Semantics, General Semantics, and Ecology in Frank Herbert's Dune

By Parkerson, Ronny W. | et Cetera, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview
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Semantics, General Semantics, and Ecology in Frank Herbert's Dune

Parkerson, Ronny W., et Cetera


RANK HERBERT'S Dune, a thematically rich and varied work of science fiction, is the first novel in a trilogy about the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune, and the rise to power of Paul Atreides, its messianic leader. Herbert initially conceived of writing one long novel 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 " ("Dune Genesis" p.72). Ultimately, Herbert produced six novels about Dune comprising what has become known as The Dune Chronicles. The intricate ecology of the planet, encompassing the Fremen natives' desire to turn Dune into a "green and fertile world" and the need of the Empire for the indigenous spice melange to facilitate space travel, forms the backdrop for Paul's struggle to overcome his enemies, control the planet, and fulfill his personal destiny. Throughout the novel Paul must meet and overcome challenges that serve to confirm him in the minds of the Fremen as being their messiah. Paul does not seek this position but is instead caught up in the events that lead to his deposing of the Emperor and control of the throne.

Herbert's decision to examine the messianic superhero against a backdrop of ecological concerns was no accident. Drawing on his experience in journalism, he noted:

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. 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. I find fresh nuances in religions, psychoanalytic theories, linguistics, economics, philosophy, theories of history, geology, anthropology, plant research, soil chemistry, and the metalanguages of pheromones. A new field of study arises out of this like a spirit rising from a witch's caldron: the psychology of planetary societies. ("Dune Genesis" p.74)

It seems, therefore, evident that a central theme of the novel is not only ecology, but ecology examined in many different contexts. In addition to exploring environmental ecology, the study of the relationship and interaction between organisms and their environment, Dune explores social, political, economic, and language ecologies as well (Touponce pp.13-14). Herbert compared these variations on a central theme to a musical fugue:

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. ("Dune Genesis" p.74)

These various ecologies evolve out of their respective relationships and interactions with the planetary environment of Arrakis. Specifically, Herbert believed language mirrors the ecosystem from which life evolves: (Touponce p.2)

... we commonly believe meaning is found - in printed words (such as these), in the noises of a speaker, in the reader's or listener's awareness, or in some imaginary thoughtland between these. We tend to forget that we human animals evolved in an ecosystem that has demanded constant improvisation from us. In a mirror sense, we reflect this history of mutual influences in all our systems and processes. ("Listening" pp.98, 100)

Another major theme of the novel is that of power, and the nature of the superhero or leader who emerges to discover that he or she must wage war to gain and maintain that power.

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Semantics, General Semantics, and Ecology in Frank Herbert's Dune


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