#39. Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune is a 1965 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. It won the Hugo Award in 1966, and the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel. Dune is frequently cited as the world’s best-selling science fiction novel and is the start of the Dune saga.
Herbert wrote five sequels to the novel Dune: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. The first novel also inspired a 1984 film adaptation by David Lynch, the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Frank Herbert’s Dune and its 2003 sequel Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune (which combines the events of Dune Messiah and Children of Dune), computer games, at least two board games, songs, and a series of prequels, interquels, and sequels that were co-written by Kevin J. Anderson and the author’s son, Brian Herbert, starting in 1999.
Frank Herbert was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1920. After high school, he became a journalist and then served in the United States Navy during World War II. He then studied at the University of Washington and became a reporter and an editor for many West Coast newspapers, as well as a speechwriter for politicians. In 1969, Herbert became a full-time fiction writer, four years after the publication of his science-fiction classic, Dune.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Herbert published many stories in science fiction magazines, often in serial form. Unlike some of his fellow science-fiction writers, such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Herbert wrote stories that always involved social issues such as ecology. Herbert conceived the idea for Dune after studying a governmental project designed to halt the spread of sand dunes along the Oregon coastline. He imagined a world made entirely of sand and thus created the planet Arrakis.
Set in the far future amidst a feudal interstellar society in which noble houses, in control of individual planets, owe allegiance to the imperial House Corrino, Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides, the heir apparent to Duke Leto Atreides as his family accepts control of the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of the “spice” melange. Melange is the most important and valuable substance in the universe, increasing Arrakis’s value as a fief. The story explores the multi-layered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as the forces of the empire confront each other in a struggle for the control of Arrakis and its “spice”.
Although Dune was accepted and read by the same circles who read Asimov and Clarke, Herbert’s novel represented a new kind of science fiction. Asimov’s and Clarke’s works were original but stylistically plain—Asimov later claimed that in the early days of science fiction, all one needed was a futuristic idea. Dune combined the basics of science fiction’s trademark futurism with strong literary and social ambitions. The novel boasted an elaborate epic plot and intricately developed characters with quasi-mystical powers such as telepathy and precognition. It also featured a bold ecological message.
Dune proved that literary science-fiction novels could be more than thinly veiled social satires, such as George Orwell’s 1984 or Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Dune presents us with a self-contained world, complete with its own races, religions, politics, and geography. Herbert introduces this new world and then adds a fascinating and intricate story, with vivid characters and scenes bolstered by an underlying ecological message. Dune has become the central masterpiece of science fiction, just as The Lord of the Rings is to the genre of modern fantasy.
Dune was one of the first science-fiction novels to address issues of religion. Many science-fiction authors considered religion an outdated institution that would eventually lose its direct control over society. Many writers assumed that the separation of church and state would only widen in the future. Frank Herbert had a different conception of the future. Dune’s universe employs a feudal government system that includes dukes and barons and in which religion has a very strong presence in everyday life and politics.
Religion’s most obvious presence in Dune is in the Bene Gesserit. The Bene Gesserit are familiar with numerous religious texts, from the Orange Catholic Bible to more cryptic texts such as the Great Mysteries. These texts play a significant role in defining the Bene Gesserit conception of the world. The Missionaria Protectiva reveals that the Bene Gesserit frequently exploit religion to protect their own members. The Bene Gesserit use the Missionaria Protectiva to spread contrived legends and prophecies to developing worlds. Bene Gesserit can exploit these legends to earn the respect of the native inhabitants, who believe in the contrived legends.
The other important presence of religion in Dune involves control of the Fremen. Kynes’s father is the first person to exploit religion as a method of rallying the Fremen to his cause—turning Arrakis from a desert planet to a lush, green world. Kynes and his father hope to bring paradise back to Arrakis through religion. Although Kynes wants to bring nature to Arrakis by making it a lush, green planet, his endeavor is contrary to nature because Arrakis is a naturally dry planet.
Religion represents a source of comfort and power throughout the novel. Paul pursues the same goals as Kynes, but he uses his religious power over the Fremen as their messiah to gain control of the entire Imperium. Paul possesses mystical abilities that go above and beyond a simple heightened awareness or intelligence, but his clever exploitation of religion is his most powerful advantage. Paul’s adept manipulation of religion and the calculated use of legends contrived by the Bene Gesserit allow him to rise to the position of Emperor.
To exist in the harsh desert climate of Arrakis, the Fremen must be keenly attune to ecological issues such as the availability of water, the proximity of giant sandworms, and unstable weather patters. The ecological issues in Dune extend beyond the mere necessities of daily life on Arrakis. Dr. Kynes, a prominent figure in the book, is an ecologist who hopes to transform the ecosystem of Arrakis from a desert to fertile, verdant splendor. The Fremen take up his cause, and Paul continues it after Kynes’ death.
Altering Arrakis into a lush garden planet is performing the work of a higher power, reshaping the land to conform to the preference and needs of the Fremen. Yet no character in Dune ever questions whether it is morally right to change the climate of Arrakis. Changing the planet might kill the sandworms, which have an integral role in creating melange, an addictive drug used throughout the universe. Such a change in the ecosystem may also obliterate the Muad’Dib, the planet’s beloved mice, and the source for Paul’s new Fremen name. The Fremen are strong and powerful soldiers because they have trained in a harsh desert climate. The Fremen would not have the power to fight the Emperor’s soldiers or change the climate of Arrakis if the environment were different.
Dune raises the question of whether humans should exercise their power to manipulate the environment, but lack of opposition from any character in the novel leaves no firm conclusion.
Herbert explores the moral question of manipulating nature with the issue of the gene pool in Dune as well. Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, and his duty is to diversify the genetic makeup of the universe. Disturbing the natural genetic makeup may lead to a deadly holy war, or jihad. If human beings fight the natural order of life, whether through the environment or genetic codes, Herbert suggests, the results can be dire, even if the repercussions are not felt until far off in the future.