DUNE #1 - What Is Dune?

by Jason Durall

The novel Dune, published in 1965, is an international success whose fame and popularity have won readers across the world, spanning more than half a century. Its author, Frank Herbert, a journalist at the time living on the Oregon coast, learned of a program instituted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use poverty grasses, which flourish in sandy or poor soil, to stabilize sand dunes and reclaim land lost to them. Fascinated by the subject, Herbert began researching and writing an article describing this program. The article was never completed, but the research provoked Herbert in an altogether unexpected way, inspiring him create a science fictional setting that combined ecology, mysticism, culture, religion, and politics. This setting became Dune World, serialized in three parts in the pages of the science fiction anthology Analog from December 1964 through February 1964.

Dune World followed the life of a young man — Paul Atreides — born to a noble family more than ten thousand years in the future, in a society called the Imperium. Despite immense technological advantages, the Imperium has rejected computers and other “thinking machines”, resorting to galactic feudalism, with hereditary lords and their Houses ruling over peasants and fiefdoms that are entire planets.

Paul is no ordinary young man, however. While groomed and trained from birth to inherit his family’s estate and join the galactic ruling class, he is also potentially a prophesized messianic “chosen one”, inheritor of vast and quasi-mystic abilities that have been engineered by a secretive order who have been pulling the strings throughout the Imperium for thousands of years. 

Ruled over by an Emperor, the Imperium is held together by a single substance that is the most precious thing in the universe: the spice mélange, a naturally-occurring substance found on only one planet, called Arrakis, with remarkable properties that make it worth waging wars for. The spice grants extended life, enhanced awareness, and when taken in great doses, can allow prophetic visions — prescience — that allows for space travel across the vastness of space between solar systems. Spice holds the Imperium together, and to control of the spice is to control the Imperium.

Because of the of the spice’s immense value and power it affords, governance over Arrakis, also called ‘Dune’, is coveted by the Imperial Houses, but is controlled by the Emperor, who plays the noble Houses against one another to keep any from gaining enough influence to unseat him. At the beginning of Dune World, stewardship of Arrakis is being handed to the Atreides, Paul’s own family, having been taken from their mortal enemies, the Harkonnens.  

Sent from their idyllic watery planet to the harsh desert world of Arrakis, the Atreides must contend with the fierce, nomadic natives known as the Fremen, as well as the immense creatures called sandworms, gigantic creatures with a mysterious tie to the spice. The Atreides’ greatest challenge, however, turns out to be the Imperium itself. Betrayed by their own Emperor working in league with the Harkonnens, House Atreides is destroyed, young Paul and his mother escaping, only to fall into the hands of the Fremen.

Once there, Paul claims his destiny as the prophesized messiah, striking back at the Harkonnens and wresting control of the entire Imperium itself from the Emperor. He brings an end to the “Old Imperium” and ushers in a new era for humankind, with him sitting upon the throne.

Dune World was like nothing that had appeared within the field of science fiction before, standing out even from the New Wave of science fiction that was the vogue at the time. With its deep background, strong ecological and climatological themes, the novel’s complex mixture of religion versus mysticism, destiny, history, eugenics, and sociopolitical manipulation resonated among readers and critics alike. Arriving as it did at the beginning of the global ecological movement, an increased wave of spiritualism in younger readers, and a growing realization of the harmful effects of reliance on oil, Dune World was as much metaphorical as it was prophetic.

Inspired by the response, Herbert immediately began revising Dune World into a larger work, heavily rewriting and editing it into the novel that eventually was published in 1965 as Dune. In 1966, Dune won the first Nebula award for Best Novel and tied for the prestigious Hugo Award in the same category. It is frequently called the science fiction equivalent of The Lord of the Rings, another literary work with global acclaim and passionate followings. Dune became “the book” to read on college campuses, inspiring scientists, ecologists, and mystics simultaneously.

Dune was followed by Dune Messiah (1971) and Children of Dune (1976), novels that continued the tale of Paul Atreides and his new Imperium, following the foundation of a new dynasty, and his eventual fall. Its influence continued to grow beyond the books themselves, however, giving rise to a vast franchise that continues to flourish and grow even to this day.

The first of such expansions, Dune was optioned for film on several occasions, the most notably by Chilean avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose development of and eventual failure to make the film is perhaps as epic a tale as the film itself might have been. Rights to Dune passed between studios and producers, and eventually American filmmaker David Lynch directed Dune, appearing in 1984 and mystifying audiences worldwide, the studio going so far as to add additional narration to explain the labyrinthine plot and providing theaters with a glossary handout for moviegoers to help decipher the jargon and unfamiliar terms used.

Meanwhile, Herbert continued writing the novels and taking his setting into bold and dramatic new directions, continuing the story of Paul’s heir and covering the centuries after his demise, further depicting a universe changed forever by the appearance of its messiah. In rapid succession, Herbert released God-Emperor of Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1984), and Chapterhouse: Dune (1985).

Herbert died in 1986, but his legacy continues to thrive. Working from Herbert’s notes and unfinished manuscripts, authors Brian Herbert (Frank’s son) and Kevin J. Anderson have expanded the Dune universe dramatically, with multiple books set before and during the events depicted in Herbert’s original series, describing characters, organizations, and events only mentioned in Herbert’s original novels. These books have greatly broadened and added additional depth to the setting.

In other mediums, two television miniseries were produced by the Sci Fi Channel, Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000) and Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune (adapting both Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, in 2003). Dune was adapted for boardgames, a roleplaying game, and a card game, and multiple computer games.

In 2021 will arrive the first of an ambitious, big-budget film adaptation of Dune, adapted by critically acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve and featuring an all-star cast.

And now, in Dune: Adventures in the Imperium, you and your friends can explore the planet of Dune as well as the many planets of the Imperium, exploring it through the context of a roleplaying game. The rules contained within this book cover character creation, skills and abilities, personality traits such as drives, equipment, and resolution of conflict, whether interpersonal, hand-to-hand combat, skirmishes, or even political House-based strife. Background information addresses the Imperium, the Landsraad, CHOAM, the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, and smaller groups such as the Swordmasters of Ginaz, the Suk School, and the human computers known as Mentats. 

As members of your own House of the Landsraad, you can be deadly Swordmasters, Bene Gesserit acolytes, incorruptible Suk-school physicians, brilliant and devious Mentats, enigmatic agents of CHOAM or the Spacing Guild, hardy Fremen, resourceful smugglers, or even nobles with immense political power held in check by duty and responsibility.

Together, you all represent your House and work together to ensure its prosperity, or even fight for its very survival!