frank herbert by charles burns

The political, scientific, and social fictional setting of Frank Herbert’s novels and derivative works is known as the Dune universe, or Duniverse. Set tens of thousands of years in the future, the saga chronicles a civilization which has banned computers but has also developed advanced technology and mental and physical abilities. Vital to this empire is the harsh desert planet Arrakis, only known source of the spice melange, the most valuable substance in the universe.

Creative works set in the Dune universe can be said to fall into five general time periods: The Butlerian Jihad; The Corrino-led Imperium; The ascension of the Atreides; The reign and fall of the God Emperor; and The return from the Scattering.

The Butlerian Jihad is a conflict taking place over 11,000 years in the future (and over 10,000 years before the events of ‘Dune’) which results in the total destruction of virtually all forms of ‘computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots.’ With the prohibition ‘Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind,’ the creation of even the simplest thinking machines is outlawed and made taboo, which has a profound influence on the socio-political and technological development of humanity in the Dune series.

Herbert refers to the Jihad several times in the novels, but does not give much detail on how he imagined the causes and nature of the conflict. In Herbert’s ‘God Emperor of Dune’ (1981), Leto Atreides II indicates that the Jihad had been a semi-religious social upheaval initiated by humans who felt repulsed by how guided and controlled they had become by machines: ‘The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines,’ Leto said. ‘Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed.’

This technological reversal leads to the creation of the universal ‘Orange Catholic Bible’ (a religious text containing elements of most ancient religions), and the rise of a new feudal galactic empire which lasts for over 10,000 years before Herbert’s series begins. Several secret societies also develop, using eugenics programs, intensive mental and physical training, and pharmaceutical enhancements to hone human skills to an astonishing degree. Artificial insemination is also prohibited, as explained in ‘Dune Messiah’ (1969) when Paul Atreides negotiates with the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, who is appalled by Paul’s suggestion that he impregnate his consort in this manner.

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson present the Jihad as a war between humans and the sentient machines they had created, who rise up and nearly destroy mankind. The series explains that mankind had become entirely complacent and dependent upon thinking machines; recognizing this weakness, a group of ambitious, militant humans calling themselves the Titans use this widespread reliance on machine intelligence to seize control of the entire universe. Their reign lasts for a century; eventually they give too much access and power to the AI program Omnius, which usurps control from the Titans themselves.

Seeing no value in human life, the thinking machines — now including armies of robot soldiers and other aggressive machines — dominate and enslave nearly all of humanity in the universe for 900 years, until a jihad is ignited. This crusade against the machines lasts for nearly a century, with much loss of human life but ultimately ending in human victory.

The ancient Battle of Corrin — occurring 20 years after the end of the Butlerian Jihad — spawns the Padishah Emperors of House Corrino, who rule the known universe for millennia by controlling the brutally efficient military force known as the Imperial Sardaukar. Ten thousand years later, one balance to Imperial power is the assembly of noble houses called the Landsraad, which enforces the Great Convention’s ban on the use of atomics against human targets.

Though the power of the Corrinos is unrivaled by any individual House, they are in constant competition with each other for political power and stakes in the omnipresent CHOAM company, a directorship which controls the wealth of the entire Old Empire. The third primary power in the universe is the Spacing Guild, which monopolizes interstellar travel and banking. Mutated Guild Navigators use the spice drug melange to successfully navigate ‘folded space’ and safely guide enormous heighliner starships from planet to planet instantaneously.

The matriarchal Bene Gesserit possess almost superhuman physical, sensory, and deductive powers developed through years of physical and mental conditioning. While positioning themselves to ‘serve’ mankind, the Bene Gesserit pursue their goal to better the human race by subtly and secretly guiding and manipulating the affairs of others to serve their own purposes. The Bene Gesserit also have a secret, millennia-long selective breeding program to bolster and preserve valuable skills and bloodlines as well as to produce a theoretical superhuman male they call the Kwisatz Haderach.

By the time of ‘Dune,’ the Sisterhood are only one generation away from their desired individual, having manipulated the threads of genes and power for thousands of years to produce the required confluence of events. But Lady Jessica, ordered by the Bene Gesserit to produce a daughter who would breed with the appropriate male to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, instead bears a son — unintentionally producing their Messiah a generation early.

‘Human computers’ known as Mentats have been developed and perfected to replace the capacity for logical analysis lost through the prohibition of computers. Through specific training, they learn to enter a heightened mental state in which they can perform complex logical computations that are superior to those of the ancient thinking machines. The patriarchal Bene Tleilax, or Tleilaxu, are amoral merchants who traffic in biological and genetically engineered products such as artificial eyes, ‘twisted’ Mentats, and gholas (clones). Finally, the Ixians produce cutting-edge technology that seemingly complies with (but pushes the boundaries of) the prohibitions against thinking machines. The Ixians are very secretive, not only to protect their valuable hold on the industry but also to hide any methods or inventions that may breach the anti-thinking machine protocols.

