Frank Herbert – Building Your Arrakis Sized Sandbox

As readers and writers, we are constantly seeking to push the boundaries of space, time, and reality in our exploration of the landscape of the imagination. The milieu should shape a character’s experiences and back story, both individually and as a member of a lager society. The character’s goals and actions in turn shape the plot. It is essential, therefore, to have completely thought through the implications of a milieu in the initial stages of planning the story. No matter how fantastic the milieu, suspension of disbelief is born from and maintained through internal consistency.

Frank Herbert, widely considered to be one of the greatest masters of science fiction, is one of the best examples I can think of to demonstrate this concept. Herbert used the knowledge and passion he developed as an ecologist to flesh out the desert planet of Arrakis and the galaxy beyond in his Dune universe.

There are only a handful of desert cities and civilizations that have thrived without any access to water, be it from wells or an oasis. Without an easy source on hand, the logistical challenges of moving enough water to support not only daily human needs, but also the demands of even a simple agricultural economy proved too great. Historically, desert cities existed because they were either on the nexus of trade routes with deep wells, or because they had access to some resource sufficiently valuable to make it worth shipping food and water.

Herbert uses both of these aspects to inform Arrakis. First, one of the major undercurrents of Arrakis is gathering of water for survival and as wealth. Rich off worlders waste water openly as a form of conspicuous consumption. Meanwhile, the apparent form of currency amongst the Fremen natives are chits representing a certain volume of water stored in the communal reservoir. Everyone wears specially designed suits to ensure the efficient and effective reclamation of their body’s waste water. In the variations of how water is treated, you can see how the drive for collecting water influenced technology, economics and every day life on Arrakis.

Another essential aspect to the understanding of Arrakis as a milieu is the influence of the spice melange. With the power to extend life and give the semi-prescience that makes space travel possible, melange gives the justification for the importance of the desert planet and helps the milieu pass the real world plausibility test. This established, Herbert allows the consequences of his spice to echo through the universe’s politics, economics, travel and infrastructure, motivations for military actions, medicine and countless other facets.

This is the key that I think Herbert understood because of his background in ecology. When you make a change, the effects echo, causing more changes which in turn create their own disturbances. Cause and effect in world building isn’t linear, but more closely resembles a fractal. They key is to follow all the the echoes to their logical conclusions.


2 Responses

  1. Suzanne Warr says:

    I’ve loved Dune for many years and appreciated the world building involved, but I confess that I hadn’t before examined the impact that Herbert’s decision to have one ‘super element’ in the form of water which has a huge effect on the planetary level, and to have a second ‘super element’ in the spice effect the planet’s importance on a galactic level. Brilliant, when you take a second look at it. Thanks for pointing that out, and great post!

    • Nathan Barra says:

      Agreed. Herbert is truly deserving of his title as one of the Masters of SF. There is a third element that I didn’t touch on in the post, as it isn’t as concrete or easy to see as the other two and because of length limitations I set on myself. Namely, I would argue that the third pillar of Herbert’s world building is the societal aversion to artificial intelligence. It spawned the bene gesserit, the mentats, the spacing guild and influenced countless other groups. Food for more metaphysical thought.

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