Frank Herbert's DUNE is one of the four most culturally-influential science fiction novels ever written, the other three being Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD, George Orwell's 1984, and Robert A. Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.
Of these four novels, DUNE is the longest, most complex, the deepest by far, arguably the most successful on a literary level, certainly the most culturally important, and yet the least under-stood by critical establishments, both genre and general.
BRAVE NEW WORLD, published way back in 1932, became the template for the science fictional dystopia, particularly of the "Friendly Fascism" variety wherein the dystopian reality emerges from a superficially utopian surface, but read now seems stilted, schematic, and amateurish; inferior, in fact, to Huxley's own later science fiction.
1984 is much more skillfully written, far more politically and psychologically sophisticated, a classic that remains literarily valid long after its political relevance has faded, written by a so-called "mainstream" writer, who, unlike Huxley, wrote no other significant science fiction.
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND was written by an acknowledged master of science fiction who never wrote anything else of significance, but it is not Heinlein's best novel any more than BRAVE NEW WORLD is Huxley's. Structurally, it breaks in half rather clumsily, on a stylistic level it is inferior to THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. It has become Heinlein's sigil novel largely because of its centrality to the evolution of the Counterculture born in the 1960s and its unfortunate notoriety as the novel that inspired the discorporative depredations of Charles Manson and his "Family."
DUNE, as a cultural icon, partakes of some of the aspects of all three of the other books, but is something much more. Like BRAVE NEW WORLD, it has become the template for a generation and more of imitative works, including all too many sequels by Herbert himself. Like 1984, it is a novel written on a level of sophistication that will preserve it as a literally classic long after its cultural relevance has faded.
And like STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND only more so, DUNE was a formative literary factor in the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and in a much more positive manner, which is why it is so generally and deliberately misread as a novel centered on "ecological" issues.
The truth is far more complex and, even today, far more politically incorrect, and therefore still far more politically dangerous. After thirty years and more and millions of copies sold, it is hard to realize that back in the early 1960s this now famous and best-selling classic had a difficult time getting published. And it so happens that I was around for part of the story.
DUNE was first published in Analog, John W. Campbell, Jr.'s magazine, as two separate "novels" in serial form. "Dune World" was serialized in 1963-64, and "The Prophet of Dune" in 1965, though as Frank Herbert told me in personal conversation much later, DUNE had always been conceived and written as one novel.
And indeed, as an avid reader of each installment of the "Dune World" serialization as a young writer just starting out, I was deeply disappointed, not to say outraged, by the way the last installment seemed to end in mid-air. By the time Analog began to serialize "The Prophet of Dune," I was being published in the magazine myself. But I was still an avid reader of the serialization. And I was working at the Scott Meredith literary agency, which was trying to place the novel with a publisher.Despite the success of the serialization, this wasn't easy, and the literary agency finally had to settle for selling the American trade edition rights for a small advance to Chilton, an obscure house, who brought out the hardcover in 1965 in a very modest printing.
Only later, when Ace Books reprinted DUNE in paperback, did it begin to slowly gather momentum to become the long-term best-seller that we know it as today.
Why this difficult publishing history of a novel that was to become an enormous commercial success over time? The answer must be sought within the pages of DUNE itself. And understood within the context of the times in which it was written and published.
In superficial plot outline, the story of DUNE seems not only simple but something of a derivative cliche.
Due in part to the machinations of the Harkonnen clan and its evil leader Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the Padishah Emperor, ruler of the human interstellar empire, banishes the hereditary enemy of the Harkonnens, the Atreides clan, led by Duke Leto Atreides, to rule the desert planet Arrakis.
Bereft of any other significant economic interest, Arrakis is the sole source of the "spice" melange, the psychoactive drug that allows the navigators of the Spacing Guild to move their starships faster than light through a form of hyperspace and thus maintain the coherence of this unlikely pseudo-medieval interstellar culture.
It's all a Harkonnen set-up, in collaboration with the Emperor, to destroy the Atreides and gain control of Arrakis and the spice themselves.
