Building Arrakis: How Herbert Sabotaged His Own Ideas

A sandworm in the desert.

In this series on worldbuilding, I’ve looked at both science fiction and high fantasy worlds. Today, we’re combining the two with a look at Frank Herbert’s Dune, a book that sits firmly in the space fantasy subgenre. Dune is a classic, a book that has inspired countless storytellers in the decades since it was first published. This can make examination difficult, because nostalgia heavily tints our recollections. And yet, the critiques must flow.* Let’s take a look at this classic and see how the foundation holds up. Keep in mind, we’re only considering Dune itself, not any of the sequels – 188,000 words is more than enough worldbuilding for one post.

The Good

Two characters from Dune wearing still suits.

As you may have guessed from this post’s title, my overall impression of Dune’s worldbuilding isn’t great. However, I’m happy to give credit where credit is due, and Dune does have a number of points in its favor, especially in the area of novelty. This contributes to the book’s lasting popularity even now, five and a half decades after it was published.

Desert Ecosystems

There is no doubt that Herbert had a passion for deserts, and channeling that passion into his novel’s main setting is a major boon for the story. On a wordcraft level, we get lots of cool details about the landscape, atmosphere, and architecture that all come together to bring Arrakis to life in our minds.

From a more zoomed-out perspective, Herbert makes the desert environment critical to the plot. I would roll my eyes at most stories asking me to remember multiple kinds of sand,* but in Dune it’s actually important! The local sand topography not only determines how difficult travel is but also makes it more or less likely to attract a worm.

The sands of Arrakis also contain the all-important spice, a near-mystical compound that fuels most of the novel’s plot. Everyone wants to get their hands on spice, making control of Arrakis highly sought after by the many noble houses. Herbert also goes into a lot of detail on how the spice is harvested, which is not only important when the characters start fighting over it but also helps the reader immerse themself in a living setting. That builds attachment for the planet itself.

Plus, there are the stillsuits. These hyper-efficient water recyclers are probably the most distinctive piece of advanced tech in the whole book. Even with the wealth of scifi stories available today, it’s rare to find so much attention spent on basic survival, which helps Dune stand out on the shelf.

Cool Monsters

I love sandworms. Everything about them is cool, so cool that countless other specific stories have incorporated them in some form or another. The concept of such an enormous creature that can approach from beneath, almost unseen, is truly terrifying, but that’s just the start of what makes the sandworms so great.

What really turns the worms up to eleven is that they aren’t a monster to be fought. They’re so large and so numerous that destroying them just isn’t practical, even with scifi technology. Our heroes have to treat them like a force of nature, something to be avoided and mitigated rather than fought and destroyed.

Eventually, we learn that the Fremen use the worms as mounts, which is even cooler. It helps the Fremen culture feel real.* They live with this force of nature every day, so they’ve found ways of turning it to their advantage. But even when the Fremen ride worms into battle, the worms never feel completely tame. There’s always an understanding that sandworms are dangerous and need to be respected.

Finally, sandworms produce the all-important spice, which ties them firmly into the main plot. Dangerous as they are, without them Arrakis would be a worthless backwater. The sandworms are so important that the Fremen terraformers are careful to set aside a big reserve of desert in their green vision of Arrakis.

Internal Magic

A major fantasy element of this space fantasy is the Bene Gesserit order. These space mages don’t have laser swords or levitation, but they do have powerful magic. The trick is that their magic is almost entirely internal. Instead of hurling fireballs or summoning demons, the Bene Gesserit manipulate their own bodies to powerful effect.

While the exact limits are a little vague, we see that the Bene Gesserit can do things like slow or speed up their metabolism, control their reproductive systems, and alter their brain chemistry. Powerful individuals can even use their own bodies as a kind of filtration plant, changing the properties of substances they ingest.

These effects are quite powerful, allowing Bene Gesserit to perform seemingly superhuman feats, but they’re also subtle. Dune’s magic is carefully hidden, giving the Bene Gesserit a sense of mystique as well as power. This is a refreshing change of pace from the more pyrotechnics-oriented magic that’s so common in spec fic. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with more overt magic, but Dune’s subtle powers help it stand out.

Bringing Swords to a Gunfight

Spec fic readers really like swords, which is a problem for scifi writers, since it’s hard to justify why anyone would use a sharp piece of metal as their primary weapon when there are more advanced options available. Nevertheless, countless authors have inserted swords into their technologically advanced settings, and Dune is one of the oldest examples.

Herbert’s main justification is the personal shield. These devices are relatively cheap and can stop just about any high-speed projectile, making the wearer immune to firearms. Naturally, the shield can’t stop the slower blade of a melee weapon, and thus swords are still practical as a weapon of war.

As justifications go, this one rates as “good enough.” It raises a number of questions, like why soldiers don’t wear pre-gunpowder armor if swords are a common weapon, but it makes enough sense that readers aren’t inclined to question it. That’s honestly as good as it gets in the field of putting swords in a scifi setting.

Once readers have suspended their disbelief, Dune can reap the reward the swords offer: exciting melee combat. It’s just easier to make sword duels more interesting than gunfights, which tend to involve a lot of hiding behind cover unless your story goes full gun-fu.

The Bad

Paul wearing a still suit.

And that’s about it for the positive things I can say about Dune’s setting. Don’t worry though, there’s more to talk about because even though most of Herbert’s worldbuilding isn’t good, there’s still a whole lot of it.

Space Feudalism

High fantasy is usually the go-to genre for problematic feudalism portrayals, but Dune gives us a chance to do that in scifi too! To be fair, Dune is hardly the only scifi story to use space feudalism, but most of them include at least an acknowledgment that divine right is not a good system of government. Dune has no such awareness.

Instead, Dune actively celebrates the idea that aristocrats are simply a superior class of people, and Herbert’s main mechanism of doing that is eugenics, because of course it is. It seems the Bene Gesserit have a long-running program of selective breeding to produce the setting’s chosen one, who has some kind of vague destiny. The horrors of eugenics aside, you’d expect the Bene Gesserit to select subjects they can easily control for this program. Instead, they do it by manipulating aristocratic marriages. This is important to their plan, despite the political difficulties it creates.

The only reason to do this is the belief that nobles are simply better than everyone else, so they make the best breeding stock. This is incredibly gross and has clear authorial endorsement. The only thing wrong with the Bene Gesserit’s plan is that they end up creating the chosen one too early, which throws off their vague plans in a way that the book never gets around to explaining.

In addition to these super gross messages, Dune’s space feudalism is really bad for the plot. The main conflict is motivated by an ever-growing number of political disputes that Herbert never fully explores. Why is the Emperor set on destroying the Atreides family instead of allying with them? Why do the Harkonnens bother with this elaborate scheme of giving Arrakis to Duke Leto instead of just destroying him on Caladan? Why do all the noble houses in the imperium fly their armies over to Arrakis at the end? There’s no answer to any of these questions, despite how much of the story turns on them.

White Savior Planet

For anyone unfamiliar with the white savior trope, it refers to a white character going to a nonwhite culture, becoming the best at whatever that culture does, and then usually saving said culture from an upcoming calamity. Sometimes, this is done through coding rather than characters being overtly white and nonwhite, but the result is the same. For example, the book is pretty vague on what Paul looks like, but since his name is “Paul” and he’s an outworlder joining the heavily Arab-coded Fremen, the dynamic is clear.

But before we can even talk about Paul, we have to mention Dr. Kynes, the imperial planetologist. He’s also a white-coded outworlder who joins the Fremen and becomes better at their culture than they are. He’s actually the Fremen leader, able to command all the various factions, something no native-born Fremen could ever do. Not only that, Kynes is behind the Fremen’s secret efforts to terraform Arrakis, a project that is described as being religious in nature.

Then Kynes dies so that Paul can take his place. Paul even hooks up with Kynes’s daughter in what feels like an unofficial inheritance deal by the author. Wow. The white savior trope is distressingly common even today, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story where one white savior hands their mantle to a brand new white savior. Dune is definitely ahead of its competition in that regard, though it’s not a prize anyone should be competing for.

As for Paul himself, he does exactly what you’d expect a white savior to do, becoming the bestest Fremen that there ever was and leading them to glory against their enemies. Some things he’s already best at, like knife fighting. Other things take him a little while to master, but of course he’s still the best at them, like when he tries worm riding for the first time and immediately rides the biggest worm anyone has ever seen. Like all white savior stories, this sends a clear message that what nonwhite cultures really need is a white person* to tell them their business. Gross.

Exotic Desert Badasses

Speaking of the Fremen, just about everything is wrong with them. Thousands and thousands of words have already been written on the subject, so I’ll try to be succinct. First, let’s tackle the idea that living in the desert makes the Fremen better soldiers. Unlike some later stories that use this trope,* Herbert doesn’t beat around the bush with this one. Early in the book, he has the characters clearly state that Arrakis’s harsh conditions are what make the Fremen superior soldiers. It’s refreshing when authors are so straightforward.

This is, of course, complete nonsense. Surviving in a desert doesn’t make you good at fighting. It’s like saying that living in a cold environment makes you good at dancing. There’s no causal mechanism. To survive in a desert, you need to be good at finding water, avoiding heat, and growing moisture-efficient food. This is noticeably different than the skills necessary to kill another human. The only possible connection is the idea that desert people are more likely to fight over resources, but that’s not true either. Gathering the resources necessary for warfare is actually much harder in a resource-poor environment.

