Arrakis Travel Poster by Jazzberry Blue

Dune‘ is a science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert, published in 1965. It won the Hugo Award in 1966, and the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel, the highest honors bestowed in science fiction and fantasy writing.

‘Dune’ is frequently cited as the world’s best-selling science fiction novel. Set in the far future amidst a sprawling feudal interstellar empire where planetary fiefdoms are controlled by noble houses that owe an allegiance to the Imperial House Corrino, Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides (heir 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 multi-layered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as the forces of the Empire confront each other for control of Arrakis and its ‘spice.’

Herbert’s interest in the desert setting of Dune and its challenges is attributed to research he began in 1957 for a never-completed article about a USDA experiment using poverty grasses to stabilize damaging sand dunes, which could ‘swallow whole cities, lakes, rivers, highways.’ Herbert spent the next five years researching, writing, and revising what would eventually become the novel ‘Dune,’ which was initially serialized in ‘Analog’ magazine as two shorter works, ‘Dune World’ (1963) and ‘The Prophet of Dune’ (1965). The serialized version was expanded and reworked — and rejected by more than twenty publishers — before being published by Chilton Books, a little-known printing house best known for its auto repair manuals, in 1965.

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, a board game, 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.

The novel is set over 10,000 years in the future, and the human race has scattered throughout the known universe and populated countless planetary systems, which are ruled by aristocratic royal houses who in turn answer to the Padishah Emperor. Science and technology have evolved far beyond that of our own time. Because of an incident years previously, known as the Butlerian Jihad, computers and artificial intelligence are prohibited. In the absence of these devices, humans with highly developed minds called Mentats perform the functions of computers.

Besides mentats, various organizations were born to fill the space that once was occupied by ‘machines.’ Only two of these have survived: the Spacing Guild, which has specialized in areas like mathematics, and has monopolized space travel which has been made possible through their Navigators, and the powerful matriarchal order called the Bene Gesserit, whose main priority is to preserve and advance the human race. The source of all their skills depends on a valuable substance called melange, often referred to as ‘the spice,’ which is found only on the desert planet Arrakis. The spice gives those who ingest it extended life and some prescient awareness, often in the form of visions of the future.

The CHOAM corporation is the major underpinning of the Imperial economy, with shares and directorships determining each House’s income and financial leverage. The key to their power is the control of Arrakis. Melange is crucial to the Spacing Guild’s Navigators, who depend on it to safely plot a course for the Guild’s heighliner ships using prescience and ‘foldspace’ technology, which allows instantaneous travel to anywhere in the universe.

The spice gives the secretive Bene Gesserit, often referred to as ‘witches,’ advanced mental and physical abilities in part developed through conditioning called prana-bindu training. A Bene Gesserit acolyte becomes a full Reverend Mother by undergoing a perilous ritual known as the spice agony, in which she ingests an otherwise lethal dose of an awareness spectrum narcotic (‘The Water of Life’–the bile of a newborn sandworm on Arrakis) and must render it harmless psychosomatically. 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 the masculine avenues of 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. In the past, many male candidates have tried the sacred ritual to become the Kwisatz Haderach and have failed, dying horribly in the process.

The planet Arrakis itself is completely covered in a desert ecosystem, hostile to most life. It is also [believed to be] sparsely settled by a human population of native Fremen tribes, ferocious fighters who ride the giant sandworms of the desert and whose 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.

The novel suggests that the Fremen have adapted to the environment physiologically, with their blood able to clot almost instantly to prevent water loss. The Fremen culture also revolves around the spice, which is found in the desert and harvested with great risk from attacking sandworms. As they have done on so many other planets they consider to be superstitious, Bene Gesserit missionary efforts have also implanted religion and prophecies on Arrakis, and has given the Fremen a belief in a male messiah, the Lisan al-Gaib (‘voice of the outer world’), who will one day come from off-world to transform Arrakis into a more hospitable world.

Emperor Shaddam IV has come to fear House Atreides because of the growing popularity of Duke Leto Atreides and the fact that Leto’s fighting force is beginning to rival the effectiveness of the Emperor’s own dreaded Sardaukar, whose (perceived) invincibility helps guarantee the Emperor’s power. Shaddam decides that House Atreides must be destroyed, but cannot risk an overt attack on a single House, as this would not be accepted by the Landsraad, the convocation of ruling Houses. The Emperor instead uses the centuries-old feud between House Atreides and House Harkonnen to disguise his assault, enlisting the brilliant and power-hungry Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in his plan to trap and eliminate the Atreides. To remove them from their fief on the watery planet Caladan where they are protected by their formidable navy Shaddam entices Leto to accept the lucrative fief of the desert planet Arrakis, previously controlled by the Harkonnens, and the only known source of the spice melange.