Unrest is fomented, Harkonnen mercenaries arrive, a war starts, Leto is assassinated, the Harkonnens take over, and his heir Paul, along with the boy's mother Jessica, flee into the wilds of the deep desert.
There they are taken in by the Fremen, a Bedouin-like tribe battling the oppressive rule of the Harkonnens. Through a series of feats, rituals, initiations, and battles, young Paul becomes the leader of the Fremen, turns them into a People's Liberation Army, and eventually not only reclaims his rightful throne but becomes Emperor himself and a kind of God-King of this fictional universe.
An oft-told story?
Not at all.
For what we have here in outline is Frank Herbert's version of what Joseph Campbell argues is the basic human story in his landmark work of mythic analysis and literary comparative cultural anthropology, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.
The Hero (Paul) is dispossessed of his rightful heritage (Leto's throne) by the forces of evil (the Harkonnens) and must flee into the wilderness(the Arakeen desert). There he encounters his spiritual guide and master who educates him in mystical and practical lore. Interestingly enough, as we shall see later, in DUNE, Herbert divides this archetype into three masters, one for each level of knowledge: Duncan Idaho, his warrior sensei; the Mentat Thufir Hawat, his mentor in things tactical and intellectual; and his mother the Bene Gesserit adept Jessica, his guide to the things of the spirit and mystical vision.
There in the primal wilderness he also undergoes spiritual and physical testing and initiations, proves his worth, and gathers loyal followers and allies (the Fremen).
He descends into the Underworld, the place of the dead, the world of spiritual and moral darkness, where he undergoes the ultimate testing, triumphs, and returns to the world of men as the liberating Lightbringer.
Whether this is the main human template myth may be arguable, whether this is even the main Western mythic template somewhat less arguable, but that this generalized tale of The Hero With a Thousand Faces is the structure and inner reality of everything from the New Testament to Tarzan, from THE STARS MY DESTINATION to SIDDHARTHA, from the various tellings and retellings of the King Arthur cycle to the myths of Gilgamesh and Barbarossa, to endless samurai epics and much of Shakespeare, as well as DUNE, certainly is not.
So DUNE's superficially simple and derivative story line is not a cliche but the retelling of one of humanity's deepest and most powerful myths. Deep and powerful because it is the story of ourselves as we would like to be. Our adolescent selves identify with the young Paul because we all, one way or another, feel deprived of our rightful place at the center of the world. We all seek to escape from the usurping forces of repression into the wilderness of self-discovery where we will perform feats that will allow us to return to the seat of power and triumphantly confront the oppressors as the darling of destiny.
On this level, the tale can, and all-too-often has, become a psychologically fascist power fantasy; in fiction, and worse still, in the real world.
And this seductive appeal to egoistic power fantasies is certainly strong in DUNE, particularly to adolescents, most particularly to male adolescents, which partially explains the popularity of Frank Herbert's novel, and almost entirely explains the popularity of the imitative "science fantasy" that was to follow.
But on a deeper level, the level Joseph Campbell addresses, and a level that is fully present in DUNE, the ultimate adversary that the true hero (as opposed to the barbarian with a broadsword or the space cadet with a blaster) confronts in the nethermost pit of the moral and spiritual underworld is himself. The egoistic power-tripping self of the superficial level of the story.
And the climactic battle, the ultimate test, is a spiritual and moral one, between these two aspects of the hero; the false and the true, the merely physical and the mystical, the warrior and the man of knowledge, and what emerges to champion the cause of the people if the hero is successful is not merely an irresistible warrior, but a true Lightbringer, an Enlightened One, a Bodhisattva.
What makes DUNE such a unique and powerful retelling of the myth of The Hero With A Thousand Faces is that Paul, however imperfectly, understands this very dichotomy early on, and struggles with it, however ambiguously, throughout the bulk of the novel.
