A Galactic Renaissance: ‘Dune’s’ Vital Role in Shaping Modern Sci-Fi Narratives

Frank Herbert's 'Dune' captivates new readers with its epic narrative and profound themes, redefining science fiction with every turn of the page.

For a casual reader of science fiction, reading Dune can be a vitalizing experience. Although there are many good science-fiction novels, none seems to have had the tremendous effect that Dune has had, at least on younger readers just getting into science fiction. It, probably more than any book written up to its time and more than most since, seemed to show the full promise of science fiction. It is not just that ecological matters are important now, although that helps. It is not just the idea of fighting corrupt politics, although that helps (more in 1975 than in 1965). It is not just the love story or the development of Paul’s powers or the Fremen way of life or the various disciplines or the exciting sequence of events or the sense of wonder at things beyond our experience; it is not even all these things lumped together. Rather, it is the fact that Frank Herbert has created a civilization spanning many stars, in which all the factors mentioned are parts in a consistent and coherent and comprehensive work. Few works that were written earlier even attempted both the breadth and the depth to be found in Dune.

Because Dune is such a rich and complex work, with such a multitude of patterns, relationships, and significances, it is impossible to hold all of them in mind at one time; perhaps the best approach is to suggest the ways in which the six basic factors which compose the literary work can be used to discover and uncover the things that are happening in the work. These six basic factors are character, story, plot, narrative point of view, setting, and language. Together, these not only provide the materials for the web of relationships that make up the book, but they also work together to create the theme (the complex of meanings that interpret experience for us) of the book. The results of an examination using these elements can be fairly brief and suggestive of further possibilities, as it will be here, or it can become quite lengthy and detailed, depending on the purposes of the person doing the analysis. In addition, these elements can be used to discover more about any story or book.

Probably the first aspect of the work that needs attention in a thoughtful examination is the story, the chronological-causal sequence of events. Although even this can become very complicated, what we are interested in is the basic skeleton that holds all the rest of these elements together. For such purposes, a story event can be defined as a point at which the story makes a choice of directions, chooses one possibility rather than another. There are several ways of approaching a summary of the story. One method would provide just the bare skeleton of events and would look rather like a list or perhaps an outline.

In spite of the length of the book, the basic storyline of Dune is quite simple. One way of summarizing that story would be the following sequence:

  1. The Atreides family moves from Caladan to Arrakis.
  2. The Harkonnens attack their stronghold, killing Duke Leto.
  3. Paul and Lady Jessica escape into the desert.
  4. They are captured by a group of Fremen.
  5. Paul fights with and kills Jamis, and as a result is accepted into the group.
  6. Jessica becomes the Fremens’ Reverend Mother.
  7. Paul rides a gigantic sandworm, thus becoming fully initiated into the group.
  8. Paul takes leadership of the Fremen.
  9. The Fremen, under Paul, fight and defeat the Imperial forces.
  10. Paul fights and kills Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in a formal duel.
  11. Paul deposes the Emperor.

Each of these marks a point at which the story could go one of several directions, and each of them follows logically from, is “caused” by, what has gone before. It might be noted, too, that these also summarize a large number of specific actions. Furthermore, different people may very well add different elements to this list, or phrase them differently, for, in part at least, this is a matter of the point of view from which the actions of the book are seen; the reasoning behind the choices is as important as the choices themselves. Finally, more specific story events link each of these major events; for example, under number 3 (Paul and Jessica escape into the desert), you would have such specific actions, in sequence, as their initial capture, being taken to the desert to be left helpless, escaping their guards, help from a group of Fremen led by Liet Kynes, flight in an ornithopter through a desert storm, and the walk across the desert. These specific steps lead from number 3 directly to number 4. However, even without considering these specific steps or the details of the Harkonnen plotting which moves beside this storyline, this outline can suggest several things about the thematic content of the novel. First of all, these events show Paul’s rise from the son of a murdered duke to the ruler of the Empire; certainly the political maneuvering involved in the novel will yield materials for a theme. At the same time that this rise is taking place, Paul also moves from a familiar place to a strange one, learning the ways of the strange situation and gradually, through a series of steps, becoming a member of a new group and finally a leader of that group; thematically, this suggests two directions: the learning process and the nature of the group he is becoming a part of. Thus, even if one did no more than outline the major actions that take place in the book and think about them for a time, some of the areas which the fully fleshed-out novel provides an interpretation for can be seen. Naturally, if the specifics of those interpretations are to be found, we must go to other elements of the novel to find them.

