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This article is also available in Russian, translation by
Vitaly Chikharin, and Italian, translation by Luca Mariot.
Lucas has often acknowledged Dune as an inspiration. In early drafts of the Star Wars script the influence was much more obvious - the story was full of feudalistic Houses and dictums, and the treasure the Princess was guarding wasn't the Death Star plans, but a shipment of "aura spice." The final version of Star Wars is related to Dune mostly in spirit: a science fiction heroic fantasy treated seriously. Of all the ideas George Lucas inherited from Frank Herbert, the subtle lesson was how to use science fiction to create myth. His lesser borrowings might include:
Illustration courtesy of Justine Shaw, ©1999.
Frank Herbert (1920-1986) was an unusually bright boy who grew up with sporadically alcoholic parents during the Great Depression. He spent a lot of time alone, out exploring nature or swept away by "love affairs" with authors including Ezra Pound, Guy De Maupassant, Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway. On his eighth birthday Herbert announced his intention to be a writer when he grew up. By the time Herbert was twelve he had read and absorbed the complete works of William Shakespeare.
Herbert spent the first half of his life working mostly as a reporter. He had a formidable mind, but success eluded him. In 1956 he published his first novel, Dragon in the Sea, about submarine warfare in the near future. Herbert observed that it was silly to use giant metal ships to transport liquids which weigh less than water, and so invented the idea of a giant rubber balloon, shaped like a sandworm, which could be dragged across the ocean's surface by a much smaller, much less-expensive boat. Beginning in 1958 the British Dunlop company began to produce and sell Herbert's idea, as the Dracone Barge. The name "Dracone" (Latin for "dragon") was an overt acknowledgement that they got the idea from Herbert's novel. Arthur C. Clarke and Fritz Leiber recommended that Herbert take legal action, but he discovered that the two-year "discovery period" after publication of his book had elapsed, so it was too late to file patents.
As he neared 40, Herbert began to grow anxious about ever achieving his dream: to become an accomplished, rich and famous author. He resolved to buckle down and sculpt his masterpiece. Herbert devoted the next 5-7 years to researching and writing "the desert novel." He had two primary starting points: first, his life-long misgivings about what he called the "messianic impulse in human society." That is, he observed that people seem to have an inbuilt hunger for a powerful, charismatic leader to whom we can surrender our responsibility for making difficult decisions. Hebert observed that even the best leaders are humans, those humans have flaws, and elevating any man to a position of god-like power tends to magnify those human flaws to dangerous proportions. Worse, even if the original leader resists the temptation to abuse power, the bureaucracy which springs up around him will outlive him, and over time a bureaucracy becomes more and more incented to prioritize its own needs over the needs of people.
Herbert's second major starting point was They Stopped the Moving Sands, an article he'd written in 1958 about the United States Department of Agriculture's ecological experiments in Florence, Oregon. The USDA found that they could prevent the sand dunes from overwashing the highways simply by planting barriers of grass! Herbert chartered a single-engine Cessna airplane and flew over the experiment to take notes and photographs. As he watched the dunes roll by below, Herbert was suddenly seized by a powerful emotional surge. He realized that "...A sand dune is just a kind of fluid, only it takes longer for it to move. It creates waves that, when you see them from the air, are analogous to waves in a sea."1 The San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle's California Living magazine never published the article, but Herbert had caught the spark he'd been looking for; the seed he would nurture into Dune.
Much science fiction of Herbert's day was limited by the idea that SF was a completely new genre. Because of this many writers looked only as far as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe or Mary Shelly for their inspirations, reaching back only 200 years. Herbert understood that science fiction is less a genre than a modern vocabulary through which to express the oldest genre in the world, the fantastic tale (the oldest stories of every known culture are almost exclusively fantastic tales). Because he saw the fantastic tale as a continuum reaching back past Wells and Verne through the Greek epics, Herbert was able to reach back not 200 years, but 3,000. In a way this gave him a 15:1 advantage over the average SF writer!
