The Greatest Fictional World Builders Teach You To Write Fantasy_ Frank Herbert

The Greatest Fictional World Builders: Frank Herbert


This is the sixth post in a series on the greatest fictional world builders and how they can teach you to write. Our sixth fictional world builder is Frank Herbert.

Welcome to the sixth post in my greatest fictional world builders series. This series is a reference and a resource for writers who are building their own worlds.

We started with Terry Pratchett and J.R.R. Tolkien. Then, we moved on to Robin Hobb, J.K. Rowling, and George Lucas. In this post, we feature Frank Herbert.

Frank Herbert is the most thorough world builder. He is best known for his book Dune – a work of fiction that Arthur C. Clarke would call The Lord of the Rings of Science Fiction.

While that is quite the accolade, Dune is so much more than that. In this article we will explore this, find out what made this work so unique, and how it changed Science Fiction forever.

The Greatest Fictional World Builders

Number 6 – Frank Herbert

1. What He Did

Frank Patrick Herbert Jr. created the most complex work of Science Fiction ever to be read by more than just an editor. Foundation is a close second, lest Asimov fans feel slighted. However, they are very different books.

The Dune Series takes place over the course of several thousand years with only one character making an appearance in all the books, or at least his clones do.

The books deal with increasingly complex ideas about humanity and what it means to be human. For example, just being born does not grant a person the right to be thought of as a human.

Throughout the first three books, Paul, the protagonist, must struggle with the idea that what he is doing is evil and he knows it.

However, since he has been blessed with future-sight, he knows that it is also the right thing to do for the human species. Even though he knows it will damn humanity to thousands of years of cruelty, war, and worse.

The Galaxies

Dune’s universe is vast. The empire covers thousands of galaxies and countless billions of star systems. However all the action happens on the most important planet, Dune.

Dune, or Arakis, to the off-worlders, is a desert planet with the most valuable substance in the universe – Spice. All the great powers of this empire vie for control of it.

Dune is action-packed and quite violent. But, it’s not about the action. It is about philosophy and psychology. It is about the long-term goals of the human race. It is also about how to run, and how to destroy, empires.

Computers are banned on Dune due to an Artificial Intelligence uprising that probably destroyed the Earth.

Rich people have human computers that help them do all their calculations. These are specially-bred men and women, Mentats, who have the important duty of not making mistakes. They calculate trajectories of space ships, they keep the stock market running, and they make complex models of molecules. They make modern civilisation possible.

But, without the Spice none of this would be possible. The Spice lengthens a human’s life. It makes their mind fast enough to calculate inter-dimensional warp jumps though subspace. It lets them predict the future. And it allows our protagonist, Paul to see the future with perfect accuracy.

He can see the consequences of his every action. He knows how and when he will die, and everything that will happen after that.

At one point, he loses his eyes. But, because he can see every consequence of every action, there is nothing that can “trip” him up, so to speak.

Everything about Dune is fascinating. Some of it is disgusting. Some of it is horrific. But, all of it will leave you with the pleasant experience of having a new thought for the first time.

Planning the book

Dune was going to be a short article for Oregon Dunes magazine about climate change, but he ended up with too much material and missed his deadline.

At the same time, he and his wife became friends with a couple who were psychologists. They would introduce Herbert to many historical and academic thinkers that shaped the ideas in Dune.

He was able to write full-time, thanks to his wife, and expanded the research he had done into a 412-page novel.

Nevertheless, the book took six years of research and planning to complete. It was published in three parts in Analogue magazine followed by a five part sequel. These two series would go on to become Dune and Prophet of Dune.

Planning the world

Herbert did not simply plan for the plot. He built his world. I mean he really considered what made it work. Dune is famous for its giant sand worms, but Herbert wanted them to make sense. He made them the reason that the planet Dune was all desert.

He made the sand worms the cause of the planet’s ecology. The worms made the Spice that people used to extend their lives and sharpen their minds. This made the planet worth fighting over.

The worms consumed the planet’s water in their larval stages, but were poisoned by it after that. This explains the deserts. But, they also made the oxygen needed for human life as a by-product. This explains how the planet could sustain so many humans and be a desert wasteland.

The worms explain why this world was so dangerous and home to harsh nomadic tribes and not gentle pastoral peoples. They were territorial and would eat anything they could sense moving on the sands. So, people could not move about normally and they had to be careful in harvesting the Spice or even walking in the desert.

The ecology of this harsh planet made these people, the Fremen, tough and warlike. Their world was a place of death, of life on the brink of nothingness. They did not cry for the dead, because that would waste water. To avoid attracting sand worms, they learnt to control their bodies perfectly so they would not sound like walking humans on the dunes, but like sifting sand instead.

They were efficient in their movements and deliberate in all their actions, which helped them in fights. Generations of conditioning on this world had removed the slow, the lazy, and the stupid from their gene-pool. Their psychology was fully able to deal with the harsh realities of life.

Thus, when Paul needed an army to win his war, they were the perfect candidates.

There is no hand waving for Herbert. Everything was planned and, for the most part, made perfect sense. The magic-like Spice is even explained at length in later books.

2. Why He Did It

Herbert was a journalist, and later a speech writer, and he just could not help wanting to write.

After failing to complete his Creative Writing Course at University, he went back to journalism. He began reading everything in Science Fiction. After about ten years (one might say the equivalent of a good post-grad degree), he wanted to write.

