A Beginner’s Guide to Frank Herbert’s DUNE



In 1965, American writer Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986) published a full length novel based on earlier short stories about a desert planet, which were themselves based on his fascination with the ecology of the Oregon Dunes and the attempts of ecologists to stop their progress by planting various types of ‘poverty grasses.’ Having serialized these desert planet stories, Herbert wrote out a full-length novel manuscript (titled DUNE), subsequently rejected by twenty different companies until its eventual publication by a rather open-minded auto-repair manual publisher!

DUNE won Herbert several major writing awards and has since gone on to become the world’s best selling science fiction novel as well as (considered by many including/especially! myself) the best sci-fi novel ever written (with Stanislaw Lem’s brilliant silly sci-fi comedy The Cyberiad coming a VERY close second tied with Douglas Adams’ equally hilarious ‘HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy‘ series: see my earlier award winning (!) post/review of The Cyberiad posted elsewhere on my blog).

Herbert eventually wrote several sequels to the original novel, which I consider the official canon of DUNE, even though Herbert‘s son Brian eventually wrote further sequels and prequels to the original six. Herbert had planned a seventh, but died before it was anything more than outlines and notes. I will be discussing the original six and making no reference to Brian’s works, even though my pre-history of the DUNE story discusses chronology from the DUNE Encyclopedia that Brian also used as partial source material for his (what I think are rather inferior) additions to the canon. One of the great charms of Herbert’s original six is the fact that much was left unexplained, and one had to read the the text carefully to understand DUNE’s backstory and what had occurred in the thousands of years before it. One could create whole worlds out of a few scattered facts and the difficult task of organizing and/or making sense of the DUNE Universe in one’s head was a nerdy accomplishment well respected by fellow sci-fi/DUNE fans. To know the world of DUNE meant something special, something life affirming in those willing to lose themselves completely in the great literary journey Herbert laid out for his readers. I remember reading DUNE and it subsequent sequels as a teen, voraciously devouring every page with my eyes like it was a feast/new revelation about what was possible in human creative endeavors. Herbert was like some kind of mystic to my naïve teen mind, a sage (like Tolkien) who could weave magic out of words and send me spiraling off into the Universe right alongside each new character and plot point. I could barely wait until the fifth and sixth books came out!! It was pure heaven to finally get my hands on them and find out what came next!

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “whatever… they are just a bunch of sci-fi stories written by some guy beginning back in the 60s.” But I really encourage you to pick a copy of DUNE and start reading it. I swear you will really enjoy it and want to read more. But it can be tricky sometimes figuring all the backstories and terms used, as Herbert more fully elucidates them throughout the entire series, and that is part of the joy of reading DUNE. You have to work for it, but the pay off is a head full of timelines and histories and perplexing words in ancient/future tongues.

Here now is a simplified (two part) overview of the vast DUNE Universe as laid out in the original novels.


Set in an alternate Universe similar to our own (or else what could be interpreted as a series of incomplete documentations of our own actual pre-interstellar history), Earth is known as Terra, and holds a similar history all the way from the Empire of Alexander The Great to the Golden Age of Invention (modern times: roughly the 20th to 22nd century). Time is now measure in BG, a set of newly standardized years “Before the Guild” meaning before the ascension of the novel’s Spacing Guild, who developed interstellar travel and later formed the foundation of human existence as actively interstellar civilizations in competition with one another through/by the actions of the Spacing Guild.

Our currently time (2015 CE) falls within the time period of 14,000 years before the ascent of the Guild, so we are now living in what is marked as 14,100 BG to 13,600 BG (“Before The Guild”) rather than CE (formerly AD). From this point on, mankind has begun living on other planets, and human history hence is marked through galactic activities such as Imperial power moving from Earth (terra) to the planet Ceres after Earth is ruined by collision with a planetoid, then reseeded and set aside as a giant park.

As time goes on, mankind develops computer technology to the point of machines developing artificial intelligence and becoming citizens of the ever-expanding Known Universe. But increasingly, Mankind is coming into conflict with sentient machine civilizations and is being repressed by them. Thus grows an anti-Machine sentiment amongst many, and the Machine respond with further, growing oppression. Then, in 200 BG, an event that begins the real story leading to DUNE: the Great Revolt, also known as the Butlerian Jihad (200-108 BG).