And in the end, what can be read as the ultimate triumph on one level can be read as tragedy on the other. And that is the level upon which Paul Atreides, become Muab'dib, become the Kwisatz Haderach and Padishah Emperor, sees it. His prescient vision may make him God-King of this fictional universe, but he cannot escape from the deterministic destiny thereof and the jihad he will bring, the jihad he has spent so much of the novel trying to prevent.
This is what is thematically and mystically and dramatically and psychologically central to DUNE and not "ecology." This is the visionary core of this long, complex, often-discursive, multileveled novel. This is what makes it a literary classic.
And this, in the context of its time, explains why a science fiction novel serialized in eight parts in a genre magazine, first published in small printing by a minor house and then modestly reprinted by a genre publisher in paperback, could become a culturally-influential book in a much wider context and, over time, a best-seller.
The so-called ecological theme of DUNE does not stand up to serious scrutiny because the ecology of Herbert's fictional Arrakis is extremely simplified and unrealistically schematic. Arrakis is a vast planetary desert, its ecospheres only varying somewhat in degree of dessication, and indeed the main native food chain seems to consist of only two organisms--the tiny ones that produce the raw material of the "spice" and the huge Sandworms which graze upon them and convert it into the precious melange.
It is the melange, in effect Sandworm droppings, upon which the wealth of Arrakis, and indeed the existence of the novel's interstellar empire, entirely depends. It is the melange for which the Atreides and the Harkonnens contend. It is the melange which is the center of the Fremen culture and religion.
It is the melange which will eventually transform Paul Atreides into the Kwisatz Haderach, the prescient being who can see into levels of reality to which all others are blind. The melange which turns a boy and then a guerrilla leader into a kind of god.
And though melange is referred to throughout the novel as a "spice" and consumed in small quantities as such, that is not what it really is at all.
What it really is is that which could hardly speak its name in clear in the science fiction of the early 1960s, which explains why the book was such a hard sell to publishers in 1964 and 1965 even with the terminological obfuscation. Which also explains why it became a best-seller after the cultural transformations of 1967 once it was published and why it was one of the engines of those transformations.
Melange is not a fictional "spice."
Melange is a fictional psychedelic drug
Its effects are similar to those of LSD or mescaline or peyote.
Only much more powerful.
DUNE, therefore, is not primarily a novel thematically centered on ecology. It is centrally a novel exploring chemically enhanced states of consciousness and their effects not only on individual personality and spirit but on culture.
One of the very first.
And, after all these years, still one of the most profound.
Melange, in even small continuous doses, is addictive, turns the sclera of the eyeballs blue, has milder psychedelic effects than LSD, and, like the peyote of the American southwestern desert, an integrated sacrament of the Native American religion, is thoroughly incorporated into the culture and religion of the Fremen.
On the level of the interstellar culture, it is taken in much stronger doses by the Navigators of the Spacing Guild, who use it to attain extreme states of altered consciousness which allow them to pilot starships through a form of hyperspace, turning them into transhuman beings as part of the existential bargain.
The Bene Geserit female adepts use it for more visionary purposes, and dream of creating and/or finding the "Kwisatz Haderach," a male capable of handling the spice on the highest level, whose consciousness will be freed thereby from conventionally perceived space and time into a kind of Einsteinian four-dimensional viewpoint which will enable him to see "the future" presciently, or, more subtly and profoundly, to surf the geodesics of probability.
Thus Herbert portrays four levels of both the use of psycho-active drugs by a society and the corresponding levels of consciousness. The Fremen incorporate melange as the sacrament of a tribal religion. The Guild Navigators employ it as a pragmatic technological augment. The Bene Gesserit use it in vision quests and mind-melding sessions.
Paul Atreides passes through these three ascending stages on his way to finally employing the drug to achieve the ultimate level, to become the Kwisatz Haderach, the fully Enlightened One, able to view the conventional realm of space and time from the outside, as Einsteinian four-space, a consciousness rendered therefore prescient up to a point, an Enlightenment that turns out to be both a godlike power and a tragic curse.