In addition to being wrong, this trope is also racist, specifically Islamophobic. It depends on orientalist ideas of Arab Muslims being nothing more than scary desert warriors.* In fact the Fremen are established to be the descendants of Arab Muslims, in case the tropes weren’t clear enough. This demonstrates a startling lack of creativity in addition to racism. Of course the far-future descendants of modern Arabs would live on a desert planet – where else would they live?

But we’re not done with the racism, oh no. You see, the Fremen are overflowing with tropes that writers love to use for the scary barbarians of their setting. They kill anyone who wanders into their territory, except for Paul the chosen one of course, because he’s so badass. They settle even minor insults with fights to the death, which is used for Paul to demonstrate what a badass he is. Speaking of fights to the death, that’s how they choose their leaders too. No word on what happens if the best civic planner or tactician isn’t also the best knife fighter. And did I mention that when a man wins one of these duels, he inherits the loser’s wife and children? Nothing like treating women as property to round this out.

In the Fremen we have a xenophobic, sexist, and absurdly violent society. Yet the book also portrays them as noble and morally upright compared to most of  the “soft” outworlders. This is literally the noble savage trope, what authors use then they want to fetishize a marginalized culture but still maintain a healthy sense of superiority. It’s a contradiction, but racism is full of contradictions. Honestly, there’s still more to talk about, but you get the idea by now. The Fremen are both completely unrealistic and actively harmful; avoid emulating them at all costs.

Nonsense Philosophy

Dune’s most famous phrase is probably “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.” That’s the opening for the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, and it sounds reasonable enough. Calling fear a “mind-killer” is perhaps a little extreme, but people can certainly do unwise things when they’re afraid. Based on that line, you’d probably expect Dune’s philosophy to be fairly mild.

Nope. Instead, the story opens with a truly bizarre sequence in which a high-ranking Bene Gesserit tests protagonist Paul to see if he’s “human.” This is the much-discussed pain box scene, in which being human is linked with pain tolerance. Supposedly this is something animals lack. If Paul’s pain tolerance isn’t high enough to keep his hand in the box as it simulates intense agony, then he’s actually an animal, okay? Herbert then makes things even more confusing by writing about how an animal will gnaw off its own leg to escape a trap while a human would wait in the trap to kill whoever set it.

Hang on. A second ago pain tolerance was what defined a human, and gnawing off your own leg requires a much greater pain tolerance than just staying in the trap. This sequence gets way more page space than the Litany Against Fear, and it’s mentioned way earlier. Fortunately, the idea that some people are really animals because of low pain tolerances doesn’t play a huge role in the story after the opening scene, but it’s the first impression readers get of the world, so the damage is done.

Another bizarre philosophy that pops up all over Dune is the idea of “race consciousness.” Herbert uses those words a lot, along with “race memory” and similar terms. By “race,” he seems to mean the entire human species, which he describes as somehow acting in concert toward a far-off goal. It’s not clear what that goal is, but more importantly, humans do not work that way! Social and economic forces often do push history in one direction or another regardless of individual will, but that’s not what Herbert describes. In this book at least, he seems to think that humans are destined by our genes to reach some pre-established endpoint, even if he doesn’t know what that is.

Gendered Magic

I praised the Bene Gesserit’s magic earlier because it’s refreshingly subtle, but then Herbert had to go and make it gendered. All of the Bene Gesserit are women, which puts a sexist lens on everything they do. Instead of mages being considered sneaky and manipulative because of their powers, it’s specifically female mages who are sneaky and manipulative. You might recognize that as a sexist stereotype applied to women in real life, a stereotype that Dune reinforces.

Even worse is the idea that this entire organization of female mages exists primarily to produce a male mage who will be the chosen one. Not only will he be better at the Bene Gesserit’s magic than they are, but he’ll also be humanity’s savior, since obviously no woman could do that. This idea gets weirder when the characters explain that women can only see the feminine half of history, whereas a man can see both the feminine and masculine halves. This magic dude will also be able to see the future, because why not?

First of all, how the heck do you divide history into masculine and feminine halves? Even if you believe in a gender essentialist worldview, how would that possibly work? The Bene Gesserit seem to have no trouble viewing battles in war, which would generally be considered masculine under this framework, so I have no idea what Herbert was going for. Second, if we accept a completely binary view of gender as Dune asks us to, why would a man be able to see both masculine and feminine? That’s just greedy.

Herbert’s gendered magic system is annoying in its own right, but even worse is how much it’s inspired other authors over the years. Wheel of Time’s Aes Sedai are almost exact copies of the Bene Gesserit except more extreme, with an even greater emphasis placed on how all-defining gender is. I’m not eager to consider what absurdities the Aes Sedai might inspire in turn.

Unclear Powers

Other than being heavily gendered, the most annoying aspect of Dune’s magic system is how vague most of its powers are. Paul can see the future, but only as a kind of foreshadowing, never enough to be helpful. The Bene Gesserit can read people’s expressions, which is cool, but it seems they can only do it sometimes because Herbert didn’t want his magical characters to always know what everyone around them was thinking.

The list goes on. Paul and Jessica teach the Fremen something called the “Weirding Way,” which sounds neat but gets almost no description. We’re told that it helps the Fremen fight better, but that’s it. I assumed it was a process for reading an opponent to guess their next move, as that would fit thematically with the Bene Gesserit’s other powers. Then I googled it and found out the Weirding Way is actually a type of super speed. Great, so now the Fremen are even more overpowered than they were before.

But the champion of vague powers has to go to the Mentats. They’re described as humans trained to replace the “thinking machines” that were banned at some point in the backstory. Characters talk about how useful they are, but the Mentats we actually see don’t seem to have any abilities beyond a reasonably smart human. They talk about needing data to make their predictions, but all humans need data to make predictions. When a Mentat character makes a declaration, it never seems like something they’d need special abilities to figure out.

The Mentat’s problem stems from the nature of their powers: being super smart. Not only is it difficult for a human author to write characters who are smarter than humans can be, but it’s also bad for the plot. Plots rely on characters not figuring certain things out until a critical moment, and if Mentats had superhuman intelligence, it would destroy that balance. It’s the same problem Herbert has with Bene Gesserit expression reading or super speed. If these powers were properly used, there would be no plot, so he just avoids describing them whenever possible.

Making Shields Ineffective

In Dune’s early chapters, Herbert puts a lot of work into making swords seem credible in his scifi setting. A bit later, he completely destroys that same premise. Things start to go wrong quite early, when it’s explained that to get through a shield, you have to stab very slowly, otherwise the shield will deflect even a melee weapon. This makes it sound like evading attacks should be easy, and that the only effective offense would be grappling. Then you can at least hold your opponent still while you stab them. Paul even fights a duel later in the book where he can’t land a hit on his opponent because he’s trained to slow down so he can get through shields.

Next, we’re told that the Fremen don’t use shields because shields attract sandworms. Now the entire justification for swords is gone, but for some reason, the Fremen still default to melee weapons in their fights. At this point, the shield seems more like a way to differentiate the “hard” Fremen from the “soft” outworlders. The book starts with a technical justification, then transitions into handwaving guns and other projectile weapons away.

Shields get even weirder from there, as it’s established that if anyone ever hits a shield with a lasgun beam, it will cause an explosion that’s comparable to a nuclear blast. Both lasguns and shields are cheap enough that any significant force will have both. This creates some obvious exploits, like putting a shield, a lasgun, and a timer in a rocket and launching them at whoever you don’t like. The characters even do this once to get out of a Harkonnen ambush, but for some reason they never try it again.

Perhaps worse, this means that any losing army has the ability to achieve mutually assured destruction at any time. This is even more extreme than in real life, where the decision to use nuclear weapons is usually made by top leaders in the government and military.* In Dune, any soldier who decides they’d rather go out in a blaze of glory can easily destroy both sides. Why this doesn’t happen is anyone’s guess.

What We Can Learn

Paul and Fayd-Rautha getting ready to fight.

I must admit, it feels nice to have my spleen thoroughly vented. Sometimes a book has so many problems that you just have to yell about it on the internet. But I also want to be constructive here and talk about what lessons we can take from the trash fire that is Dune’s worldbuilding. Other than not using racist tropes, I mean. Hopefully that’s obvious by now.

Subversion Requires Work

A common defense of Dune is that all the problems I’ve brought up aren’t really problems; they’re commentary on problems or subversions of problems. This is simply not true, at least not in the first Dune book. Everything is played completely straight. Feudal aristocrats are a better breed of human. The Bene Gesserit are scheming, untrustworthy women, yet they are also presented as being correct in the idea that pain tolerance is the primary indicator of personhood.

The closest Dune comes to commentary is that Paul has some understanding that he’s an outsider who will unite the Fremen and lead them to victory. Apparently in the distant past, the Bene Gesserit went to Dune and posed as prophets to plant ideas that would make the Fremen more accepting of Paul. Why they did that and how they know Paul would be there is unclear, but it doesn’t really matter. This is more awareness than something like James Cameron’s Avatar, but it’s still not commentary. It’s a justification, and not a good one at that, since it portrays the Fremen as being easily duped by outsiders.

To subvert a trope, you have to do something meaningfully different. For example, if Dune were actually a subversion of the white savior trope, then it might be about a Fremen leader trying to maintain their people’s independence in the face of an outside takeover. In this scenario, white savior Paul would be the villain. There are still risks to doing that, of course, but it would be an actual subversion.

