Dune is an epic science fiction book by Frank Herbert, first published in 1965. He was inspired by a visit to Florence, Oregon at the northern end of Oregon Dunes where the United States Department of Agriculture was trying to stabilize the sand dunes by planting so called ‘poverty grasses’ (vegetation which grow in poor quality soil). Over the next five years he researched and wrote with the initial version coming out in 1963. After various reworks, revisions and expansions, the novel as we know it today was published in August 1965. It then went on to become one of the most famous SciFi books ever written, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1966.
Dune is considered a prime example of ‘soft science fiction’ it focuses less on technological marvels of the distant future and more on the development of the human mind through time. Dune is set in galaxy a galaxy with thousands of inhabited planets. There is a complete ban on any type of ‘thinking machines’ (Artificial Intelligence) or as described in the book: ‘machine made in the likeness of man’. The possession any kind calculators, computers or any machine with cognitive capabilities is considered an act of religious heresy and is punishable with immediate death. However technologies such as faster than light space travel, energy shields, laser weaponry, advanced biotechnology and advanced nanotechnology exist.
Dune can be quite confusing for a first time reader due to the myriad of new terms introduced quite without context. Dune has a very complicated socioeconomic structure and an equally complicated history. The basic setting of Dune will be explained briefly in the section below:
Spice Melange: Also known just as ‘the Spice’, is a naturally produced ‘awareness spectrum narcotic’, i.e. it allows it’s consumer to access hidden areas of the subconscious mind, giving them certain abilities such as prescience (foreknowledge) and Other memory (genetic memory). If taken regularly it can extend the life of the consumer by hundreds of years. It is highly addictive and if an addict stops consuming it, death is assured. The most notable side effect of the Spice is that it slowly but surely turns the eyes of the consumer completely blue, not just the pupils but the entire cornea turns a bright shade of blue. The spice is central to the plot of Dune as it is the single most important resource in the galaxy and is largely responsible for most of the technological and cultural advancement in the galaxy ever since the complete eradication of thinking machines.
The Butlerian Jihaad: A massive crusade against any sort of thinking machines which occurred 10,000 years before the events outlined in the book.
Arrakis: It is a barren, desert planet where most of the action in the book takes place. It is the only place in the galaxy where the Spice is naturally formed as a byproduct of the lifecycle of the massive Sandworms which ravage the desert and can grow anywhere between 50 metres to 400 metres. Controlling this planet is considered very profitable. In the beginning of Dune, the protagonist, Paul’s House is awarded the fiefdom of the planet.
Fremen: The natives of the planet Arrakis. They are characterized by their completely blue eyes much like that those of a Spice addict. They are extremely hardy and have adapted to the harsh conditions on the planet. They rely on various water reclaiming technologies such as ‘stillsuits’ that prevented loss of body moisture and devices to avoid and confuse the massive Sandworms.
Spacing Guild: Also known as ‘the Guild’ is an organization with exclusive access to faster than light space travel. This gives them immense powers as the all commerce and industry in the galaxy was dependent on space travel. Subsequently they were a highly secretive organization and little is known about how they operated. But, in later sequels it is revealed that the Guild employed certain ‘Guild Navigators’ who under the influence of the Spice could make the complex calculations required for faster light space travel hence effectively replacing computers. This is one of the many examples that show how the Spice was essential to the advancement of the galaxy.
Bene Gesserit: They were a powerful and ancient order exclusively made up of women whose objectives and actions formed a critical element in the evolution of humanity. The Bene Gesserit through severe physical and mental conditioning were capable of various impressive feats such as self control on body metabolism, superior combat abilities, ability to sense the truth and controlling others by using their ‘Voice’. Their main objective was to guide humanity along a path of stability and peace. The anticipated method of doing so was the birth of a ‘Kwisatz Haderach’ or a male Bene Gesserit who would eventually lead humanity on a path of peace and prosperity as a benevolent messiah. This was achieved through 10,000 years of careful breading where the members of the Bene Gesserit would collect genes from the various Houses of the Landsraad by being the wives and concubines of the various members of the Houses.
Mentat: They were the replacement to computers, they could perform complex logical and mathematical functions and they were mostly employed as political advisors to the Houses. They were much more than ‘human computers’ and could make complex logical deductions by sifting through large amounts of data. They could enter a state of mind where all prejudice and preconception would disappear, allowing them to make clearer and more accurate deductions. People in places of power such as leaders of the Houses, Commanders e.t.c. underwent some degree of Mentat training. Paul is given such training by Thufir Hawat, the Mentat employed by his Father.
Houses of the Landsraad: Also known as the Great Houses, they are Dynastic seats of power which control a single and sometimes several planets. The protagonist, Paul belongs to House Atriedes. Collectively the houses are called the Landsraad.
The High Council: It was a judicial body that oversaw any disputes between the various houses and ensured that they all followed the Great Convention. It had the power to banish a House if it broke any rules of the Convention.
The Great Convention: It is historic treaty brokered between the Spacing Guild and the Houses of the Landsraad. Its main objective was to prevent any loss of human life as much as possible. It included various clauses to ensure this such as Kanly, the formal declaration of war to prevent any surprise attacks and the War of Assassins, a limited form of warfare allowed under the great convention. The Convention also strictly disallowed the use of atomic weapons on human targets.
CHOAM: The CHOAM, Combine Honnete Over Advanced Mercantiles was an economic entity which is quite similar to a public sector company with The Landsraad as the shareholders and the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild as the silent partners. It had complete monopoly over trade and commerce in the galaxy and hence controlling shares meant more power and money for the Houses. Houses with more shares were offered directorships though directorships could be revoked at the whim of the Emperor. Ideally, the Emperor’s house controlled majority of the shares.
This concludes the background of Dune.