Dune is the best selling science fiction/fantasy novel of all time. Written by Frank Herbert in 1965, it won several prestigious awards, including the very first Nebula Award for Best Novel, and went on to become an incredibly influential classic of the genre. Since then, it's been adapted to all sorts of media, including boardgames, video games, two mini-series, and a movie. Surprisingly, we are not all that obsessed with it, but we do respect Dune for all it's done for sci-fi.
In the distant future, human civilization relies on "spice", a drug that expands its user's perceptions and triples the lifespan. Because electronic computers are taboo even over ten thousand years after the Butlerian Jihad against thinking machines, interstellar travel relies on spice-using Navigators to plot safe paths through space and Mentats use spice to increase their cognitive abilities, becoming human computers able to process vast amounts of data. You could buy a mansion on a core Imperial world for a deciliter of spice. Its most unpleasant withdrawal symptom is inevitable death. Naturally, "the spice must flow" is a common sentiment. Basically spice acts as plot device to explain the politic struggle in the books and to explain all sorts of magic-like stuff in the dune universe, without quite leaving the field of sci-fi.
Spice cannot be synthesized and is found on only one planet: Arrakis, a bone-dry dustball where enormous sandworms produce it as part of their life cycle. Imperial citizens only live there to extract, process, and export spice, living in fear of their overseers, the sandworms, and the human natives called the Fremen. Whoever controls Arrakis has a stranglehold on the whole of human civilization, and so when a conspiracy to hide this fact breaks down multiple factions fight each other for control of it or to use it against their enemies.
The six books of the original series (Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God-Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse Dune) principally follow the scions of House Atreides as their futures become inextricably tied to Arrakis, the spice, and the future of humanity.
Dune is probably one of the most in-depth science fiction books ever written (if one ignores the almost autistic level of depth Isaac Asimov put into his universe during the same time with about 500 freaking books), considering the utter detail that goes into sociological, ecological, political, and economic elements that are added so neatly. It's like a textbook, only far cooler. Opinion on the later books in the series is split, with some feeling it's a continuous decline in quality through to the end, an increase in crap until you're four books in when you notice you're reading a doorstop chiefly composed of Leto whining that turning into a sandworm is haaaard, while others feel the next three books are crucial to understanding the themes Herbert started to explore in the original Dune (especially the damaging effects of hero worship on society). Still, everyone agrees that the prequels and sequels written after his death by his son are irredeemably bad, so avoid those unless you're a devout Slaaneshi follower trying to experience the whole spectrum of human emotion and the next thing on your list is mind-numbing disappointment and boredom.
Influence on Warhammer 40k
Being a highly successful series with an unique and interesting universe it is obvious that Games Workshop
stole took inspiration from Dune more than an Blood Raven in an unlocked reliquary. While this topic is up for debate the following were most likely borrowed from the Dune universe:
- Close combat / Melee: The Dune universe is close combat heavy. Like everyone goes into melee all the time, every time. This is explained by the widespread use of body-shields that can basically stop anything moving fast. Hence, people stab one another (slashing is inefficient due to going too fast) with (poisoned) daggers and swords. While there is some sort of (actually useful) Lasgun around, these things explode for no good reason if they hit a body-shield, destroying both opponents in some sort of atomic explosion (it is explained that the energy emission from the laser weapons interacts poorly with the energy emission from the shield causing a form of nuclear fission which causes the shield to explode in a similar fashion to a nuclear bomb). Which is illegal as fuck in that universe. Also deadly. That, and because it makes for a good story, is why knives or swords are widely used in that universe. It must be noted that there are four big exceptions: In the Dune deserts shields and Lasguns are a no-go (they attract worms who are too tough to kill without nukes or anything but water for some reason) and therefore ballistic weapons can be still used (but no one usually bothers to because reasons), a lot of people relay on poison and technical gismos to bypass the shield problem, vehicles are still a thing (even though they have shields) and nuclear weapons which every great house still has some lying around, but those last are so destructive they have been made super-duper illegal as fuck to use against human lives after the war against the AI's, and not even the goddamn Emperor can give himself an exception. (This said, one just need to get creative!)
- Navigators: The Dune universe has Navigators which are slightly similar to the 40k universe. Only source of ship travel? Check. Highly mutated? Check. Mutation worsens over time? Check. Some sort of magical powers, but somehow different from everyone else's? Check. Living outside of all political powers? Check. Having their own political agendas? Check. Secretive? Double fucking Check. Basically they are the exact same thing with the small exceptions that they need spice to live. Also Dune may have cribbed them from the 1950 Cordwainer Smith story "Scanners Live in Vain".