The best Dune can manage is some basic lampshading, and that does not a subversion make. Of course, it’s possible that later books actually do manage meaningful commentary, but I’ll probably never find out because it doesn’t matter. Even a perfect subversion isn’t worth an entire novel of playing these tropes straight.

Don’t Ruin a Good Thing

It’s fascinating how many of Dune’s problems are caused by Herbert overplaying his hand. He does all the work to justify swords in a scifi setting, then tosses it out the window a few chapters later. He sets up a cool and distinct magic system for the Bene Gesserit, then gives them super speed for some reason. He narrates how the Mentat are a kind of human computer, but then they end up just being regular dudes who are pretty smart.

If Herbert had been willing to fully commit to the conceits that he himself set up, this would be a much better book. We’d have scifi sword fights without having to wonder why the Fremen don’t all use guns. We’d be able to read the battle sequences without wondering why no one on the losing side ever turns a lasgun on a shield out of desperation. He did the work for readers to suspend their disbelief, then sabotaged it.

I’ve seen this pattern before, though more commonly in unpublished manuscripts. Authors can be their own worst enemies in this regard. They start their stories with one set of ideas, but then something new catches their attention, and they don’t realize that it contradicts what they already established. I’ve been there, so I know this is tempting, but we must resist. Write those cool ideas down and set them aside for another story in the future. Don’t destroy the one you’re already working on.

Build Plot and World to Match

Dune’s plot appears solid at first, but as the story continues, it becomes increasingly frayed until all of Paul’s enemies seem to appear from nowhere to attack Arrakis. We get a few scenes of Harkonnens plotting with imperial agents, and that’s it. This is simply not enough to keep track of all the enormously complicated political maneuverings going on between the great houses, and that’s not even considering the factions with even stranger goals like the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild.

So why did this happen? Because while most of the plot happens on various worlds of the imperium, most of the worldbuilding is focused on Arrakis. That’s where Herbert’s passion is, and that’s where we spend most of the story, either with the Atreideses trying to run the place, or Paul and Jessica trying to survive after their house is destroyed. There’s some good material in these scenes, but they have little to do with the grand imperial politics happening in the background.

That’s why Dune’s ending is so rushed. Paul drinks the Water of Life, then wakes up knowing that all the bad guys have suddenly shown up. They have a perfunctory battle and argue a bit about what to do with the captured bad guys. Then Paul wins a knife fight against a vastly inferior opponent, and the book is over. It’s like Herbert was contractually obligated to finish the political plot but put it off until the last possible minute.

A more harmonious version of Dune would see the plot and worldbuilding work together rather than in conflict. The easiest option would have been for a plot that’s more localized to Arrakis. The major players should all be on the planet, perhaps with occasional references to events taking place elsewhere. We don’t need to bring in grand imperial politics yet, let alone whatever the Bene Gesserit are up to. This is only the first book; save some of that for the sequel!

Tension and Satisfaction Matter

We’ve already gone over how the Fremen portrayal is both racist and sexist, which should be more than enough for writers not to emulate them. But there’s also a more technical problem with our desert knife boys: they are way too powerful. It’s honestly a little ridiculous. Early in the book, the Fremen are already making mincemeat out of the empire’s best troops, inflicting several times the losses they endure even when heavily outnumbered. This only gets worse as they’re given more weapons, learn super speed, and are revealed to ride the invincible sandworms.

This is another reason the final battle feels so perfunctory. The bad guys roll up with their armies, but we already know that the Fremen are unbeatable. Herbert makes a weak attempt to explain that this time the enemy is a threat because they have artillery, but that threat is neutralized within a few pages. Even if it hadn’t been, it’s effectively technobabble, as we’ve seen the Fremen win over and over again, seemingly with little effort. Even in this battle, Herbert goes out of his way to show that the imperial soldiers are easily defeated by Fremen civilians.

The final duel is also incredibly one sided. Paul fights a Harkonnen man who had to cheat to win his last fight with a no-name soldier. Meanwhile, Paul is the best knife fighter in a culture of knife fighters, and he has magic powers. Again, Herbert makes a weak effort, this time with the idea that the Harkonnen will poison his weapon. That’s not nearly enough to make up for Paul’s overwhelming skill advantage, and Paul may even be immune to poison thanks to his magic, though it’s not entirely clear.*

Because Paul and the Fremen are so overpowered, there’s no tension in the story’s climax. That’s when tension should be the highest! We should be on the edge of our seats wondering if the hero is going to succeed; otherwise, what’s the point? Worse, watching Paul moonwalk his way to victory means there’s no satisfaction either. It doesn’t feel like he worked for any of it. He was basically a high school student fighting fourth-graders for all the challenge his enemies provided.

Don’t Generalize Humans

The final lesson Dune can teach us today is how to avoid sounding like a freshman philosophy major high on shrooms rambling about how everything’s connected, maaaaaaan. Dune has a lot of problematic messages, and at their core are broad generalizations that try to fit people into boxes. Whether it’s a screed about how pain tolerance separates humans and animals, or the idea that women can only view the feminine side of history through their magic, the problem is the same: assuming that humans are all one way.

Humans are notoriously complicated and contain unending multitudes just within a single individual, let alone in large populations. It is incredibly unlikely that any of us will have the insight necessary to define human nature, assuming such an insight even exists. This is why stories always sound ridiculous when they try to say that one group of humans is like this, and another group of humans is like that. Such a view is too simplistic.

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  1. Jeppsson

    So, with the big caveat that it was ages since I read Dune now (really loved the first book despite its issues, but then they get progressively worse, I think, so I never read the whole series), I don’t remember Mentats as being super smart. They’re meant to replace “thinking machines”, presumably computers. It’s implied, I think, that computers gained sentience at some point and there was like a computer/robot uprising, so that’s why they’re not allowed anymore.

    However, the deal with computers isn’t that they’re more intelligent than us. It’s that they can make calculations with loads of data really fast. I always thought the Mentat’s special training allowed them to do that, and also make something akin to computer simulations of what’s likely to happen given certain preconditions in their heads.

    So I thought a Mentat is really no more fancy than a real person with a computer.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The book is extremely vague, but when it talks about the Mentats being “living computers,” it means they can make predictions and figure things out really well, which is basically being really smart. This supposed power never actually appears because Herbert can’t have his Mentat characters figuring things out before the plot is ready for it.

    • Tasha

      The AI uprising was talked about in the pages of exposition that the novel unloads in the first quarter of the book. “The Butlerian Jihad”. So they were afraid of any non biological Computers. The Mentats were born in response to that war. My guess is that Guild Navigators were also a result, as you needed something that can navigate your FTL ships from place to place.

      Apparently there’s a book about it, but it’s probably bad fanfict.

  2. Cay Reet

    The lesson from the Dune worldbuilding probably should be: if you only flesh out one planet of your intergalactic empire fully, keep your plot focused on that planet. I dare guess – though I’ve not read Dune – that there would have been a way to write most of that story without including that political intrigue (I love political intrigue, but it’s not easy to add to another plot line) and with keeping the threats on the planet.

    Perhaps House Artreides rules, but other houses have some kind of representation on the planet and the Harkonnen representant wants to destroy Artreides to take over right away? That means we don’t need an outside power coming in, Paul could just be the heir who has to be killed to make sure the house stays down. Then down-power the Fremen and, perhaps, make it so Paul has forged friendships with several of them in the past, so he can flee to them when he’s in danger. They’ll not help him because he’s the Chosen One, but because he’s a friend they respect and because the new rulers have made their situation worse, so they have a common enemy. I’m pretty sure you could get a good climax out of that kind of plot.

    Paul having the same powers as the Bene Gesserit could be in the vein of Odin using a type of magic only women normally do: he’s looked down upon for it, but finds the discreet powers very useful and thus doesn’t care about other people’s opinion. Perhaps having the skill to change your internal processes makes it easier for him to survive in the desert, for instance. I actually like the idea of discreet internal magic which gives the wielder some advantage without making it too showy – I like for my mages to be sneaky.

  3. Joseph

    Even in the book this is kind of under-explored, but the Bene Geserit chosen one was not supposed to be a man. The point was specifically to create a woman with access to both halves of the Other Memory. Paul being a man is a far bigger wrinkle in the BG vague master plan than being born early. This is what the part about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ history comes in.

    The Bene geserit power is specifically genetic memory- think Assassins Creed. Women (or rather females, if you want to be specific, but since Dune was written in the sixties…) can only access the matrilineal line of memories. A male other than Paul would presumably only have access to the patrilineal line of memory.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The book is definately super vague, but having just read it, one of the few things it’s clear on is that the Kwisatz Haderach is supposed to be a man.

    • Tracey

      I always thought of Paul having access to the matrilineal line because of the xy chromosomes males have, and to further expand on the article as written- he is only able to see a foreshadowing because he isn’t female but still has the X chromosome, but it’s not strong enough to give him full foresight, just a thought

      • Cay Reet

        That could be an explanation, but would mean that all male offspring of women who can do this can also have the same foreshadowing as he did. Every man has the XY pairing and in a man, the X always comes from the mother.

  4. LeeEsq

    I have a soft spot for Dune because the series has my people, Jews, surviving into the far future in tact while most other cultures and religions get synthesized or changed beyond recognition. Herbert thought if any culture would remind recognizable due to thousands of years of yesterday and intergalactic travel its us.

