By Andrew Peregrine
Dune is one of the greatest works of Science Fiction, one easily compared to Lord of the Rings in terms of importance to the genre. But what is it about Dune that makes it so important, and what has made it endure so long? Here's my attempt to explain, although the following isn’t necessarily an exhaustive list. Dune is vast and complex enough for everyone to find their own corner of it that I may have missed.
The Far, Far future
Dune does not just take place a couple of hundred years in the future; it is thousands of years in the future. The known universe is set in the year 10,191, using a calendar that dates year 0 another ten thousand years in our future. The ancient Egyptians became a unified kingdom a mere five thousand years in our past, and our world is a very different place. How different might life be over twice that distance into the future?
Technology is advanced but invisible
You’d expect some pretty advanced technology that far ahead, and you’d be right. But Dune is not about sleek spacecraft, computers and laser guns. The technology is so advanced it is barely noticeable. Personal shields that are powered just by a belt, deadly weapons that can be concealed in the hand, undetectable poisons, the list goes on. Dune looks like a low tech setting because the machines they do have are so small and advanced they can be easily hidden.
Most science fiction settings are littered with robots and artificial intelligence computer systems. It is so prevalent it is even hard to think of something as sci-fi at all without a computer somewhere. But there are none in Dune. This is because ten thousand years ago, humanity was enslaved by the AI systems they created. Regaining their freedom cost millions of lives, several planets, and many years of war. To ensure that never happened again, humanity decided to enshrine the idea that no one would ever ‘create a machine in the likeness of the human mind’. It took technology back a few steps, but humanity has learned to compensate by advancing their own mental and physical abilities.
Humanity hasn’t just advanced, it has evolved
The push forward into the future hasn’t just affected technology but humanity itself. We have not just got more advanced technology; we have unlocked more of our own mental and physical potential. Training schools can teach students how to control each and every muscle in their body, notice the most subtle changes in someone’s mood or body language, and store data even better than a computer. Human beings are more than they were, and each person’s potential can be unlocked to a supernatural degree
That is not to say humanity looks any different. They have not merged with machines or left their bodies for a digital age. Butlerian prescriptions will never allow it. So, Dune is not a transhuman setting, the characters would be deeply troubled by the idea of changing the nature of humanity. Instead it is a place where humanity is developing everything it may be capable of.
Living in the Past
As a counterpoint to this evolution, Humanity has returned to the feudal system of old. Nobles live in luxury and peasants work in the fields with archaic tools to provide that wealth. When your lords and ladies own the entire planet you live on, it is doubly hard to try and find a better one. But the nobles do not have an entirely easy time of it. Imperium politics is a deadly game involving assassination, corruption and vendetta. This gives Dune an almost medieval feel in some ways, even with vast spacecraft and advanced technology.
Religion is still important
Freeing themselves from the machines was a desperate battle for humanity. The odds were so stacked against them that winning their freedom is considered a form of miracle, and the battle itself is thought of as a holy war. This founded the new ‘post machine’ society in religious values that have remained important even thousands of years later. While not everyone is dedicated to religion, no one is willing to break the proscriptions against creating thinking machines. It is more than a law; it is a covenant with God. If broken, many believe it will bring ruin to humanity once more. This has led one major organization (the Bene Gesserit) to take on religious trappings. Some use this to their advantage, manipulating planetary cultures by instilling religious values that work in the favor of the faction. Just as always, religion remains a force for hope, faith, and community, but also control.
When we talk about world building, the Dune series takes the idea literally. Frank Herbert considered not just how to create a convincing setting, but detailed in depth the ecology of the planet Arrakis and how such a desert world might exist. In fact, it was a scientific article about using plants to stabilize sand dunes that gave Herbert the idea for Dune. From the great sand worms, to the small desert mice and scrub plants, Arrakis is a living world. The small details are what make the planet come alive, and allow the reader to feel as if they are actually there.
Humanity hasn’t learned as much as we’d hoped
The sad thing about the universe of Dune is that apart from the idea that it is foolish to let machines do all their thinking, humanity hasn’t really learned as much as we’d hoped. It is still divided into different noble Houses that all insist on absolute loyalty and rule whole planets as they see fit. Fear of assassination and poison are a part of daily life for the nobility, and most citizens of the Imperium are expected to labor for long hours for minimal wages while the nobles live in luxury. Society is full of jealousy, rivalry, lethal violence, and insidious plots. Each faction is exceptionally class-conscious and greedy for power, money, fame, or extended life. In short, Dune is a universe rife with politics, plots, villains, and adventure: just the right elements for an amazing role-playing game.