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Dune Frank Herbert

The following entry presents criticism on Herbert's novel Dune (1965). See also Frank Herbert Criticism (Volume 12) and Frank Herbert Criticism (Volume 23).

Herbert's most popular science fiction novel, Dune is the first volume of a six-novel series. Focusing on such issues as ecology, eugenics, and social change, Dune explores the struggles of humanity in a galactic empire and addresses themes which recur in all of Herbert's work. Critics have characterized Dune as traditional in its view of male-female relationships, creative in its use of ancient history and myths, and hopeful in its outlook regarding humanity's destiny.

Plot and Major Characters

The action of Dune takes place primarily on the planet of Arrakis, also called Dune, and is structured around the efforts of Paul Atreides, a gifted individual of superior intelligence, who struggles to free the citizens of Arrakis from the control of the Harkonnens. As the novel opens, Duke Leto, Paul's father, has just taken control of Arrakis after being forced to leave his home planet of Caladan. A world of barren deserts, Arrakis is inhabited by the Fremen, a warlike people, who derive their livelihood from the harvesting and sale of melange, a spice produced by giant sandworms. Valued for its geriatric properties and usefulness in interstellar travel, melange allows those who eat it to perceive the interrelatedness of events in time and space. Following Duke Leto's assassination by his political rivals the Harkonnens, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen assumes control of the planet and the melange trade. Duke Leto's widow, a member of the religious matriarchy known as the Bene Gesserit, flees with her son Paul into the desert, where they take refuge among the Fremen. A product of the Bene Gesserit's secret breeding program, which is designed to produce a superbeing known as the Kwisatz Haderach, Paul is nourished on a highly potent form of melange and advances to a state of near-omniscience, in which he sees time as a series of causes and effects and can thus shape the future accordingly. The spice also allows him to communicate with ancestors through his inherited genetic memory, giving him access to the plural wisdom of a collective consciousness. Through psychic control of the worms and spiritual control of the Fremen, who consider him a messiah, Paul overcomes his Harkonnen enemies and assumes the position of emperor. Although he wishes to avoid a bloody holy war, his visions reveal that a victory in war will renew the human gene pool and allow the Fremen to forge ahead with their plan to transform the ecology of Arrakis into a water-rich Eden. The novel ends with Paul and the Fremen embarking on their conquest of the galactic empire.

Major Themes

Dune explores the state of humanity from three perspectives: the social, the religious, and the ecological. The wellbeing of the Fremen on Arrakis, for instance, depends on the success of the spice trade, which is their only source of income. When the Harkonnens assume leadership of the planet, the business interests of the empire take over the lucrative spice trade and reduce the Fremen to slavery. Turning to Paul for help, the Fremen accept him as the long-awaited messiah, who will destroy the evils of the empire. This messianic quest is one of the novel's several related religious elements; others include the eugenic work of the Bene Gesserit cult, the religious rituals of the Fremen, and the holy war needed to create a new mingling of the human gene pool. The underlying ecological theme concentrates on the clash between humanity and the environment. The empire's manipulation of the spice industry, for example, exhausts Dune's environmental resources and jeopardizes the future of the spice trade and the planet. Additionally, Paul's benign telepathic control of the sandworms endangers the ecological balance of Arrakis because it manipulates the life of its creatures, while the Fremen's well-intentioned plan to transform Arrakis into a water-rich environment fails to take into account the environmental dangers inherent in that decision.

Critical Reception

Many critics consider Dune to be Herbert's finest science fiction novel because of its well-structured, complex plot, the originality of its setting, and its unique use of history and myth. Scholars, for instance, note that Herbert employed aspects of the ancient Roman imperial system and the European feudal system in his depiction of the social and political structure of the galactic empire. Commentators also focus on the effectiveness of Herbert's non-omniscient narrator and point out Herbert's deliberate emphasis on religious themes, especially his focus on cults, a messianic leader, and a holy war. Furthermore, many scholars place Dune within the literary tradition of the epic, commenting on Herbert's use of such conventions as a hero of superior abilities, the heroic journey, and a grand, far-flung setting. Admiring Herbert's positive vision of humanity vanquishing evil and beginning to improve the environment, scholars generally contend that Dune is a powerful critique of twentieth-century civilization and a conscious call for change. As for Herbert, he describes Dune as "a training manual for consciousness."


Principal Works