A woman named Jehanne Butler, an aspiring member of a sisterhood/priestess-hood known as the Bene Gesserit – women dedicated to developing superior mental and physical abilities so as to not be reliant on computers (but rather as powerful). She became rather powerful but abandoned her training to marry a man named Thet’r Butler, and have a family life. Upon arriving one day at the hospital to give birth to their daughter Sarah, they were informed during delivery the baby was malformed and thus was aborted. But because Jehanne had Bene Gesserit training she discovered/knew that the bay was fine, and the hospital director, a Thinking Machine, had purposely aborted the healthy baby (hint: it is revealed later on in the DUNE novels why Sarah was aborted, but I don’t want to have too many spoilers). Jehanne sought to expose such injustices of the Thinking Machines and thus began the anti-Machine movement that would become an all out war with all Thinking Machines, and their subsequent complete destruction. Out of the Jihad arose a new universal ‘faith’ summarized in a newly written Orange Catholic Bible, in which thinking machines were forever banned (“thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind”), and “thou shalt not disfigure the soul” by being ruled by Thinking Machines, etc. But still, in remote corners of the Known Universe, the ancient religions of Earth still have a few followers, that eventually become syncretized into bizarre amalgamations of Islam, Buddhism, etc.

In the wake of this great galactic battle came great famines, waves of disease, and other calamities as now humans did not have computers and such to keep them safe and healthy, being so completely subservient to machines. Whole civilizations and planets collapsed into utter ruin and chaos until out f the ashes rose a feudal system of rule organized around the ability of the Spacing Guild to resume interstellar activity, and re-unite the Known Universe. In a distant galaxy far away from Terra, a giant corporation known as CHOAM was developed (whom regulated universal economic action) and through the use of newly discovered substance known as “spice,” and/or “mélange,” the Spacing Guild could now travel via giant spaceships across vast areas of space in a single second. Mankind could now colonize planets millions of light years apart almost immediately.

Also, time was now measured not as BG but rather AG, “After The Guild” and the feudal system already place grew in power and control thanks to this new mix of melange and technology (how this is done is explained in DUNE). At this time, a great Council of planets (Landsraad) ruled by ‘Houses’ was formed and a new galactic Emperor eventually was established (I am skipping a lot of intermediate time here!). From this point on (zero AG), human history occurs in this feudal framework.

In 2800 AG, there occurs a great migration from Terra (which is once again a functioning planet). Two million followers of one of the old, syncretic religions called Zen-Sunnism spread across the Universe. Zen-Sunnism is a syncretic mix of Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam, and these millions start settling elsewhere and spread their beliefs in the coming centuries. This is important to note, because it leads to Zen-Sunnis eventually arriving a little planet known as Arrakis in 7193 AG. These Zen-Sunni wanderers establish religious settlements there and learn to survive the harsh desert planet. They must also contend with massive sand worms, hundreds of meters long, who attack any rhythmic motion on the surface. These worms become known collectively and individually as Shai-Hulud, and it is prophesied amongst the Zen-Sunni, now known as Fremen, that a Messiah would arrive from another world and free them from the growing oppression of the Houses of the Landsraad.


Somewhere between 10900 – 10901 AG, the great Landsraad House of Atreides, ruled over by Duke Leto Atreides and his concubine Lady Jessica (on the planet Caladan), are ordered to take over the rule of the planet Arrakis (nicknamed “Dune”), and replace the resident ruling House of Harkonnen (the Harkonnens being sworn enemies of the House of Atreides). At this time, the Bene Gesserit still exist, and since their original formation have been secretly becoming a mystical society of women with “unnatural” abilities, feared and loathed by other civilizations such as the Bene Tleilax, who themselves have developed a group of Tleilaxu known as Mentats, human “super computers” who can make extremely complex calculations formerly only possible by the since banned sentient super-computers of the past. The Bene Gesserit have also been covertly influencing politics and the marriages of the various Houses by infiltrating them with their own sisters or women secretly trained by them.

