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.