All this is set in a culture which is anachronistically archaic in a manner which is both rather too familiar and yet interestingly strange.
Stretching disbelief and contorting technological logic by staging swordfights in a space-going technology capable of using atomic weapons and inflicting an improbable monarchical political system upon it for the purpose of setting a pseudo-medieval action-adventure story on alien planets is hardly Frank Herbert's invention, and these fictional swords-and-spaceships cultures are almost always implicitly Christian and more or less Catholic.
In DUNE too, we have an Emperor and noble vassals and a hierarchical feudal system with a theocratic underpinning. But it is not Catholic or even Christian.
Although the word "Islam" never even appears in the novel and you have to be rather conversant with the real-world referents to get it, the religious template in DUNE is Islamic, not Christian, more Eastern than Western.
The term "Padishah Emperor" certainly points to Herbert's deliberate decision to do this, since "Shah padi Shah" means "King of Kings" in Farsi, the language of the Islamic Persian Empire.
Nor is it going too far to suppose that the grudge-nursing Fremen, exiled on Arrakis after a long and complex interstellar hegira, are cognates of the minority Shi'ite followers of Ali persecuted and reviled by dominant Sunni cultures.
And the visionary Bene Gesserit have their similarities to the mystic Sufis, Muslims who claim their sect predates Islam, and who emphasize techniques designed to induce direct mystical experience and insight, rather than ritual, rules, or a belief system.
Why Frank Herbert chose Islam as the religious and mystical underpinning of an interstellar culture that is otherwise based on that of medieval, feudal, Catholic Europe, is perhaps beyond the scope of literary analysis, a choice made somewhere in the deep subconscious regions from which artistic creation arises.
However, one can speculate...
While Islam is generally grouped with Judaism and Christianity, the monotheistic religions out of which it arose, there is one fundamental difference between Islam and its direct predecessors.
Judaism began as a tribal religion centrally concerned with the relationship between the history of the Jews and their God and its Bible was written by diverse hands over a long period of time. Christianity converted Judaism into a proselytizing universalist religion based on the story of one transhuman figure, Jesus Christ, its Bible was written in a much shorter period of time in four alternate versions (not unlike Lawrence Durrell's ALEXANDRIA QUARTET), it is basically a biography of Jesus, and its central concerns are sin, redemption, and morality.
Islam too began as a tribal religion, that of the Arabs, and was transformed into a proselytizing universalist religion, and its holy book, the Koran, is also filled with rules and regulations.
But the Koran, unlike either Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible, was created by one man, Mohammed, over a very short period of time in historical terms; directly dictated to him by Allah, if you are a believer, and certainly in the throes of some powerful mystical and visionary experience even if you are not, since Mohammed was an illiterate who had never created a literary work before.
Thus Islam, unlike Judaism or Christianity, but like Buddhism, has as its core one man's mystical and visionary awakening experience. And Mohammed, liked Buddha, made no pretense of being the Godhead, merely (if that can be the word)of directly experiencing it.
The transcendent goal of Christianity is individual immortality in a vaguely described but rather concrete heaven, to be achieved by following the rules. Thus it is basically a religion of morality.
The transcendent goal of Buddhism is the achievement of Nirvana, the ecstatic reintegration of the individual spirit with the universal Godhead from which it arose, to be achieved by meditative techniques. Thus Buddhism is an experiential religion, whose goal is achieving a transhuman state of consciousness.
Islam stands somewhere between. The Koran is as full of moral and legalistic prescriptions as the Bible, but it was written by one man in a state of mystically transcendent consciousness.
And the "heaven" of Islam, salaciously misunderstood by many, including many Muslims, is described as a state of continuous orgasm, which, seen on a mystic level, is a state of transcendent consciousness not unlike the Buddhist Nirvana.
Which perhaps explains why the Sufis, an older and thoroughly experiential religion, aimed entirely at achieving such states by ecstatic dancing, drugs, and other such means of transforming consciousness, could become an aspect of Islam and be generally accepted as such by the mainstream thereof.