    • StyxD

      Dune isn’t nearly the only sci-fi work that displays this trope, so it seems like many authors shared this opinion. Unless it’s part of the influence Dune had on the genre as a whole.

      To be frank, this trope always reads just a bit uncomfortably supremacist to me. It also seems to project that Jewish culture never underwent any evolution or religious reform, which just isn’t true as far as I know (but sci-fi books actually made me think so at one point).

      • LeeEsq

        I think Dune was the first to display this trope because Dune was also the first science fiction work that attempted to imagine what religion would be like in the future. Most of the early to mid-twentieth century science fiction authors were rather hardcore atheists, of the outgrew these silly superstitions or religion is the opiate of the people persuasion if leftist. Herbert was a science fiction author to put religion in his books in positive manner or at least just as a fact of human life rather than anything bad.

      • LeeEsq

        “Jews remain unchanged” is probably also the safest way for non-Jewish authors to deal with Jews in far future settings.

  5. LeeEsq

    The Freman might be based on Bedouin but the idea that nomadic people are inherently more noble than settled people and stronger fighters is a big one in fantasy. Native Americans, Bedouin, Mongols, Vikings, Germanic tribes, and whatever culture Conan is supposed to represent are all subject to this. Even in works that take place in a mainly civilized setting, you get the idea that country people living in homesteads and villages are inherently wiser and more virtuous than us folks from the big cities with our shopping streets, cultural institutions, rapid transit, freeways, and apartment living.

    So the white savior thing kind of doesn’t work besides besides its racism. If the nomadic group is inherently superior and more noble than the civilized group than any person from the civilized group should just suck at everything the nomadic group does. If the civilized person does it better than the nomadic than settled civilization can’t be that bad and weak.

    • Mudwazir

      How Cimmerians are nomadic?

      • LeeEsq

        The Cimmerians aren’t nomadic but they otherwise fit into the un-civilized tougher, better fighters, and more noble than the decadent civilized city people trope.

    • Cay Reet

      Germanic tribes have settled in specific areas early. By the time the Romans came in and told everyone else about them, they were already settled. Some Germans would travel, but the tribes as a such were not nomadic.

    • crooked bird

      The purpose of the white savior trope isn’t to show that white/”civilized” people are better, though. It’s to show that THIS white guy is special & Truly The Best. Look at Avatar as an example, the tribe can’t stand most of the outsiders but there’s just one that they take to their hearts & who turns out to be the best at everything. It’s a trope that privileges the main character because *only he* is special enough to be competent at both the civilized skills and the way-cooler tribal/nomadic skills… and insightful/close to nature enough to see that the tribal people are way cooler… and leadery enough with his civilized background to unite the tribal people as never before.

      (This shouldn’t be interpreted as an argument that it’s not a racist trope, though, it super is. It’s racist because it uses an Other- or Native-coded group basically as an aid to further privilege a single white character instead their having their own story.)

  6. Innes

    I really hated the bit at the beginning with the pain box because I expected it to come back as somehow significant. Like Paul’s unusually high pain tolerance would be important to the plot, or the fact that some people are ‘fully human’ and some aren’t would be relevant at the end with the duel or Baron von Harkonnen or something. It was always at the back of my mind as I read the book but at least in the first one it never comes back and only seems to be a way of showing that Paul is a special chosen one early on.

    It’s like Chekhov’s gun if Chekhov had carefully loaded the gun on stage, placed it on the wall, commented “I sure hope no one fires this loaded gun!” and then forgot about it for the rest of the play.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Haha, now I’m imagining Herbert doing that with the pain box. “Oh boy this pain box really is important, certainly it will matter later, be real weird if I never got back to it…”

    • DaKillaB

      Herbert’s payouts in Dune are often metaphorical and call back to elements that the reader might not expect. The painbox and the litany are the central dramatic events of that whole scene on Caladan. Those firery flames and passionate poetry clearly capture the imagination, to the point readers literally miss one of the points of that scene… none other than the sharp tip of the Gom-Jabbar.

      Paul and Alia become the Atreides Gom Jabbar held at the neck of the Empire because that is the parallel Herbert seems to be going for. On Caladan at the beginning of the book, Paul is encouraged to take the painbox test by a poisoned needle held to his neck. A needle specifically meant for tests of crisis and observation… a needle that we are told contains a poison that “kills only animals”… a needle conspicuously held by a very prominent member of the Bene Gesserit, none other than the Emperor’s own Truthsayer and one of the top enforcers of the Kwisatz Haderach project. The only way Paul could have gotten closer to the Powers that Be of the society he grew up in is if Shaddam IV himself had used the painbox.

      At the other end of the story on Arrakis, Saint Alia kills one of the major antagonists with a literal Gom-Jabbar–killing an animal indeed! She fulfills the Bene Gesserit’s own symbolism of that weapon.

      Paul’s Gom-Jabbar is his ability to destroy the spice and cast the entire human universe into a Dark Age, neutering Mentats and the Guild Navigators in particular, while most of the aristocracy dies of spice withdrawals. Paul goes out of his way to remind the Bene Gesserit of this allusion to his painbox test at the end of the book–so I think that idea was more important to Herbert than Paul demonstrating superhuman pain endurance.

      Not that I think that’s a bad idea. Paul’s final duel also involves a posioned needle… but wouldn’t it fit the setups of the book if he actually did call back to the painbox scene in that fight? Allowed himself to be stabbed by that needle, endure the pain, use his Reverand Mother like powers to neutralize the poison and then deliver his counterstrike right at the moment his opponent is distracted by apparant victory. I think that would be more exciting than the way Herbert resolved that fight.

      • Hilarious Belloc

        Thank you.

        Another thematic parallel in the plot:

        The Reverend Mother tells Paul that while an animal might chew off its own limb to escape a trap, but a human would stay in the trap to remove the threat to their kind, etc.

        This is exactly what the House Atreides does on Arakis. They stay in the trap that the Emperor and the Harkonnens have set, even though they know it is a trap (“the biggest mantrap in the universe”) in order to bring their enemies to them and get the upper hand. It doesn’t work because of the betrayal, of course, but that’s another story.

        (I almost want to write a counter article about this article explaining all the things that are misunderstood or even wrong – I don’t think “swords” are mentioned even once in Dune – but that’s a daunting task and I have no platform).

        • Dinwar

          Dunkan Idaho is a swordmaster. Several characters are seen fighting with knives and long blades as well, especially later in the books (can I safely assume anyone defending these books considers the prequels non-cannon? ).

          That said, maula pistols, lasguns, ornithopters, and other advanced (but still viable) tech are in evidence as well. This is especially true in later entries in the series, where the action largely takes place off Dune.

          I will say that it’s pretty clear that the Dune saga is character-driven, so the tech falls by the wayside. We hear of Holtzman drives, but don’t even get a technobabble explanation; it folds space, and that’s it. We hear of shields and glow-globes and chairdogs, but not any sort of explanation. The axlotl tanks get more of an explanation, but that’s because it’s a plot point. My point is, criticizing the technical details of Dune’s tech is akin to criticizing the historical accuracy of “Land Of The Lost”. The tech is there to serve the plot, which is driven by the characters. It makes internal sense, looked impressive, and was weird, and that’s as far as it needed to go.

          I agree that it would be worth someone putting together a long-form article about the misconceptions in this critique of the series… Check out the YouTube channel “Quinn’s Ideas of Ice and Fire”. The man does a fantastic job of exploring the depth of the Dune saga.

  7. StyxD

    Man, it was really cathartic to read this article.

    I tried to read Dune a few years back, and got pretty far into it, but couldn’t finish it. The amount of bullshit in the book’s worldbuilding and plot was just too much for me.

    The book had many good parts, and I can understand why it got so influential, but I also expected better from a work that’s considered a classic (one of these times I’ll learn not to).

    It’s nice to finally see someone addressing the same problems I had with the book.

    I had some more, even; for example, the Butlerian Jihad is usually imagined as a Terminator-style machine uprising, and perhaps sequels make it so, but Dune itself made it sound like some fascist-luddite wet dream of regaining mankind’s pride by violently returning society to pre-industrial feudalism – which obviously worked, but what else could have happened in an universe where eugenics and genetic destiny also work?

    But funnily enough, it was the shields going nuclear thing that broke my will and made me throw the book.

    Regarding the “masculine and feminine halves of history”, I was under the impression that Bene Gesserit simply could access memories of all their female ancestors (ah, genetic memory, another trope I despise).

    You hit the nail on the head with Mentats. I could never quite figure out what’s the deal with them. Now I can put together that while their powers seem really simple in concept (human computers), Herbert staunchly refuses to have them do anything that would fit the description (really, just a scene where they do some calculations really fast or run a simulation of some situation in their heads) and instead they faff around doing nothing and occasionally stating how smart and logical they are.

    By the way, considering how the comment section in the Mythcreants article critiquing Wheel of Time went, I applaud your bravery in taking on another classic, while taking potshots at Wheel of Time at the same time.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh don’t worry, there’s another Wheel of Time post in the works. The fanrage only makes me stronger. But yeah, a lot of “classics” enjoy an outsized reputation. The trick is figuring out what’s actually good about them so we know what to emulate and what not to.

    • DaKillaB

      Right in the book, Herbert says, “No worse fate could befall a people than to be afflicted by a hero”.

