Dune: A world-building review(part 1 of 2)

Dune is one of those books it’s effectively useless to review in a traditional sense. It doesn’t really matter to anyone if I like the book or not. It’s a classic, and it’s canon, and if you want to write science fiction, you have to read it. Full stop. I did my most recent re-read of Dune in this spirit—enjoying the story, sure, but trying to look beyond the story and see the underpinnings of Frank Herbert’s world and the way that he created it.

Because there’s a lot to look at with this world, I’ve split the post into two parts. This first post will look at the physical aspects of the invented world of Dune, while the next will explore the culture.

The World
The main setting for the first Dune book is the planet of Arrakis. We spend a brief time on the Atreides homeworld of Caladan, but this largely serves as a foil to the sparsity of the Arrakean landscape. The reader doesn’t need much to get a sense of Caladan’s lush greenery (and to understand it marks the Atreides as much strangers to Arrakis’ harsh climate as we are).

Arrakis is a single-biome desert world, making water the most precious commodity. The planet’s main—arguably only—resource is melange, also called spice, an addictive drug which increases a user’s lifespan, heightens their awareness, and can trigger prescience. To sweeten the dramatic pot, this melange is the means by which the Spacing Guild’s Navigators safely traverse the stars. Interstellar travel would be impossible without the spice. It is the single most valuable resource in the galaxy.

Stop to appreciate the beauty of this set-up for a second. Arrakis is a the sole source of the galaxy’s most prized resource, yet so unforgiving that its people recycle their own urine to get enough water to survive. The inherent conflict presented by this wealth disparity would on its own be enough to power a narrative. As a backdrop for Paul’s hero’s journey, it quickly establishes the motivations for the conflicts to follow, letting Herbert dive straight to the meat of the story.

Given that it’s a desert world the flora and fauna of Arrakis is limited, but what it lacks in variety is easily made up in grandeur. The sandworms of Dune not only give the deserts an extra level of danger and exoticism, they are the ultimate source of the melange, as revealed by the Fremen name for them (Shai-Hulud, or the Great Makers). We don’t see the first sandworm until chapter 15 (p. 200, in my paperback copy) and our introduction to the massive creature is suitably dramatic: it eats a crawler, one of the machines used to gather spice from the sand, large enough to carry several men. After this, it disappears back into the sands. Planetologist Liet-Kynes describes how tough the worms are earlier in the chapter; when Duke Leto asks how the worms are taken, Kynes answers “High voltage electrical shock applied separately to each ring segment is the only known way of killing and preserving an entire worm…Barring atomics, I know of no explosive powerful enough to destroy a large worm entirely.” (p. 188). (Much later, when the Lady Jessica is undergoing her spice agony, we see that the Fremen drown the worms to get the Water of Life, but this is a fairly useless method of dealing with worms on a desert planet). Less than half a page is devoted to the first sight of the worm, but with Kynes’ introduction it’s enough to give the reader a sense of its majesty.

The People
The Fremen of Arrakis are a product of their world. Their eyes are the solid blue of frequent spice consumption and their faces are callused by the tube of their stillsuits (garments designed to recapture all moisture from the body). They are fiercely secretive and distrustful of outsiders, and have a power structure based traditionally on strength of leadership and fighting prowess. Every aspect of Fremen culture follows logically from their being a desert people. This is an important lesson I think, too, for the prospective world builder: The people who inhabit your world should feel like they belong there (and if they don’t, you should have a good reason why).

Like with Arrakis itself, Herbert first introduces us to the Fremen in small glimpses through the eyes of outsiders. Given their violent and isolationist tendencies, the Fremen could have functioned just as well as powerful villains in the series as they do as allies to the heroes. Herbert gives us our first clue as to where our sympathies should fall when Duke Leto describes the Fremen as “a deep thorn in the Harkonnen side” (p. 81). When the Lady Jessica asks Duke Leto if anyone from Arrakis can be trusted, his response is “anyone who hates Harkonnens.” This is an answer for the reader, as well.

The first on-page Fremen is the Shadout Mapes, the Atreides housekeeper. Shadout is a Fremen title meaning “well-dipper” (that this is a title of respect again ties us back into the importance of water on Arrakis). Lady Jessica’s first encounter with the Shadout Mapes establishes the connection of the Fremen to the Bene Gesserit’s Missionaria Protectiva. This paves the way for Paul and Jessica to hide among them (the main narrative value of the revelation) but also shows that the Fremen have a longer history than most give them credit for.

Herbert simultaneously builds both the reality of the Fremen and the mystique surrounding them. One of the most iconic images from Dune is of the Fremen riding into battle on the backs of Great Makers. Fremen are so badass that sandworms are their form of transportation over long distances—so badass that their children learn to ride them; when Paul mounts his own worm at age 18, he’s considered a late bloomer.

The badassery of the Fremen is justified by their environment, a very important aspect of their believability as characters. There is a rationale behind their brutality, a necessity to their impressive skills. Paul’s even greater badassery is given similar basis in his upbringing, which included both Bene Gesserit and Mentat training. This is no backwoods farmboy thrust into the hero’s role; this is a man who was raised to lead, and though he exceeds even Bene Gesserit expectations, the fact that there is a logic and design behind his ability justifies his incredible power.

Herbert takes a unique approach to technology for a science fiction writer: his world has absolutely no computers. Again, he is careful to provide historical motivation in the text to justify this thought experiment. The Butlerian Jihad, which took place more than 10,000 years before the events of the novels, led to the outlawing of “thinking machines” (AI and computers). This did two important things for technology in his story:

1) It allowed him to break away from the robot trope that was so prevalent in sci-fi up to this point.

2) It set the Duniverse along a different technological path than current society, limiting the comparisons between real-world technologies and the ones Herbert uses in his book—in other words, it makes it age better than sci-fi set at a closer point in the future.

The lack of computers puts the responsibility for higher thought back in the human realm. It allows for (arguably demands) the existence of the Mentats, who serve as “human computers.” It also sets up the necessity of the Spacing Guild, since there are no computers to plot safe courses through the cosmos. Dune would not be the same book without this technological restriction; the rules you place on an invented world are just as important as the landscape in establishing the setting.

The dangers of relying too heavily on technology are one theme present throughout the first Dune book. We learn early on from Liet-Kynes that sandworms are attracted to personal shields—that particular technology is a hindrance more than a help out in the open desert. When Jamis challenges Paul in Sietch Tabr, Jessica notes her son’s small hesitations during the fight, the result of learning hand-to-hand combat against someone wearing a personal shield; that Paul grew up with that technology is, on Arrakis, a hindrance. The Fremen, of course, have their own unique technologies (the stillsuits that keep them alive in the desert, the dew collectors used to grow their plants). Dune‘s overall attitude toward technology is not one of outright rejection, simply one of caution. Survival means using the right technology for the situation.


(Click here if you want to check out part 2)


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