- No AI allowed: Basically the same story, AI goes bad, tries to conquer humanity, gets its virtual arse kicked and is subsequently forbidden. While the backstory is a little different the outcome is still the same. However Dune is a little bit more restrictive when it comes to Cogitators or Servitors and uses humans hyper-trained from birth (and fucked up on drugs) known as 'Mentats' as supercomputers instead.
- The mother-fucking God-Emprah: While the idea of a galactic Emperor is nothing new, Dune was debatably the first setting which implemented a de facto immortal god-emperor. Decades of worshiping the 40k Empra is likely to make those fans think Dune's Leto II is some pathetic false-Emperor (just look how they treat Palpatine) but make no mistake: while he might not crush tanks with his brain, God-Emperor Leto II earned his worship after turning himself into an immortal giant worm with precognitive powers.
- Dune - The original novel.
The Lord of the Rings of sci-fi.Very influential? Yes! Defining the Genre the way Tolkien did? No. Don't forget that sci-fi helped shape modern Fantasy where pre-modern Fantasy helped shape sci-fi (eg; fairies and elves = aliens, alchemy = chemistry). The first book serves as a stand-alone story in the style of a traditional epic and a follows typical dramatic structure (the sequels... eh.). It reads well, and each chapter centers around a particular character or topic without feeling disjointed. You know the plot. Paul controls the spice and controls the universe.
- Dune Messiah - Detailing Paul's jihad and rule of the Imperium. While Dune is a story on its own, this sequel was hacked off of the first book when it became too long and turned into a sequel. If you at least agree that the first book was good, then problems start to show here but not by much.
- Children of Dune - Detailing the rise of Paul's children. The third book and the end of the first trilogy, except it and Messiah are half the length of Dune and God Emperor making it feel like the second book of a trilogy. Paul is gone and the story switches to his son Leto II as he struggles with the prescience powers he inherited from his father on the inside and everyone and their sister trying to get his place and/or influence him on the outside. This book reads like the main character is high and does not know where he is for most of the story (which is actually fine considering he's a 8 years old kid struggling with becoming almost omniscient and people trying to kill him, and he is both high and kidnapped), and it is disjointed enough that the reader feels the same (which is not, because a constant "WTF am I reading?" feeling as one wrestles through the book makes for a poor reading experience).
- God Emperor of Dune - Leto II of the House of Atreides has fused with the last sandworm and become immortal in what is probably the most iconic thing outside of the first book. Disappointed in the mildness of his father's jihad, he creates the most oppressive regime that he can to tap into humanity's basest and darkest instincts so that a forced natural-ish selection can strengthen humanity to the point where it can never go extinct, followed by them scattering away from his empire and becoming completely decentralized throughout the universe. That is the 'Golden Path' thing. The entire book started off as a continuous monologue by the main character with the rest written in later and it shows. What were the characters actually doing again? Killing one another?
- Heretics of Dune - Humanity has scattered away from known space after being oppressed for so long, and no one thing can kill them now... maybe. God Emperor was actually the start of a trilogy centered around a girl named Sheeana and the clones (or gholas, because the cells started off dead) of Duncan Idaho. The Bene Gesserit take center stage and they and the reader must deal with their inability to be anything but clandestine antagonists.
- Chapterhouse: Dune - The Bene Gesserit make one of their primary planets into a new Dune because they need the spice to use their abilities. The Honored Matres, worse Bene Gesserit returned from the Scattering, have conquered pretty much everything with mind-control sex and regular violence. Can our heroes thwart them? No one knows, as Duncan calculates/foresees something that neither he or the readers know about and flies a ship off to who-knows-where, followed by Frank Herbert's death.
- Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune - Based on the rough draft for the unfinished Dune 7, these two works function as a direct sequel to Chapterhouse: Dune. If you really want the series to have an ending... this is what you get. Requires reading Legends of Dune.
- Prelude to Dune series: A prequel series set right before the events of the first novel when all the adults from that book were the age that buys young adult novels. Not that bad, but all the villains are evil sadists and all the heroes are good people.
- Legends of Dune series: A prequel series that shows the Butlerian Jihad not as a conflict where religious Luddites win, but as a war where wargame-loving hacker teens take over mankind's servant robots and cause a robot war that overthrows the Old Empire on Earth and enslaves humanity. The League of Nobles (note that unlike the pages of justification for original Imperium, feudalism just seems to naturally happen at this point in human history) rallies around manufactured religious zealotry to eventually win at great cost.
- Heroes of Dune series: A series of interquels about this and that.