A second way of summarizing the story’s events is to take a more narrative stance, providing more information about relationships, motivations, and points of thematic stress. While the first method makes it somewhat easier to see the main outlines of the short story or novel as a framework to which other elements have been added, the second approach makes it somewhat easier to move directly into a discussion of the thematic elements of the work. Nevertheless, both approaches cover basically the same events and the same materials. For example, a summary of the story using the second approach would be something like this:

In its main outlines, the storyline emphasizes the political struggle and the development of Paul Atreides. It begins in political maneuvering, for the Atreides family has been requested (ordered politely but without honorable alternative) by the Emperor to leave the planet Caladan, their ducal fief for many generations, to take over the governance of Arrakis from the Harkonnens, who are longtime enemies, and to supervise the gathering of melange. Both the Harkonnens and the Emperor have reason to want to put Duke Leto Atreides in a more vulnerable position so they can destroy him. The active role in this partnership is taken by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who has planted a traitor in the Atreides household and who has followers on Arrakis. Thus, before the Duke and his family can get fully settled in and well-defended, Harkonnen forces, including the Imperial Sardaukar in Harkonnen uniforms, storm the castle. They kill many, Leto dying as he tries to poison Baron Harkonnen; others are captured, notably Thufir Hawat; and a few escape, notably Gurney Halleck. Paul and his mother, the Lady Jessica, are temporarily captive but use their training to escape. Dr. Yueh, the traitor who hates what he does, has provided a survival kit and sent them toward protection; he also sent the Atreides ducal signet so that Paul may have proof of his ancestry when he needs it. The Fremen, natives of the planet, under Kynes, the planetary ecologist who has given them a vision of the future, help them escape further and give them an ornithopter. They escape pursuit in a sandstorm, though the plane eventually fails them. After crossing the desert on foot, they are captured by another group of Fremen; although their leader would tentatively accept them, one of his men would kill them immediately, in observance of the traditions of the tribe. Eventually, Paul must fight with this man, Jamis; he does so and kills him in formal combat. This wins his acceptance by the tribe and earns him the familiar and formal Fremen names of Usul and Muad’dib. Shortly thereafter, Jessica becomes Reverend Mother to the Fremen. As he lives with the Fremen, Paul grows in the Fremen ways, leading up to the test of riding the Maker, a giant sandworm of Arrakis. After he has done so, he rapidly acquires a leadership role among the Fremen and leads them on greater raids against the Harkonnen, who have repossessed the planet. Paul also drinks the Water of Life, a poison used in creating the Reverend Mothers, who have the ability to transmute it; he survives it and it brings his Powers into full being. Finally, the need to combat these raids, as well as various political motives, brings the Harkonnen and Imperial forces in great strength to Arrakis. With the aid of a storm, the family atomics, and riding the Makers, the Fremen led by Paul overcome the numerically superior forces arrayed against them. After formal combat with Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, whom he kills, Paul deposes the Emperor, taking his daughter as wife, though vowing she will be his wife in name only. Thus, Paul’s revenge for the death of his father is completed, and the novel ends.

This second approach to summarizing the story may lead slightly more easily into the next aspect of the novel that, especially for Dune, might most profitably be looked at. This aspect would be character, that bundle of qualities and traits which individuals in the novel are composed of, and the relationships between characters. Since any reading of the novel, as well as the two kinds of story summary, indicates that Paul Atreides is the central character in the novel, he should be the starting point. Paul’s characteristics are many and varied, for comparatively speaking he is quite well-rounded. He has exceptional powers of observation and bodily control, having been trained in the Bene Gesserit way. His powers of logic and deduction are above normal, having been trained as a Mentat. He has a keen sense of the uses and intricacies of power and political maneuvering, having been raised as the son of a duke who will one day take over his father’s position. He is intelligent and thus able to use these different kinds of training well. He has a gift of foretelling. He develops into the Kwisatz Haderach because of his genetic heritage, the necessities of life on Arrakis, the pressure of revenge for his father, and his training.