      Herbert plays Feudalism, White Savior, and Eugenics as a storytelling strategy. So with respect to your criticism that there is no subversion or commentary, I think this review has missed the other layers on the page which complete his strategy.

      The first layer is how characters react to these tropes. Reverend Mother Mohiam teaches that the Known Universe is balanced on a vulnerable political structure. Lady Jessica is outraged by palace traditions that degrade the citizens of Arakeen. Lady Margot is offended by Feyd Harkonnen when he offers to kill slave gladiators in her name. Liet Kynes blows up at Paul for suggesting Fremen could be bought like mercenaries. Duke Leto snarks that Atreides popularity comes more from his propaganda corp than any just rule. Indeed, the Great Houses are so treacherous that poison snoopers are a fact of life and doctors must be conditioned to ensure they don’t assassinate their patients. Most of the superhuman magic depends on a drug so addictive that withdrawal leads to certain death–and the whole Empire is based around this fatal addiction.

      So much for the romance of fuedalism!

      Same goes for the Messiah. Paul isn’t saving the Fremen–the Fremen are saving House Atreides from complete destruction. Paul dreams about the bloody jihad that will follow from the fulfillment of his Terrible Purpose but his fear of that Purpose becomes corrupted by his desire to levy the Fremen for revenge. Lady Jessica also comments repeatedly that she and her son are taking advantage of local religions. Except the more they manipulate the Mahdi myth to rally the Fremen guerillas, the more Paul feels imprisoned by Messianic expectations. Just before the climactic battle, Paul reaches his doom in a moment that readers might not recognize is doom at all. He rationalizes that he must become the Mahdi after all and unleash the jihad in order to temper the worse of it. It’s a brilliant little psychological sleight of hand on the part of Herbert, where he has Paul talk himself into destroying half the universe in order to save the other half.

      The most memorable line for me is when Paul notices that his ally Stilgar has finally been caught up in Paul’s own cult of personality. It’s a neat little inversion of the Transfiguration in the Gospels, where an awestruck Stilgar believes like the rest of his men in the Mahdi. Paul feels dehumanized. And at the same time he ruefully concludes of Stilgar’s new faith, “It was a lessening of the man.”

      I find that line to be the most chilling in the book. In moments like that, I feel Herbert was thinking of Nuremberg rallies and Communist military parades more than a superman coming to save a native people.

      The second layer then is found in the allegories. Paul’s mission among the Fremen is an allusion to Colonel TE Lawrence, one of the masterminds of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence rallied the Arabs only to watch as his fellow Britons replaced the Ottomans as new colonial masters. Herbert was also mirroring the strategic importance of Mid East oil. This is especially seen in all the rituals and ironic commentary about water on Arrakis; water politics were–and continue to be–as big deal for oil-rich desert nations in the Middle East as oil politics are for the rest of the world. One of Herbert’s big messages in his books was the idea of reducing foreign dependence on oil and seeking out renewable energy, which in turn would ease a lot of social and environmental problems. Trump even experimented with off-grid tech like wind turbines and methane generators at his own home.

      The third layer of course, are all the setups that play out in the following book. People who love Dune often hate Dune Messiah precisely because it is anti-heroic. Paul already felt trapped as the Fremen Mahdi; Dune Messiah makes it unambiguous that many of his own cohort now see him as a Devil rather than a Savior. Billions have died in his name while religious police kidnap historians who dare to point out his humanity. Herbert’s own Terrible Thematic Purpose is fulfilled across Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. God Emperor of Dune is also pretty important because it gives Herbert’s answer to the problems of the first three books. But the seeds which grow into this terrible fruit are not only planted in the original Dune, they are sprouting quietly to be seen around all the military machismo and high adventure.

      Even before I read Paul’s denouement in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, I always sensed the social criticism in the original book. Literary criticism is free to isolate elements of a story for a closer look, but if you don’t put them back in place with the rest of the systems you’ll get a distorted criticism. Herbert was commenting through his own characters–they are bursting with opinions about how perverse their society really is! What makes Dune so good is that it seduces the reader with genre conventions, training the reader the entire time to be almost as impressed by the Hero’s Journey as Paul’s own followers… setting us up the whole time to be disillusioned by Paul’s sins as the Fremen become in the next book. But even as we root for Paul to beat the Harkonnen and the Emperor in the first book, it is already present on the page that he has set a path to become worse than all of his enemies put together.

      So the way I see it, Frank Herbert did do the work of subversion and then some!

      • Wes

        Your take is exactly what I was going to come to the comments to say. To use this as an example of the white savior trope is to admit not having read the rest of the series and see what Herbert’s actual vision was, or even what was clearly set up in the first work. And in that one misstep the author has proven that they don’t have the context to speak about most of what they wrote.

        Honestly, this review comes off reading like the author perused a cliff notes version of Dune instead of actually reading it.

        • Bunny


          First, a disclaimer. Having not read Dune myself, I’m not going to be addressing any of the particulars or events of the series in itself, but rather the concept of having to read a whole series on order to be able to criticize it – as you said, needing the full context – and people’s interpretations of the work as seen here.

          If, in the first book of a series, a character comes across as a white savior, that is a perfectly valid critique of that first book, regardless of what the series does with it later. Everyone (or almost everyone, anyway; I’m sure some people read series out of order for whatever reason) reads the first book in a series first, and they judge that book on its own, since they literally cannot have the knowledge of what comes next. If they find the white savior trope abrasive enough to put the book down, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the series says; that ship has sailed. The context of the first book is the first book itself, and the author of this post was clear that’s what he was critiquing – “Keep in mind, we’re only considering Dune itself, not any of the sequels – 188,000 words is more than enough worldbuilding for one post.”

          So this is the worldbuilding of book one, in the context of book one, viewing Herbert’s vision through the lens of book one. If that worldbuilding, context, and vision seem to convey a crappy white savior narrative, that’s a perfectly valid thing to critique, especially since (judging by other comments) other people have had similar issues with Dune. If the setup was enough to make people balk and even walk away from Dune in book one, then that’s something absolutely worthy of examination. Paul coming across as a white savior in book one was enough to make quite a few of these readers balk, clearly. If this was setting up for a subversion, and that setup was abrasive to many people, then clearly the setup is worth looking at and critiquing.

          As a side note, it seems disingenuous to accuse the article’s author of not having read the book. People have their own interpretations of the story, and having one different than your own does not automatically mean that they didn’t read the thing. Additionally, the post’s author provided very clear and extensive reasoning on each point the article made. I really doubt a quick cliff notes style plot synopsis would give that kind of insight.

          Anyway, like I said, I’ve never read Dune, but I have a weakness for novel monsters and the sandworms seem interesting. I wonder if those inspired anything just as cool in a much less problematic-sounding setting. I’d be curious to see what literary descendants Dune has spawned.

          • DaKillaB

            To be honest I think Oren did read the book but it was a first read and it was taken at face value, without giving Herbert credit for being a brighter author. Frank had been a newspaper writer and editor for decades before he published the book; and he spend several years researching both the historical allusions he makes and the mythic archetypes that appear. But in a skillful book all that legwork is everywhere present and yet nowhere visible. So it happens all the time that people can take a shallow first read of a big book–I read Dune five or six times before I noticed some of the subtexts and implications–but it does weaken the advice of the blog post to not have a stronger familiarity with the book.

            The OP makes a number of mistakes in summarizing the plot of the first novel, and so some of the analysis and suggestions for worldbuilding are based on those lapses. For example, the OP says:

            “The closest Dune comes to commentary is that Paul has some understanding that he’s an outsider who will unite the Fremen and lead them to victory. Apparently in the distant past, the Bene Gesserit went to Dune and posed as prophets to plant ideas that would make the Fremen more accepting of Paul. Why they did that and how they know Paul would be there is unclear, but it doesn’t really matter. This is more awareness than something like James Cameron’s Avatar, but it’s still not commentary. It’s a justification, and not a good one at that, since it portrays the Fremen as being easily duped by outsiders.”

            This is a misstatement of what actually happens in the book. The Missionaria Protectiva is a Bene Gesserit program to manipulate local religions in order to protect any Bene Gesserit agent who becomes stranded on that world. They had no idea Paul was coming; their mission was not to prepare the Fremen for a Savior but just to protect any member of the sisterhood who fell into Fremen hands.

            But one of Herberts themes is that the schemes of the BG were shortsighted and arrogant. So they didn’t know that the Fremen took the prophecy so strongly to heart that they created their own line of Reverend Mothers, who in turn foretold a Mahdi. Paul’s own mother Jessica, who is a BG, had already counted on taking advantage of the Missionaria Protectiva on Dune in case everything goes to hell. Well everything does go to hell, so when Jessica and her son are rescued from the desert, she wastes no time exploiting that Mahdi myth for its intended purpose of survival…

            …But as time goes by they use the myth to bend the Fremen toward’s Paul’s revenge… and at the same time Paul discovers that he is becoming the inspiration for a galactic genocide that his nightmares had been warning him about since the beginning. The Fremen aren’t easily duped; they have their own motivation for adopting Paul as a Mahdi because they have their own vengeance to wreak and they recognize Paul’s assets as a member of one of the Great Houses of the Imperium.

            This is a remarkable device of the novel, because it shows a cynical view of religion as a political device. Herbert was alluding to the system of European colonialism, in which Christian missionaries would be part of the advanced guard, followed by the conquistadors. He was also alluding to the strong role that religion plays in politics and charismatic tyrants. It was still a relatively brave thing to make such a veiled criticism of Church mixed with State at that time.

