(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...

(The entire section is 1552 words.)