Dune is set in the far future amidst a sprawling feudal interstellar empire where planetary fiefdoms are controlled by noble Houses that owe allegiance to the Imperial House Corrino. The novel tells the story of young Paul Atreides (heir apparent to Duke Leto Atreides and scion of House Atreides) as he and his family accept control of the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of the spice melange, the most important and valuable substance in the universe. The story explores the complex and multilayered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as forces of the Empire confront each other for control of Arrakis and its spice.
Dune engendered five sequels written by Herbert before his death in 1986: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune. It also inspired a 1984 film adaptation by David Lynch, a 2000 Sci Fi Channel miniseries and its 2003 sequel, computer games, a board game and a series of prequels and sequels co-written by the author's son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson starting in 1999.
After the publication of The Dragon in the Sea in 1957, Herbert began the initial stages of planning his next novel. He took a plane to Florence, Oregon, at the north edge of the Oregon Dunes where the USDA was sponsoring a lengthy series of experiments in using poverty grasses to stabilize and slow down the damaging sand dunes, which could "swallow whole cities, lakes, rivers, highways. Herbert's article on the dunes, "They Stopped the Moving Sands," was never completed (and only published decades later in an incomplete form in The Road to Dune), but it sparked Herbert's interest in the general subject of ecology and related matters. Herbert spent the next five years continuing research and writing and rewriting what would eventually become Dune, later serialized in Analog magazine from 1963 to 1965 as two shorter works, Dune World and The Prophet of Dune. Herbert dedicated the work "to the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of 'real materials'—to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration." The serialized version was expanded and reworked, and ultimately rejected by over twenty publishers before it was published. At least one editor realized the possible mistake: "I was unhappy to learn that Scribner's rejected Dune. The editor's comment that he may have been mistaken (in doing so)—let us hope that's prophetic.
The spice is also crucial to the powerful matriarchal order called the Bene Gesserit, whose sole priority is to preserve and advance the human race. The secretive Bene Gesserit, often referred to as "witches," possess mental and physical powers developed through conditioning called prana-bindu training.
A Bene Gesserit acolyte becomes a full Reverend Mother by undergoing a deadly ritual known as the spice agony, in which she ingests a lethal dose of an awareness spectrum narcotic and must render it harmless internally. Surviving the ordeal unlocks her Other Memory, the ego and memories of all her female ancestors. A Reverend Mother is warned to avoid the place in her consciousness that is occupied by the genetic memory of her male ancestors, referred to as "the place we cannot look." In light of this, the Bene Gesserit have a secret, millennia-old breeding program, the goal of which is to produce a male equivalent of a Bene Gesserit whom they call the Kwisatz Haderach. This individual would not only be able to survive the spice agony and access masculine Other Memory, but is also expected to possess "organic mental powers (that can) bridge space and time.The Bene Gesserit intend their Kwisatz Haderach to give them the ability to control the affairs of mankind more effectively.
The planet Arrakis itself is completely covered in a desert ecosystem, hostile to most organic life. It is also sparsely settled by a human population of native Fremen tribes. Tribal leaders are selected by defeating the former leader in combat. The Fremen also have complex rituals and systems focusing on the value and conservation of water on their arid planet. They conserve the water distilled from their dead, consider spitting an honorable greeting, and value tears as the greatest gift one can give to the dead. Their culture also revolves around the spice melange, which is created as part of the life cycle of the giant sandworms who dominate the deserts. Bene Gesserit missionary efforts have implanted a belief in a male Messiah who will one day come and transform Arrakis to a world more hospitable to humans.
Complicating the political intrigue is the fact that the Duke's son Paul Atreides is an essential part of the Bene Gesserit's secret, centuries-old breeding program to create a superhuman called the Kwisatz Haderach. There are signs that Paul might actually be the Kwisatz Haderach, born one generation earlier than expected, though this remains in doubt.
The Atreides suspect foul play, and are able to thwart the initial Harkonnen traps and complications while simultaneously building trust with the local population of Fremen. Ultimately, however, the Atreides are unable to withstand a devastating Harkonnen attack, supported by Imperial Sardaukar disguised as Harkonnen troops and aided by a traitor within House Atreides itself — the Suk doctor Wellington Yueh. Captured, Duke Leto dies in a failed attempt to assassinate Baron Harkonnen; Paul and Jessica, his mother, escape into the deep desert. With Jessica's Bene Gesserit abilities and Paul's developing skills, they manage to join a band of Fremen, ferocious fighters who ride the giant sandworms of Arrakis.
Paul and his mother quickly learn the ways of the Fremen, while teaching them the weirding way, or Bene Gesserit method of fighting. Jessica becomes a Reverend Mother, taking the concentrated spice while pregnant with her second child. Daughter Alia experiences all that her mother does from the spice, gaining prescience and the wisdom of all her ancestors before even being born. Years pass, and Paul increasingly recognizes the strength of the Fremen fighting force, and recognizes their potential to overtake even the Sardaukar and win back Arrakis. Living on the spice diet of the Fremen, Paul's prescience increases dramatically, enabling him to foresee future events and gaining him a religious respect from the Fremen, who regard him as their prophesied Messiah. As Paul grows in influence, he begins a jihad against Harkonnen rule of the planet under his new Fremen name, Muad'Dib.
Both the Emperor and the Baron Harkonnen show increasing interest in the fervor of religious fanaticism shown on Arrakis for this "Muad'Dib," not guessing that this leader is the presumed-dead Paul. Harkonnen plots to send his nephew and heir Feyd Rautha as a replacement for his other and more ruthless nephew Glossu Rabban — who is currently in charge of the planet — to gain the respect of the now-troublesome Fremen. Winning them over as a fighting force, he hopes, will give him enough power to overtake the Emperor himself. The Emperor, however, is highly suspicious of the Baron and sends spies to watch his movements.
