Dune is noted for being one of the first science-fiction novels to tackle major themes in a literary fashion. While earlier science fiction, such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, often handled big themes—such as the engineering of human history—in a diagrammatic way, and through extensive expository prose, Frank Herbert wove his major themes into the fabric of his richly realized world. As a result, Dune was an essential turning point in the acceptance of science fiction by at least a portion of the literary establishment. Members of the establishment began to treat the genre as a worthwhile subject of study.
Ecology is one of the critical themes that Herbert systematically developed, particularly in the first book and to a lesser degree in the second and third books. He did not simply propound the need to understand and care for a world’s ecology. He suggested that it might be possible to use one’s knowledge of the operation of an ecosystem to actively manage it, even to transform it in ways that would make it more amenable to human life.
The ecological transformation of Arrakis was one of the first examples of terraforming in science fiction, and Herbert’s handling of it was even more remarkable. While writers of an earlier generation would have approached it as a technical problem to be solved by square-jawed engineers with massive machines, Herbert made it as much a sociological issue, with an ecologically literate people effecting myriad tiny changes that would ultimately result in major shifts. In its multigenerational scale, the plan becomes the touchstone of hope for an entire culture of oppressed people. Moreover, Herbert significantly complicates matters by specifying that Arrakis became a desert as a result of the introduction of an invasive species, the sandtrout, and that the greening of the desert would have major effects on all of galactic society by disrupting the spice supply.
Culture is another important theme that is developed throughout the Dune series. While earlier generations of science-fiction writers generally focused upon individuals and tended to write cookie-cutter societies, Herbert built each of the cultures that appeared in his novels in such a way that readers come away with a greater understanding of the forces that drive an entire society. In particular, the defining beliefs and values that drive people to lose their individuality in a group are given special attention.
Religion had been largely ignored by earlier generations of science-fiction...
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