(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Herbert’s position as a preeminent science-fiction author who transcended the perceived bounds of his craft and enticed a large new audience to the genre—especially from college campuses—clearly rests upon Dune and its sequels. The power of his fictional world and its peoples to capture the imaginations of readers has been much analyzed, and there are many aspects and strands to the evaluations. Dune and its successors are rich in historical analogies. The feudal political setting suggests that social conflict is a Darwinian necessity—ruthlessly clearing away the old to introduce the new.

Here the reader encounters a complex balance of powers which resembles a futuristic version of the later Holy Roman Empire: the Emperor and his Sardaukar (janissary-like shock troops); the CHOAM Company, which monopolizes the spice trade (as the British East India Company once monopolized trade in India); the Landsraad or Great Houses (like Imperial Electors); the Guild, which uses the prescient qualities of spice to monopolize all shipping (like the Hansa and other trade alliances); the Ixians, who control all the nonbiological aspects of technology; the Tleilaxu, who have the secret of biological regeneration; and the all-female Bene Gesserit, whose use of spice gives each member access to the memories and personalities of those who have gone before her—a kind of drug-induced, encyclopedic knowledge of past events and a vivid example of Herbert’s technique of playing internal against external dialogue.

The Bene Gesserit is said to have been modeled on Herbert’s ten maternal aunts. It also reflects the role of the medieval Catholic Church in its self-imposed task of guiding and bettering humanity. The order’s close-knit organization and strict discipline and Leto II’s characterization of its “rhetorical despotism” recalls one of the most successful of Catholic orders—the Jesuits, who were responsible for some of Herbert’s early education.

To some, Dune is above all an ecological novel. As a reporter, Herbert covered efforts to understand the development and spread of sand dunes on the Pacific Coast, and, as a consultant to Pakistan for the Lincoln Foundation, he studied the unusual characteristics of water management there and helped project a land-use and redistribution policy. He describes in great detail the delicate natural balance on Arrakis: the desert which covers the entire planet, the hidden but crucial role of the so-called “sand-trout” in the life cycle, the giant sandworms which live only in this desert, and the drug called mélange or spice, which also is produced nowhere else.

It becomes clear that the spice is a by-product of the gigantic sandworms. Without the sand, the worms would die; without the worms, the sand might succumb to vegetation; without both of them, the most valued substance in the known universe—seen by some readers as a symbol for the twentieth century’s highly prized petroleum—would cease to exist.

The transformation of Arrakis into an arable planet is planned in Dune by the Fremen leader, Liet-Kynes. This change is actually brought about by Leto II in the fourth novel, God Emperor of Dune, and the problem of dwindling spice supplies is not solved until the sixth novel, Chapterhouse: Dune. The Fremen who live in the most remote areas of Arrakis are a vividly drawn example of human adaptation to severe conditions. Their air-traps to catch, condense, and store the moisture in the air parallel the catch-basins employed in and around the Sahara Desert. Their still-suits—technical marvels that preserve and reuse all of the body’s moisture—are covered by loose garments similar to those worn by Bedouins to insulate the body from harsh sun and...

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The Dune Series Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In Dune, the Atreides household is preparing to relocate from the wet planet Caladan to Arrakis, a desert planet, where Duke Leto is going to take command as the planet’s new feudal lord, replacing the Harkonnen household. A mysterious woman arrives to test young Paul, the ducal heir. She is Gaius Helen Mohaim, a member of the Bene Gesserit order, who trained Paul’s mother in the order’s almost superhuman powers. While Paul proves his ability to surmount agony, the old woman talks to him about philosophy and history.

Paul then meets with Duncan Idaho, Gurney Halleck, and Dr. Wellington Yueh, important members of his father’s staff. Hints are planted of the forces that will drive Yueh to betray his employer.

During the actual move, Paul exhibits curiosity about the nature of the Spacing Guild, the guild of navigators who are the only ones capable of overseeing travel between planets. He is firmly warned that he must do nothing to risk the shipping priveleges of House Atreides. The Spacing Guild guards its secrets as zealously as any medieval guild, and all other powers in the galaxy are dependent on their navigational skills.

