Spoilers for Dune and all Dune-derived media (books, films, games, television series).
In 1965, Chilton Books, a publisher known for producing engineering manuals, published Dune, a science-fiction book which had originally appeared as a serial in the magazine Analogue. It has since become recognized as one of the most influential pieces of literature of the 21st Century and perhaps one of the most important science-fiction books of all time, all thanks to a simple, straight-forward narrative about poverty grasses and the effects of wind erosion.
All right, not really. Although ecological concerns were a central part of Frank Herbert’s inspiration, it was the world or, rather, galaxy as he imagined it which fascinated people. There are better writers than Herbert but few with the breadth of imagination and the scientific knowledge to create the world of Dune, which has inspired numerous sequels, spin-offs and
plagiarism homages, and continues to be referenced to this day: just this week, South Park released an episode which is, in effect, a Dune parody.
The success of Dune’s worldbuilding and the power of Herbert’s ideas also crop up in other places. A brutal, undemocratic, pan-galactic regime in which advanced computing is outlawed and terrifying mutants are required to guide vessels through space lest civilization collapse whilst a deified, psychic monarch, doomed by his own powers, attempts to shape the future of humanity: Dune or Warhammer 40,000?
The enduring appeal of Dune, however, lies not simply in the new and bombastic ideas of giant sandworms or hyperspace navigators, but in the way in which these ideas are woven together with the themes of the story and the attention to detail.
The geriatric spice melange is the fulcrum around which the Dune universe pivots. Not only is it essential for space travel (because it allows navigators to develop and use their powers) but it can be used for all manner of scientific purposes, extends life, expands consciousness, goes nicely with a Sunday roast, and functions as a currency all at once. In the War on Drugs, this is the final boss.
Spice functions as an analogy for water and oil throughout the series, although the preciousness of water and the consequences of a world gripped by water-poverty and an extreme climate are also explored in a chilling prophecy of our own day.
Because spice is the cause of, and solution to, all of the galaxy’s problems, the notions of corporate control and private ownership are interrogated alongside the mechanism whereby the setting’s superhumans’ powers are effectively limited. There is not enough spice for everyone to be a navigator, and the navigators cannot function without the spice, and becoming a navigator involves a horrific transformation of body and psyche, which explains why there are relatively few psychic space wizards zooming around. This gives a place for the relatively normal people to thrive, as well as a middle ground for those not quite normal but certainly still limited, such as the “sorcerous” Bene Gesserit and the geneticist Tleilaxu.
The weird, feudal-corporate political structure is augmented by the technological paradigm of the Dune universe. Although fantastically technologically advanced in many ways, those same advances have made many forms of warfare impossible or incredibly risky, or else they are constrained by legal or ethical constructs. For example, shielding technology limits the usefulness of many firearms and makes lasers catastrophically risky to use and so the nobles of the future are justified in engaging in the same cloak-and-dagger games of historical/fantasy fiction, which makes for much more fun than simply pressing a big red button and blowing up the opposition. Likewise, the ban on thinking machines (i.e. sophisticated computers) prevents the action from revolving around robot armies. Thus, this hyper-advanced civilization still thrums with flesh-and-blood characters whose motivations and reactions, lofty or base, are instantly comprehensible to a reader.
The factions, too, have agendas much more sophisticated than simple malevolence or starry-eyed realism, with the possible exception of the Harkonnens. Thus, even if the reader is repulsed by the goals or methods of this or that character, he can still find sympathy for their motivations in a galaxy which is gripped by the all-consuming need for spice, just as the dependence upon oil and water control effectively force all of humanity to live in a perpetual ethical quandary.
The Bene Gesserit, for example, manipulate society from the shadows using their extraordinary skills and superhuman powers to search for their prophesied god-man, the Kwisatz Haderach. It is not entirely clear what they hope to do with this being once they have manipulated the genetic properties of the entire human race to produce such an individual, but it is clear that there is more to it than a simple desire to discover or control, at least in theory.
