Sciences of “Dune”: An Introduction

Dune is full of science — just not (necessarily) in the usual ways. Spaceships and mind reading are here, but much of what science fiction fans associate with the genre — including artificial intelligence — exists only in the imagined past of Frank Herbert’s novels and their film adaptations. On the desert planet Arrakis and in the interstellar empire that depends upon its mind-altering spice, the sciences are often gritty rather than shiny, practiced as often by those oppressed by the powerful as by the powerful themselves. This sense of science as one tool among many, as an element of social life rather than a means of ruling it, sets Dune apart from some of the other science fiction of the 1960s. The sciences of Dune are fascinating, intricate, and powerful — but never exist on their own, and never take over.

If this approach raised the eyebrows of some science fiction fans, it raised the hopes of another group: scholars of science and technology studies, or STS. To those trained in STS, the approach Herbert adopted to the sciences of Dune aligns perfectly with some of the field’s major preoccupations. The complicated interplay of knowledge and power, the blurred lines dividing science and religion, the vexed relationship between humans and their tools, and the way Herbert put flesh (and sand) on these classic dilemmas resonate with a lot of work in STS. The human dimensions of science in the world of Dune make it an ideal mirror with which to view the troubled relationship between science and society in our own world.

The recent release of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune (specifically, of the first half of the first book of the series) provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on the links between science fiction and STS. No essay or even anthology could do justice to the diversity of themes in Dune, or even to the sciences represented in the world Herbert conjures. The essays that follow are only fragments of that impossible glossary, a series of short meditations on major themes shared by Dune and scholarship in STS, each embodied in a specific object or moment in the recent film. Much — indeed, most — remains to be explored by others.

Our authors come to Dune from different places. Everyone does. And it’s never enough (at least not anymore) to note that perspective changes how we read — or what we imagine. But in this case, the point is especially pertinent, not least because Herbert spends considerable time on the importance of perspective for both understanding and molding reality. As many of our authors highlight, the differences between individuals and groups play an active role in Dune’s plot, from the origins of mythologies to the power (and danger) of prophecy. Not for nothing does Dune take up the affordances of ethnography and the allure of crossing cultural barriers. The promise and peril of belonging is central to much science fiction and fantasy; for Herbert, what matters are the practices by which belonging is pursued.

It is to those practices, and their connections with STS, that our authors turn. In doing so, they move beyond some of the better-known dimensions of Herbert’s work — including his politics and the novels’ (and films’) engagement with various non-Western traditions. Of course, these issues are relevant to the representation of science in Dune, the subject of each of these essays. Using the 2021 film as a jumping-off point, each author treats a different scientific theme or object as an entrée to broader issues in how authoritative knowledge rises and falls — and who is deemed capable of wielding or resisting such authority.

Haris A. Durrani and Henry M. Cowles

All art in this symposium by Kenneth Mills