Herbert innovated in one other major way: in his day, science fiction was seen mostly as a way to express mind-expanding ideas through story, but the idea was the star, and the story itself was mostly seen as a "coat hanger" for the idea to hang on. Characters in science fiction were typically flat, plots were contrived and dialogue stilted and unrealistic. Herbert drew on his extensive self-education to marry science fiction with some of the strongest elements from literature, history, mythology, Eastern religions, mathematics, science and his personal life. A few of his most notable inspirations include:
William Shakespeare's Plays, particularly Hamlet (written 1601), but also Macbeth (1606), King Lear (1605), The Tempest (1610) and others. Paul carries his father's signet ring, as did Hamlet. Paul learns the true mood of his people by walking among them in disguise, like Henry the V. Herbert's most obvious borrowing is probably the climax of Hamlet, in which the hero publicly duels with his minor adversary, who carries a poisoned blade, while his major adversary looks on. Hamlet's conversation with the ghost of his dead father is echoed in the conversation between Liet Kynes and the ghost of his dead father Pardot Kynes (which I suspect was the inspiration for Luke's conversation with the ghost of Obi-Wan on Hoth). Paul's home planet, Caladan, echoes the sound of Shakespeare's character Caliban. Shakespearian scholars have noted that "Caliban" is probably a sneaky respelling of "cannibal," a common Shakespearean technique for teaching our unconscious a character's essential nature. The Caladan-is-based-on-Caliban theory is reinforced by Herbert's invention of the Caleban aliens in his subsequent novel Whipping Star.
Shakespeare conveyed his characters' thoughts by having them make asides, moments where they spoke directly to the audience, openly revealing their inmost thoughts. "Should I kill my uncle and sleep with his wife? What is life all about, anyway? I wonder how many jellybeans I could fit in my mouth?" Herbert adapted this idea to print by showing character thoughts in italics.
Herbert also borrowed Shakespeare's convention of occasionally writing passages in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which he would disguise as standard unmetered prose. For example, Romeo and Juliet proclaim their love to each other in perfect sonnet form. Shakespeare's plan seemed to be to inspire an elevated emotional response in his audience by triggering their poetic response subliminally, without them being aware of it. The first writer to introduce the "metered verse hidden in prose" idea into Science Fiction was almost certainly A.E. Van Vogt (1912-2000). Herbert took it much further, burying not only sonnet form (14 lines of iambic pentameter), but several other forms, including haiku. This same technique was borrowed by Tolkien for his Tom Bombadil character, probably also inspired by Shakespeare.
Like Herbert, Lucas and Tolkien, Shakespeare's writing was an innovative compression and refashioning of his inspirations. His favorite was Arthur Golding's 1567 translation of Metamorphoses, by Publius Ovidius Naso ("Ovid", 43 BCE - 17 CE). For more information on Shakespeare's influences, check out the extraordinarily useful Narrative and Dramatic Sources of all Shakespeare's Works. Or explore a family tree tracing Shakespeare's influences back to Homer, Sappho and Callimachus!
It's no coincidence that so many major sources for Star Wars were influenced by Shakespeare: Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Forbidden Planet and Kurusawa (Kurosawa's Ran, 1985, was a remake of King Lear). For example, Shakespeare's Macbeth revolves largely around Macbeth's reaction to the Prophecy of the Witches. The audience is faced with genuinely deep questions like "Could Macbeth have defied the prophecy by acting differently? Or is fate predestined?" Macbeth's Prophecy of the Witches was modified by Tolkien (the witch's cauldron changing to Galadriel's Mirror), then modified again by Lucas ("Help them you could..."). Herbert's version of The Prophecy was delivered by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam - the "head witch," as Macbeth's prophecies were delivered by the head witch Hecate; on the very first page of Dune Paul overhears Mohiam say, "And if he's really the Kwisatz Haderach... well..." The Prophecy in the Matrix is given by The Oracle, a nice allusion to the original source. This evolution of a single idea suggests how truly great stories retain their power to grip us even across barriers of culture, language and time.
