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TED-Ed: Why should you read “Dune” by Frank Herbert

Dune is oftentimes mentioned as one of the greatest works of science fiction. I tend to disagree. It clearly deserves to sit on the shelf with the greatest literary works, but Dune isn’t science fiction. People commonly use the genre science fiction as a catchall for any story that takes place in the future, or in space, and for many other reasons. Dune qualifies under that categorization, but importantly, there is astonishingly little science in this fiction story.


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Political Fiction

Political fiction is constantly at the center of the story’s plot at various scales. From galactic politics to inter-family politics, the tension and conflict are deeply layered across time and space. The Baron Harkonnen’s raison d’être is to crush the Atredies family. Yet, the events in the book Dune represent only the final acts of a 10,000-year feud between the families.

The Harkonnen family plays a deadly politics thought-out the story. The Baron is raising his nephew to be his hair but must contend with assassination attempts. However, these assassination attempts are not seen as a betrayal but as a teaching lesson. The Baron knows that his nephew wouldn’t be worthy of the Harkonnen throne if he weren’t smart enough, and more importantly deceitful enough, to try and take the throne. And this is just a side plot in the book that is riddled with plots within plots, which is a line frequently repeated in the book.

Spiritual Fiction

Herbert doesn’t preach a specific version of spirituality, but each culture in the book has their spirituality that adds depth and realism to the story. Most obvious is the Fremen culture, who are deeply spiritual, as would be necessary for any people living in such harsh conditions. But their spirituality doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The Bene Gesserit profoundly influences them. The Bene Gesserit sit in the deep recesses behind every powerful family to control the bloodlines to their own ends.

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Although it isn’t mentioned in the Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the Orange Catholic Bible or OC Bible, was one of the most important religious texts in Dune universe. There is nothing more than quotes from it here and there in the books and Paul have a micro-copy of the book that he keeps with him. The book is a fusion of all significant religious thought in human history.

Ecological Fiction

Perhaps the most important fiction of Dune is the ecology. In fact, Frank Herbert was inspired to write the story after visiting the dunes of Oregon and falling on love with the ecology there. He would spend five years doing research as he brought together the ideas that would become the Dune saga. Herbert explored many ecological themes in the books, such as sustainability, symbiotic relationships, and the consequences of resource exploitation.

The planet Arrakis isn’t just a planet of sand and worms. There are grasses, rodents, such as muad’dib, and birds. The movies only have scant time to even mention the ecology, but in the books Herbert explores many details of the ecology of Dune.


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3 responses to “TED-Ed: Why should you read “Dune” by Frank Herbert”

  1. You are absolutely right that Dune isn’t traditional science fiction. I don’t consider it sci fi, but it’s not fantasy either. It’s not space opera like Star Wars or an adventure serial. I think about this a lot. What actually is Dune? If I was a publisher, I’d place it under sci fi: it’s far in the future, and there are space ships.

    But it’s also a feudal Empire, people fight with swords and knives, and there are Dukes, Lords and Ladies, and Emperors. The Bene Gesserit and Navigators have magical skills. The Fremen are low tech and live in tribal sietches close to the land. There’s a lot of what is termed low-fantasy in Dune. No dragons or wizards. 🙂

    So, sci fi? Fantasy? Both or neither?

    There isn’t really a category for political science fiction or environmental fiction. I guess The Expanse and For All Mankind, even The Last of Us, could be environmental sci fi. This a good topic to think about.

    For spiritual fiction, there’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and a bunch of other Heinlein novels, like Farnham’s Freehold, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (which is also political fiction). But Stranger stands out, absolutely. It’s a great read if you can ignore the sexism of the time.

    The Darkover novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley combine sci fi, fantasy, the environment, and politics. So do the Dragonrider books by Anne McAffrey (this needs to be a series and I don’t know why it’s not yet, it’s a frelling slam dunk).

    So, okay, there’s a category for these things if we think on it, and I’m sure there’s more.

    Dune, the novel, is an outstanding achievement and in my top ten book list. I’m not satisfied yet with any film adaptation. I liked the miniseries best, actually. Much more personable. Denis V is more about style and artistry, and not so much about charm, wit, or dialog. He has a painterly vision. Which is fine. If he can manage to keep it going through Messiah and Children I’ll be happy.

    Do you think God Emperor is doable as a film? It’s extremely deep and philosophical, but too weird for most audiences, I think, especially with a director who doesn’t value a lot of dialog.

    1. I guess Dune should be it’s own genre. Which can probably be said of any great work of literature.

      I know that Denis V. is planning on filming Dune Messiah. Personally, I’d rather that someone else did it. Or, if it were up to me I’d pick someone else to adapt the script and then have Denis V. film it in with his artistic vision. I don’t think Denis is a bad script writer, but he’s not great. My favorite of his is Arrival, and it’s not even close. He didn’t write the script.

      As for God Emperor of Dune being made into a movie. That’s a tough call. Adapting that one visually is going to be the biggest challenge of them all. I think that in a very short timespan the improvement of generative video (GV)—video produced by AI—will progress to the point that a creator can iterate on something like the visuals for GEoD until they feel satisfied. This is a whole different discussion, but I think that GV will change Hollywood as much as any CGI ever has. It will allow for rapid iteration for everything from storyboards to film quality output. Imagine how much better the cinematography for a movie would be if the writers and director were able to visualize every scene in a movie over and over and tweak it until it’s just right. And then, perhaps, go out and film it. So yeah, by the time someone is ready to make GEoD we’ll have the tools for someone to do it well.

  2. Agreed, most great works might need a new category. Lord of the Rings is clearly high fantasy, but that’s a genre setter. Tolkien took from many mythos and set an entire path of what fantasy looks like for everyone to use, as a template for the genre.

    Dune is more of a thinking man’s work. LotR has some deep themes, but it’s mostly buried in small moments, like Gandalf’s one on one conversations with Frodo and Pippin, and everything to do with the sorrow of the Elves. Whereas with Dune, you are forced to think about great events and how they impact and shape humanity.

    I agree we will have the ability to use AI to envision Leto’s ultimate choice, and there are some interesting concept drawings on the internet, but I’d love to see God Emperor attempted at some point. I think there’s enough of a hook with the other characters to keep it from getting too weird for audiences, but the themes are intense and challenging to accept. I love your idea of Denis doing visuals and someone else on the script. This story absolutely needs some exposition, and not by big info dumps like in the book. And it’s so bizarre that we really need to get attached to certain characters (trying to be be spoiler free).

    The themes of tyranny and oppression are timely. And probably something audiences can relate to on a base level. The Golden Path is truly awful in execution, and makes me wonder why we have to save humanity at any cost (like I wondered in Battlestar Galactica). But then, I am not preborn. I am only an egg, locked in my own head. 😉

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