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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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