Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and American Literature

Book Cover: Dune by Frank HerbertDune has unique position in American Literature. Not only is it a genre work, but it is considered one of the preeminent science-fiction works of the 20th century. Published in 1965, Dune presented one of America’s first award-winning “space operas.” In regard to most science fiction, the tropes of advanced technology, aliens, other planets, and spaceships spring to the forefront.

Dune does possess these things, sometimes in abundance, but the differentiating feature of Dune is that it presents these elements as background for the more important–albeit–larger than life and often melodramatic–characterization and plot movement.

The novel’s titular planet has two names–one by natives (Dune) and the other by the Empire (Arrakis)–and is situated so carefully within the narrative that it is impossible to not consider the planet itself the main character, much like Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica‘s ships. It has a life and personality of its own within the book. While the narrative certainly emphasizes the importance of Paul Atreides living among the Fremen or the feud between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, no one character or is able to steal the show away from the ever-present Dune itself.

The technology within the book is interesting, but only in so far as it pertains to the storyline. Readers find out how the guild navigators approach interstellar travel, but are never bogged down by mathematical proofs regarding the concept. Other works, such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld, detract from their own narrative and storytelling, appearing to be little more than novel-length masturbatory aids for the author’s brilliance. Herbert uses the science behind his ideas well (in fact, it may not be science as much as fantasy in terms of the mechanics of it), and he is able to allow readers to put their attention on the story being told rather than the plausibility of science.

Influence on the Genre

Because of Herbert’s attention to storytelling and narrative, Dune helped introduce the SF genre to the idea that the genre conventions can take a backseat to storytelling without removing any of the essential generic quality of the work. By not worrying about how technology works or why a planet is habitable with so little water or vegetation or why the Melange spice is able to give prescient visions, Frank Herbert develops far more detailed interpersonal relationships between characters and political factions.

In a way, that’s what made Star Wars such an effective space opera in 1977. George Lucas didn’t worry if we knew how the Death Star could blow up Alderaan. All that mattered was that it did and that Leia reacted to it how she did. Space operas can make a world feel lived-in, which is rarely a bad thing in a genre which can easily feel sterile.

Probably the most drawing aspect of Dune for me is that the novel has surprisingly little action, despite its narrative consisting almost entirely of war and espionage. The majority of the plot movement occurs through conversation and interior monologue. The reader is often placed in the middle of political discussions about the war and conflicts rather than witnessing them firsthand. Such a disconnect between the visceral nature of action and the philosophical dialogue that occurs before or after them provides a perspective rarely seen in SF. After all, who wants to read 100,000+ words about a politician rather than a warrior or fighter pilot?

Dune is not unique in its lack of action, as Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers possesses startlingly little action for a novel whose premise deals with the ethical and political virtues of mandatory/conscripted military service. While Starship Troopers has most recently been adapted into a series of mindless action movies with only a hint at the subtext of the original political intrigue Heinlein scribed, the original novel (published in 1959) provided a precedent for science fiction to begin moving away from hard scientific jargon to stories with an exotic, alien backdrop. The move, however, does not detract from the genre’s message and style, but enhances it.

Heinlein’s novel, like Herbert’s, deals with wartime politics as humans fight off a race of intelligent arachnids, but surprisingly little of this novel is used fighting the aliens. It is instead entrenched with political commentary and how-to’s regarding military service and patriotism. Frank Herbert takes Heinlein’s war/politics foundation and builds onto it religion. In doing so, he shows the reader how a character’s actions play out across the spectrum without having to deal with tiresome action scenes put in only to entertain rather than enlighten or embolden the story.

However, sticking to this reliance on storytelling through dialogue rather than action has given David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of Dune the reputation of being tedious and boring. It may be argued that it is a device that does not transition across media well.

Well, I’ll Be a Wookiee’s Uncle!

Without Dune, films such as Star Wars could never have been made. The franchise owes a great many of its greatest elements to Frank Herbert’s Dune. Star Wars takes more than just its basic space opera structure and technique (as mentioned above) from Herbert.

  • Arrakis is a desert world, devoid of moisture and so is Star Wars’ Tatooine, from which protagonist Luke Skywalker hails.
  • The sandworms of Arrakis are similar to the sarlacc except inverted. Whereas the sandworms of Arrakis travel under the sand and burst from the ground devouring anything in their path, the sarlacc is a stationary worm nested into the ground which waits for meals to be dumped into it.
  • Dune‘s Bene Gesserit can be seen as the basis of George Lucas’ Jedi.
  • The Bene Gesserit develop tonal control of their voices to force other people to do their bidding. The Jedi use the Force and a wave of their hands to mind-trick weak-willed opponents.
  • The Jedi are trained in the ways of the Lightsaber and use the Force to become aware of even the most subtle of signals from their opponents, becoming the most feared hand-to-hand combatants in the galaxy, while the Bene Gesserit are considered weirding witches who fight because they are trained from an early age to notice nuances in others’ body language and vocal mannerisms.
  • Both the Jedi and the Bene Gesserit are trained to work as lie detectors, hearing the truth or falsehood in a person’s voice as they utter it.

John Scalzi said that “Star Wars is George Lucas masturbating to a picture of Joseph Campbell and conning billions of people into watching the money shot.” I argue that it’s just as possible that he locked himself in the bathroom with a well-used paperback of Dune.

Joking aside, seeing Dune so prominently in major iconic aspects of Star Wars shows just how influential Herbert’s writing was and still is.

While Dune obviously drew on previous science fiction works such as Starship Troopers to determine that action scenes can be facilitated by dialogue and commentary, the fact remains that Dune was one of the first American science fiction novels to really achieve any kind of critical acclaim. It was released at that perfect time in American history when readers were looking for more than just another pulp novel. While everyone loves Flash Gordon and the cheese and camp, Dune helped redefine what a space opera could be and earned its place at the head of the genre.