Speaking of which, an all-female organization of feared but respected individuals with incredible powers, centralized training, a shrouded agenda, the ability to conceal their ages, a desire to control powerful men, and with a reputation for always telling the truth but in such a way as to dupe the unwary: Bene Gesserit or Aes Sedai?
Sufficiently Advanced Technology, Old Time Religion
There is a lot of exotic fauna in the Dune universe but no sapience outside the human race
unless one counts the prequels AT ALL. Rather than use the mystery of unknown space or interdimensional aliens to create enigmatic puzzles, Herbert uses themes of lost knowledge and the unplumbed depths of the human spirit to add mystique, not only to exotic factions, but also to the setting as a whole.
Whence do sandworms come? Are they naturally occurring creatures which simply happen to have incredible terraforming powers and create the miracle substance which the galaxy craves all in one? Or are they the result of forgotten genetic engineering? Where is Earth and what has happened to it? Is the Bene Gesserit god-man more or less than a divine instrument? Are Bene Gesserit powers purely scientific and cloaked in superstitious jargon, or is there a hint of something truly, terrifyingly inexplicable in what they do?
On that last point, Herbert is clearly leaning towards the former, although the properties with which he endows the human genome make for a somewhat fantastical premise. Speaking of which, a controversial scientific enterprise undertaken by a select cabal of initiates with secret knowledge and a sinister agenda in order to achieve a goal whose results will be uncertain and possibly incredibly dangerous, with ramifications for the whole field of biological study as it is currently known? Bene Gesserit-Tleilaxu modus operandi or the Human Genome Project?
Faith, therefore, is considered in a way highly unusual in science-fiction, in that Herbert paints a rather curious and not altogether inconceivable picture of extreme religious syncretism through a transparently (secular) humanist lens, whilst simultaneously showing with integrity the experience of faith in different people. He even manages to keep open the possibility of an understanding of the Divine which does not necessarily neatly fit into any categories which we possess today, nor that the characters of his universe have, but which also does not necessarily outright contradict them. I would not like to guess how much of that was planned, and I suspect that it is a natural serendipity arising from his unwillingness to commit to a metaphysical argument of any kind, but it is still very effective.
One of these ambivalent ideas is the notion that faith is an inescapable part of the human condition, much like conflict. Whether that is an accident of genetic competition or the fingerprint of God is likewise left to the reader but with an inclination towards the former.
Speaking of which, evolution of genetic memes causing inescapable but ultimately harmful impulses in human beings which can be controlled by cynical institutions and which must be curbed or directed to avoid societal detriment?
A Man’s Galaxy
Whether because of misogyny or pessimism or a ruthless dedication to a feudal monarchy IN SPACE!, the future as shown in Dune is not one built upon a vision of progressivism or enlightened goodness. Indeed, evil thrives and those who cling to ideals above pragmatism are cut down. Sectarian intolerance appears to be rampant, if relatively non-violent (most of the time), and racism does not appear to be an issue at all, although despite the excellent pot pourri of linguistic references the spectre of the White Saviour still haunts the pages of every book.
Nevertheless, the constraints placed upon women and femininity do not sit comfortably with the modern reader, and (not being an expert) it is hard to know precisely what Herbert meant by it and whether this should tinge how the reader relates to the text. Likewise, Baron Harkonnen’s depravity cannot be disentangled from his homosexual preferences because he is the only character in Dune to be depicted in such a way. As I have written previously, the message an author intends to portray through a character can have worrying implications, deliberate or not, when there is only one representative of a given demographic in the story. Some comments I have seen around the Web suggest that he disowned his younger son, a gay-rights activist, and so Herbert’s own prejudices could very well be on display here.
Nevertheless, his concern for the environment, for the ramifications of single-resource-dependent economies, for weak governments, his attention to detail, his research, his concern for the integrity and weaknesses of the human spirit, and his imagination all worked together to give the world an intellectual phenomenon. We may see its failings or, indeed, the failings of its creator, but the universe of Dune was and remains a link in the chain of our cultural heritage and a sterling example of the strengths of well-conceived science-fiction.