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Dune by Frank Herbert


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Dune and America 1965
Developments in sub-genres
Literary Context - Dune and Science Fiction
Conventions of Science Fiction – Herbert’s contextual concerns
Additional notes on technique
Conventions of Science Fiction in Dune
Analysis of text and language in Dune
Student activity
Conventions, techniques and page references

Dune and America in 1965


Frank Herbert’s Dune published in 1965 foreshadows the growing ecological crisis of the twentieth and twenty first centuries. The American Dream dominated America, which was a major economic and political force. Herbert warns of harnessing science to exploit natural resources for escalating profits and power, uses the entropic spice as an analogy for Western reliance on oil and petroleum producing countries and suggests an alternative in The Ecology of Dune, Appendix I. The spice also plays a significant role in Herbert’s detailed explanation, analysis and satire of the exploitation of religion and myth as a cultural and political force throughout the text, including The Religion of Dune Appendix II and Report on Bene Gesserit Motives and Purposes, Appendix III.

Herbert’s context, including the USA’s conflict with Cuba, the cold war with Russia and emerging worldwide revolutionary fervour, inform Dune’s anti-imperial sentiment and his sympathetic treatment of Fremen rejection of imperial rule represented by the corrupt, debauched social elite who exploit science to facilitate parasitic lifestyles. There are resonances between the Holy Roman Empire and contemporary covert political allegiances in the power struggle between the CHOAM Company, the Guild, Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, his representatives in the House of Harkonnen, and their rivals the House of Atreides, while the Sardaukar are the shock troops. CHOAM’s monopoly of the spice trade has many historical precedents such as the East India Company and is current in multi-national monopoly on power. Modern trade alliances are represented by The Guild’s links to smugglers, covert operations and control of shipping and spice. Gibson’s noir world of cyber punk in Neuromancer too reflects these values: Baron Vladimir Harkonnen parallels the Patriarch of the House of Tessier-Ashpool and CHOAM is not unlike the multinationals that control Chiba and Villa Straylight.

Like Huxley, Herbert uses historical and cultural parallels; the House of Agamemnon and House of Atreides and historical parallels to the Islamic word jihad, ShaNama – Persian book of Kings, the O.C. Bible and the Harkonnen city of Carthage (Hodge p.5).

Herbert’s warning is prophetic. Oppressed races revolt and seek hope in myth, religious fanaticism and jihad. Military leaders like Duke Leto are eliminated by violence and the educated elite can be suborned like Suk Doctor Yueh who betrays Leto. Even those in harmony with the environment like Dr Kynes, the Emperor’s Planetologist and leader of the mysterious, powerful Fremen, are threatened by the bloody and brutal intrigues.

Herbert’s epic narrative reveals how the ecology of a planet and survival of the people are sacrificed for wealth and power. Lust for riches is endemic, from the lowest slave selling water, through the affluent Water Seller, the Mentat Assassin Piter, Baron Harkonnen, the Guild and the Emperor himself.

Advances in science and technology, such as the Mentats, a combination of machine and human genetically engineered to function as a computer and to free humanity from technology, are dependent on their masters for good or evil.

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Developments in sub-genres

In this novel, the conventions of ‘hard science’ are focused on biology. The Reverend Mothe,r in the opening chapter of Dune, subjects Paul to the gom jabbar to ensure he is human not Mentat and the Mentats, Piter and Hawat, play significant roles as advisors and mentors in the Houses. In Book 2, ‘Muad’Dib’ is dominated by the biological ramifications of spice combined with the Bene Gesserit training. This develops superhuman powers including prescience (external website) and its own form of immortality through the initiation ritual of Reverend Mothers. The ritual involves ingesting a poison drug to experience ‘psychokinesthetic extensions of self’ as seen in the eye of Jessica when she becomes a Reverend Mother and by Paul Muad‘Dib when he becomes the Lisan al-Gaib, the Kwisatz Haderach in Book III.

Conventions of Sub Genre include:

Adapted from Sloncewzski and Levy in ’Science fiction and the life sciences’ (The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. (p. 174)

Literary context - Dune and Science Fiction

Is Dune Science Fiction? Is Dune Speculative Fiction or Fantasy due to the pervasive nature of mystical rituals that form an integral element in the development of narrative, plot, characterisation and theme? The text, however, clearly conforms to the Extension 1 Prescriptions for Genre:

They may experiment with aspects of time and challenge and disrupt traditional perspectives on the human form, morality, behaviour and power.