            Knowing that would make a richer article on worldbuilding!

          • Bunny


            To be clear, my side note about accusing the author of not having read Dune was directed at Wes – I never got the impression that you thought Oren hadn’t read it – but I’ll happily address this as well. (As to whether Oren has indeed read Dune only once, you’ll have to ask him, but in order to write an article this long and this detailed, I expect he had to do quite a bit of going back through the book.)

            I can’t address any of the particular examples you brought up here, since, again, I haven’t read Dune. I believe that my point about reading the entire series to critique the first book, however, still stands when applied to the necessity of multiple readings of that first book.

            Whatever you believe about the messages Dune contains (or lack thereof), expecting readers to consume the book multiple times before being able to grasp them is an absurdly big ask, especially when considering that this article is advice aimed at writers trying to create worlds and stories of their own. A given writer simply can’t expect their audience to be willing to consume their story multiple times over in order to grasp it; most people don’t have the time or willpower to do that. Additionally, if the first reading of a book turns up these kinds of problematic implications, a reader will be much less likely to want to reread and re-experience that frustration. Personally, if I read a book and came away with the same unpleasant and problematic interpretations on my first read that this article found in Dune, I would certainly not return to it for a reread were I not forced to (and much less five or six times). From the premise alone, I don’t know if I would even be able to get into Dune in the first place. Gendered magic is an immediate turnoff for me.

            Subversions are admittedly tricky. In this case, if we go with your assumption that shallow readings are what are causing these issues with the book, it seems like Dune didn’t make its subversions clear enough for first-time readers to notice, which is another valid thing to criticize. If a reader puts your book down because of frustration over tropes that are seemingly played straight, then that subversion isn’t doing a very good job, even if it truly is a subversion. Some of that has to be visible to hook readers in to reread and explore the messages and themes in deeper detail.

            All of this is pretty subjective, of course. You seem to have done extensive research on this, and have found quite a few things to gush about, but for many other people, this doesn’t appear to be the case, and I’m sure there are folks who have read the book who are willing to take you to task on these readings of the text, or whether this messaging exists at all. And they probably will; these comment sections can get quite lively!

            Long story short, expecting an audience to complete multiple readings of a book to get its point, especially when the point is about sensitive matters like race, isn’t a good standard for writers to have of their readers.

            If you do indeed wish to have a worldbuilding post about the subtleties of Dune, you could always write a guest article. You clearly have some things to say about it.

      • Drew

        Excellenty said like all books and authors it’s easy to point things out from a modern view but at the same time in a few years views can change again as the “modern” changes with the times. Dune is one of my favourite books though the others were quite slow and not as captivating to me personally. When you read them you get the bigger picture of how Paul became a slave to the expectations people laid onto him and that in getting his revenge he damned not only those he killed but also those that got wrapped up into believing he was this Messiah.

      • Hilarious Belloc

        Again, you hit the nail on the head. No I know I can just come to the comments for my rebuttal of this article.

        It’s satisfying to tear down the colossi of culture, but one can also do by pouring to the places where they are actually vulnerable and, possibly, learning of their value in the process.

        Herbert’s failures are mostly as a stylist, in my opinion, and I am happy to discuss those things, but to suggest that Dune at any point shores up White Savior tropes it almost any of the things this article accuses it is a misunderstanding borne out of shallow reading.

  8. C Dark

    Just a point in Herbert’s favour, if this memory is tied to genetics, then it actually makes sense that men would have male and female genetic “historical” recollections. The human female is XX chromosome where the human male is XY chromosome, so the human male would, defacto, carry both genetic memories. They have both genes.
    Sometimes I think you guys really don’t use a lot of imagination in your interpretations of whether or not something “works”.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      This here is an excellent example of the Real-World Fallacy, which Chris explains in her post, Five Concepts For Becoming a Better Storyteller (Item #4).

      And just for the records, humans typically have 46 chromosomes, only two of which are involved in the complex spectrum that is sex. Real coincidence that the magic memory heritage just happens to be on those two.

      • SunlessNick

        And the Y chromosome is tiny, compared to the rest – it doesn’t do anything but code in male specific traits, while the X chromosome codes for broad human-wide traits – it doesn’t make sense to treat them as equal and opposite, or the X chromosome as inherently female.

    • StyxD

      Beside what Oren said, that’s just not the explanation given in the books.

      If I remember correctly, Bene Gesserit had the male genetic memory as well, but none of them could access it because they were too innately terrified of it.

      I dunno what that was supposed to be about, probably some Freudianism filtered through Dune’s erratic philosophy.

      • SunlessNick

        Women just be wimps, I guess.

        (Yes, that was my sarcastic typing)

  9. Roark

    I will say that Dune is certainly not an endorsement of authoritarianism considering that that was the key message Herbert was trying to get across. I believe that Herbert’s quote was “charismatic leaders should come with a warning label: may be bad for your health”, and wrote the books as a warning against authoritarianism. Especially in God Emperor of Dune we see the problematic nature of Leto’s imprisonment of humanity and we see the backlash of the thousands of years of authoritarianism after the tyrant finally dies.

    As for the white savior narrative, the point is that the religious order itself was sewing religious legends and myths throughout the galaxy of a savior, but ultimately the one that came was not the one that would unite but one that would conquer and destroy even beyond his volition. Paul has power, but is no savior. As with the last point the problem you see is mostly addressed in latter books with Stilgars growing realization of the true nature of the cult of muad’dib and his eventual rejection of its beliefs.

    • General Strike

      100% this. Dune is firmly against eugenics, aristocracy and charismatic leaders. It presents each as failing and in doing so, placing humanity in jeopardy.

      Paul chooses a path of galactic jihad that kills billions because he can’t acknowledge that the Baron Harkonnen is his grandfather – despite knowing it to be true. In the end he goes into the desert to die and he can’t even get that right. The extremes to which his son has to go to get things back on track suck for both humanity and himself.

      The Bene Gesserit spend thousands of years attempting to breed the Kwizatz Haderach; when they do so, not only can they not control him, but in doing so they unleash a chain of events that vastly diminishes their power and nearly destroys them.

  10. Nudwazir

    You can just make an article about Wheel of Time… or die.

  11. Marie Bayer

    I’m going to disagree with the feudal assessment. The book states that it’s considered the most efficient way to govern a far flung empire and it isn’t completely wrong. Only a few noble families were part of the story and of course they were good-evil because the plot demanded it. There was mention of “minor houses” which gives thought to families rising and falling in power based on politics.

    • Cay Reet

      A decentralized government is definitely a good idea in a large galactic empire, but the big problem with feudal rulers is that they are not on top because they’re good administrators, but because they’ve been born to the right family at the same time. A local government which is elected or at least where the administrator is chosen for their skills in administration would be a much better choice. That’s less suited for political intrigue than a bunch of nobles, though, which is probably why Herbert went with those.

  12. Loopa

    A lot of this response seems to be based on misreadings of ‘Dune’; specifically in assuming authorial endorsement of the things depicted, even in the face of explicit in-book denunciations.

    Frank Herbert does not endorse feudalism as a political system: he depicts it as cruel, unjust and decadent (“a ruling class that lives as ruling classes have lived in all times while, beneath them, a semihuman mass of semislaves exists on the leavings”). Even his “good guys” from the aristocratic elite are depicted cynically:

    >”You lead well,” Paul protested. “You govern well. Men follow you willingly
    and love you.”
    “My propaganda corps is one of the finest,” the Duke said. […] “We mustn’t run short of filmbase. Else, how could we flood village and city with our information? The people must learn how well I govern them. How would they know if we didn’t tell them?”

    In interviews and essays, Herbert made it clear that he chose feudalism as a way to starkly illustrate and critique institutional class differences in the present world, a feudal tendency he saw as a constant danger:

    >”You have here a kind of distillation of an aristocratic bureaucracy, one of whose unmentioned ancestors is the Soviet experiment. You are taken through a history of many power instruments which have been tried and discarded (or adapted to new forms). […] You see the ‘good face’ which is put upon whatever humans decide is their personal necessity. And you gain insights into the moral base upon which Paul makes his own decisions. All of this is couched in a form which makes Paul and his people admirable. I am their advocate. But don’t lose sight of the fact that House Atreides acts with the same arrogance toward ‘common folk’ as do their enemies.”

    Nor does Herbert endorse the Bene Gesserit’s eugenic program, either morally or practically. As soon as it is introduced, Herbert makes sure to signal disapproval by having it offend Paul’s “instinct for rightness.” And at the end he declares it fundamentally misguided:

    >”You saw part of what the race needs, but how poorly you saw it. You think to control human breeding and intermix a select few according to your master plan! How little you understand of what—”

    Similarly, the white savior trope *is* subverted in the book itself, and very deliberately so. In a 1969 interview (conducted as he was finishing the first sequel, ‘Dune Messiah’), Herbert discussed Lawrence of Arabia and how Westerners have exploited and been seduced by the “white savior” myth:

    >”One of the things we’ve done in our society is exploited this power—Western man has exploited this avatar power. […] Of course, [Dune] was ignited by the idea of—by the ideas I encountered in reading about desert societies, and […] the idea of the way Western society has exploited this force. We have, you know. We’ve used it as… quite consciously we’ve sent out our missionaries to do our dirty work for us, then come along behind them with the certain belief that we’re right in anything we do, because God has told us so—God in the person of the avatar.”