Revenge is a strong motivating factor in many of his actions, particularly those dealing with the Emperor and the Harkonnens. He is also capable of love, though not for many people; he is loyal to those who look to him for leadership. Paul also has many other traits and many relationships with other characters in the novel. There are also many other characters, and the entire web of relationships is immense and complex. Those characteristics which have been indicated, however, can serve to show how story and character interact to clarify a thematic position. One of the thematic areas suggested by the storyline is the learning process that Paul undergoes; the specifics of his character indicate the nature, the direction, and some of the means to achieve this learning. In the novel itself, we are shown some of Paul’s training in weapons, in thinking, in the use of physical control, and in practical government; for the most part, however, this kind of training is in the background, something that has already taken place. Instead, in the interaction between the events and his character, we see Paul gradually learning how to bring these various skills together, to understand their nature so that he can apply them to the specific problem of avenging his father and leading the Fremen to a position where they can safely work toward their goal of a green planet. As he learns to control these abilities, he also comes to understand more about himself and his place in the specific situation and in history. To a certain extent, his survival makes it necessary for him to learn these things, so the setting will also be important to the learning process; his abilities, plus his interaction with the Fremen and with the setting, as well as the desire for revenge, all come together to provide the means by which he finds the resources for growth. Through the course of the novel, he grows in several directions: in understanding himself, in his ability to control his abilities to achieve a desired end, in his ability to lead others, in his knowledge of the world around him, and in his ability to see himself as part of a much larger context. All of these things furnish further details for a thematic statement dealing with the learning process Paul undergoes. Other aspects of his character and of his relationships with other characters add depth, breadth, and detail to other thematic possibilities.

Although the other characters are given sufficient characterization so that we can assume that they have a separate life of their own, they are primarily important because of their relationships with Paul. The Lady Jessica, for example, is a Bene Gesserit, which implies a number of things about her training, her abilities, and her purposes; the first two of these are shown through the action in various situations, as well as being implied by what we see of other Bene Gesserits in the novel, but the third is implied through the actions of Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam and of Lady Fenring, and through the general background about the Bene Gesserit that is provided throughout the novel. In addition, she is the concubine of Duke Leto, which implies that she has certain duties within his household and a set of feelings related to him; some of the specifics which define these are provided, and, from them, the reader can imagine others. Finally, she becomes a Reverend Mother for the Fremen, which means that she again has duties in that connection, although these are left generally vague. Thus, although in many ways she is defined in relationship to others, we can imagine her as leading a life outside of her relationship to Paul. Nevertheless, it is that relationship that gives her place and importance in the novel; these other elements also focus on the relationship she has with her son. For example, her Bene Gesserit training allows her to pass this on to Paul, providing one of the elements that make him what he is; that training, in tandem with her feeling for Duke Leto, enables her to produce the son whom Leto wants. Thus, in the novel, our primary view of her is as teacher and guide for Paul, showing him Bene Gesserit techniques, making herself an example of how it should be done, and worrying about him.

Stilgar is another example of Herbert’s techniques of characterization in Dune. Yet, there are very few details in the novel which directly characterize Stilgar. However, because we see a great deal of Fremen society in the novel, simply to say that he is one of their leaders implies a great deal about him: his fighting skills, his survival abilities, his talents for leading a group of rather independent individuals, (which in turn suggests diplomatic skill, an ability to make good decisions, and an ability to inspire trust, and so on), and a number of his duties within the tribal structure. His wisdom and compassion, as well as some of these other factors, are shown during the first period Paul and Jessica are with the tribe. Nevertheless, his primary importance is as Paul’s guide to the Fremen way of life and as a monitor of Paul’s rise to influence and power; that is, as Paul gains in these areas, Stilgar moves from leader and father-figure to co-leader to lieutenant, and, in Dune Messiah, to worshipper. Though the total web of relationships between Paul and these two characters may be much more complex than suggested here, and though these characters have relationships of various kinds and degrees with each other and with other characters, this method of approach holds throughout the novel; much the same thing can be done with the other characters and with the webs of relationship between them. Some of the results of this can be seen in the discussion of thematic threads in the novel.

