are plotting against the Atreides family.

Our hero Paul Atreides is presented as an intelligent, if occasionally petulant, teenager with nascent skills as a fighter, leader, and clairvoyant. He fully embodies the Atreides’ values of loyalty, virtue, and mental discipline. Through the Bene Gesserit’s ominous prophecies, we also begin to understand that Paul is destined for greatness – he may just be the savior of the known universe.

The first chapters also introduce many of the recurring themes of the novel that we’ll dive into next: the harsh but delicate ecosystem of Arrakis, the complex religious beliefs of the various tribes and orders, and the political machinations of the different factions of the Empire.


Spice and Arrakis

The Atreides family’s arrival on Arrakis goes as smoothly as expected. The Harkonnens have left only the oldest, unreliable equipment, and the Fremen people distrust any ruling occupants of the palace. Apart from that, the initial move onto their new planet happens relatively uneventfully.

But it’s not long before things begin to turn sour. Shortly after his arrival, Paul is almost killed by a hunter-seeker that appears in his bedroom, a small robotic probe left over by the Harkonnen. Deeply unsettled by the news, his father speeds up the progression of his plans. Together with trusted sword master Duncan Idaho, he secures the alliance of Fremen leader Stilgar. They begin to jointly prepare for the possibility of a larger Harkonnen attack.

Paul and his father also meet up with Arrakis ecologist Dr. Kynes, who takes them to see a spice mine. The Atreides men are shocked by the extreme heat and the grueling working conditions of the miners. Kynes explains to them that Arrakis could be transformed into a lush paradise if it wasn’t for the greed of the spice merchants. He also reveals that he has some concrete plans on how to do so. Even though Kynes still has some reservations about the new rulers, he’s happy to find them receptive to his ideas. And when the mine is attacked by a giant sandworm, Duke Leto impresses him further by saving the workers and leaving the valuable spice behind.

Back in the safety of the palace, the Duke hosts a boisterous dinner party to win over the wealthy members of Arrakeen society. But the illusion of peace doesn’t last for long.

Late that night, after discovering the dead bodies of a Fremen servant and a spice smuggler in the palace, the Duke feels a sting in his own arm. Doctor Yueh, his once-trusted physician, emerges from the darkness. He’s shot him with a paralyzing dart. Hoping to bargain with the Harkonnens for his wife, Yueh has turned off the energy shield protecting the palace – leaving it wide open for Harkonnen attack. From there, chaos ensues. Harkonnen forces invade the palace, taking the Atreides army by surprise. Doctor Yueh, who now has a paralyzed Duke Leto, has been ordered to take him to Baron Harkonnen himself.

Out of his hate for Harkonnens, and his final gift to his now-betrayed Duke, Yueh places a false tooth in Duke Leto’s mouth. He explains that if the Duke bites down on the tooth, it will release a poisonous gas that will kill anyone nearby. A quick death for the Duke, but also death to the invading Harkonnen leaders in the vicinity.

So, when the Duke is sent before the gloating Baron Harkonnen, that’s exactly what he does. With his final breath, Leto releases the poison. Scores of Harkonnens die on the spot, but unfortunately, the Baron is the only one who manages to escape this attack.

In the meantime, other Harkonnen troops kidnap Paul and his mother, and fly them deep into the desert to be killed. They narrowly manage to escape, but then find themselves stranded in the unforgiving desert.

Luckily, they are tracked down by Atreides sword master Duncan Idao, who’s been sent by a guilt-ridden Doctor Yueh to find them. Duncan Idaho helps them get set up to survive in the harsh desert climate.


As the first section of the novel progresses, we learn more details about the desert planet Arrakis and the native Fremen. One of the major themes that emergesis the relationship between humans and the environment. Through ecologist Kynes, the Atreides begin to understand the harsh climate of Arrakis and experience the dangerous practice of spice mining first-hand.

They learn that the desert planet is so hot and dry that water is the most precious resource. In fact, the Fremen need to wear special still suits that recycle their bodies’ own fluids to survive in the desert. But they also learn that things needn’t be that way. According to the ecologist Kynes, Arrakis has the potential to be transformed into fertile ground. Unfortunately, the spice merchants are only interested in extracting as much profit as possible from the planet. The spice mines seem to threaten not just the safety of the miners, but that of the whole ecosystem.

As we’ll see, the native Fremen people have a much more balanced relationship with their surroundings than was previously believed. They’ve learned to survive in the harsh climate, and their resourcefulness will prove a major advantage in the coming battles.


A Messiah is Born

During his time on the run from the Harkonnen, Paul begins to change: he starts developing more and more powerful mental abilities, partly due to the natural spice that’s added to his food. Soon, his prophetic visions surpass even those of his Bene Gesserit mother.

With his new abilities, Lady Jessica becomes fully convinced that Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, the person with the power to change the universe. But Paul is still reluctant to accept this title. He’s seen visions that his rule would require a jihad – a holy war between the remaining Atreides and Fremen troops and their enemies. Indeed, the Atreides and the Fremen are already growing closer together in joint opposition to the invading Harkonnen forces.

Paul and Jessica are eventually picked up again by Duncan and Kynes, who take them to the Biosphere – an ecological testing facility where he’s trying to recreate the ecosystem of Earth. Kynes is also revealed to be Liet, the secret supreme leader of the Fremen. Although Kynes is still skeptical of the Atreides, Paul convinces him to collaborate. By threatening to reveal his scheme to the other Houses, Paul wants to pressure the Emperor into reinstalling him on the throne of Arrakis. In return for Kynes’ help, Paul promises to support his environmental plans.