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. Leto’s concubine, the Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica, had been commanded by the Sisterhood to bear the Duke a daughter who would then have been bred with the Harkonnen heir. This union was expected to produce the superhuman Kwisatz Haderach. Jessica had defied these orders and instead bore the Duke the son he desired, and Jessica now recognizes that Paul may himself be the Kwisatz Haderach, born one generation earlier than expected.

The Atreides expect plots and challenges to their rule over Arrakis, and are able to thwart initial Harkonnen traps and complications while simultaneously building trust with the local population of Fremen, with whom they hope to ally. However, the Atreides are ultimately 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. House Atreides is scattered. Of its principal retainers, the Mentat Thufir Hawat is taken by the Baron and eventually convinced to work for his captors; the troubador-soldier Gurney Halleck escapes with the aid of smugglers, whom he joins; and fiercely loyal swordmaster, Duncan Idaho is killed defending Paul and Jessica.

Per his bargain, Yueh delivers a captive Leto to the Baron, but double-crosses the Harkonnens by ensuring that Paul and Jessica escape. He also provides Leto with a false tooth that is actually a poison-gas capsule which he can bite down on, simultaneously committing suicide and assassinating the Baron Harkonnen. The Baron has his twisted Mentat assassin, Piter De Vries kill Yueh; Leto dies in his failed attempt on the Baron’s life, though De Vries dies with him. Paul and Jessica, aided variously by Duncan, Yueh, and the Fremen leader and Imperial Planetologist Liet-Kynes, escape their captors and flee into the deep desert.

Jessica’s Bene Gesserit abilities and Paul’s developing skills help them join a band of Fremen. Paul and his mother quickly learn Fremen ways while teaching the Fremen the ‘weirding way,’ a Bene Gesserit method of fighting. Jessica becomes a Reverend Mother, ingesting the poisonous Water of Life while pregnant with her second child; this unborn daughter Alia is subjected to the same ordeal, acquiring the full abilities of a Reverend Mother in in utero.

Paul takes a Fremen lover, Chani, with whom he fathers a son. Years pass, and Paul increasingly recognizes the strength of the Fremen fighting force and their potential to overtake even the ‘unstoppable’ 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. However, Paul becomes aware through his prescience that, if he is not careful, the Fremen will extend that jihad against all the known universe, which Paul describes as a humanity-spanning subconscious effort to avoid genetic stagnation.

Both the Emperor and the Baron Harkonnen show increasing concern at 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 more brutish nephew Glossu Rabban — who is in charge of the planet — with the hope of gaining the respect of the population. However, the Emperor is highly suspicious of the Baron and sends spies to watch his movements.

Hawat explains the Emperor’s suspicions: the Sardaukar, nearly invincible in battle, are trained on the prison planet Salusa Secundus, whose inhospitable conditions allow only the best to survive. Arrakis serves as a similar crucible, and the Emperor fears that the Baron could recruit from it a fighting force to rival his Sardaukar, just as House Atreides had intended before their destruction.

Paul is reunited with Gurney. Completely loyal to the Atreides, Gurney is convinced that Jessica is the traitor who caused the House’s downfall, and nearly kills her before being stopped by Paul. Disturbed that his prescience had not predicted this possibility, Paul decides to take the Water of Life, an act which will either confirm his status as the Kwisatz Haderach or kill him. After three weeks in a near-death state, Paul emerges with his powers refined and focused; 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 realizes the way to control spice production on Arrakis: saturating spice fields with the water of life would cause a chain reaction that would destroy all spice on the planet.

In an Imperial attack on a Fremen settlement, Paul and Chani’s son Leto is killed, and the four-year-old Alia is captured by Sardaukar and brought to the planet’s capital Arrakeen, where the Baron Harkonnen is attempting to thwart the Fremen jihad under the close watch of the Emperor. The Emperor is surprised at 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 riding sandworms; Alia kills the Baron during the confusion with the ‘gom jabbar,’ a poison needle used by Bene Gesserit.

Paul quickly overtakes the city’s defenses and confronts the Emperor, threatening to destroy the spice, thereby ending space travel and crippling both Imperial power and the Bene Gesserit in one blow. Feyd-Rautha challenges Paul to a knife-duel in a final attempt to stop his overthrow, 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 that will change the face of the known universe. However, despite being Emperor of the Known Universe, Paul realizes that he will not be able to stop the jihad he has seen in his visions, his legendary status among the Fremen having grown past the point where he can control it.

Dune has been called the ‘first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale.’ After the publication of ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson in 1962, science fiction writers began treating the subject of ecological change and its consequences. Dune responded in 1965 with its complex descriptions of Arrakis life, from giant sandworms (for whom water is deadly) to smaller, mouse-like life forms adapted to live with limited water. The inhabitants of the planet, the Fremen, must compromise with the ecosystem in which they live, sacrificing some of their desire for a water-laden planet to preserve the sandworms which are so important to their culture.