Herbert, Huxley and Gibson represent contexts where governments struggle to balance economic progress and conservation of natural resources. Dune, an important precursor to planetary ecology novels, foreshadows our ecological crisis in the monstrous Sandworms but avoids the process of natural selection and future genetic modifications. It introduces Herbert’s complex ecological thesis by tracing the social, economic and political struggle impacting on Arrakis’ ecology where all, even the Bene Gesserit and the Fremen terraforming the planet for water, are addicted to spice. Therefore Sandworms, with their symbiotic relationship with spice, are invaluable.

Science fiction’s didactic function of reflecting context and shaping values is seen in Dune’s exploration of the ramification of America’s ‘Presbyterian fixation’ with predestination, visionary gifts and righteous behaviour. The resulting failures of judgment in the present are seen in Duke Leto, Lady Jessica and Paul, even in his role as Muad’Dib (Sciga, L)

Therefore, Dune, as ecological science fiction, includes elements of Fantasy and rejects technology and single-focus solutions: political, cultural or scientific. Herbert offers instead a comprehensively researched thesis of symbiotic relationships between humanity and the environment.

Science Fiction Convention in Dune

Science Fiction Convention in Dune

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Conventions of science fiction - Herbert’s contextual concerns

Human relationships, motivations and American dependence on oil and fossil fuels include contextual references to atomic power, nuclear technology and weapons. Caladan and Arrakis closely resemble the temperate and desert climates of many continents on Earth.

Sense of Wonder
Space travel, weapons and the ability to substantially alter mental and physical prowess through chemical and psychic training and intervention are balanced by a focus on traditional systems and customs dating back to the Roman Empire as part of Herbert’s thesis of social evolution.

Cognitive estrangement
Religious ritual and mystical experiences seed the text and dominate Book II and III. Sandworms, the desert and the extreme water conservation strategies, stillsuits and recycling human waste are all strange and unthinkable elements.

The monstrous Sandworms perform the role of ‘maker’ and are therefore less alienating than the sadistic and corrupt characterisation of the elite and their entourages. A veiled reference to Pontius Pilate makes Baron Harkonnen responsible for Leto’s murder. The sadism of Mentat Assassin, Piter de Vried, and the brutality of the Sardaukar and Harkonnen troops are foils to Atreides courage and nobility and Fremen stoicism. The treachery of the highest form of authority, the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, is hinted at in the extracts from Princess Irulan’s documents which introduce stages in the narrative and is revealed in the climactic confrontations and shifts in allegiance that conclude the novel.

Seeding the text
The terraforming of the planet and the survival strategies of the inhabitants are represented by a complex web of ecological inter-dependencies and consistent wealth of details. References to fictional technological discoveries build the world of Arrakis: modes of transport, the ‘thopter’; means of communication; weapons such as the hunter-seeker and the crysknife; stillsuits and forceshield. Similarly, ecologically informed and the hidden sources of Fremen water harvested from the environment present Herbert’s preferred options.

Lone superhero
Duke Leto, nominally the hero of Book 1, is certainly an isolated figure surrounded by an alien ecology and besieged by political intrigue. Not the anti-hero of Brave New World or Neuromancer, Leto is the archetypal knightly warrior of Historical Romance.

His role of Muad’Dib dominates Book II and climaxes in his assumption of the tile Lisan al–Gaib, the Kwisatz Haderach in Book III. Although he is accepted in the Fremen’s tribal structure, has an heir with Chani, the daughter of Liet Keynes, he becomes increasingly isolated by his ‘terrible purpose’, prescient visions and crucial role in the devastating future jihad.

Dr Keynes
As mastermind for the Fremen’s symbiotic relationship with the land, there are heroic elements to this character that are reinforced when he dies in the desert, murdered like Leto, as a result of sheltering Paul and Jessica.

Leader of the Fremen and heroic in his wisdom, strength and leadership, he increasingly reflects Herbert’s thesis and acts as a foil to the corrupt Empire.

Helpless heroine
Lady Jessica is unlike the pneumatic Lenina or Gibson’s dominatrix. Herbert’s characterisation of a nobly born Bene Gesserit represents the political, economic and intellectual emancipation of middle class women while her role as the conduit for Bene Gesserit policy has strong resonances with the Virgin Mary in Catholic theology. Almost asexual, her power gains new centrality in Book II as the mother of Muad ‘Dib. She is a paradoxical character in being unable to free herself of her role in Bene Gesserit strategy while as possessor of ‘weirding power’ she defeats Stilgar in physical combat, endures spice poisoning at risk to her unborn daughter and assumes the mantle of Reverend Mother to the Fremen.