In many novels, the setting is simply someplace where the action takes place, having minimal effect and minimal importance; in Dune, setting is one of the more important elements. In the largest sense, the setting is a distant galaxy, far in the future, which had originally been settled from Earth; a large number of planets are habitable and have been settled. Given the fact that there is an overall government for this system of inhabited planets, the physical facts of the distances and the size of the major political subdivisions, the setting has an effect on the governmental system; although it does not demand a monarchy, a monarchy is a logical response to such conditions. The specific setting, the planet Arrakis, or Dune, affects most of the actions and is at least related to many of the character traits in the novel. Arrakis is a desert planet, with only a small supply of water, which is mostly concentrated in very tiny polar caps; its one point of importance for the governmental system is the fact that it alone produces melange, a spice which has many unique properties that make it valuable. Control of this spice, then, is a valuable thing, one which can lead to political maneuvering. However, it is the harshness of the planet that has the most widespread effect. In order to survive on such a planet, the Fremen must adapt nearly every facet of their existence to the facts of the planet, and so must most of those whose stay is only temporary. The lack of water, for example, requires that special clothing be worn to reclaim and recycle any traces of body moisture; it also conditions the society to reclaiming the body water of the dead before burial, and it gives rise to a variety of means for trapping and holding water in the air. The sand, the heat, and the giant sandworms all require adherence to a particular pattern of living. Quite naturally, those factors also condition the ceremonies, the attitudes, and the social customs of the people. The battle for survival is intense; it does not take much urging from Liet Kynes for the vision of Arrakis as a green planet to become both an obsession and a religious vision for the Fremen. This setting forces Paul to bend his powers toward survival; it provides a situation where learning to use the abilities that he has is imperative, whereas Caladan, his home planet, would have offered no challenge such as this. In order to rise, or even to be accepted, among these people, he must learn the ways of the desert, for if he does not, he can achieve none of his goals. The toughness required to survive is one of the factors in the defeat of the forces of the Emperor; another is that the Empire’s forces do not know the precautions that must be taken against the worms. More than these things, however, the setting and the attitudes of the various groups toward it create what is one of the major themes of the novel, what might be called an ecological theme. There is the conflict between husbandry and exploitation, and between adapting to the land and adapting it to oneself. The answer provided is not simple: It suggests that something of both positions can be taken, if the ecology of the planet as a whole, including the people who live there, is taken into account before any changes are made or any use is made of the resources. This point has bearing on many other aspects of the book, for it conditions the political battles that are fought, it is a part of the learning process Paul undergoes, it is a part of the religious element of the Fremen life, and much more. In this novel, then, the setting is important both in its own right and in its conditioning of the other elements of the novel.

The narrative point of view of Dune, on the other hand, is not likely to yield a great deal or to modify what is learned from other sources to any great extent. The narrator here is omniscient and seems to be objective in his presentation of the actions, the characters, and the setting. The reader gets much more emotional guidance through the language that is used to describe the characters and the situations. Two examples may suffice. One of these concerns Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. We are never told directly that the Baron is a villain, but we know that he is. In the first place, his name is harsh sounding. When we are told that he uses suspensors to hold his body up, the image of gross fatness is repulsive. He speaks lovingly about the young boys that he will spend the night with (one of his reasons for going after the House of Atreides seems to be a passion for Paul). It is the way he speaks of his plans, even more than the plans themselves, that make them seem so underhanded and almost evil. Thus, the words which are used to describe him may seem neutral, but the imagery behind them guides the reader’s emotional reaction to him so that our impression is negative. Another example is the night that Paul and Jessica spend in the stilltent just after escaping from the Baron’s forces. Apparently they are simply waiting out the night so that they can refresh themselves for the flight the next day. However, the things that happen in that tent and the way in which they are described indicate that this is a significant experience for Paul. For example, before this and up through the time they enter the tent, Paul has been following Jessica’s lead; when they exit the next morning, Jessica is clearly aware that she is now following her son. The fact that at the beginning of the night Paul is unable to weep for his father but is able to do so by its end, after he has pondered a number of things, is also significant; he is now able to react with understanding rather than confusion. Finally, much of the imagery of this section points toward the womb and toward birth, so that Paul’s emergence from the tent becomes a rebirth after returning to the depths of himself, to the womb, in order to find the resources he will need to cope with the situations he knows he must face. Although it is something that most people don’t care to do, and although it is possible to get bogged down in the analysis of the language that is used to describe the various elements in a novel, some attention to such details is necessary if the fullest possible meaning and enjoyment are to be gained from a novel.

