We have strange relationships with the books we read. All writing is personal, and we gravitate to stories that speak to us. But Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune is a special case for me, because I grew up on the planet Arrakis.
Arrakis, colloquially referred to as “Dune” in the book, reminds me of my hometown, Lubbock, and the nation-state that holds that city, Texas. And it brings up these important questions: Why should a planet in a sci-fi novel remind me of anything on Earth? And more to the point, why should any imaginative work remind us of anything in the real world?
Dune is a 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, and it’s widely considered one of the greatest sci-fi novels of all time. Writer Sean T. Collins recently described Dune like this:
Set thousands of years from now, [Dune is] a story of political bastardry at an intergalactic level. In Dune’s future, all space travel, as well as the near-supernatural mental abilities of several different semi-monastic orders that rose to replace computers following an anti-technological holy war (this is science fiction, after all), is fueled by a mind-altering substance called the spice. The spice is found only on the desert planet Arrakis, where it is secreted at an early stage in the life-cycle of gigantic, deadly sandworms. As the mostly noble House Atreides and the mostly vile House Harkonnen vie for supremacy over the world and its nomadic warrior tribes, only young Paul Atreides—heir to the slain Duke Leto and the product of millennia of careful genetic breeding—can harness the forbidden prophetic powers required to overthrow the Harkonnens and the Emperor who backs them.
In his article titled “The Only Good Online Fandom Left Is Dune,” Collins says that people who read Dune love talking about it the same way the Internet loves talking about Star Wars. Which is strange, he writes, “because Dune isn’t anywhere near that level of cultural commonality and reach.”
As Collins points out, despite being the bestselling sci-fi novel of all time, and despite George Lucas borrowing from it for Star Wars (Tatooine is the California version of Arrakis), Dune “has made no other lasting inroads into mainstream culture. It’s about as popular as a work of fiction can be without feeling or functioning like it’s popular.” Collins adds:
And like the Bene Gesserit witches and the mutated Guild Navigators, the reclusive Fremen and the rapacious Sardaukar, we fans of Dune, its sequels, and its David Lynch adaptation are members of a secret order, but there are signs of us everywhere.
Above all, Dune is weird.
Many writers create worlds with fantastic beings, complicated magical systems and strange species. Despite these innovations, the people of these worlds remain the same. J.R.R. Tolkien created hobbits, but the hobbits are basically small Englishmen. He wrote elves, but his elves are melancholic aristocrats.
Contrast that with Dune; Herbert’s characters are almost all human. Yet the humans of the Dune Universe are alien in a way Tolkien’s creatures are not. Dune boasts people with optimally-trained mental abilities, priests who play breeding games over generations, analysts who can decode the subtlest shift in body posture. Dune is the novel that made guessing about other minds as interesting as a raid on the Death Star.
With apologies to Gene Roddenberry, what can compare with Dune? Vulcans and Klingons appear Other, but at their heart, these species embody magnified human qualities and exist in societies not dissimilar to ours. The people of Dune, however, are close to us—and alien to us—in a unique way.
Dune’s importance must be seen in the larger context. Arrakis’ charms are difficult to explain, but easy to encounter. That is how I view my hometown.
When I first read Herbert’s sci-fi classic, it felt like someone was describing Lubbock. Not the physical details or the narrative details; there are las-guns and poisonings in Dune…not so much in Lubbock. The similarity came from the feeling of hailing from a special, strange, dry corner of humanity.
Lubbock is a city in the West Texas Panhandle with a population numbering a quarter-million. Paleolithic tribes used the city as a hunting ground, but the modern city is a century old. Lubbock sits atop the South Plains Caprock, where there are no features except the horizon. No valleys. No hills. No major bodies of water. Just grass and crops. The landscape is totally flat—I cannot emphasize the flat part enough.
Lubbock sits 70 miles east from the New Mexico border. Amarillo and Odessa are two hours away; Dallas is five hours. The city is in the middle of nowhere. Only you wouldn’t know it, because the city is close-knit. It’s a large spaceship: thriving life inside, the void of space outside.
Dune features an arid desert world inhabited by close-knit religious folk. In the book, you either have to be from Arrakis or be adopted into the Fremen culture to see the importance of dry life. And yet, once you’ve lived there long enough, you’re ready for anything. The Fremen unite inner fire with groundedness, and that’s a rare combination. Once you have been forced to survive in a dry place, everything else seems easier by comparison.
Lubbock is the same way.
Herbert never visited Lubbock; he probably died without hearing the name. But Dune is about Lubbock, if any book ever was. I can say this with complete confidence.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, like describing the show Stranger Things as being about your life, even if your hometown was nothing like Hawkins in the ‘80s.
But why? What’s Hawkins to you, or Arrakis to me?
No sci-fi story truly takes place in the future; no matter how far ahead you skip, you can’t escape the here and now. In H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, the protagonist goes into the far future, but the class struggle he discovers between the Morlocks and the Eloi is that of Victorian Britain. Likewise, every fantasy tale is essentially about the planet Earth. The Lord of the Rings is as much about World War I as any book by Barbara W. Tuchman.
Herbert wrote about distant planets in the far future, but Dune is primarily about ideas. And Herbert’s idea of Arrakis matches my understanding of Lubbock.
And not just the dust storms.
Dune is essentially about ecology, and Herbert explains the connections between place and culture. By showing us how Arrakis’ ecology created Fremen culture, Herbert is reminding us that we are all contingent creatures. Every culture grows from a set of circumstances. Arrakis is weird, because it is unlike other planets. Lubbock is strange, because it is unlike other cities.
No wonder Dune is such a challenging book to adapt.
You can’t adapt Dune for the screen without ripping up the small roots that make it special. You can’t plunder it for merchandisable goodies, the way other nerd fandoms can be easily dissolved into marketable chunks. If you want cheap nerd cred, that’s easy: Deadpool shirts are one click away. A shirt featuring the image of the Bashar Miles Teg will never garner you the same easy praise.
If you put work into appreciating Dune, however, you will be rewarded. But those rewards are emotional and intellectual rather than social
In the same vein, you cannot sell Lubbock or talk about its charms without living there. You have to understand that the Loop is a mystical circuit, how strange a forest of trees looks, why having too much water in one place seems in bad taste. You have to understand how the city bonds people together in a mind-meld that endures for a lifetime.
Loving Lubbock takes work the way loving Arrakis—and Dune by extension—takes work. You love Lubbock not because it is perfect, but because it is intense and odd and worthy of love in the same way a bleak desert world with dangerous sandworms is worth your while, even if it seems frustrating at first.
We live in a plug ‘n’ play age, but Herbert’s novel is a story about why place still matters. It reminds me of Lubbock, because I have lived in a hard, dry, obscure place and found it lovely. The slow blade penetrates the shield; it takes a strange place to penetrate the heart.
“Tell me of your homeworld, Usul,” Chani says to Paul in the novel. Some homeworlds are easier to explain than others. Who knows but that, somewhere on your shelf, there exists a book that will tell of your homeworld, too?