Evil Villain
Baron Harkonnen is not an alien species, mutant or a biological plague of early science fiction. He resembles the arch villains of spy fiction or Historical Romance in debauchery and sadism. Indifferent to ethical considerations and capable of atrocities to maintain wealth, power and privilege he represents Herbert’s attack on Imperialism as a threat to the ecology.

The mutant Piter de Vried is contrasted with the loyal Thufir Hawat to suggest it is not science that is responsible for his malfunctions but rather human corruptibility in Book I. Thufir Hawat’s role as Mentat to the Baron in Book II develops the complexity of Hawat’s characterisation.

Invented lexicon
Exotic vocabulary used by the Bene Gesserit Latinate religious terminology have historical and contemporary resonances as do the Fremen dialects that develop links to tribal dialects. Terminology for weapons is self explanatory and has many precedents.

Emotive language
The dialogue and internal monologues closely resemble Historical Romances but contribute to Herbert’s thesis of social and cultural evolution and satire of specific values.

Info dump
Less obvious than Mond’s lengthy dialogues in Huxley or Gibson’s fragmented insights into cyberspace, Herbert's ecological thesis is as much his characterisation as his science. Book II contributes to Herbert’s thesis through Jessica’s extended internal dialogue during her transformation into a Reverend Mother and the descriptions of Fremen water conservation.

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Character Relationships

Character relationships

The nominal heroes and heroines in the struggle between good and evil begin with Duke Leto and Jessica and continue with Paul Muad’Dib and Chani, daughter of the ecologist Freman leader Dr Keynes. The boy Paul is positioned to become the dominant character of Book II ‘Muad’Dib’ and Book III ‘The Prophet’. Herbert engages the readers in his ecological thesis by juxtaposing the parallel narratives of the House of Harkonnen, Baron Vladimir and Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen’s plots to overthrow the House of Atreides with the efforts of Duke Leto, Dr Keynes, Paul Muad’Dib and Stilgar to improve the lives of Dune’s inhabitants despite the Emperor’s traps, the pogrom, unrest among the Fremen themselves and the hostile ecology of the planet.

Role of the Bene Gesserit
Herbert’s concern is the ecology and the rise of the religious right. Fanaticism and jihad dominate the text through verisimilitude and historical parallels: the medieval Catholic Church and the Jesuit movement seen in Bene Gesserit and Missionaria Protectivas. The use of religion, mysticism and sorcery exert a strategic influence in the history of Arrakis and the Fremen. Ironically, Bene Gesserit and the Fremen are reliant on spice which enables prescient knowledge or ‘Truthsaying’, which is a drug-induced state facilitating encyclopaedic knowledge and therefore the desert ecology and the sandworms must be sustained.

Herbert explores the Bene Gesserit’s insidious, immense power in characterisations of the Emperor’s Truthsayer, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, Lady Jessica and the training of a future Messiah, young Paul Atreides. There are numerous historical precedents for Lady Jessica’s duty ‘only to serve’, to provide a female heir and to secure an alliance between the rival Houses, Alia’s role of saint and prophetess and Paul’s transformation into Muad’Dib who drives the violent jihad seen in his visions during Book II and Book III.

Characterisation of minor characters
Like epic narratives and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, The Tempest and King Lear, the minor characters are two-dimensional, evil or good, and represent Herbert’s ecological and economic warnings and develop his metaphysical and mystic paradigms. His use of verisimilitude proves human capacity to withstand extreme hardship and suffering and while retaining integrity. Therefore, he contrasts Leto, Jessica, Paul and Chani with their evil counterparts in the Baron Harkonenn and his heir Feyd-Rautha. Books II and III take this further with the characterisation of Gurney Halleck, Thufir Hawat, Sitlgar the Fremen leader and Liet – Kynes. The minor characters are similarly paired to represent vices and virtues.

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Herbert follows the conventional quest plot structure. The hero Leto commences his journey, engages with the challenges and, in this instance, dies heroically. The new hero survives to accept the challenge and fight on.