Character, setting, narrative point of view, and language are all aspects of plot; the major aspect of plot which has been covered is the way in which the events and situations of the novel are presented. In Dune, the order of presentation is not a large factor, although the fact that we see much of what happens from both the Atreides and the Harkonnen sides of the question adds to our knowledge of the general situation and to the depth of many of the themes that are present in the novel. Nevertheless, the main interest in the way that these sections are put together is more technical than thematic and can be passed over quite lightly here; in other novels, however, the question of why the author arranged the events, or the telling of the events, in the order that he did may very well be worth a good deal of time and thought.

Although the ways in which the various elements involved in the novel contribute to the formation of theme have been suggested in only one area, and a few other possible themes mentioned, Dune is thematically rich and complex. In the case of each area of thematic concern, several of these elements contribute materials from which to build the theme and with which to modify it. It is not possible here to go into full detail about any single theme, much less to adequately cover all of them or to bring the many specific themes into a single statement of theme. A number of the general areas into which themes in this novel fall, however, can be suggested, along with some of the more specific possibilities. Thus, under the general heading of political themes, we find that the nature of power and its effects on those who have it or want it, the nature of true leadership, the functions of a system of checks and balances, and the relationships between vision and effective political voice are among the specific thematic topics dealt with. Under ecological themes, we find such topics as how a desert planet might be gradually made green in an ecologically sound way, adaptation to an environment, the social effects of an ecological system, and the necessity for political power if a system is to be changed. Under the general heading of psychological themes, we find an exploration of the maturation process, an examination of the effects of an unusual talent, a study of the stages by which an individual reaches inside himself to find the resources necessary to meet the situations which face him, and a view of the effects of bitterness on a person’s approach to his problems. There are also the religious themes of the coming of a prophesied messiah and of the ways in which people are blind to the purposes and workings of a higher principle even when they think they have control of their actions and purposes. These seem to cover most of the main factors in the novel although there are other thematic elements on a smaller scale, such as the love interest or the literary pretensions of the Princess Irulan. All of these points that have been mentioned draw on at least two, and usually more, facets of the novel. This, plus the fact that the web of relationships between these points is very complex, makes it difficult to state that there is a single theme. Nevertheless, the more precisely such a statement summarizes the basic point, and the more relationships with other points that it includes, the more adequate a summation of one of the thematic possibilities of the novel it will be.

Some of these thematic areas are, of course, more significant in the course of the novel than others, and under any heading the smaller thematic elements combine to create larger thematic threads. A closer look at two of these larger thematic threads should suggest the possibilities of the novel and some of the relationships between the various thematic elements. However, this discussion could be expanded much further than it has been, for the book is rich and complex. Perhaps the two themes which are most central to the novel are the coming of the prophesied messiah and Paul’s multifaceted development; because they are of prime importance in unifying Dune and Dune Messiah, these themes will be discussed in a separate section. The political situation and the elements dealing with the ecology of Dune and the ecologically sound means of transforming the planet are very nearly as important as the other two, and these will be discussed here.

In addition to providing the motivation for many of the actions in the story, the novel’s treatment of political power and political maneuvering is one of the points that Herbert has treated rather consistently, though with various points of view and specific materials, throughout his works. At first glance, it seems that the saying “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” might be an adequate summation of his theme. It becomes quite clear, for example, that the main reason that the Emperor is willing to help Baron Harkonnen destroy the House of Atreides is that he feels a threat from both of these men; since Leto is the more capable of the two men, he is to be destroyed; also, he can use this destruction as a threat against the Baron to hold him in check. In short, the Emperor is using his power to preserve that power and to preserve the flow of money from the spice. In addition to this, when it comes to a showdown on Arrakis, the Emperor is most concerned with the court functions that he will have to miss and with the threat to the flow of spice; he does not really think in terms of human beings at all: It doesn’t really bother him that only one of the five troop carriers that he sent to the south returned, but he is bothered by the fact that it was old men, women, and children who inflicted this defeat, for this may mean that his power is more threatened than he thought it to be earlier. Baron Harkonnen is also corrupt and a user of men for his own ends. In a sense, he is even more dangerous than the Emperor, for while the Emperor has all the power available, the Baron would like more than he has, and he is willing to use any means that he can to attain that power. Furthermore, both of these men are exploiters, concerned with taking as much from Arrakis as they can, and as quickly as they can. They have no concern about depleting the planet, and as little concern about the men and equipment who do the actual work of getting the spice. It does seem that these two men, and those surrounding them, do indeed fit that quotation.