Dune was followed in its creation of complex and unique ecologies by other science fiction books such as ‘A Door into Ocean’ (1986) and ‘Red Mars’ (1992). Environmentalists have pointed out that Dune’s popularity as a novel depicting a planet as a complex—almost living—thing, in combination with the first images of earth from space being published in the same time period, strongly influenced environmental movements such as the establishment of the international Earth Day.

Scholars have compared Dune’s portrayal of the downfall of a galactic empire to Edward Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ published in 1776, which argues that corruption and division led to the fall of Ancient Rome. In ‘History and Historical Effect in Frank Herbert’s Dune’ (1992), Lorenzo DiTommaso outlines similarities between the two works by highlighting the excesses of the Emperor on his home planet of Kaitain and of the Baron Harkonnen in his palace.

The Emperor loses his effectiveness as a ruler from excess of ceremony and pomp. The hairdressers and attendants he brings with him to Arrakis are even referred to as ‘parasites.’ The Baron Harkonnen is similarly corrupt, materially and sexually decadent. Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’ blames the fall of Rome on the inflow of decadent ideas from conquered states, and on the excesses that followed. Gibbon claimed that these luxuries weakened the soldiers of Rome and left it open to attack. Similarly, the Emperor’s Sardaukar fighters are little match for the Fremen of Dune because of the Sardaukar’s overconfidence and the Fremen’s capacity for self-sacrifice. The Fremen put the community before themselves in every instance, while the world outside wallows in luxury at the expense of others.

A large number of terms in Dune closely mirror Arabic and Islamic ones, such as Mahdi, Shaitan, and ‘Fedaykin,’ from Feda’yin. As a foreigner who adopts the ways of a desert-dwelling people in an attempt to win their freedom, Paul Atreides’ character bears some similarities to the historical T. E. Lawrence, so-called Lawrence of Arabia.

Kathy Gower criticizes Dune in the book ‘Mother Was Not a Person,’ arguing that although the book has been praised for its portrayal of people in a mystical world, the women get left behind. In her view, women in Dune culture are largely left to domestic duties, and the exclusively female Bene Gesserit religious cult resembles age-old notions of witchcraft. Women in this religion are feared and hated by the men. They also never use their power to aid themselves, only the men around them, and their greatest desire is to bring a man into their religion. Science-fiction author and literary critic Samuel R. Delany has expressed offense that the book’s only portrayal of homosexuals, as in the case of Baron Harkonnen as a vile pervert, are negative.

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 applies Herbert’s philosophy that humans are not created equal, while equal justice and equal opportunity are higher ideals than mental, physical, or moral equality. Margery Hourihan argues that Jessica struggles to maintain power in a male-dominated society.

Throughout Paul’s rise to superhuman status, he follows a plotline common to many stories describing the birth of a hero. He has unfortunate circumstances forced onto him. After a long period of hardship and exile, he confronts and defeats the source of evil in his tale. As such, Dune is representative of a general trend beginning in 1960s American science fiction in that it features a character who attains godlike status through scientific means.

Eventually, Paul Atreides gains a level of omniscience which allows him to take over the planet and the galaxy, and causing the Fremen of Arrakis to worship him like a god. Author Frank Herbert said in 1979, ‘The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.’ He wrote in 1985, ‘Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.’

Juan A. Prieto-Pablos says 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, Ginaz swordsmen and Sardaukar) or mental abilities (Bene Gesserit, Mentats, Spacing Guild Navigators).

Early in his newspaper career, Herbert was introduced to Zen Buddhism by two Jungian psychologists. Throughout the Dune series and particularly in ‘Dune,’ Herbert employs concepts and forms borrowed from Zen . The Fremen are ‘Zensunni’ adherents, and many of Herbert’s epigraphs are Zen-spirited.

He wrote, ‘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.”

The first edition of Dune is one of the most valuable in science fiction book collecting, and copies have gone for more than $10,000 at auction. The Chilton first edition of the novel is 9.25 inches tall, with bluish green boards and a price of $5.95 on the dust jacket, and notes Toronto as the Canadian publisher on the copyright page.

In 1973, film producer Arthur P. Jacobs optioned the film rights to ‘Dune’ but later died before a film could be developed. The option was then taken over two years later by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who proceeded to approach, among others, the British prog-rock group Pink Floyd for some of the music, artists H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud for set and character design, and Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, and others for the cast. The project ultimately stalled for financial reasons. The film rights lapsed until 1982, when they were purchased by Italian filmmaker Dino DeLaurentiis.

The first film of ‘Dune’ was adapted by David Lynch and released in 1984, nearly 20 years after the book’s publication. Though Herbert said the book’s depth and symbolism seemed to intimidate many filmmakers, he was pleased with the film, however reviews of the film were not as favorable, saying that it was incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the book, and that fans would be disappointed by the way it strayed from the book’s plot.


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