On Arrakis, Paul is reunited with an old ally of the Atreides, Gurney Halleck. Completely loyal to the Atreides, Gurney is convinced that Jessica is the traitor who had caused the House's downfall. He nearly kills her, but for Paul's last-minute intervention. Disturbed by his lack of complete prescience and the near-loss of his mother, Paul decides to take the water of life, an act that could kill him. After three weeks in a near-death state, Paul emerges as the Kwisatz Haderach. His powers are much more focused, and he is able to see past, present and future at will. Looking into space, he sees that the Emperor and the Harkonnens have amassed a huge armada to invade the planet and regain control. Paul also discovers the way to control spice production on Arrakis; saturating spice fields with water will cause a chain reaction that will destroy all spice on the planet.
Alia is captured by Sardaukar and brought to the planet's capital Arrakeen, where the Baron Harkonnen is nervously attempting to thwart the Fremen jihad under the close watch of the Emperor. The Emperor is surprised at four-year-old Alia's defiance of his power and her confidence in her brother, whom she reveals to be Paul Atreides. At that moment, under cover of a gigantic sandstorm, Paul and his army of Fremen attack the city. Alia kills the Baron Harkonnen with a poisoned needle during the confusion. Paul quickly overtakes the city's defenses and confronts the Emperor, threatening to destroy the spice and thereby effectively end space travel and cripple both the Imperial power and Bene Gesserit in one blow. Feyd Rautha challenges Paul to a knife-duel in a final attempt to stop his overthrow of power, but is defeated despite an attempt at treachery. Realizing that Paul is capable of doing all he has threatened, the Emperor is forced to abdicate and to promise his daughter Princess Irulan in marriage to Paul. Paul ascends the throne, his control of Arrakis and the spice establishing a new kind of power over the Empire which will change the face of the known universe.
On the other hand, Jessica's son's approach to power consistently requires his upbringing under the female-oriented Bene Gesserit, who operate as a long-dominating shadow government behind all of the great houses and their marriages or divisions. A central theme of the book is the connection, in Jessica's son, of this female aspect with his male aspect. In a Bene Gesserit test early in the book, it is implied that men are generally "inhuman" in that they irrationally place desire over self-interest and reason. This is neither anti-male, nor pro-female, but instead applies Herbert's philosophy that humans are not created equal, but that equal justice and equal opportunity are much higher ideals than mental, physical, or moral equality.
Juan A. Prieto-Pablos asserts that Herbert achieves a new typology with Paul's superpowers, differentiating the heroes of Dune from earlier heroes, such as Superman, van Vogt's Gilbert Gosseyn, and Henry Kuttner's telepaths. Unlike previous superheroes who acquire their powers suddenly and accidentally, Paul's are the result of "painful and slow personal progress." And unlike other superheroes of the 1960s—who are the exception among ordinary people in their respective worlds—Herbert's characters grow their powers through "the application of mystical philosophies and techniques." For Herbert, the ordinary person can develop incredible fighting skills (Fremen and Sardaukar) or mental abilities (Bene Gesserit and Mentats). The reader, then, may feel himself projected into these characters if he is open to evolution through his own efforts.
What especially pleases me is to see the interwoven themes, the fuguelike relationships of images that exactly replay the way Dune took shape. As in an Escher lithograph, I involved myself with recurrent themes that turn into paradox. The central paradox concerns the human vision of time. What about Paul's gift of prescience-the Presbyterian fixation? For the Delphic Oracle to perform, it must tangle itself in a web of predestination. Yet predestination negates surprises and, in fact, sets up a mathematically enclosed universe whose limits are always inconsistent, always encountering the unprovable. It's like a koan, a Zen mind breaker. It's like the Cretan Epimenides saying, "All Cretans are liars."
In 2000, the SciFi Channel adapted the novel into Frank Herbert's Dune, a miniseries starring William Hurt. A new film based on the book was announced in 2008, to be directed by Peter Berg and produced by Paramount Pictures.
Dune inspired the Iron Maiden song "To Tame A Land." However, when songwriter Steve Harris requested permission from the author to name the song "Dune," his request was met with a stern refusal — backed up with a legal threat — which noted that "Herbert doesn't like rock bands, particularly heavy rock bands, and especially rock bands like Iron Maiden." The song was renamed "To Tame a Land" and released in 1983.
The novel is also the likely inspiration for the lyrics "Walk without rhythm, it won't attract the worm" in the song "Star 69 / Weapon of Choice" by Fatboy Slim. In the novel, Paul notes "We must walk without rhythm" to avoid notice by a sandworm as he and Jessica cross the desert; Lynch's Dune (1984) features Paul's line "If we walk without rhythm, we won't attract the worm" 82 minutes into the film.
In 1997, a Romanian author, Florin Chirculescu, wrote a sequel to the Dune series called Dune 7 - House of Brundurs (Cartea Brundurilor in Romanian) using the pseudonym Patrick Herbert. In his vision, humanity had returned to Earth, now a frozen planet, and built large organic cities underneath the surface. Occasional skirmishes with Scattering forces were still occurring on orbit but with only unmanned ships fighting for the humans. All humans had implants which enabled them to create and navigate a huge virtual reality network called "the vortex". Beneath the surface, there were small pockets of humans grouped in "legions", completely isolated from the cities' population, using their own version of vortex and pursuing the goal of eliminating each other so that only one legion remain on Earth. The story ignored the cliffhanger of Chapterhouse Dune. The book was released in Romania only and it's not recognized as an official sequel to Dune series.