Opposed to these two, we find two other leaders who do not quite fit into that mold. Duke Leto Atreides, for example, is much more concerned about people than about either machines or the spice if a choice must be made between them; some of his plans for Arrakis include ways of making the spice gathering safer, and he does risk his own life to save the lives of men in a spice factory when they are threatened by a sandworm. He also aims to lead by example rather than by fear, by uniting rather than by polarizing. He is not perfect, of course, but he strives to keep the human above the abstract. He is well aware of the power that is to be gained by building a fighting force equal to that of the Emperor, but he seems to be more interested in using it to preserve a balance than in gaining power for himself. Perhaps his most serious breach of this ideal is when he tells himself that Kynes will have to learn how to speak properly to him. Another example of a good leader who is little corrupted by the power that he has is Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen. He impresses Jessica immediately with his knowledge of his men, with his way of trying to persuade them from actions he does not approve of with his bowing to the voice of the tribe, and with his understanding of many things, including the necessity of change. Furthermore, in all his actions, he keeps the welfare of his tribe as his topmost concern; he is even willing to allow himself to be killed if this will help them in the future. Though he will fight for his power, it is not for the same reason that the Emperor fights for his; Stilgar will fight in order to ensure that the challenger is fit to take his place as the leader and protector of his people, not simply to keep the power for himself, as can be seen when the young men of the tribe are suggesting that Paul should be their leader. Though both of these men may not be perfect leaders, they cannot be said to have been corrupted by their power.

The real center of this theme, however, is Paul Muad’dib, the Atreides Duke and the leader of the Fremen. By the time the novel ends, he has greater power than any man has had before, and he must find a way to control it. It is not just that he has power over the Fremen, nor that he takes over the Imperial throne, but rather that, with his awareness of the future and the sense of purpose that has been bred into him, both strengthened by his experiences, he represents a turning point in human history, a point which he must try to manage in the best possible way and with the least possible damage to humanity as a whole. This is a great burden, and the only person who can sense what he must do is Alia. Nevertheless, Paul does seem to manage to resist the corruptions of power quite well, for he sorrows when he sees Stilgar become a worshipper; he is willing to make the Emperor as comfortable as possible on the prison planet; he feels great tenderness for Chani; and he still shares the Fremen dream of a green planet. However, he is also a realist and does those things which must be done directly and without thought about who may be hurt. He has the realization that any choice is not between good and bad alternatives, but rather that making any choice may hurt someone; he has chosen the Jihad, with the Fremen running wild over the worlds of the Imperium, for he has seen that the other main direction of the future is even worse, even less desirable. Furthermore, he has seen that he has really never had the choice of preventing either of them; all he can do is try to minimize the unpleasant consequences. The choices facing Paul are very complex; in judging him, we cannot make simple judgments but rather must take into consideration the situations and the possibilities facing him. Whatever decision is made, it can be nothing as simple as “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Although the ecological theme is not the most visible or the most directly developed theme in the novel, there is reason to think that it contains the idea which gave impetus to writing this novel. Basically speaking, this theme consists of several elements: the nature and balance of the planet as it is at the time of the story; the ways that people have adapted to those conditions, both those who live with them and those who fight against them; and the vision of a green planet, including the ecologically sound plan for gradually bringing this vision into reality. Each of these elements is complex in itself, and only a few basic points can be examined here. Obviously, the main fact about this planet is that it is almost completely desert, with only very small polar ice caps. Just as clearly, water is a matter of greatest concern, especially among those who have neither the funds nor the connections to have water shipped to them from other worlds. It is implied that there is sufficient water on the planet to make a change in these conditions, although finding it in a usable form is very difficult. At the very least, extremely careful planning and very sophisticated means of gathering this water are needed if any such effort in that direction is to be successful. And, of course, a great deal of care is needed in order to preserve the life that is already there. The Fremen were not originally natives of Arrakis, having been brought there as slaves; however, they have adapted themselves and their entire life styles to the planet and to the desire to survive. It is noteworthy, for example, that they are capable of rather sophisticated technology but that all their efforts are concentrated on things related to preserving water. Their burial customs, their treatment of strangers, their mode of travel (both walking and on wormback), their soitches, and their stillsuits—all of these things are directly related to the conditions which they face and to ensuring the survival of the tribe. Their vision of the future of the planet seems based on two things: their memory of the world they came from, which they keep alive through ritual, and the word of Kynes about how they can make this world a green one. Patience is a survival trait on this planet, so they are ideally suited to the long period of time that is necessary for this plan to work. Kynes, then, provides the basic plan, the means of bringing about a change in an ecologically sound manner so that needed forms of life can either adapt to the changing conditions or be replaced by other life forms which can serve a similar function in the changed environment; the Fremen supply the devotion to the cause and the particular application of the plans that will make this dream a reality.