So where did Shakespeare get his idea for The Prophecy of the Witches in the first place? Of course, Shakespeare drew from his favorite tragedy:
Oedipus Rex (written 430-415 BCE), by Sophocles: Oedipus Rex (pronounced Eee-di-puss Wrecks, though most Americans mispronounce as Eh-di-puss) was a major inspiration for Shakespeare and the only other serious contender for the "Greatest Tragedy of Western Civilization" title usually awarded to Hamlet. Herbert knew enough about storytelling to trace Shakespeare back through his sources and borrow from both. So far every influential artist I've reverse-engineered has turned out to lean heavily on this trick, so it must be pretty powerful. For instance, when Lucas was unable to get the rights to Flash Gordon he traced it back to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars books, then back further still to Gulliver on Mars.
It is from Oedipus Rex that Herbert borrows the underlying theme of prescience (the ability to tell the future) and prophecy (a foretelling of a future event). Everyone wishes they could somehow avoid missteps, but would we really be happy if we could see the future? Would that knowledge give us the power to change things, or does fate just steamroll over our attempts to influence our lives?
The Ancient Greek idea of foretelling the future centered around a shrine called The Oracle at Delphi, established around 1,400 BCE. People would come from all over Greece, Rome and even further to ask when to plant their crops, who to marry, even whether or not to go to war. Prophecies were given by the Pythia, the mouthpiece of Ge the Earth Mother (later changed to the male god Apollo by some men carrying extremely pointy sticks). The Pythia would enter a small room called the Adyton, where she would sit on a tripod over a cleft in the earth, waving laurel branches and smelling the sweet-smelling fumes which came up from below. If she inhaled too much she might becomes delirious or even die, but usually the gas induced a trance, upon which the Pythia would utter cryptic prophesies. The Oracle was built around the sacred spring Delphi, which the Greeks called the Omphalos - the Earth's belly-button. Geologists have recently discovered that Delphi once issued a combination of gasses including hydrocarbon, methane and ethylene. Ethylene is a hallucinogenic, so the Oracle's prophesies seem to have been at least partially the result of a drug trip. I believe that one of the main points of Sophocles' play is, "Hey, let's stop listening to the Oracle! Even if she could tell us the future, knowing the future would be a bad idea. We all need to figure things out for ourselves."
Herbert borrowed several other riffs from Sophocles, including the blind prophet, the hero becoming blind at the death of his wife, and the flawed person being sent out into the wasteland to die (rather than burdening his family and tribe). Herbert also flirted with the subtheme of incest: if love can only exist between equals, there aren't enough superhumans on Arrakis to go around, so Atreides siblings tend to fall in love: Leto II and Ghani follow the Path of Light, refusing to act on their almost romantic love for each other. Alia is in love with Paul, so she arranges for him to chance upon her when she has no clothes on. This attempt to seduce Paul into an incestuous relationship is evidence that Alia has fallen to the Dark Path.
In addition to influencing Shakespeare and Dune, Oedipus Rex has the odd distinction of inspiring an entire field - psychoanalysis! Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) revolutionized psychology by theorizing that myths and dreams are the keys to understanding our unconscious... or at least the myth of Oedipus, the tragic figure who unwittingly kills his father Laius and marries his mother Jocasta. Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) thought using myth to understand the unconscious was a great idea, but observed that people's experiences followed the patterns of many myths, and Freud's fascination with Oedipus reflected not a universal, but Freud's own issues. Jung was also uncomfortable with the fact that Freud was cheating on his wife with her sister, who lived in the same house. Finally, Jung found it hypocritical that Freud wanted to analyze everyone else, but refused to be analyzed himself. Unsurprisingly, Freud interpreted the breakdown of the friendship Oedipally: Jung was the "son" who wishes to "kill the Father" (Freud) and "steal the Mother" (psychoanalysis) for himself. At the risk of going off-topic, I think Freud had a lot of good ideas, but he basically spent his whole life running away from his demons rather than facing them, hiding within the almost total power-imbalance of the psychoanalyst/patient relationship. Because Freud never faced his own issues he never got any better, and so spread as much pain and harmful ideas as good ideas. Jung was half-crazy too (like he probably believed in telepathy and UFOs and stuff), but he knew he was crazy and spent his whole life trying to find the door out of his craziness.
GeekNote: The Ancient Greeks didn't actually call the play Oedipus Rex, but Oidipous Tyrannus. Inspiration for Darth Tyrannus?