The Feudal system and warring Houses, whose intrigues and counter intrigues shape the plot, are an extension of Herbert’s ecological thesis. The ‘social conflict is a Darwinian necessity – ruthlessly clearing away the old to introduce the new’. (Hodge p4) This view can be extended to include the rise of the Messiah and the jihad in Books II and III.

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Descriptions of setting are minimal in Book I, even less than in Brave New World, to become more evocative in Books II and III. Multiple and contrasting internal and external settings include the sinister, luxurious Atreides and Harkonnen castles contrasted with the hostile urban and rural landscapes.

Herbert’s concern with the importance of developing a symbiotic relationship with the ecology is developed through descriptions of the sands, the dessert, the giant sandworms and the Fremen in Books II & III. The dominant metaphor of spice is the motif that links all aspects of the text while the Atreides' home planet, Caladen, is a metaphor of Eden and by extension our earth.

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Additional notes on technique

Archaic phraseology, invented technological and scientific lexicon contribute to the epic character of the struggle against the hostile environment. They place the text within Herbert’s ecological thesis of a Darwinian principle, informing ongoing power struggles between rival political and ethnic forces. Herbert adds verisimilitude and historical resonances by providing a glossary of terms at the end of the text in ‘Terminology of the Imperium’.

Unlike Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four or Well’s Time Machine, Dune is not anti-science. Herbert traces the complex ecosystem including the life cycle of the sandworms in detail but employs the narrative structure, complex plot and stereotypical characters of an epic Historical Romance.

The traditional linear plot structure is a vehicle for the ecological warning. Scientific and technological developments are of themselves not sinister and the characterisations are balanced between the two Houses. The possibility that the boy Paul may train to be a Mentat, further diffuses any threat contained in this redefinition of human and machine.

Herbert’s use of parallel and multiple third person perspectives, internal monologues and dialogue provide comprehensive insight into the ecological consequences of a power struggle between global opposing factions – the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen. Narrative shifts reveal plot development and build tension while the epic and archetypal battles accelerate between Fremen, the Emperor’s forces, Paul Muad’Dib and Feyd Rautha to culminate in Paul Muad’Dib's reclamation of his role as Duke Atreides, marriage to the Princess and exiling of the Emperor to the prison planet.

The role of the Fremen, Paul’s gradual transformation to Kwisatz Haberach and the devastating conflict that results from the jihad dominate Book II and III, including the insidious interventions of the Bene Gesserit and the covert and unsuccessful machinations of the Guild and the Empire.

Herbert’s narrative style reflects the folk culture and oral story telling traditions of the Appalachian Indians. The narrative is coloured by his experience of the Depression, life on a Washington State farm and life as a skin diver. His consultancy with the Lincoln Foundation in Pakistan informs his interest in and understanding of ecology, sand dunes and conservation and redistribution of water: the Fremen capture, condensation and conservation of moisture from dew in air traps is similar to catch basins in the Sahara Dessert. Similarly, robes resembling those worn by the Bedouins disguise stillsuits that conserve most the body’s moisture.

Herbert’s use of the obsolete feudal social structure to represent his warnings of the dangers of religious fanaticism and a monopoly of power underpins the use of archaic expressions and medieval architecture. Intertextual references, classical allusions, quotations from the OC Bible and extracts from Imperium documents add resonances to and clarify Herbert’s thesis.

In addition, specific quotations from cultural tomes such as the Manual of Muad’Dib, Muad Family Commentaries, A Child’s History of Muad’Dib, Dictionary of Muad’Dib and The Humanity of Muad’Dib identify religion, reliance on cultural myth and social history as cornerstones in the evolution of cultural, race consciousness and religion. These quotes provide a structural device that unifies the narrative strands and, together with specific quotes from the OC Bible, links to Virgin Mary/Eve dichotomy further reinforce Herbert’s ecological thesis.

Herbert targets the substantial science fiction readership but transcends the conventions to fully explore his ecological thesis and extends the appeal of the Dune Trilogy beyond the sub genre of hard science fiction to include readers of Fantasy and Historical Romance.

Summary - conventions of Science Fiction evident in Dune

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Analysis of Text and Language in Dune

In your responses make sure to comment on:

When studying Dune

In planning your responses, refer to the rubrics in the Syllabus and the Prescriptions documents. Take into account the HSC Markers’ comments. Remember Science Fiction has undergone substantial changes over time due to the influence of a variety other genres and the social, political and philosophical context in which the texts developed.

