Why Frank Herbert's Dune Still Resonates With Readers Today I Oxford Open Learning


    Why Frank Herbert’s Dune Still Resonates With Readers Today

    Every so often, there’s a narrative that changes storytelling forever. Published in book form in 1965, Frank Herbert’s Dune became counted among them. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely seen all the praise that the film Dune: Part Two has been receiving online, and deservedly so! Perhaps you’ve even seen the epic yourself, or its predecessor, or read the books. Whichever stage of the Dune journey you’re on, there’s still a question you may be struggling to put your finger on; why is Dune resonating with almost everyone today? Well, we’re going to explore this line of enquiry below, and hopefully provide a few worthwhile answers!

    Sci-Fi Made ‘Real’

    Science fiction can be a polarising genre. Some of these narratives describe an outlandish future that will never be and leave some people feeling that the texts aren’t credible or worth their time.
    However, Dune doesn’t typically fall victim to these problems, despite unquestionably being a sci-fi text. George Lucas’ ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ wants viewers to believe Star Wars has happened. By comparison, Herbert wants to convince his readers that his narrative could happen.

    The science in Dune isn’t always so realistic, but somehow still feels ‘real’ due to the rules Herbert creates for his fictional universe. For example, the fictional ‘future physics’ in the Holtzman effect, which briefly explains how character’s protective shields came into being via subatomic particles. The concept isn’t bogged down in paragraphs of tedious technobabble and dry explanations. It seems plausible, and there’s no pause in the narrative either.

    Religion also plays a central role in the world building of Dune and has close interplay with the political climate too. Herbert presents bureaucracies, religions, and governments as ways to manipulate and control civilisations. In the fiction, they eventually become corrupt and bring human progress to a grinding halt. Few could argue these themes don’t resonate with current tensions in our world today, regardless of our belief systems or political alignment. So, yes, Dune is a science fiction text, but it is always underpinned by a sense of ‘realness’.

    Against The Machine

    Today, we’re facing several alarming questions about technology. What damage will AI do to the job market? Are humans too dependent on their devices? How much time are we spending on social media? In almost every facet of our lives, technology is altering our destiny – often for the worse. Interestingly, Dune depicts a world where technology is less domineering. In Herbert’s narrative, technology became advanced and predictably turned against humanity. Instead of humanity withering away, however, it became stronger for this threat. Select humans in Dune trained their minds and bodies to perfection without any cybernetic augmentation, surpassing the capabilities of any computer or AI in storing and relaying data. These individuals became mentats, highly valued by the great houses in Dune and often utilised as political advisors and strategists.

    There’s also the matter of ‘lasguns’ to consider. The armies in Herbert’s universe do wield these ranged weapons, but if their enemies are shrouded in shields, the lasgun is used. If the beam made contact with the shield, it would trigger a nuclear event that would annihilate themselves and everyone in the blast zone. Consequently, melee combat is the practice most characters in Dune gravitate towards, making battle more intimate, skill-based, most importantly, human. Yes, there’s highly futuristic technology in Dune. But always it’s the qualities of humanity that shine through, giving readers from the 1960s to present and beyond solid anchor points for their reading.

    The Litany Against Fear

    Of course, if you’re familiar with Dune, you’re also likely familiar with what’s arguably the most famous quote in the narrative, known as the Litany Against Fear: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit It to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Variations of these words are uttered in many contexts throughout Dune, and there have arguably been just as many interpretations of it too. Some claim that the litany parallels Hindu and Buddhist teachings, for instance. Others feel the litany invokes the ancient teachings of The Stoics, who believed in practicing four virtues in everyday life; courage, moderation, wisdom and justice. There are other critics who firmly contend that the litany was lifted from Shakespeare, even, derived from his play, Julius Caesar.

    Of course, there’s much to be afraid of in our modern world. However, Dune shows us that fear erodes a rational mind. That only by overcoming fear are we granted a superior human mind afterwards. We are even capable of succeeding in doing so entirely alone, without the support of others. For any reader who feels isolated and hopeless at any point in their lives, the Litany Against Fear will no doubt resonate.

    A Window To The Future

    Prescience is a large part of the storytelling in Dune, giving multiple characters, including main protagonist Paul Atredies, an ability to glimpse the future. With that come more significant questions of ‘can the future be changed?’ and ‘how much freewill do we all have?’ They are questions we’re desperate for answers to in our modern world, with the climate and civil liberties under constant strain. To find hope in a seemingly hopeless scenario is an anchor point for many readers of Dune. Through that, we follow Paul’s journey more closely, wondering how he can possibly find autonomy in a world where almost everything he does is seemingly pre-determined.

    The story is not just about Paul, either. Unlike the cinematic adaptations, Herbert outlines many characters’ internal monologues throughout the text. Almost all characters can be deemed as ‘morally grey’ as they’re eroded by political turmoil and distrust, described as having “plans within plans within plans” and “feints within feints within feints”. There’s political intrigue and backstabbing as allies turn on each other, fighting tooth and nail to preserve bloodlines, cling to power, or even just to get out of this intergalactic game of chess alive. The uglier sides of humanity aren’t shied away from in Dune. And given the types of books and media people are consuming today, as well as the content of the real-world news, it’s easy to see why this aspect of Dune is intriguing to many.

    Lessons In Propaganda

    Each chapter of Dune begins with a small excerpt from the books Princess Irulan is writing in-universe. These excerpts seemingly ‘hint toward’ and ‘contextualise’ the next chapter for the reader. Some might say she’s giving the reader an ability to see into the future, and a taste of prescience. However, readers soon find out that her writings are not always accurate. Rather, she’s often detailing events and people based on how other characters remembered them, rather than giving truthful accounts of their deeds and motivations. For this reason, many readers dub her excerpts as propaganda.

    A good example is the quotation describing Dr Yueh just before he’s about to be introduced to the narrative. The quotation reads:
    “‘Yueh! Yueh! Yueh’, goes the refrain! ‘A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!’”

    Princess Irulan’s account of Dr Yueh would have readers believe the man is a heartless and savage monster, a murderer of many. However, as readers learn more about this character in the following pages, they see that he’s a fractured and tortured spirit, a feeble man with limited options to save the one he loves. Nevertheless, history and propaganda paint a very different picture of him.

    House Atreides are typically regarded as the protagonists of Dune by most fans of the work. However, in a conversation with his son, Duke Leto Atreides admits that, “my propaganda corps is one of the finest”, highlighting that much of the adoration he receives from his people, deserved or not, is largely the result of smoke and mirrors. Even those outside of House Atreides are alluded to as being ‘expendable’ by the Duke. For example, his use of the native Fremen people could be argued as a borderline show of colonialism. Nor does the Duke ever question whether or not his men should die for him, or billions be subjugated (with some serving as literal slaves) under the rule of a handful of all-powerful Houses. While Leto does have noble qualities and adored by his own, he’s not above reader scrutiny. The characters are all part of the same toxic power system, making the narrative and the world far more compelling for readers.

    The Stories Dune Has Inspired

    Lastly, the best way to gauge how impactful a narrative has been is to gauge how it has inspired the next wave of creative thinkers. Star Wars, Star Trek, A Song of Ice and Fire, and plenty more stories have all taken cues from Herbert’s work.

    So, even if you’re one that’s never read Dune or seen it’s cinematic adaptations, there’s a good chance you’ve come into contact with its enduring legacy via other media and literature. Why not look into this yourself, and see if or how your favourite properties have in some way been inspired or shaped by Dune?


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