But before they get any further, enemy troops attack the facility. Duncan is killed in the battle, Kynes is captured and eventually killed, and Jessica and Paul have to flee once more. They barely escape a dangerous sandstorm and again find themselves stranded in the open desert. They survive dangerous heat, vicious sandworms, and a deadly sandslide, before finally running into Fremen leader Stilgar and his men.

The Fremen take them to Sietch Tabr, their secret mountain cave stronghold. They reveal themselves to be cunning political strategists: they’ve been using spice to bribe the Spacing Guild, a powerful organization which oversees space travel and banking. In turn, the Guild is keeping the Empire and the Harkonnen in check. They also turn out to be incredible fighters who’ve learned to tame and ride the giant sandworms.

At Sietch Tabr, Paul has to prove his own fighting prowess in a knife-to-knife duel with a Fremen named Jamis. Paul kills Jamis and manages to impress the other Fremen fighters. As a sign of respect, Stilgar gives Paul the secret name Usul, which means “base of a pillar.” Paul gives himself the public name Muad’Dib. His combat glory also helps him charm Kynes’s daughter Chani, who soon becomes his lover.


Another important theme in Dune is religion. Each House, tribe, and order in the novel has its own complicated beliefs and prophecies, some of which overlap. A recurring prophecy in the book is the rise of a Messiah figure who’ll come along to change the order of the universe.

In the second section of the novel, Paul is beginning to fill out this role as messiah. The Fremen have started calling him the Mahdi, or “the one who will lead us to paradise.” He also starts showing more and more special abilities. Paul himself believes that his extraordinary power comes from combining the “feminine” intuition of the Bene Gesserit with the calculated “masculine” rationality of a Mentat.

Author Frank Herbert highlights the importance of the different religious beliefs by sprinkling excerpts from scriptures throughout the novel. He also uses a sort of psychic narrative voice himself. Even though Paul is our protagonist, Herbert constantly reads and reveals the thoughts of the other characters as well – much like a Mentat.


The Battle of Arrakeen

Between the second and third sections of the novel, Dune makes a little jump in time.

Two years have passed since we last checked in with our hero. Paul has become a confident political and religious leader for the Fremen. He’s surrounded by an elite guard called Fedaykin and he’s learning how to ride sandworms. Indeed, some of the younger Fremen are starting to push for Paul to challenge Stilgar for leadership. But Paul is too loyal to Stilgar to do so. They end up dividing their roles, with Paul becoming the new Duke Atreides.

Paul also has a son with Chani now – Leto II, named after his deceased father.

His mother Jessica, now Reverend Mother of the Fremen, has given birth to another child too. Paul’s sister Alia is only two, but she’s already hyper-aware and super intelligent – thanks to a spice ceremony that Jessica underwent while pregnant. In fact, Alia is so mature for her age she’s become somewhat of an outcast among the Fremen people.

As the new Duke, Paul prepares the Fremen to take back the city of Arrakeen. Simultaneously, the Emperor, the Baron, and their troops soon descend on the city as well. The battle for Arrakis appears to have finally arrived.

Paul and his men make a plan: they wait until a great sandstorm strikes, and then destroy the enemies’ shield wall with atomic weapons.

In the middle of the action, Paul receives a message that the enemy has made a move of their own. Sietch Tabr has been raided. Chani and Jessica are safe, but Paul’s son Leto has been killed and his sister Alia has been captured.

But Alia proves too powerful for her captors. Taken for granted due to her young age, she manages to stab and kill Baron Harkonnen with a poisoned needle. Meanwhile, Paul and the Fremen continue their attack on the Empire and Harkonnen troops, riding on the backs of dozens of giant sandworms. Using their superb fighting skills, they defeat the Harkonnen and Emperor’s troops, and Paul reclaims the throne of Arrakeen.

Paul goes through with his plan to force the Emperor to surrender, threatening to destroy all the spice on Arrakis. He also demands to marry the Emperor’s eldest daughter, Princess Irulan, to consolidate his power. He assures Chani not to worry – she’ll be the royal concubine, his true wife.

At the end of Dune, Paul has accepted that he’s truly the Kwisatz Haderach. But he knows that the jihad is yet to come. And he’s seen that he’ll play an important part in bringing it about.


In the third and final section of Dune, we are again reminded of the complicated political structure of the Empire. The Emperor and the Baron have plotted their attack on the House of Atreides for years, and taken every measure to assure their victory. They’ve infiltrated the ranks of the Atreides with spies and traitors, and eventually succeed in killing Duke Leto.

But they are themselves dependent on the Space Guild, which manages the spice trade, and the Guild is dependent on the spice production on Arrakis. Paul and the Fremen know this, and they wield this fact to their advantage. Ultimately, their enemies pay the price for underestimating their military power and strategic prowess.

Another reason that Paul’s alliance ultimately triumphs is that his men aren’t misled by greed but bound by virtues such as loyalty, mental discipline, and respect for their environment.


Final Summary

In a distant future, humanity is spread across the universe, divided into several noble houses that are ruled by one Emperor. The desert planet Arrakis is coveted territory among the rivaling houses, as it’s the only source of a valuable substance called melange or ‘spice’ – a drug that heightens mental abilities.

The story begins when the Emperor gives control of Arrakis to Duke Leto of the House Atreides. While it seems like a good deal for a time, the Emperor is really plotting to rid himself of the Atreides, enlisting the help of the merciless Baron Harkonnen. Upon the Harkonnen attack on Arrakis, Duke Leto’s son Paul – the hero of the story – becomes embroiled in the power struggle over the desert planet.

Not only does Paul have to adapt to the brutal climate of his new home, he also has to navigate the treacherous political landscape of the Empire. He allies himself with the native Fremen people of Arrakis, who teach him the art of fighting and survival. He ends up fulfilling his prophecy and transforms into the messiah that leads the Fremen into a battle for freedom from feudal ownership.