They are coming close to producing a being known as the Kwisatz Haderach (K-H), a Universal Super-Being who has all their powers and more. This god-like super being would also (theoretically) be under their control and thus the Bene Gesserit could come to secretly rule the Universe by proxy.

So from our time (2015 CE) on, tens of thousands of years have passed and now the Known Universe is about to be shaken to its core by the events of DUNE.


The Atreides Family (House Atreides) has been ordered to move to Arrakis to take over supervision of the mining of the spice mélange, a potent power taken from the sands of Arrakis which can extend human life by hundreds of years, give the consumer prescient vision, and make possible travel through vast areas of space instantly without moving when used with the right machines. Since thinking machines (computers) are forever banned, humans could not travel very far in interstellar space. But the ancient Spacing Guild has developed a way to use mélange in conjunction with special space ships to travel without moving, millions of light years, instantly without running into planets, stars, black holes, etc. But in order to do so, specially trained Guild Navigator must ingest massive quantities of mélange, grossing mutating their bodies into giant walrus-like creatures who must live in special spice tanks. Mélange can only be found on Arrakis, so whoever controls Arrakis and spice mining essentially controls the Universe, though technically the Emperor controls the Landsraad and thus the spice. The Bene Gesserit have also been using mélange to heighten their powers and move increasingly closer to producing the (male) K-H.

Lady Jessica (a Harknonnen descendant and Bene Gesserit trainee), the aforementioned concubine of Duke Leto Atreides, is secretly ordered by the Sisterhood to bear a daughter, and eventually marry her off to a Harkonnen male: “sealing the breach” between the two feuding families. The Bene Gesserit are close to producing the K-H, and many believe the offspring of this future marriage will be Him.

But Lady Jessica is thoroughly in love with Leto and instead bears him the lone son (Paul) he has always wanted. Love is banned amongst the Bene Gesserit (it usually interferes with their plans) and Jessica has defied the Sisterhood doubly by loving and producing a male Atreides! But the Bene Gesserit come to discover that a Spacing Guild Navigator (who also has some prescience) has told the Emperor that the Guild wants the now young adult Paul murdered. This confuses the Bene Gesserit, and a high-ranking Reverend Mother displaces to Caladan to meet Paul and give him a special test to see if he has the potential to become the Kwisatz Haderach. Paul has innate abilities that are more advanced than a regular human, but they still cannot be sure if Paul is the KH or not. As the novel progresses, Paul begins a special training regimen authorized by the Bene Gesserit to prepare Paul for any Harkonnen attacks on Arrakis, though secretly they are also training him in the Bene Gesserit ways as prep for being able to control him if he is the K-H.

The Atredies Family moves to Arrakis and takes control of the spice operations, as they continuously discover Harkonnen booby traps and weed out Harkonnen assassins living amongst the house staff.

(Note: there was a DUNE movie made in the early 80s by David Lynch which has since gone on to become a cult sci-fi classic, even though it was almost universally panned by critics and confused audience who had never read the book. In the movie, rock star Sting plays a Harkonnen nobleman named Feyd Rautha, and in one scene – in the background – singer Michael Bolton, who was not yet a famous rock star at that time, can be seen playing a triangular ceremonial drum!)

As Paul becomes accustomed to Arrakeen life, he becomes ever more curious about the mysterious, hermitic Fremen and gets to know the resident Imperial ecologist, who has often been direct contact with the Fremen out in the deep desert where they roam. Since wandering the burning desert without constant access water means certain death, the Fremen over the years have developed what is known as a still-suit, a type of expanded leathery body stocking that collects the wearer’s urine, feces, and oral moisture through a special nose-attached breathing tube. Through the action of the wearer’s movement, water is collected and purified all around the suit and shunted up into an accessible outer tube which the wearer can continuous drink from, since they never lose any significant amount of water though their exposed facial pores. Wearing the still suit means one can wander the desert for weeks without need of any extra water.