    You say this would make Paul the villain, and that is indeed what he in some sense is. Yes, the sequels do make this more transparent, but there are plenty of clues that make the intention clear even in the original novel.

    Towards the end of the book, Paul is described in increasingly negative and disturbing terms (including being repeatedly compared to his grandfather—the Old Duke that Jessica blames for the unsympathetic traits in Duke Leto, but implicitly also his other grandfather, the Baron Harkonnen). He mind-rapes his mother, betrays his friendship with Gurney, reduces Stilgar to a “creature,” makes a deal with the man who murdered his father, and treats Chani with callous ruthlessness, forcing his lover to negotiate his marriage to another woman right after the death of their son.… And, you know, he unleashes genocidal war across the galaxy:

    >He felt emptied, a shell without emotions. Everything he touched brought death and grief. And it was like a disease that could spread across the universe.
    He could feel the old-man wisdom, the accumulation out of the experiences
    from countless possible lives. Something seemed to chuckle and rub its hands within him.
    And Paul thought: *How little the universe knows about the nature of real

    This is not something we’re supposed to applaud!

    Most notably, it’s stated outright: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

    To Frank Herbert, this was the central message of the novel: messianic leaders (“heroes”) are extremely dangerous, and liable to lead a people to disaster.

    • Cay Reet

      If so many people misread it, though, he didn’t make his message clear enough in the book. Unless you can prove that someone is wilfully misreading something, the fault for misreading is not on the person who does it, but on the author who didn’t prevent the possibility.

      • Loopa

        Only if you assume that the goal of narrative arts should be to express something in the simplest and most obvious way, so that nobody can fail to grasp it. (As they say, jokes about communism aren’t funny unless everyone gets it.)

        I would argue that literature is more interesting when it is provocative, offers ambiguity, has hidden depths, rewards rereading, and seems to change when you return to it with more experience and maturity. That implies that not all readers (perhaps no reader) will fully understand it. And that’s OK.

        Herbert has ideas and messages, but he doesn’t want to outright tell readers what to think. Rather, he seeks to challenge readers to think for themselves. Hopefully they’ll see what he was going for. The clues are all there.

        • Cay Reet

          I’m not saying that everything must be broken down to the easiest level. I’m saying that if a lot of people ‘get the message wrong’, then there must be something in the way the message is delivered which supports this wrong view. If it’s just the occasional reader who ‘doesn’t get it’, it can be down to the reader, but I’ve seen Dune interpreted that way before, it’s not just this one article.

          The goal of a narrative is to tell a story. If the author also wants to deliver a message – instead of just entertaining the reader -, then one goal is also to deliver that message via the story. There are ways to twist expectations for a ‘chosen one’ or ‘messiah’ character which make it clear that they are not really chosen or to be trusted, but clearly Herbert didn’t use them. If the clues are there, but don’t form a picture at the end, if the narrative doesn’t enforce and push the clues, it’s only logical that people will read it differently and, thus, come out with different messages. Either you are clear with your messages and make sure they come across with all the tools writing gives you, or you just have an idea you put into the story and people may not get it and come away with a different message entirely.

          • DaKillaB

            Hello Cay:

            In one of your first comments up the thread it says you haven’t read Dune yet. I recommend checking it out for yourself. Some suggestions you make for the book are actually already in there. In the meantime I have my own interpretation that you are free to read if you’d like.

            My post accidentally responded to Styx D when I meant to respond to Oren’s OP but you can find it upthread. Like Loopa I point out that the messages are clear enough. There are several passages where Herbert speaks directly through his characters and those little speeches stick out like sore thumbs. He uses all sorts of tools to twist the expectations of the archetypal Hero figure. I also point out that tropes seem to be played straight because they are one part of a system. The subtexts and the twists are found in the additional layers that are supposed to go with the trope layer. The whole system works together because–apart from the author intrusions where he flat out tells you what he means– it generally does not dumb down the story for the reader. Instead it is a naturalistic storytelling, where the dark sides of fuedalism and charismatic leadership are experienced through the characters and their misadventures.

            Compare Dune to its own first draft, called “Spice World”. It’s included in the anthology, *The Road to Dune*. That early version focuses much more on the corruption of the lords. It also calls out the ecology of the planet which was a big deal to Herbert as well. But it is an inferior read for my tastes because the story is so much more conventional and the messages so much more clunky. It’s patterned much more on 1940s and 50’s style father-son adventure stories and lacks almost all of the psychological richness and tension of the full novel.

            Literary criticism is a skill, and part of exercising that skill is recognizing that a train of ideas is actually one layer in a larger system that is meant to work together. That’s the readers job to spot. With respect to Oren and the OP, I feel that the argument that the tropes are played sincerely with no subversion or subtext comes from a rushed read. That shows in some factual errors that the OP makes in their criticism of its world building, and of course by not noticing all of those author editorials sticking out like sore thumbs.

            With respect to you Cay, the issue here is to read the book in the first place before speculating on the merits of anyone’s analysis. Again, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover Frank Herbert took a bit of your advice 55 years ago!

          • Cay Reet

            As a matter of fact, I tried to read the book a while ago – I’m in my forties, my life contains quite a bit of ‘a while ago’ therefore, but didn’t make it far into it.

            Again, if someone who read the book, as Oren definitely has, comes away with such a message, if others who have read it come away with that message, then the author either didn’t put enough work into it, or didn’t really change it until the next one in the series, or in other ways sent a mixed message, something which has several interpretations. In this case, each interpretation is valid and each can be judged.

          • Dinwar

            “…then the author either didn’t put enough work into it, or didn’t really change it until the next one in the series, or in other ways sent a mixed message…”

            Or one of the people interpreting the work is wrong. To leave that out of the list is either a misunderstanding of what literary criticism is, or deeply disturbing from a literary critic.

          • Loopa

            When a work is complex, like ‘Dune’ is, different readers can certainly take away different interpretations of it, even interpretations that contradict the author’s stated intention, and which are fairly clearly contraindicated by details of the work itself.

            I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem… until a critic starts objecting to the work based on what he *thinks* the author meant to say. I think it falls on that critic to ensure that his reading of the work is sound and well grounded in the text. Some of Oren’s points are, but others just are not, as I think the quotations given illustrate.

            To add another reason why ‘Dune’ doesn’t make it even easier to discern its message, it’s worth remembering that Frank Herbert had to take reader and publisher appeal into consideration. As John W. Campbell (who edited and first published the book) said in refusing the sequel: “The reactions of science-fictioneers, however, over the last few decades has persistently and quite consistently been that they want *heroes*–not anti-heroes. They want stories of strong men who exert themselves, inspire others, and make a monkey’s uncle out of malign fates!” Herbert had to thread the needle between popular taste and the message he wanted to convey, creating a story that seems like one thing on a superficial read, and quite another on more careful examination.

            In my opinion, much of the book’s sensational success (both in terms of popularity and as literature) comes from how well he manages the tension between these two imperatives.

  13. Joel Spivey

    If I remember correctly this book was written in the early 1960’s based on ideas he came up with in the 40’s and 50’s. I enjoyed the whole series when I first read it in the mid 80’s, and still revisit it from time to time. Any fiction work requires some amount of ” buying in” to allow one’s self to get lost in the story. Critiquing an older fiction work based on today’s ideals seems a bit of a waste of time. Maybe create something new, instead?

    • Bunny


      Dune may be an older work of fiction, and it certainly contains many outdated ideals and ideas, but it’s still a mainstay of speculative fiction. It laid the groundwork for an entire genre of space fantasy and is still widely read and circulated today. That means it’s still affecting readers and writers, and its influence remains strong – an influence including those outdated ideas it pushes. The purpose of this critique clearly isn’t to change the book itself (it’s obviously published now, so that’s nigh impossible) or Herbert himself, but to inform present-day readers about the good and the bad of such a foundational book’s worldbuilding, since it has and continues to inspire today’s writers. Those who draw that inspiration from it and aspire to create a similarly engaging world would find such a critique helpful, and go on to create those new things while steering away from the problems. Hardly a waste of time, in my eyes.

  14. StW

    Thanks, now I don’t have to read all of it to know how this worked out))
    I was once told that Dune “figured out” scifi swords, but I guess it really didn’t.
    Also to mind comes image of magic based on psychological gender – how that would work out? If I had to guess – still bad, but kinda interesting concept to think about.
    Meanwhile – any chance you guys do such a look at the Chronicles of Amber? It’s kind of a setting (and to some extent – story) that I’d like to write, but in it’s realization it feels really clunky and I just can’t place why exactly.
    – Shadow, StW

    • Kinsley Castle

      Dune’s take on sci-fi swords and energy shields is pretty much a straight lift from The Paradox Men by Charles Harness.

      • StW

        What, even the fission lasgun stuff? Wow. Thought that would really be a mistake that people don’t make a second time, but whatever. This things sounds like it from Rick and Morty episode.

        • Kinsley Castle

          Ah, no. Just the idea that energy shields would stop fast moving bullets, and that would lead to a resurgence of sword fighting. Also, Alar the Thief is a just a way cooler character than Paul Atreides.

    • Dinwar

      Are we talking the first five books of Amber, or are you including all 10? Because the first series was fairly satisfying, while the second was clearly setting something up that ultimately did not conclude (I think the author died before it was finished).