Against this backdrop, the ‘Prelude to Dune’ prequel trilogy (1999–2001) chronicles the return from obscurity of House Atreides, whose role in the Butlerian Jihad is all but forgotten. The Imperial House schemes to gain full control of the Empire through the control of melange, precisely at the time that the Bene Gesserit breeding program is nearing fruition.

As Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ (1965) begins, Duke Leto Atreides finds himself in a dangerous position; the 81st Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV has put him in control of the desert planet Arrakis, known as Dune, which is the only natural source of the all-important spice melange. The most valuable commodity in the known universe, the spice not only makes safe and reliable interstellar travel possible, but also prolongs life, protects against disease, and is used by the Bene Gesserit to enhance their abilities. The potential financial gains for House Atreides are mitigated by the fact that mining melange from the desert surface of Arrakis is an expensive and hazardous undertaking, thanks to the treacherous environment and constant threat of giant sandworms which protect the spice.

In addition, Leto is aware that Shaddam, threatened by the rising power and influence of the Atreides, has sent him into a trap; failure to meet or exceed the production volume of their predecessors, the vicious House Harkonnen, will negatively affect the position of House Atreides in CHOAM, which relies on spice profits. Further, the very presence of the Atreides on Arrakis inflames the long-simmering War of Assassins between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, a feud ignited 10,000 years before when an Atreides had a Harkonnen banished for cowardice after the Butlerian Jihad.

The little-understood native population of Arrakis are the Fremen, long overlooked by the Imperium. Considered backward savages, the Fremen are an extremely hardy people and exist in large numbers, their culture built around the commodity of water, which is extremely scarce on Arrakis. The Fremen await the coming of a prophesied messiah, not suspecting that this prophecy had been planted in their legends by the Missionaria Protectiva, an arm of the Bene Gesserit dedicated to religious manipulation to ease the path of the Sisterhood when necessary.

In ‘Dune,’ the so-called ‘Arrakis Affair’ puts unexpected Kwisatz Haderach Paul Atreides in control of first the Fremen people and then Arrakis itself; he deposes Shaddam and becomes ruler of the known universe. With a bloody jihad subsequently unleashed across the universe in Paul’s name but out of his control, the Bene Gesserit, Tleilaxu, Spacing Guild, and House Corrino plot to dethrone him in ‘Dune Messiah’ (1969). The Atreides Empire continues to devolve in ‘Children of Dune’ (1976) as the religion built around Paul falters and his heirs rise to power.

At the time of ‘God Emperor of Dune’ (1981), Paul’s son, the God Emperor Leto Atreides II, has ruled the Empire for 3,500 years from the verdant face of a transformed Arrakis; melange production has ceased. Leto has forced the sandworms into extinction, except for the larval sandtrout with which he had forged a symbiosis, transforming him into a human-sandworm hybrid.

Human civilization before his rule had suffered from twin weaknesses: that it could be controlled by a single authority, and that it was totally dependent upon melange, found on only one planet in the known universe. Leto’s prescient visions had shown that mankind would be threatened by extinction in any number of ways; his solution was to place mankind on his ‘Golden Path,’ a plan for long term survival.

Leto governs as a benevolent tyrant, providing for his people’s physical needs, but denying them any spiritual outlets other than his own compulsory religion (as well as maintaining a monopoly on spice and thus total control of its use). Personal violence of any kind is banned, as is nearly all space travel, creating a pent-up demand for freedom and travel.

The Bene Gesserit, Ixians, and Tleilaxu find themselves seeking ways to regain some of their former power or unseat Leto altogether. Leto also conducts his own selective breeding program among the descendants of his twin sister Ghanima, finally arriving at Siona, daughter of Moneo, whose actions are hidden from prescient vision. Leto engineers his own assassination, knowing it will result in rebellion and revolt but also in an explosion in travel and colonization. The death of Leto’s body also produces new sandtrout, which will eventually give rise to a population of sandworms and a new cycle of spice production.

In the aftermath of the fall of the God Emperor, chaos and severe famine on many worlds cause trillions of humans to set off into the freedom of unknown space and spread out across the universe. This diaspora is later called the Scattering and, combined with the invisibility of Atreides descendants to prescient vision, assures that mankind has forever escaped the threat of total extinction.

At the time of ‘Heretics of Dune’ (1984) and ‘Chapterhouse: Dune’ (1985) — 1500 years after Leto’s death — the turmoil is settling into a new pattern; the balance of power in the Empire rests among the Ixians, the Bene Gesserit, and the Tleilaxu. The Spacing Guild has been forever weakened by the development of Ixian machines capable of navigation in foldspace, practically replacing Guild Navigators.

The Bene Gesserit control the sandworms and their planet, now called Rakis, but the Tleilaxu have also discovered how to synthetically produce melange. This balance of power is shattered by a large influx of people from the Scattering, some fleeing persecution by an as-yet unknown enemy. Among the returning people, the Bene Gesserit finds its match in a violent and corrupt matriarchal society known as the Honored Matres, whom they suspect may be descended from some of their own sent out in the Scattering. As a bitter and bloody war erupts between the orders, it ultimately becomes clear that joining the two organizations into a single New Sisterhood with shared abilities is their best chance to fight the approaching enemy.

One Comment to “Duniverse”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.