Erewhon (1872), by Samuel Butler (1835-1902): In 1863 Samuel Butler wrote an essay entitled Darwin Among the Machines, which combined Darwin's theory of evolution with the Industrial Era, prophesying that one day the machines would become sentient and we would become their slaves. In 1872 he expanded this argument into his most famous novel, Erewhon. The title is a clever play on words: Stories about utopias (perfect societies) have been around at least as long as Plato's Republic, but it was Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) who first coined the term "Utopia," in his 1516 novel of the same name. "Utopia" is literally Greek for "no where," so Butler's satiric book (probably the world's first anti-utopia or "dystopia"), is titled "nowhere" written backwards, more or less: Erewhon. Dune refers to a "Butlerian Jihad," a war which resulted in the outlawing of any machine made to think like a man.
The Brothers Karamazov (1879) by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881): Dostoevsky's book has been called "the world's greatest novel," and even "the most profound piece of philosophy in all of literature." Sigmund Freud called it "one of the peaks in the literature of the world." Maurice Baring wrote, "Supposing the Gospel of St. John were annihilated and lost to us forever; although nothing would replace it, Dostoevsky's work would more nearly replace it than any other book written by any other man."
The most famous section of The Brothers Karamazov is chapter five, "The Grand Inquisitor." It tells the story of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Upon his return Jesus is surprised to discover that even though the Church recognizes him, they're not happy to see him. In fact they toss him in prison. The Grand Inquisitor explains to Jesus that a real messiah is a threat to the modern Church, because of the deal they made with the Romans in 312 CE.
According the New Testament Pilate had posted Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum on the cross above Christ's head, Latin for Jesus the Nazarean, King of the Jews. The early Church honored Christ's sacrifice by inscribing all crosses with the abbreviation INRI. Constantine convinced the Church to change the slogan to In Hoc Signo Vinces, Latin for In This Sign, Conquer. The Roman government began funding the Church, and in exchange the Church proclaimed that the Roman conquests enjoyed the benediction of God.
In the New Testament Christ had refused three temptations from Satan: the temptation to exchange freedom for bread, the temptation to demand a guarantee in exchange for faith, and the temptation to turn his back on God and rule the world. Dostoevsky's Inquisitor claims that by making the deal with Constantine, the Church had succumbed to all three of Satan's temptations. However, the Inquisitor doesn't consider this evil. He says that Christ's rules are too strict, that only a small number of people will ever be good enough to get into Heaven. Therefore the Church follows the advice of the "wise spirit" (Satan) and intentionally tells people comforting lies, so they can at least have peace of mind in this life.
The encounter ends with an echo of Christ kissing Judas: "The old man longs for Him to say something, however painful and terrifying. But instead, He suddenly goes over to the old man and kisses him gently on his old, bloodless lips. And that is His only answer. The old man is startled and shudders. The corners of his lips seem to quiver slightly. He walks to the door, opens it, and says to Him, 'Go now, and do not come back... ever. You must never, never come again!' And he lets the prisoner out into the dark streets of the city. The prisoner leaves."
Herbert plays with Dostoevsky's idea throughout the Dune series, putting Paul in direct conflict with the religion which springs up around him until he's ultimately killed by one of his own priests. Dostoevsky writes eloquently of the terrible, absolute freedom each of us has to reach our own moral conclusions, the necessity of living our own lives from moment to moment. Leto II echoes these words almost exactly.
The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) by Joseph Campbell (1904-1987): Herbert learned a bit about the heroic myth from Campbell's extremely influential analysis. But he was even more influenced by...
The Hero (1936), by Lord Raglan (1885-1964): Like Campbell, Raglan tried to make sense of myth by finding the common underlying patterns. Raglan identified 22 characteristics typical of heroes, thereby implying a "Raglan scale": the more points a character has, the more heroic he is. Paul Atreides scores between 13-17, somewhere between Hercules, Gilgamesh and Captain Kirk. Raglan's book was influenced primarily by...
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1911-1915), by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941). Brian Herbert said this was one of the books his father studied most closely. Frazer's comparative study identified some underlying patterns common to many world myths, including "the mindless animal in the depths of the psyche that guards the pearl of life." Herbert said this was an inspiration on his first two novels, Dragon in the Sea (1956) and the sandworms from Dune.