      The series wasn’t exactly action-packed adventure, though it had a lot of that. It had a lot of dry, dark humor. I think part of the problem is that it’s just so weird that the author had to spend a significant amount of time establishing the setting–some of which the characters know, some of which they learn as they go along. The ending for Corwin was fantastic, in that it’s certainly NOT the typical “Hero wins, happy ending for all except the villains” ending.

      That said, the author does better in other works that explore a similar concept; I forget the names of the books (it’s been a while), but I do remember my sister and I finding every book by this author we could in used book stores and reading them. His one-shots are much tighter; he had room to play more with Amber, it being a series, and it shows.

  15. BloodOrange

    Oren, I feel like we read a different book.

    I feel like you missed the point of the pain box.

    The Gom Jabbar test is not one of pain tolerance. It is a test of self control. One’s instinct is to remove one’s hand from the box due to the pain, but doing so would result in death. The test is whether the mind can overcome the base instinct and thus prove that they are not an animal. Paul ultimately passes even though Mohiam made the test harder than she had ever made it before. She subconsciously wanted him to fail. My interpretation of this is that she had a gut feeling as to how dangerous Paul was, so much so, she was questioning her own application of the test.

    Regardless the Bene Gesserit are providing great power to Paul through Jessica’s training. She’s training him to be a Bene Gesserit. They do not want to see this power in the hands of an animal. With this in mind, it’s clear why this test is important to the story.


    Paul ultimately becomes extremely powerful with the knowledge of every ancestor, the ability to see the future, and holding a monopoly on the most valuable thing in the universe. Paul sees in the future a jihad killing billions and tries at first to prevent it, but ultimately gives up and chooses vengeance and power. This unleashes the Jihad as a result. With more and more power, Paul increasingly becomes more callous and more resigned to his own fate. Paul’s control is nearly gone by the end of the novel. His enemies are shocked by his behavior. The test did not work. While he may have been a human, he is not anymore. He’s something else. He throws the failure of the test in Reverend Mother Mohaim’s face at the end. He cannot be controlled:

    “’Try your tricks on me, old witch,’ Paul said. ‘Where’s your gom jabbar? Try looking into that place where you dare not look! You’ll find me there staring out at you!’ … ‘She knows now that the ninety generations have produced that person. Here I stand…But…I…will…never…do…her…bidding!'”

    Mohiam is the only one besides Paul himself to have any idea how bad things are going to get, and she is now powerless to stop it. Her intuition was proven correct. It’s a “what have we done” moment.

    There are more examples of how no one can control Paul by the end of the book, not even himself. He’s using atomics, threatening to murder the aristocracy and end FTL travel by destroying the spice among other things, and ultimately succumbing to bloodlust in his triumph over Feyd.

    The reader has followed along with Paul believing his vengeance is justified. He seems like a hero. He was noble in the beginning, and the other adversarial actors are awful. It’s hard to point to any decision he has made that was more evil than say the Harkonnens, and yet Paul’s ascendency results in a far worse result.

    The book ends abruptly leaving the reader to ponder what Paul will do now that his vengeance is realized and he has seized ultimate power over the imperium, guild and Bene Gesserit. You’d be hard pressed to believe based on his recent actions and an impending jihad that people’s lives are going to be better with him in power.

    The reader is left wondering what just happened? I thought Paul was the good guy. He’s not.

    Paul is not a savior.

    By calling him that, you’re not paying attention to what has happened to Paul or the rest of the imperium, or even the Fremen. How can you call a person that leads to the impending deaths of billions a savior? Particularly when he can see it happening in the future. Isn’t that, to use your words, doing something “meaningfully different.”

  16. Cyrano Johnson

    Dune is explicitly not a conventional heroic adventure narrative. The central tension in the story, especially the later narrative, is about Paul’s struggle with (effectively) Fate/Destiny, not Paul’s struggle with other people. This is a very basic and overt aspect of the book, spelled out directly in several key scenes; enough so that I don’t think there’s really an excuse for publishing a Dune review that doesn’t mention it.

    (No, dismissing it with a few passing references about how the novel doesn’t subvert anything does not count. The basic action of the book is structured around Fate and the Hero and whether or not it’s possible to evade destiny. You can have whatever take on it you like, but you need to address that organizing principle in the novel head-on. If the “Subversion Requires Work” section was meant to be doing this, it doesn’t get there, which is a missed opportunity indeed for a piece that’s all about how Herbert was undermining himself.)

    I still think a lot of the critiques of Herbert herein are valid, but including this layer of the narrative would enrich the analysis considerably. As it is, this omission leaves an asterisk hovering over too many things and renders the “how to do it” sections in particular largely useless.

  17. Robert

    I don’t think you understand dune and have not read the sequels. 1) Leto the second (the god emperor born in dune messiah not the one killed by sardaukar) is a fremen! He has WAY MORE POWER than Paul ever had (with this in mind how is this a white savior story) 2) Paul is not the hero and FH said that! 3) The only reason Paul is a messiah is because of the religious engineering by the BG. 4) FH does not praise feudalism! It should be obvious in dune and if you read the sequels it should be way more obvious! He said the message of dune was think for yourself in his words: “charismatic leaders should come with a warning may be dangerous for your health” Dune’s society is run down and terrible! He praises democracy! In all respect, please don’t write until you fully understand!

    • Bunny


      So, I have not read Dune, and I want to be upfront about that. However, I do want to contest the concept that you have to read an entire series in order to critique the first book – which, by the way, the author of the article was keeping no secrets about: “Keep in mind, we’re only considering Dune itself, not any of the sequels – 188,000 words is more than enough worldbuilding for one post.”

      If someone finds the messages and worldbuilding in the first book of a series to be distasteful and off-putting, they will likely not continue reading the series, and based on this article and what other people in the comments have said, the messages contained here were enough to make many people quit. It’s not a matter of misunderstanding or incomplete understanding; it’s a matter of critiquing what’s on the page and finding that abrasive. Even if these problems are remedied or addressed in later books, there’s still the issue that book 1 is going to be judged as a single book by the reader, considering they haven’t read the rest, and if Dune is sending messages like this, they have little reason to continue.

      As far as pieces of advice for writers setting out to make their own world, “Wait to explain until later in the series” is not a good one. This article is all about advice for worldbuilders, using the first book in the Dune series as an example. If Dune, later in the series, really does subvert or reject the notions the first book flaunts, then the first book did not do a good job setting up that these are subversions and reflections. You shouldn’t have to read an entire series or a single book multiple times to understand that a subversion or rejection is taking place.

      Again, I haven’t read Dune, but I do want to gently question the quote you chose. Perhaps Frank Herbert or one of his books really did say the quote about charismatic leaders, but I urge you to think about what he showed in action rather than what he paid lip service to. If the two match, that’s all well and good, but if what he says and what his characters or his books do don’t, then we need to focus on the principles in action over the lip service.

      I would also, with all due respect, like to point out that a Fremen character being more powerful than a white savior later in the series doesn’t make the original white savior any less of one, if truly this is what happens.

      Anyway, I want to close this by saying thank you for being civil! I never know what to expect going into these comments, and it’s always a relief to see someone respecting the author of an article they disagree with rather than simply launching into decrying them. Kudos.

  18. Kameron

    If you actually finished the book you would have EASILY, and I mean EASILY (not vaguely {since you LOVE that word}) would have realized that Paul is not the hero, he is quite literally the villain in this universe, but he considers himself being the one who can do the least amount of damage if he takes the throne of the Jihad. If he died, he knows his sister would take over, or his brother or someone else would take over and be crueler, so he’s controlling the damage that he knows that he causes. He’s not the hero. You did not understand this book remotely.

    • Circe

      Again—the post critiques the FIRST book.

      • Cyrano Johnson

        They’re mangling the specifics a bit, but the concepts Kameron is talking about are in the first book. Quite prominent, in fact, and a major oversight not to mention them.

        (I don’t 100% agree with Kameron’s interpretation: Paul is not the villain of the book so much as he is simply a force of nature who eventually decides or realizes that trying to deny his function, his “terrible purpose,” is futile. There’s actually lots of stuff to unpack in that whole concept; very much a missed opportunity for Oren.)

  19. V

    “deserts make it difficult to get supplies for warfare”
    …. have to admit I never noticed the problem of where all the wood for the bows, arrows, and spears came from when it’s specifically mentioned that only chiefs have chairs because it’s so hard to get good wood.

  20. Cyrano Johnson

    Oh, small point: Weirding Way is just the Fremen term for the cool prana-bindu muscular control tricks that the Bene Gesserit can do. The super-speed thing isn’t mentioned in the book because it has nothing to do with what Herbert actually wrote, AFAICT it’s fan-fiction from a Dune-branded card game.

  21. Paul C

    Great article, Oren. I especially like the analysis of the desert badassery trope, but I thought you might like to know that this goes back many hundreds of years. In Maimonides “The Guide for the Perplexed” (which is NOT about the story decisions in Star Wars, for those unfamiliar with it), in III.32 he writes:
    “For it is a well-known fact that traveling in the wilderness [desert], and privation of bodily enjoyments, such as bathing, produce courage, whilst the reverse is the source of faint-heartedness; …”

    So, even in the 12th century, the virtues of the desert were troped (a new world?) — of course, there is the downside of bathing restrictions.

  22. SunlessNick

    I wonder if the idea of desert life breeding strength and fortitude comes from a similar lauding of “simple life” that treats coming from a farm as an automatic ticket to virtue.

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