Note: This post is an edited version of an annotation I wrote as I prepared for my Master’s degree comprehensive exams. My primary assignment for Directed Readings and Research was to write summary/annotations over the 26 books on my reading list and to look at each text’s place within the whole of American literature (and its genre). If you were wondering why this review feels different than my usual, that’s why.


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About B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.

13 thoughts on “Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and American Literature

  1. I dunno. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person in the world to have really enjoyed the 80s Dune movie. Admittedly, I saw the movie before reading the book, so that might be part of it. But, I thought the movie gave a great view into the world. When I later read the book, I thought the movie did a great job of capturing the feel of a classic book. I still enjoy the movie.

    I think I noticed an error, though:
    Frank Herbert takes Herbert’s war/politics foundation and builds onto it religion.

    Perhaps you mean “Frank Herbert takes Heinlein’s war/politics….”?
    Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green´s last post ..Changing social conventionsMy Profile

    • Yeah, that was a typo I missed when editing. Sorry about that, but thanks for pointing it out.

      And I never really liked the Lynch movie. I thought it was pretty bland when I saw it years and years before I read the book. But i was pretty young the last time I saw it, too, so I may need to give it another shot.

      What I thought was amazing, though, was the SyFy original miniseries and the sequel Children of Dune. Those were really well done, and if they weren’t 5ish hours each, I’d rematch them soon.

  2. Dune is a boring, tedious book… but I like it. Not so much the sequels, but the original is a book I regard highly. Yes, it’s ponderous and takes itself entirely too seriously, but there’s enough of interest there to make it worth grinding through the dry spells.

    …perhaps I like it more for the ideas than the narrative. I have a similar reaction to the Foundation books, too.

    Oh, and I sorta liked the movie. I saw it before I read the books, but when I was pretty young, so all I really remember is the head on a platter, a hand burning in a box, Sting dying most painfully and some dude getting pricked and then puffing up and flying into a sandworm. None of it made much sense, but it all looked pretty interesting. There was a good sense of “otherplace” to the show; things just operated according to their own rules, and those weren’t always explained in detail. It’s an interesting technique for storytelling, and one that demands the reader/viewer keep up and take an active interest. I find I like that sometimes.
    Tesh´s last post ..Balance- Part 3- Systems- Defaults and MunchkinsMy Profile

    • I’m the same way. It was boring and tedious, but it was also very appealing because of that. I need to go back and finish the Foundation series. I recently picked up the first one again and thought about giving it a go over the summer. I remember it being like this, too, but I loved the concept.

  3. I was a kid when Sting was in Dune, and I thought the movie was so weird. I couldn’t stop watching it, even though I really didn’t get it.

    Later, I went back to read the first book and I thought it was really good. VERY long, and I know I glossed over a ton of pages, but it took science-fiction to a more serious level

    • I was lucky in that I listened to DUNE for the first time on audiobook. I wasn’t able to skip anything even if I had wanted to because I listen while I’m commuting. That, and I was doing it for school, and I couldn’t afford to not pass my comps. :)

  4. I might take some flak for this, but I’m not a fan of the Dune canon. Herbert’s characterization of the protagonists seemed inaccessible and alienating to me. Although, in his defense, I had just finished the emotional rollercoaster that was Raul Endymion’s life — so I may have been expecting a little too much! To borrow a device from Herbert, I’d say that his personification would have failed the Gom Jabbar.

    • Was Endymion Dan Simmons?

      I like the stilted nature of Herbert’s characters, personally. I can see it being a personal choice, though, as that was definitely one of the reasons that I did not enjoy DUNE MESSIAH at all. Everything felt so…staid. CHILDREN OF DUNE, however, is back on the right track, and I’m pleased to say that I’m enjoying it much more than I did the second novel. Leto and Ganema are much more interesting than Emperor Paul and Alia.

    • Yeah, i can see that. But I never finished the 3rd Hyperion book because at some point it all became too much, too fast, too forced (Raul and that girl hooking up, she being some god or something and, oh yeah, also these guys from the future and whatnot) after 2 books of nothing much. I quite enjoyed the first two books and “river”-part of the 3d. i was under the impression that he´d borrowed a good deal from Herbert, though i´d have to reread to say what exactly.
      Still, Dune´s better in my book (har har) because of all the conspiracy and because it doesn’t rely on some god as a plot device (yeahh, i know hyperion is supposed to be about humans becoming god´s or something along those lines) but rather the enhancement of human abilities in a non-mystical way.

  5. Herbert’s books are difficult to read and you have to perservere to get something out of them.
    Having said that, I think Dune and Dune Messiah are classics. The characters are memorable, the story interesting, and the rise and fall of Paul Atreides is told exceptionally well.
    Unlike BJ above, I loathed the rest of the books in the series; they seemed pointless and mere cash-ins; as for the film, it should be consigned to the dustbin – Sting as Feyd Rauther? Oh dear!

    • I like that we have to work and persevere to get the real meaning from Herbert. Too often SF novels are fluff (and I like fluff!) that don’t really take much effort to read. I like that Herbert requires our attention, but I wish that Messiah were a little more clear. It just feels so obtuse compared to the first and third installments. And I haven’t read past Children yet, so I can’t comment.

      I re-watched part of the film yesterday on Encore, and I was just as displeased with it this time around. I don’t think I’m a David Lynch fan, actually. I do, however, still enjoy the SyFy miniseries that are based around the first three books in the series; if you’ve not given them a shot, I suggest them both.

  6. I liked Dune but never fully got into the sequels. Also, it’s weird because Herbert drew a lot of references to islamic culture yet muslims are pretty much the whipping boy in america at this point (the one minority it’s still considered okay to persecute or demonize).