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Dune | Study Guide

Frank Herbert

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Dune | Context


Dune as Science Fiction

Science fiction as a genre is relatively new. It grew out of the technological shift from rural living to city living that occurred during the Industrial Revolution (1760–1840) as people found enjoyment in speculating on how technological advances would continue to affect society. Science fiction owes a debt to Mary Shelley, whose 1818 novel, Frankenstein, was one of the first to engage themes related to the intersection of science and society. H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds, 1898) was another early author in the genre, writing in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the mid-1900s writers such as Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov propelled the genre forward, winning over increasing numbers of readers. At this time the fascination with science and technology such as the development of the first computers and the space program combined with a general optimism about the future. This fascination reflected the 20th century's significant social and political struggles. Though these science fiction novels were fantastic, the plots stayed close to home. They focused on near-Earth worlds with societies not unlike our own. Herbert created an entire galactic history with little nostalgia for Earth and its solar system. In addition the writing style of Dune is far more complex than that of Asimov or Heinlein, who take a more direct narrative approach and stick to a fairly conventional voice. Herbert's attention to detail and complex narrative style set Dune apart in the genre.

That is not to say Herbert's epic work sprang out of nowhere. Isaac Asimov's extremely popular Foundation novels tackle sweeping time frames and epic events: the fall of the galactic empire and efforts to preserve civilization. Foundation includes complex political and trade relationships, a shadowy group of masterminds manipulating historical events behind the scenes, and the creation of a religion for the purpose of controlling peoples and planets. In addition Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom novels, set on Mars, were likely familiar to Herbert. Like Burroughs, Herbert creates a world that feels medieval although it is supposedly futuristic. Royalty and aristocracy, rather than democracy, drive the intrigue. Swords and knives are important weapons, even though more advanced weapons exist. Herbert, of course, provides an explanation for humanity's abandonment of some kinds of advanced technology, while Burroughs does not. Author Elmer Edward Smith (E.E. or "Doc" Smith), is known for his Lensman series (among other "space operas"—science fiction adventure stories). The Lensman stories involve aliens with amazing mental powers and breeding programs intended to produce superior soldiers. It also focuses on threats to the galactic civilization and the use of a device (the Lens) to test and recruit members of a galactic patrol to combat these threats. Herbert, too, envisions the galaxy as one empire. Dune's Bene Gesserit is made up of women who run a large-scale human breeding program, have great mental powers, and use a device (the gom jabbar) to test those who might become members.

In addition to these science fiction writers, Herbert used ideas from the writings of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, particularly the concept of the collective unconscious. According to Jung the collective unconscious is distinct from the personal unconscious. It is made up of ancient archetypes—mother, wise old man, shadow, trickster—and other symbolic images. Populated by these figures of great symbolic power, the collective unconscious is a powerful force in every human being. Jung connected this collective unconscious to the development of mythology and religious experiences. He believed the collective unconscious could be accessed through both a study of mythological stories and through psychoanalysis of individuals. The influence of this idea is reflected in the "race consciousness" that continually plagues Paul Atreides as well as in the "other memory" accessed by the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers and by the Kwisatz Haderach. It may also influence the mythological flavor of Paul Atreides's Kwisatz Haderach/Lisan al-Gaib story line.

Cultural Influences

The 1960s were a time of experimentation with drugs and a fascination with non-Western cultures and ways of thinking. Psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin, LSD, and peyote were being studied (formally and informally) for their potential perception-enhancing properties. Harvard researchers Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert famously studied psilocybin (derived from mushrooms) in a 1960 study. In 1954 Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception, an account of his experience taking mescaline (related to peyote). Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), was introduced to psychedelic drugs as a U.S. Army test subject, then went on to popularize the use of LSD among young people.

Eastern religious thought was also popular in 1960s counterculture, and Herbert found inspiration from conversations with Alan Watts, whom he met while working at the San Francisco Examiner in the 1960s. Watts was a proponent of Zen Buddhism as well as an experimenter with LSD, and his influence can be seen in the novel's inclusion of Zen ideas. For example, contemplation of the inward self as a means of self-discovery, meditation as a way to master one's emotional reactivity, meditation as a way to find spiritual awakening, and attentiveness to the present state of body and mind are Zen ideas reflected in the Bene Gesserit disciplines of Dune.

Sources of Names and Terms

Herbert drew inspiration from a number of sources for the world of Dune. Some readers may recognize that Herbert uses a number of terms that seem to be drawn from Arabic. For example the term Al-Lat, used to describe the original sun of humankind in Dune, is the name of a goddess in pre-Islamic tradition. The religious background of the Imperium uses the term jihad for a religiously motivated war and speaks of the hajj, a holy journey or pilgrimage. Both jihad and hajj are Islamic words referring to, respectively, a holy war and a pilgrimage to Mecca. In addition the Fremen language reflects Arabic roots, as if the residents of Arrakis trace their ancestry back to cultures of the Middle East.

Other words are drawn from other sources, for specific effects. Bene Gesserit is based on Latin, a nod to the focus on logic and education associated with ancient Rome. Atreides is a name drawn from Greek mythology that refers to the sons of Atreus, one of whom is Agamemnon, who commanded the Greek armies during the Trojan War. This suggests a tie to the noble past. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen's name, although Finnish, sounds Russian, evoking Cold War fears and distrust of the Soviet Union.

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