On Arrakis, Paul immediately becomes the subject of awed murmurs on the part of the residents, who have turned to religion for hope during the lengthy reign of the brutal Harkonnens over their world. Their awe is reinforced when Imperial planetologist Liet Kynes takes Paul and Duke Leto into the deep desert to witness spice mining operations, and Paul shows extraordinary perceptivity of the customs and usages of the desert.

Just as the Atreides seem to have settled into their new fief, treachery dispossesses them of it. Dr. Yueh betrays the Atreides, allowing Baron Harkonnen to attack and slaughter the Atreides forces. The baron has taken Dr. Yueh’s wife hostage to force his cooperation, but the doctor’s real plan is to turn Duke Leto into a suicide assassin, who will be able to kill the baron when he is brought before the gloating victor. Yueh’s plan fails, and the baron narrowly escapes.

However, Paul and Jessica are able to escape into the deep desert, where they encounter the Fremen, the fierce people of the sands. Using Bene Gesserit skills, they are able to integrate themselves into the tribe, normally insular and hostile to outsiders. After Paul proves himself in a duel to the death with one of the Fremen tribesmen, he is renamed Maud’Dib after the kangaroo mouse of the desert.

As Paul and Jessica teach the Fremen their Bene Gesserit fighting techniques, the already formidible guerilla fighters become nearly unbeatable and they engage in more open combat against the Harkonnen occupiers. Moreover, Paul and Jessica learn the secrets of Arrakis’s most important export commodity, known simply as “spice.” A luxury food that has life-extending properties, spice is also necessary to allow the Spacing Guild navigators to predict the future, which is how they are able to navigate ships safely through the myriad dangers of space travel. Without spice, each planet would be isolated and there could be no galactic civilization. Paul and Jessica learn that spice is derived from the excrement of the massive sandworms that inhabit Arrakis—and no other planet, since water is toxic to sandworms.

Paul soon becomes one of their foremost leaders, and in time he is pushed to fight Stilgar for leadership of the tribe. Instead, he refuses and claims his birthright as the Atreides heir and thus the rightful duke of Arrakis. With the desert-hardened, well-trained Fremen under his command, Paul has enough power to rival the emperor himself, whose elite army, known as the Sardaukar, is the basis of his power.

After drinking the Water of Life and gaining his full prophetic powers, Paul forces a final confrontation with both the Harkonnens and the emperor. Dune ends on a triumphant note: Paul defeats the killers of his father and takes command of the entire Imperium.

Dune Messiah takes up several years later. The Fremen have engaged in a massive jihad that has ravaged much of the settled galaxy. Paul and his beloved Fremen concubine Chani have no heir, which creates a precarious situation, as various factions jockey for position in the power vacuum created when Paul deposed Emperor Shaddam IV, whose House Corrino had ruled the galaxy for ten millennia. Among these factions are the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, and the Tlielaxu, a renegade school for mentats, or human computers. (Computers themselves have been outlawed, so mentats are an important part of galactic society. Paul himself has been trained as a mentat.)

The Tlielaxu are master manipulators of human beings. Their chief representative is Scytale, a shapeshifting “Face Dancer.” He brings with him Hayt, who is a ghola, a revenant corpse brought back to life in the mysterious Axolotl Tanks. Specifically, Hayt was once Duncan Idaho, the Atriedes swordsmaster who gave his life so that Jessica...

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The Dune Series Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Collings, Michael R. “The Epic of Dune, Epic Traditions in Modern Science Fiction.” In Aspects of Fantasy, edited by William Coyle. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Herbert, Brian. The Dreamer of Dune: A Biography of Frank Herbert. New York: Tor, 2003.

Levack, Daniel J. H., comp. Dune Master: A Frank Herbert Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1988.

McNelley, Willis E., ed. The Dune Encyclopedia. New York: Berkley Books, 1984.

Miller, Miriam Y. “Women of Dune: Frank Herbert as Social Reactionary?” In...

(The entire section is 113 words.)