Alejandro Jodorowsky was slated to direct a film adaptation with set design from H.R. Giger, effects by Dan O'Bannon, music from Pink Floyd and Magma, and starring Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine, and Mick Jagger, though sadly it ran out of money in pre-production (Giger and O'Bannon would go on to contribute to the production of Alien). The David Lynch movie absolutely sucked (
saying this out loud is a good way to troll hipsters Not really. Even Lynch knew it sucked, as evidenced by the fact he had his name removed from the final cut). If you want a good laugh I'd suggest you watch it -- it's not often that you'll see a fetal manatee shit/barf lasers. It's a classic case of Hollywood taking an amazing work of art and deciding "the audience" won't like it, so they got rid of the parts they didn't understand. If you've read the book, the butchery is even more hilarious cringe-worthy full of lulz, though I suggest you don't watch the movie first. Who, after all, would want to read The Odyssey after seeing the movie? I'd suggest you see the movie as well, as it is also that bad awesome.
The Sci-Fi Channel produced two six-hour mini-series based on the first three books. Though low-budget (what did you expect from the Sci-Fi Channel?), they do manage to touch on each of the important plot points from those books and there's no skimping on the action to make "weirding module" toys to be sold as merchandise. Worth watching for what it is, and not ironically like the abortion above.
Denis Villeneuve of Arrival and Sicario fame is now slated to helm a new adaptation. Fingers crossed.
As an RPG Setting
Frank Herbert went into SO MUCH DETAIL in his novels, you've got plenty of material to use as a campaign setting. You've got politics, fightan, more politics, space travel, enough politics to give Machiavelli a headache, and room for quasi-magic shit. Go nuts.
There was an official Dune RPG, "Chronicles of the Imperium," but it got mired in legal bullshit, Wizards bought it out, did a 'Limited Edition' run of 3000 books, and then the high masters at Hasbro said "no more licensed property" and eighty-sixed the game so nobody would see it ever again. Assholes.
- The only adventure module, unpublished even for an unpublished game.
The first video game adaptation of Dune was what can best be described as a Visual Novel mixed with a little Risk Boardgame. You play as Paul Atreides and it roughly follows the events of the original book. The goal is to recruit Fremen and eventually kick the Harkonnen from the planet. The videogame many oldfags remember fondly however is Dune 2, hailed as the first 'true' RTS game that got it right and paved the way for all the others. It's widely-accredited as putting Westwood on the map. While it was set in the universe, it did not actually take place during the time of the books, instead much earlier. It was remade in 1998 as part of a renovation attempt, and the resulting game, Dune 2000, was a fun if somewhat off-centered RTS boasting fairly decent balance and was great fun to play in multiplayer LAN games, but it was hindered by the fact that the bulk of its gameplay had been lifted from Command and Conquer - Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert, creating a sort of hybrid that (justifiably in some cases) pissed off fans of both franchises. Then again, it had fucking Gimli as an Atreides Mentat, a kickass robo-Mentat that gets progressively more drugged out for the Ordos, and a good atmosphere and set design readily conscious of the curious, or least unique aspects of the Lynch film's asthetics, so even then it has some good qualities. It was quite clearly produced with love of the universe, and emphasized the game was taking place in an earlier time, so as not to fuck with the books' canon. Westwood later did one of the first 3D RTS's not soon after, Emperor - Battle for Dune. Though the game ditched a standard campaign progression with the now familiar Risk-style campaign, it still had unique missions, and a unique campaign for all three sides. The well done story took off right after the events of the last game (namely, Padishah-Emperor Corrino is dead with no one to succeed him) and thus the Spacing Guild and the Sisters avert a civil war by holding that whichever House can win a limited War of Assassins on Arrakis will be crowned Padishah-Emperor of the Known Universe. Contains all sorts of surprising twists and turns (like everyone gloriously violating galactic law, and IT'S A T-gmphmmhmhhhhhhh!!!!), and the cinematics and cast were quite nicely done as well. Especially since it's live action. This would sadly be the last Dune video game.
There are three boardgames worth mentioning that were based on Dune. The first and best remembered is the 1979 Avalon Hill game made by the same guys that made Cosmic Encounter; it's one of the crown jewels of the Avalon Hill body of work. The game property was bought by Final Flight Games, but the owners of the Dune trademarks said "no," so FFG published the game using their Twilight Imperium setting as a prequel to that wargame. See more about both games at Rex: Final Days of an Empire. And as of March 2019, it looks like they're planning a reprint of the Avalon Hill game for the movie in 2020. Get your crysknifes ready, because it's gonna be a slaughterfest.
There was an trashy tie-in merchandise boardgame based on the David Lynch movie. Paper pasted on cardboard, roll-and-move race game, typical Ameritrash. The less said about that, the better.
There is a free print-and-play game "Dune Express." You can use simple coloured dice, Skittles for your armies, and draw the map on the back of a pizza box, and yet it will still feel like great houses fighting over Arrakis. A decent beer-and-preztels game without being hurr durr dumb.