|Frank Herbert authored this commentary
explaining the origins of his Dune series. It was first
published in the July 1980 issue of Omni Magazine.
began with a concept whose mostly unfleshed images took shape across about six
years of research and one and a half years of writing. The story was all in my
head until it appeared on paper as I typed it out.
How did it evolve? I conceived of a long novel, the whole trilogy as one book
about the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us. Demagogues,
fanatics, con-game artists, the innocent and the not-so-innocent bystanders-all
were to have a part in the drama. This grows from my theory that superheroes are
disastrous for humankind. Even if we find a real hero (whatever-or whoever-that
may be), eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that always
comes into being around such a leader.
Personal observation has convinced me that in the power area of
politics/economics and in their logical consequence, war, people tend to give
over every decision-making capacity to any leader who can wrap himself in the
myth fabric of the society. Hitler did it. Churchill did it. Franklin Roosevelt
did it. Stalin did it. Mussolini did it.
My favorite examples are John F. Kennedy and George Patton. Both fitted
themselves into the flamboyant Camelot pattern, consciously assuming
bigger-than-life appearance. But the most casual observation reveals that
neither was bigger than life. Each had our common human ailment-clay feet.
This, then, was one of my themes for Dune: Don't give over all of your critical
faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to
be. Beneath the hero's facade you will find a human being who makes human
mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand
scale available to a superhero. And sometimes you run into another problem.
It is demonstrable that power structures tend to attract people who want power
for the sake of power and that a significant proportion of such people are
imbalanced-in a word, insane.
That was the beginning. Heroes are painful, superheroes are a catastrophe. The
mistakes of superheroes involve too many of us in disaster.
It is the systems themselves that I see as dangerous Systematic is a deadly
word. Systems originate with human creators, with people who employ them.
Systems take over and grind on and on. They are like a flood tide that picks up
everything in its path. How do they originate?
All of this encapsulates the stuff of high drama, of entertainment-and I'm in
the entertainment business first. It's all right to include a pot of message,
but that's not the key ingredient of wide readership. Yes, there are analogs in
Dune of today's events-corruption and bribery in the highest places, whole
police forces lost to organized crime, regulatory agencies taken over by the
people they are supposed to regulate. The scarce water of Dune is an exact
analog of oil scarcity. CHOAM is OPEC.
But that was only the beginning.
While this concept was still fresh in my mind, I went to Florence, Oregon, to
write a magazine article about a US Department of Agriculture project there. The
USDA was seeking ways to control coastal (and other) sand dunes. I had already
written several pieces about ecological matters, but my superhero concept filled
me with a concern that ecology might be the next banner for demagogues and
would-be-heroes, for the power seekers and others ready to find an adrenaline
high in the launching of a new crusade.
Our society, after all, operates on guilt, which often serves only to obscure
its real workings and to prevent obvious solutions. An adrenaline high can be
just as addictive as any other kind of high.
Ecology encompasses a real concern, however, and the Florence project fed my
interest in how we inflict ourselves upon our planet. I could begin to see the
shape of a global problem, no part of it separated from any other-social
ecology, political ecology, economic ecology. It's an open-ended list.
Even after all of the research and writing, I find fresh nuances in religions,
psychoanalytic theories, linguistics, economics, philosophy, plant research,
soil chemistry, and the metalanguages of pheromones. A new field of study rises
out of this like a spirit rising from a witch's cauldron: the psychology of
Out of all this came a profound reevaluation of my original concepts. In the
beginning I was just as ready as anyone to fall into step, to seek out the
guilty and to punish the sinners, even to become a leader. Nothing, I felt,
would give me more gratification than riding the steed of yellow journalism into
crusade, doing the book that would right the old wrongs.
Reevaluation raised haunting questions. I now believe that evolution, or
deevolution, never ends short of death, that no society has ever achieved an
absolute pinnacle, that all humans are not created equal. In fact, I believe
attempts to create some abstract equalization create a morass of injustices that
rebound on the equalizers. Equal justice and equal opportunity are ideals we
should seek, but we should recognize that humans administer the ideals and that
humans do not have equal ability.
Reevaluation taught me caution. I approached the problem with trepidation.
Certainly, by the loosest of our standards there were plenty of visible targets,
a plethora of blind fanaticism and guilty opportunism at which to aim painful
But how did we get this way? What makes a Nixon? What part do the meek play in
creating the powerful? If a leader cannot admit mistakes, these mistakes will be
hidden. Who says our leaders must be perfect? Where do they learn this?
Enter the fugue. In music, the fugue is usually based on a single theme that is
played many different ways. Sometimes there are free voices that do fanciful
dances around the interplay. There can be secondary themes and contrasts in
harmony, rhythm, and melody. From the moment when a single voice introduces the
primary theme, however, the whole is woven into a single fabric.
What were my instruments in this ecological fugue? Images, conflicts, things
that turn upon themselves and become something quite different, myth figures and
strange creatures from the depths of our common heritage, products of our
technological evolution, our human desires, and our human fears.
You can imagine my surprise to learn that John Schoenherr, one of the world's
most foremost wildlife artists and illustrators, had been living in my head with
the same images. People find it difficult to believe that John and I had no
consultations prior to his painting of the Dune illustrations. I assure you that
the paintings were a wonderful surprise to me.
The Sardaukar appear like the weathered stones of Dune. The Baron's paunch could
absorb a world. The ornithopters are insects preying on the land. The sandworms
are Earth shipworms grown monstrous. Stilgar glares out at us with the menace of
What especially pleases me is to see the interwoven themes, the fuguelike
relationships of images that exactly replay the way Dune took shape.
As in an Escher lithograph, I involved myself with recurrent themes that turn
into paradox. The central paradox concerns the human vision of time. What about
Paul's gift of prescience-the Presbyterian fixation? For the Delphic Oracle to
perform, it must tangle itself in a web of predestination. Yet predestination
negates surprises and, in fact, sets up a mathematically enclosed universe whose
limits are always inconsistent, always encountering the unprovable. It's like a
koan, a Zen mind breaker. It's like the Cretan Epimenides saying, "All Cretans
Each limiting descriptive step you take drives your vision outward into a larger
universe which is contained in still a larger universe ad infinitum, and in the
smaller universes ad infinitum. No matter how finely you subdivide time and
space, each tiny division contains infinity.
But this could imply that you can cut across linear time, open it like a ripe
fruit, and see consequential connections. You could be prescient, predict
accurately. Predestination and paradox once more.
The flaw must lie in our methods of description, in languages, in social
networks of meaning, in moral structures, and in philosophies and religions-all
of which convey implicit limits where no limits exist. Paul Muad'Dib, after all,
says this time after time throughout Dune.
Do you want an absolute prediction? Then you want only today, and you reject
tomorrow. You are the ultimate conservative. You are trying to hold back
movement in an infinitely changing universe. The verb to be does make idiots of
Of course there are other themes and fugal interplays in Dune and throughout the
trilogy. Dune Messiah performs a classic inversion of the theme. Children of
Dune expands the number of themes interplaying. I refuse, however, to provide
further answers to this complex mixture. That fits the pattern of the fugue. You
find your own solutions. Don't look to me as your leader.
Caution is indeed indicated, but not the terror that prevents all movement. Hang
loose. And when someone asks whether you're starting a new cult, do what I do:
Run like hell.
- Written by Frank