He began selling short stories to magazines. He had a number of minor successes, but nothing that made any money.

Until Dune. Dune is the kind of book that is given to an author like some kind of divine blessing. Nothing like it existed before. And, for Herbert, nothing he did afterwards would achieve that level of popularity.

For the rest of his life, he would be consumed with expanding the world. Even after his death, his son published dozens of novels based on the notes he left about his world.

There was just so much to this world that it did not even rely on characters to move the story forward. If felt like the universe he made was out there doing things, and it was just so big that it could not be controlled.

Things happen in Dune because they make sense, not because the author needs them to finish the story. This is something all authors should aim for.

3. When He Did It

Herbert wrote Dune in the 1960s over the course of six years.

It was a stable time for the world and Herbert. His wife provided for the family and he wrote.

However, we can see the impact of The Cold War and the after-effects of World War II in Dune.

The world of Dune exists in a stable state of continuous war. Dune follows a period of human history where humans were almost wiped out by the machines they created. This is perhaps a reference to World War II.

And, there is a constant state of espionage and subterfuge at play in Dune. This is characteristic of The Cold War period.

However, it is more important that he wrote it after Asimov, Heinlein, and Anderson. The Foundation series by Asimov is particularly relevant and Dune can be seen as a reaction against the cold, number-driven plot of Foundation.

Heinlein and Anderson set the tone for Dune.

4. Who He Did It For

I don’t think he wrote the book for anyone in particular. I think he wrote against a number of cultural forces in American society.

Dune is concerned with making religion make sense. Herbert would find useful elements of Zen Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, and others, and squash them into a scientific order of female nuns –the Bene Gesserts.

They would use the tools of religion to control the course of human evolution. This is the foundation of the plot. And the most similar element to Asimov’s Foundation

He used Islamic ideas and words to suggest the nomadic nature of the Freman, a people who had to endure a great deal of suffering. However, all religion in the Dune universe is just a front for the Bene Gesserit order. We learn that they are playing all side of every conflict.

Until they create Paul and things start to go wrong for them.

As well as critiquing religion, he was deeply concerned with the environment and how our world would be a “sand worm”-eaten desert without proper ecological management.

He creates a character for just this purpose, Liet Kynes, who has spent his long life secretly working with the Fremen to repair Dune’s ecology from those who would simply exploit it for the precious Spice.

Spice is probably a metaphor for oil in our world. Our all-consuming need for it has destroyed an entire region of Earth and is making our world uninhabitable.

5. So, What Do I Need To Read/Watch/Play?  

1. Dune 1965

The novel that launched the most thought-provoking novel in Science Fiction is a rite of passage for anyone who considers themselves well-read.

It introduced the word Ecology to the English language. It has also inspired many academics and sociologists to make it their field of expertise.

If you read Dune, you will leave with an education that is worth something.

While I love Lord of the Rings, Dune is not simply the Sci-Fi version. The most you will leave Lord of the Rings with is a healthy morality and a desire to eat like a Hobbit. Dune may actually open your mind to a wide range of thoughts. Personally, it helped me put my life into the correct perspective during a difficult time, which I am very grateful for.

Don’t base your moral code around this book unless you are a sociopath.

2. Dune Film

The David Lynch film is a famous work of art in its own right. I remember being traumatised by it in English Class. It is not anything like the book and will not give you any insights into Frank Herbert.

David Lynch who made Eraserhead and Elephant Man is better suited to body horror and surrealist film than a serious meditative work of fiction. The film lost a tremendous amount of money. Lynch was reportedly impossible to reason with, leaving neither himself, the producer, nor Herbert happy with the result.

However, as one of the most expensive work of “experimental” Sci-Fi horror ever made, it is taught for its unique style in film school.

3. Frank Herbert’s Dune – Television

The Syfy (that is how they “spell” it) Channel made a three-part miniseries that won two Emmys.

It is a much better adaptation. It was cutting edge with a modern feeling when it came out. Looking back, the special effects are now… cute but it gets the overall idea of Dune and is worth a watch.

Note: It does dumb the story down and you don’t get the depth of thought and complex ideas that went into the original book. I suggest reading the book and then enjoying this for what it is.

4. Dune Video Game

I don’t often speak about video games, but the Dune II Video Game (1992) by Westwood was notable for inventing the Real Time Strategy genre. It is considered one of the most influential games of all time.

Its combination of story, acting, and strategy have shaped the way games are created.

6. Last Word

If Dune is the only Science Fiction book you ever read it might just be enough to keep you from embarrassing yourself at dinner parties with your nerdier friends.

It contains the best and worst thoughts on human civilisation, as well as scathing criticisms on everything you hold dear and to be true. You can only grow from reading this masterpiece.

TOP TIP: If you’re looking for help with setting, buy our Setting Up The Setting Workbook.

Read the other posts in the series:

  1. The Greatest Fictional World Builders: Terry Pratchett
  2. The Greatest Fictional World Builders: J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. The Greatest Fictional World Builders: Robin Hobb
  4. The Greatest Fictional World Builders: J.K. Rowling
  5. The Greatest Fictional World Builders: George Lucas
  6. The Greatest Fictional World Builders: Frank Herbert

Source for image: Matt Griffin

by Christopher Luke Dean (The Spice must flow.)

Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean

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