Paul and Leto eventually get the opportunity to travel out into the desert to watch large vehicles sucking mélange out of the sand, and thus must wear still-suits in case of an emergency. While Paul is putting on his still-suit the Imperial ecologist (Liet Kynes) notices that Paul has put on his suit in a particular manner known only to veteran deep-desert Fremen. When asked how Paul knew to do this, he replies that he just felt that this way seemed more logical than the standard way. As Paul explains this, Kynes utters part of an old Fremen prophecy under his breath, “…and He shall know your ways as if born to them…” It is at this point that the novel begins to hint at what may lay in Paul’s future as the Bene Gesserit and eventually the Fremen become ever more present in Paul’s life and fate.

Meanwhile, Duke Leto’s right hand man and “Sword Master” Duncan Idaho has become Leto’s Ambassador to the Fremen who lives amongst them learning their ways and leads both to trust and respect each other. This activity will serve the Atreides family well when they are ambushed within their own fortress and the Harkonnens capture and kill Leto. Paul and Lady Jessica, thanks to Duncan sacrificing himself to save them by staying behind to slow the advance of enemy warriors, escape into the desert (and are presumed dead in the movie version). Paul and Jessica are discovered hiding deep in a rocky citadel by the Fremen, led by a man named Stilgar (played brilliantly in the movie by American actor Everett McGill who, by the way, was also amazing in The Quest For Fire). Stilgar accepts Jessica and Paul into the tribe if Jessica will teach them a form of Bene Gesserit fighting known as the Weirding Way, the conversion of certain words and sounds (amplified by a special hand-held weapon) into killing energy. Paul is then asked what name he wants to be called in public (while also acquiring a secret name he will be called amongst the Fremen only). While earlier under the influence of spice samples back in the Atreides fortress on Caladan Paul had had visions of a moon, which contained what appeared to be a silhouette of a kangaroo mouse (which turns out to be one of Arrakis’ moons). Thus he tells Stilgar that he would like to be named after the kangaroo mouse moon-shadow, which is “Muad’dib” in the old Fremen tongue. Thus, Paul becomes known as Muad’dib, which also happens to be a powerful killing word when spoken at a Weirding Device.

(Note: Herbert used many variations of Hebrew and Arabic for DUNE’s religious or mystical terminology, as he felt it suited the desert nature of Arrakis and the ancient quality of the Abrahamic religions that were the origin of much of the Known Universe’s spiritual roots. “Muad’dib” is derived from the Arabic “mu’addib” meaning “one who teaches/points the way.” Muad’dib also happens to be a constellation in the night sky of Arrakis reminiscent of a kangaroo mouse with a tail which “points the way.” Herbert uses of Hebrew and Arabic sources created a rather exotic tone in the novels, at least it was exotic to readers like myself who discovered the DUNE novels in their early teens (late 60s to early 80s) before mobile phones, ATMs, home gaming systems, home computers, Walkmans, Discmans, iPods, iPads, and a million other modern devices that would seem irreplaceable to teens in here in 2014/2015!

It is also important to note that Herbert also used Arabic/Islamic term ‘jihad’ to describe the Bulterian/Fremen Uprisings (translated as “holy war”). In Islamic terms it is considered to mean an inner holy war of the Soul against Evil, not its literal or fundamentalist translation as ‘war against any/all who are not Muslim’.’ When DUNE was published this usage of jihad was not controversial – like it would be now if DUNE had been published after September 11, 2001.)

It is soon revealed that Jessica is pregnant again, this time with a daughter. Simultaneously the old Reverend Mother of the Fremen has died and Jessica is now the prime candidate to take what is known as The Water of Life (a sly nod by Herbert to the old Gaelic/Latin term for whiskey), a poisonous liquid made from the bile of a drowned baby worm – whose survival transforms the (female) drinker into a powerful Reverend Mother. Jessica takes the Water of Life and survives, but in the process her unborn daughter Alia also becomes “pre-born,” a fetus with all the powers of Reverend Mother as well. Being pre-born is dangerous because the fetus does not have control over her faculties and Reverend Mother possess what are known as Other Memories, the complete mental access to the genetic memory records of all her descendants which can speak through her like they are living people. Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers use these Other Memories to become vastly more knowledgeable and mentally cunning than their fellow humans.

