How Frank Herbert’s Magnum Opus Reinvented Science Fiction

Before becoming a science fiction writer, Frank Herbert held several odd jobs. In 1957, while making a living as a journalist, Herbert traveled to the state of Oregon to write an article on how the state government was using the herbs of poverty to stabilize the sand dunes that stretched along the coast. Impressed by the size and expanse of the Pacific Northwest, whose natural landscape seemed to eclipse even the largest cities he had been to, Herbert never completed the writing task. Instead, part of his mind began to work on what would become the most influential sci-fi novel in the history of the genre.

Today we know this novel as Dune. It was originally released in 1965 and serves as the basis for Denis Villeneuve’s epic film, which has just been released in theaters around the world with both critical and commercial praise. It takes place in a fictional and very distant future, in which humanity has managed to colonize even the most remote corners of the galaxy. Its protagonist is Paul Atreides, the prepubescent heir to an ancient aristocratic family who, sometime before the start of history, was entrusted with the stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis. Their job is to oversee the extraction and export of a life-prolonging and space-time-warping drug known as the Spice Blend, which can only be found on Arrakis.

When readers discovered the world of Dune in the 1960s, they quickly discovered that it was unlike any fictional universe they had yet encountered. George Lucas was decades away from writing the first draft of Star wars. Science fiction was still in its infancy and usually appeared in the form of short stories published in pulp magazines like Amazing stories. In general, these stories were much more focused on crafting a suspenseful plot or exploring an interesting idea about human nature than on establishing a living, breathing alternate reality. Herbert’s Dune accomplished the second without losing sight of the first.

Rethinking science fiction

Of course, Herbert was not the first to try his hand at building such a reality. More than a decade before releasing his magnum opus, British linguist and fantasy writer JRR Tolkien had already been ahead of him. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings the trilogy expanded the boundaries of Middle-earth as described in his previous work, The Hobbit. The appendices containing the stories of the kingdoms and their royal lineages made the stories they wrote more and more believable. But where Tolkien drew inspiration from English and Gaelic folklore, Herbert’s academic interests lay elsewhere. The source material he transformed into Dune was not found in myth but in history.

Those who know Dune can identify many connections between Herbert’s imagination and the real world that spurred him on. Given that the story takes place in a future version of our current universe, it makes sense that the societies depicted in Dune must bear in the footsteps of their counterparts today. In Dune, the planets colonized by mankind are organized in a feudal system called Landsraad – a word borrowed from Danish which means “land council”. Herbert’s choice to use a foreign term as opposed to an English term suggests the possibility that the Galactic Book Empire was of Scandinavian origin, or at the very least based on European feudalism.

Herbert’s Fremen were inspired by nomadic tribes in the real world. (Credit: Chiabella James / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Likewise, many characters – despite living in a whole different millennium – have modern last names. For example, the right-hand man of the novel’s main antagonist, Atreides’ big rival, Vladimir Harkonnen, is called De Vries, which is a surname that comes from the Friesland region in the north of the Netherlands. Likewise, the spice blend, the rarest and therefore the most valuable commodity in the known universe, is a clear analogue of natural resources like oil and gas. As with the spice, these substances are only found in selected places around the world, and their presence (or absence) has major implications for human development and international relations.

The story of Dune

Although Herbert tried to make his writing accessible to a large number of readers, he also wanted to satisfy his own academic interests. To make his fictional universe as realistic as possible, he made sure that the story of the Dune the universe was just as complex as ours. It is, for example, no coincidence that the planets mentioned in history are united under an emperor and organized in a system worthy of a fiefdom. Centuries before the novel began, humanity was on the verge of machine extinction. When they finally managed to turn the tide, the survivors of this conflict (later named the Jihad Butlerian) decided to ban the creation of artificial intelligence.

This resolution – “Thou shalt not make a machine in the image of a human mind” – has become the central command of civilization on the move and helps explain why the societies featured in Dune are not as advanced as you might expect. Culturally, the Butler jihad also seems to have brought society back to a semi-medieval state. For example, readers may be surprised to find that religion is alive and well in Herbert’s distant future, playing a far more important role than it does in our time. At one point in their deep space odyssey, humanity combined all the religions of the “old world” into one humanitarian text.

This text, known as the Orange Catholic Bible, is one of the most influential writings of all Dune universe. Its spiritual teachings, a collection of common themes drawn from monotheistic and polytheistic religions, serve as guiding principles for how citizens of the Galactic Empire should behave and approach the concept of progress. Its supreme command, “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul,” is itself a variation of the lesson learned from Jihad Butlerian.

Many of these ideas do not appear in Villeneuve’s film. They are not even underlined in novels but can be gleaned from appendices and indexes at the end of each book. It is in these often overlooked pages that Herbert’s genius (and the revolutionary impact he had on the science fiction genre) hides.

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About Donald P. Hooten

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