On this day in 1920, Frank Herbert Jr. was born. Herbert devoted six years to “researching” what would become the most popular science fiction novel of all time. I’ve always wondered what counts as “research” when writing a novel. I can understand the need for writers of hard science fiction to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of a particular field, but for someone like Herbert, wouldn’t “world-building” more accurately describe his efforts? I say this because Herbert describes a world in which the mysticism and magic have replaced science and technology.

This time I am lifting from Adam Robert‘s excellent History of Science Fiction, in which he claims “one of the book’s greatest strengths is its detailed and plausible rendering of the political context” (236). What Herbert spent six years “researching,” then, was the complex political environs of the interplanetary empire he’d invented because Dune‘s reputation as an environmental novel is undeserved. The overgrown extremophiles who inhabit Arrakis are humans from Earth, but somehow survive on a planet with no viable means to create or sustain an atmosphere. As Roberts writes:

We may wonder, for instance, how Dune’s atmosphere is oxygenated in the absence of planetary vegetation. In later books Herbert suggests that the sandworms fart oxygen, which hardly address the problem.

Indeed, without an atmospheric density in the neighborhood of 1.2 kg/m³ it wouldn’t matter what element those sandworms farted—it would’ve drifted up and away. And where did all that sand come from anyway? The most efficient means of producing sand is wave action, but even if Herbert wanted to be inefficient, a little research would’ve taught him that sand requires big rocks and weathering processes. The geological history of a planet consisting entirely of sand is—will you let me get my geology geek on, please? The opportunities to do so are few and very far between. Fine then. I’ll be mysterious.*

I don’t mean to diminish Herbert’s accomplishments in Dune. So long as he was alive, the series educated science types about the nuances and niceties of medieval politics. (The process, if not the history.) That said, I always found Herbert’s forecast of future history more than a little pessimistic. Like the Terminator and Battlestar Galactica franchises, the Dune sextet pivots on a war between man and formerly enslaved machine, the result of which was a return to a pre-computational society. The mentats are bred—“Fancy meeting you here, dissertation. Please GO AWAY.”—they are bred to be mathematical savants, and spice mystically allows for interstellar travel sans star-charts. So, no computers needed. However, Herbert’s novels seem to argue that a rejection of the modern technology entails a rejection of modern political systems—as if dispensing with the convenience of a calculator is the first sign of feudalism’s revival.

Besides the obvious problem with this—somehow those Athenians managed to be quasi-democratic before the Age of Apple—and despite Herbert’s obvious critique of hierarchy and messianic thought, I can’t help but think the novels engender a nostalgia for certainty in their readers. We might not know how spice works, but Our Dear God-Emperor surely does. (Despite having personally and purposely evolved into a human-sandworm hybrid—about which plot-point my dissertation rears its head like Giant Putin over unsuspecting Alaska.  So I’ll stop now lest I invite insanity in, slap it on the back, and offer it a brew—which is, yes, how a body feels about a dissertation recently completed.  I hear tell this subsides in time, but so far I’ve felt none of it.)

*By which I don’t mean anything like “I sat here trying to think what would have to happen for such a planet to come about—including, but not limited to, a cessation of mountain-building after a period of intense weathering by something other than water, since water poisons the marvelous beasts who produce the spice melange and whose evolution would’ve spanned untold eons.” I don’t mean anything like that. I know the answer, I’m simply not in the mood to share.