Meanwhile Paul/Muad’dib falls in love with a Fremen woman named Chani (the daughter of Liet Kynes – played in the movie by the lovely Sean Young, who is also a major character in the sci-fi movie classic BladeRunner, released around the same time as DUNE in the early 80s).

(Imagine that… being a major character in two of the most important sci-fi movies ever, like Harrison Ford in both the original Star Wars films and BladeRunner as the main character Rick Deckard, who falls in love with Sean Young’s character).

As years begin to pass, Paul organizes and leads a major Fremen army bent on retaking Arrakis from the Harkonnens, and ultimately the Emperor. Being exposed to mélange in both culinary and environment forms has led Paul to develop significant powers of prescience, and he sees several possibilities for humanity’s future. But he also begins to see that he may very well be the prophesied Fremen Messiah in the form of his also ppssibly being the Bene Gesserit’s Kwisatz Haderach, and this could very well doom mankind to endless jihad in his name.

As Paul leads the Fremen in their growing jihad, the Emperor and the Harkonnens are worry the threat posed by this mysterious Muad’dib character (they think Paul is dead) destroying their spice production and killing the Emperor’s dreaded Sardaukar troops, who were thought to be the most ruthless in the Universe and virtually undefeatable. Paul eventually realizes he must take the Water of Life, the test that will reveal if he is the Kwisatz Haderach, as no ordinary man has ever survived the test – meaning only the K-H will pass it.

Paul survives the test and he indeed is the Kwisatz Haderach. He leads his army to defat the Harkonnens, and forces the Emperor to leave the throne as Paul now takes command of the Known Universe by marrying the Emperor’s daughter Irulan, though he promises Chani he will never have children with Irulan, or even touch her. Paul also now has complete control over mélange mining and production, and thus control over the entire known Universe as no civilization can now space travel or trade without it.

What makes the novel DUNE particularly fascinating is that it stands alone as a story in itself – if you read no further than the ending, you still have read a great singular work of science fiction. But Herbert wrote the ensuing sequels expansively, and what is a minor detail in the DUNE story, for example, can become the seed of a major development in later novels.

Paul Muad’dib is the Kwisatz Haderach, and the prophecy is fulfilled. But Paul is not only uncontrollable by the Bene Gesserit, he also sees another vision, one where Arrakis is transformed by into a lush, Earth-like like planet, thus killing the worms and ending all spice production permanently, an act he had merely threatened the Emperor with, but soon realizes may actually occur if humanity travels a certain path into the future. Paul also realized that the jihad he has started is beginning to spiral out of his control as he becomes even further venerated by the increasingly obsessed Fremen. This conundrum sets the stage for Herbert sequel… DUNE Messiah.

I will continue the DUNE saga in my next post, but first I will let you in on a little secret….


As one is reading DUNE the question arises, where does the spice mélange come from? How does it get into the sand of Arrakis? Why is it so powerful? Remember that poisonous Water Of Life is harvested from a drowned baby worm, its bile. Take a few minutes and think about it. Stumped? The origin of mélange is one of the most interesting and amusing creations in sci-fi literature. It is dried worm poop! More accurately, it is  the dried remains of the mix of a fungus that grows on fresh worm poop deep in the sand.. and dried worm poop, which is blown to the surface by a buildup of carbon dioxide poop-gas…the Bene Gesserit and Paul get their enhanced powers from eating worm poop! Herbert, not known for adding any humour to his DUNE novels, still found a way to create a vast and darkly fascinating future chronology of humanity and throw in a little worm poop as well!

Continued in Part Two…


3 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Frank Herbert’s DUNE

  1. I remember reading Dune for the first time — it blew me away. Better than Heinlein, better than Clarke, better than any sf I’d ever read. I skipped classes to read it, then devoured the next two. Oh, how I’d love to duplicate that experience!

    1. I recommend re-reading God Emperor of Dune, straight up without reading its predecessors. It takes place so far into the future after Muad’Dib that it is like reading a whole new series.

      I recommend sitting down with “God Emperor…”, a glass of shiraz, and a cozy blanket… on a rainy day. Pure heaven! And how Leto II tries to save mankind by being such a tyrant, humanity travels the stars to escape him and thus finds freedom… perfectly written and poignantly tragic; Leto II’s end…

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