And why alcohol, a drug not known for its psychedelic effects, is far more acceptable in Christian cultures than marijuana and hashish, which are far more acceptable in traditional Islamic cultures than alcohol.
Which may explain why Frank Herbert chose to employ Islamic mystical and religious referents in a novel whose central themes are the cultural, psychological, and religions relationships between a psychedelic drug and the societies based upon it, and the stepwise visionary transformation of a young boy's consciousness by the use thereof into the transcendent consciousness of a "Kwisatz Haderach," a being so enlightened that in the end he can even perceive the ironic tragedy of his own prescience.
Which certainly goes a long way towards explaining why DUNE could not find a major American publisher, inside the science fiction or in the mainstream, in the early 1960s, before there was anything like the Counterculture it helped to create.
And why it eventually became a long-term best-seller after the evolutionary changes in the consciousness of a generation it did so much to catalyze.
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND may have been the model, for better and for worse, for much of the hippie life-style--communes centered around a charismatic guru, an alternate life-style including free sexuality, and in the unfortunate case of the Manson Family, a glib moral rationalization for the discorporation of inconvenient people--but DUNE did something much more profound.
Reading DUNE can actually transform your consciousness in a positive manner. It can elevate your spirit. It can take you on a fictional "psychedelic trip," can induce a visionary experience that stays with you, from which, in some small or not so small way, you might emerge as something of a Lightbringer yourself.
A large claim for a science fiction novel?
To be sure.
But if you are reading this, you have the book in your hand, and the opportunity to see for yourself that DUNE is an empowering novel.
I can only send you on your way to that experience with the testimony of my own, published as a part of my autobiography in the Gale Press CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SERIES.
Here I describe my decision as a 25-year-old who had published about four stories and who had had a near-death experience in a hospital two years previously to leave New York for California:
"And California, San Francisco in particular, for me, like so many others, was the mythical Golden West towards which Young Men were supposed to go, the land with no winter, North Beach, the Sunset end of the Road, the object of a thousand and one vision quests, the Future itself, somehow, the glorious leap into the Great Unknown.
Appropriately enough, Frank Herbert and about 300 mg of mescaline sent me on my way....
Walking west through the Village night on 4th Street, peaking on mescaline after reading the final installment of the magazine serialization of DUNE, a powerful meditation on space-time, pre-cognition, and destiny soon to launch a hundred thousand trips, I had a flash-forward of my own.
I would be a famous science fiction writer, I would publish many stories and novels, and many of the people who were my literary idols, inspirations, and role-models, and former clients, people I had never met, would come to accept me as their equal, as their ally, as their friend.
And my life's mission, would be to take this commercial science fiction genre and turn it into something else somehow, write works that transcended its commercial parameters....that would help to open a new Way....
This is what you're here for. This is why you passed through the fever's fire and didn't die in that hospital bed. This is what you must do. You must go West to meet your future.
The mescaline talking? An overdose of 25-year-old ego? A stoned out ego-tripping wish-fulfillment fantasy?
Call it what you will.
Everything I saw in that timeless Einsteinian moment would come to pass."
That was my description of the prescient DUNE-inspired vision of my 25-year-old self. Here is the present tense:
"And when I'm really feeling down, I remember a 25-year-old kid stoned on mescaline, walking across 4th Street to the Village, high on DUNE, and dreaming those crazy prescient dreams....
He was going to be a famous science fiction writer, he would publish many stories and novels, and the many of the people who were his literary idols, inspirations, and role-models would accept him as their equal, would become his allies, his friends.
And his life's mission would be to take this commercial science fiction genre and turn it into something else somehow, write works that transcended its commercial parameters, works...that would open a new Way....
This is what you're here for.
And so I was. And so I am."
One of the many epithets attached in the novel to Paul Atreides, Muab'dib, Kwisatz Haderach, is "the Opener of the Way."
As witness the above, certainly something Frank Herbert's masterpiece was for me.
The Opener of the Way.
Something that DUNE will never cease to be.