Both Kynes and the Fremen, as well as Paul and Jessica, realize, however, that the change cannot be complete, for the thing which makes the planet important is the spice, and water is poison for the sandworms who produce the spice in their earliest forms. In addition, Paul values the strength of body and mind that are found among the Fremen and recognizes that in large measure these are a result of the type of life that they have lived; he would also like to see that there are at least spots on Arrakis where their original way of life can be returned to, no matter what other changes are introduced. It might be noted that everything that is said in this novel about changing the planet is ecologically sound and scientifically feasible; the only questionable area is the source of the water that will be needed to start this cycle in any significant way, but this is something that is not gone into at any length, and there are suggestions that the planet does have the sources, so that we can accept this without undue strain to our credibility. In a very basic sense, then, these factors which constitute the ecological theme of the novel are responsible for much that happens in this novel.

When dealing with science fiction, there is another point that can profitably be examined, whether before or after the sort of analysis suggested. Since many, though not all, science-fiction stories and novels seem to have begun with the writer’s speculation about “what would happen if . . .,” it is reasonable to try to determine what the core question of the work might be—that is, what question seems to give rise to the largest number of the specific factors in the novel? In the case of Dune, this core question seems to be something like this: what would happen if there were a desert planet that was the source of a valuable natural resource? The fact that it had a valuable resource would account for the interest in it and probably also for the fact that it is inhabited. The fact that it is a desert would account for the native social structure, the planet’s ecology, and the difficulties posed for those who would exploit the resources. The properties of the spice account for its value to a divergent group of customers; that value, in turn, gives impetus to the exploitation and political maneuvering that accompany the desire to gain the profits. As mentioned before, the political system found in the novel is at least one logical answer to this situation. Since a desert planet is not generally habitable and cannot directly support more than a very few people, the existence of other settled planets is reasonable. If there are other planets and travel between them, it is to be expected that the natives of Arrakis would have heard of green worlds, and that they would be envious of an ideal that would be the opposite of their everyday existence, especially if there were someone to lead them. To have hopes for achieving that goal, an unusual political leader would be necessary; the specific things which would make this leader unusual would not be specified by this requirement, but Paul’s character is certainly adequate. It may be true that not everything can be tied, directly or indirectly, back to this core question, but as it is stated, it does provide a way of getting into an extremely large number of specific aspects of the novel; the points that have been mentioned are only the beginning. The main benefit of the core question is that it provides something quite specific to center thinking and discussion around, a point to which one can return and to which one can relate other points. It may also point toward themes or toward areas that a reader might be interested in speculating about. More important, though, it can provide a starting point for examining the work and a direction from which to work; it is especially valuable for science fiction because of the speculative nature of the field.

Dune, which is extremely rich in materials and in ideas, not only points toward future possibilities but also has relevance for humanity here and now. Not only is there a breadth and sweep to this novel, but there is also a good deal of depth to many of the ideas that it explores; it is a coherent novel which is nevertheless complex. Because of these things, there will be very few who will disagree with the idea that Dune is, at the very least, one of the five or ten best science-fiction novels that have yet been written—if it isn’t the best.

Cliffsnotes Dune and Other Works by Allen, L. David


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