Dune is the greatest science fiction novel of all time, transcending the genre and raising it to the level of literary art. A vast epic of spice traders on the desert planet Arrakis, it explores human attitudes toward religion, the environment, political messiahs, and death. The ethics of preservation and the mechanics of salvation inform the complex plot which follows the rise of the Übermensch Paul Atreides and his alter ego Muad'Dib, military leader, humanitarian and god of the tribal desert-dwelling Fremen.
The narrative includes political intrigue, religious conspiracy, intergalactic war, and moral struggle. Paul is the young heir-apparent to the House Atreides duchy, an entity feared by the corrupt Emperor Shaddam IV and the perverted and terrifying Baron Harkonnen. When House Atreides relocates to Arrakis, they are targeted by terrorist attacks and assassination attempts, and eventually Lady Jessica is forced to flee to the desert with her teenage son Paul. Sheltered by the Fremen, Paul fulfills his destiny (laid on him at birth by the mysterious religious order called the Bene Gesserit) and assumes religious headship, leading the Fremen in Jihad against the Harkonnen and the Emperor's feared Sardaukar crack troops.
Central to the novel's themes is the interplay of water and spice. Spice is required for everything from facilitating space travel to religious awareness, but it is scarce and dangerous to procure—the spice melange is an organic byproduct of the elusive sandworms, the riding of which signifies a Fremen's entry into adulthood. The Fremen have a mystical bond with the sandworms, controlling them with water and worshipping them for their power and their spice-producing capabilities. For Herbert, water becomes symbolic of man's control and frequent misuse of the natural world, while spice indicates the power of religion and its stewards to manipulate society.
Those prone to dismiss science fiction as mere escapism should read Dune. Herbert's intent is not just to wield his obviously impressive imagination, but to examine universal human themes in a context not bound by the typical strictures imposed by fiction. Philosophical and majestic, personal and sad, Dune is a towering achievement.