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Three common misconceptions about Frank Herbert’s Dune

Dune

Note: This post has been tidied, expanded and published over at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy blog.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with me and I didn’t find a way to mention that Dune is my favorite book ever, you were probably speaking to a defective ghola. I’ve discussed the series and its themes with fans, friends, strangers, even that random lady at the library. A few topics always pop up when introducing the series to someone new, but I’ve noticed there are a couple of odd ideas lodged in people’s minds about what the series is all about.

Misconception #1 – Dune is just about the spice

For people who have only heard of the book, the first thing out of their mouth is something like “Oh, it’s that book about that spice drug, right?” Yes, kinda. The Matrix is also a movie about batteries, and did you watch that Disney movie about the seagull that knew a lot about human cutlery? Dune isn’t about spice so much as it’s about human adaptability. Spice is incredibly useful and can be found in everything from your morning coffee to the metabolisms of the mutated beasts that bend time and space to make interplanetary journeys possible. It’s an important product, but it can only be found on one planet: Dune. Whoever controls Dune controls the spice, and by extension has their hand on the throat of every person in the galaxy.

The monopoly on spice encouraged several groups of people to seek alternatives. Some of them worked on manufacturing a replacement for spice, but the cleverer ones figured they’d be better off not needing spice at all. Their goal was to reach the same end as taking a dose of spice using nothing more than the human mind. Why suck down caffeine when you can just tell your brain to be more alert?

The message, then, is about dependability and our habit of being lazy when something is convenient. Oil, electricity, drug addiction, you can draw a lot of parallels to substances in the modern world, but the point is we need those things only as long as we think we do. There are alternatives, it’s just a matter of turning the screws so there’s enough pressure for us to start working on them.

The Baron

Misconception #2 – The later books aren’t worth reading

First of all, let’s be clear about what we mean by “later books”. Frank Herbert wrote six books in the Dune series, listed below. These are the only other books in the series as far as I’m concerned. If you forced me to pick the weakest one, I would probably point to Dune Messiah. Then I would feel guilty about singling it out and go curl up in the corner to read it again.

  • Dune
  • Dune Messiah
  • Children of Dune
  • God Emperor of Dune
  • Heretics of Dune
  • Chapterhouse: Dune

The later later books, all of those prequels and sequels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, those don’t count as Dune. I read The Butlerian Jihad trilogy and picked up Sandworms of Dune when it came out, but after that I just couldn’t bring myself to read another. They’re barely a shadow of the intelligent writing found in Frank Herbert’s work. Entertaining, maybe, but only moderately.

Now that that’s out of the way, do the original books get worse as they progress? Out of all the people I’ve spoken to about the series, no one who has read the six originals shares that opinion. The only people who seem to think the sequels are terrible are the ones that only read the first book. Where they got the idea that Dunes 2-6 were bad is beyond me. Maybe it’s just an excuse not to read them. The books that follow Dune take us about 15,000 years into the future of the Dune universe. I won’t spoil anything, but that’s when the real themes of Dune can finally be seen. The events set up in the first book are just seeds. The rest of the series is what happens to the trees once they grow up, get chopped down, then grow again.

Dune no-ship

Misconception #3 – Frank Herbert was homophobic

This is the weirdest claim I’ve seen about Dune and its author, and I honestly think it was started by someone who was searching for something to be offended about. The single point of evidence for this accusation is that Dune’s main villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, shows a proclivity for sleeping with men. On four occasions he makes references to wanting something young and pretty and male to be brought to his chambers. He’s the repulsive bad guy, so everything he does is, by extension, thought of as repulsive by the author and should be seen in the same light by the readers.

The key word in the Baron’s speeches is the word “young”. It’s always a young boy, never just some random dude. He’s not interested in men as much as he is kids. Children, even, and in one instance his own young male relative. The Baron is an incestuous pedophile who craves control and can only obtain it by dominating the young. That’s what Herbert was using to leverage the Baron’s vileness into the reader’s mind.

BONUS: Frank Herbert stole from Star Wars

Sandcrawlers, a desert planet, moisture farming, spice mining, etc. All of these things appear in both Star Wars and Dune. Herbert obviously stole them after seeing Star Wars, right? Dune was released in 1965. Star Wars was released in 1977. Actually, two more Dune books were published before Star Wars even came out, so there!