Student activity:

Critical response
How does the context of America in 1965 and Herbert’s concerns with the ecological consequences of exploiting natural resources influence the science fiction novel Dune? Respond with detailed analysis, evaluation of context, conventions, techniques and quotes.

Creative response
Research a recent historical context where an environmental disaster occurred. Adapt the situation to an imagined ecology and make a significant ecological statement in the form of a sustained science fiction short story.

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Conventions and techniques in Dune

Note: The following are a representative selection from a complex text. Develop further with close reading, evaluation and analysis of the text.

Conventions/techniques Examples References
Sensory imagery, connotations, similes,metaphors, symbolism, invented lexicon, irony,
minor characters, archetypal characters, contextual allusions to political and cultural paradigms, ritual, symbolism
Mirrors human America’s dependence on oil and the developing ecological crisis. Duke Leto’s dinner party –characterisations and water rituals 151-173. Muad’Dib and the emperor’s negotiations for the throne 560-561. Lady Fenring’s oasis 87-91
Arrakis deserts –deserts in America, Africa, Europe, possibly Earth’s future. Dr Keynes, Sand Storm, meeting with worm, rescue.128-150
Rise of fundamentalist religions and messiah figures Book 1.Paul’s test with the gom jabbar 16-24
Jessica’s transformation into a Reverend Mother, 338-340,404-414
Seeded through Book II& III- 340-364,414-416, riding the maker, 446-451. Alia’s triumph 528-534.
Sense of Wonder
Sensory imagery, connotations, similes,metaphors, symbolism, invented lexicon, irony,
tone, juxtaposition, contrast, minor characters
Space travel Seeded through text
Stillsuits See 128-150
Weapons -crysknife 70-71
Atomics 519
Forceshield 128-129
Hunter-seeker 83-86
Prescient vision Throughout text, 438-443, Alia 455-459
Terraforming 366-369
Cognitive estrangement &Alienation
Contextual allusion as above, ritual, symbolism, irony, sensory imagery, connotations, similes,metaphors, symbolism, invented lexicon, irony, minor characters, tone, classical allusions, archetypal characters
The Sandworms 148-149,304-309, 448-450,534
Stillsuits Recycling human waste Throughout Books II and III
Baron Harkonnen, Feyd-Rautha Throughout text,192-195,371-391,421-438,525-530
Piter de Vried, Mentat Assassin 25-32,193-196
Psychokinesthetic extension of self experienced by Lady Jessica (see Info Dump)
Throughout text
Seeding the text Terraforming Arrakis Windtrap, 364-368
Lone super hero
Duke Leto Atreides
Symbolism, invented lexicon, irony,
minor characters, archetypal characters, contextual allusions to political and cultural paradigms, ritual
Duke Leto, archetypal warrior isolated figure in an alien ecology 56-65,96-173
Political intrigue 208-214
Helpless heroine
Lady Jessica aristocratic Bene Gesserit concubine of Duke Leto
Archetypal noble heroine
Chani, Fremen mentor and concubine of Paul as Muad’Dib
Highly intelligent combatants, possessed of mystical powers. Conduit for Bene Gesserit policy and an exemplar of their power Throughout text414-417, 503-514
Symbolism, invented lexicon, irony,
archetypal characters, contextual allusions to political and cultural paradigms, ritual
Parallel character to Jessica, androgynous at first and combines the action heroine of later Science fiction with the faithful wife archetype
Daughter to Leto and Jessica
Throughout Book II & III. 561-562
Future prophetess, killer of Baron Harkonnen 455-459, 529-533
Evil Villains
Baron Vladimir Harkonnen
Archetypal villains of Historical Romance in Debauched, Sadistic and ruthless. (see Alientation above)
Throughout the text
The rogue Mentant Piter de Vried, Mentat Assassin Book 1
Feyd Rutha Evil counterpart of and parallel character to Paul as heir to House of Harkonnen Throughout text. 386-389,421-430
Invented lexicon Dialects
Religious terminology
Technological terminology
Emotive language Dialogue and internal monologues resemble in Historical Romance Throughout text.
Info dump
Mainly integrated into the characterisations, action and dialogue
Symbolism, invented lexicon, irony,
archetypal characters, contextual allusions to political and cultural paradigms, ritual, sensory imagery
Liet Keynes, Fremen leader and Emperor’s planetologist 128-150, 154-172,247-265,313-320, death of Liet Keynes
Lady Jessica 460-415
Paul 360-370,448-450,463-465,554
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