Science and Sanity; An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933), by Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950). Several people have told me that Herbert took a class in General Semantics in San Francisco shortly before writing Dune, and the ideas strongly influenced his development of the Bene Gesserit. I've read all 825 pages of Science and Sanity, and I must admit I found it almost impossible to make sense of. Korzybski is most famous for the phrase "The map is not the territory" and for reputedly originating the practice of making little "quote marks" in the air around a particular spoken word to remind the listener that the word is only an imperfect placeholder for an idea. I think the basic message of his book is "When we confuse words and other signifiers for the unvoicable truths they represent, that misassumption distorts our perception of reality." Korzybski hints that he has discovered a revolutionary new way of looking at the universe that will change everything, but the only meaning I've been able to sift from his book from one reading is a needlessly dense, turgid restatement of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Herbert was probably turned on to General Semantics by fellow science fiction writer A.E. Van Vogt, an enthusiastic supporter of Korzybski and a big influence on Herbert.
Zen Buddhism: Herbert sprinkled Zen ideas throughout Dune. When The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam nonsequiters Paul with "Ever sift sand through a screen?" Herbert next writes, "The tangential slash of her question shocked his mind into higher awareness." This is the technique of the Zen Koan: saying or asking something that sounds like gibberish, but also like it might be incredibly profound, provided you think about it long enough. Zen masters developed this trick to "open up" the mind of their students without filling it with their own opinions. Myth teaches us that all mentors push us towards new ways of thinking, but only dark mentors attempt to make us think just like them. A mentor who walks the path of light teaches us how to open up to the voice from within, not without. The most famous koan in the West is probably "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
Dune mentions the religion of the Zensunni, presumably a combination of "Zen" and "Sunni." The word "Sunni" is the nickname for ahl al-sunnah wa-l-jamaa ("The people who follow the traditions of Muhammad and his tribe", Arabic). The two primary sects of modern Islam are Sunni and Shi'i, with Sunni accounting for 90% of all adherents.
Taoism: Legend has it that sometime around 350 BCE the curator of China's royal library became disgusted with the way people attached to the court lived their lives. This curator, a man named Lao-tzu, gave away most of his possessions and left town on a water buffalo. On his way out of town the guard at the gate asked him to sum up everything he'd learned from his years reading all those books. Lao-tzu wrote the 5,000 character Tao-te-Ching, the "Book (Ching) of the Virtuous (Te) Way (Tao)." The Tao-te-Ching is one of the three most-translated books ever written, along with The Bible and the The Bagavad Ghita, the centerpiece of The Mahabharata. The word "path" as used in both Star Wars and The Matrix, ultimately originates in the Chinese idea of Tao.
The Tao-te-Ching is about balancing yang (literally "in the sunlight") with yin (literally "in the shade"). Westerners have mispronounced yang as yAng for so long that English dictionaries have begun to grudgingly approve, but yang is a word from Mandarin Chinese, so most serious scholar-types pronounce it the way the Chinese do, as "yong." Yin and yang are used to represent hardness and softness, male and female. Keep in mind that yin represents the Chinese idea of female energy, which actively draws male energy, not the Western idea of female energy, which just sits there looking pretty and hoping someone calls. The Five Principles of Yin and Yang are:
1. All things have two facets: a Yin aspect and a Yang aspect
2. Any Yin or Yang aspect can be further divided into Yin and Yang
3. Yin and Yang mutually create each other
4. Yin and Yang control each other
5. Yin and Yang transform into each other
Dune alludes to Taoism throughout. The very first line is "A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct." Compare with this fragment of chapter 63 of the Tao-te-ching, Consider Beginnings, as translated by Ursula LeGuin:
As stated above, Herbert's two primary starting-points for the novel were (a) his distrust of the bureaucracies which spring up around messiahs, and (b) the catch in his throat when he flew over the USDA's sand dune experiment. Why did the sand dune experiment capture Herbert's imagination so strongly? Perhaps he'd been searching for a way to convey the essence of Taoism to Westerners, and the USDA's experiment fit this need with an almost miraculous perfection: sands which can wear mountains to nothing restrained by blades of grass.
Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE): Although I have no direct evidence, my intuition suggests that Herbert may have used the real-life story of Alexander the Great as a source. Like Paul, Alexander enjoyed the highest quality education imaginable, receiving instruction in geography, philosophy, ethics, politics, zoology, botany, mathematics, logic, weapons, military strategy, horseback riding, drama, poetry, music (the lyre) and literature (He loved the Iliad and took Achilles as his role model). Like Paul, this education was arranged by his father (King Philip the Second of Macedonia). Also like Paul, Alexander was forced to deal with the assassination of his father when he was still only a young man.
Alexander's tutors included Leonidas, Lysimachus and Aristotle. This unheard of level of education lent Alexander a remarkable quality: as a teenager he exhibited the oddly striking self-possession of an adult (as Alia would in Dune), and as an adult Alexander seemed almost otherworldly. He could make insights and find connections in a way no one else could even approach. Again like Paul, Alexander's nearly superhuman abilities enabled him to conquer almost the entire known world while he was still a young man. Unlike Paul, Alexander started to believe the hype when people told him he was a god.
Alexander was strongly influenced by Greek culture, and the Greeks had borrowed Egypt's idea that if you kicked enough butt as a human being you were eligible for promotion to godhood. The most well-known Egyptian to do this was Imhotep. He was born a commoner, but through his genius rose to be vizier to the Pharoh Djozer (2650-2590 BCE). Imhotep was the inventor of the pyramids, the greatest medical doctor of his time and probably the author of the world's first medical textbook. He probably coined the first word for "brain." He may have invented the egyptian "sleep temples," where people sought the 4,600-year-old forerunners of hypnotism, psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy (how fascinating that psychotherapy and hypnotism began as the same thing!). Imhotep created the foundations for an enormous amount of modern thought, and after his death was promoted to an Egyptian deity. The modern world has sort of repromoted Imhotep into our modern Hollywood pantheon, casting him as the villain in The Mummy movies.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE) had one of the most powerful minds in human history. He discovered the entire field of logic, working backwards from mathematics to identify the Nine Rules of Inference. Aristotle vastly expanded the philosphy of ethics. He had been trained by Aristocles, son of Ariston (or "Plato," 427-347 BCE), who had himself studied under Socrates (469-399 BCE... or maybe Plato made Socrates up; no one knows for sure). Together Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are the undisputed heavyweights of Western Civilization: they told us what it means to be human, and today their ideas are still echoed in the Gospels, Christianity, The Renaissance, the Scientific Method, and the structure of our society. Distressingly, nearly all scholars to have extrapolated from Plato's Republic seem not to notice that many of his points are made through satire. So like if Plato thinks Homer was the greatest poet ever, would he really have wanted to remove every disagreeable element from Odysseus' life? Or is he slyly making the point that those disagreeable elements are necessary for The Odyssey to speak to our deepest self? Plato uses this device, called satire, throughout his writing, so pay extra attention when hearing ideas supposedly supported by the writings of Plato! He probably didn't really think poets make things up = they're liars = we should kill them.
Herbert's Personal Life: So far every great story I've taken apart turns out to have been built partially as a mythic retelling of the author's life. Perhaps this process grants the writer a new vocabulary for understanding the forces they're wrestling with. Maybe we write best about what we know best. Or maybe the psychic crisis which pushed the creator into their unconscious is the source of all their creative power. Here are a few elements from Herbert's life which may have influenced Dune:
In his autobiography T.E. Lawrence explains how his homosexuality contributed to his military career. He says that he was initially attracted to soldiering because of the all-male environment, and his desire to impress other men sexually is what ultimately motivated him to become a hero. Rather than writing a gay male hero, Herbert transferred Lawrence's homosexuality to Dune's villain, Baron Harkonnen. According to Herbert's biography he considered male homosexuality immoral, and died without ever expressing love or approval for his gay son Bruce. In a world where gay teens are four times more likely to commit suicide, it's a shame that the stories of real-life gay heroes are often retold so dishonestly. As Herbert knew better than anyone, Paul Atreides was largely based on a real human being, and his great love wasn't a woman named Chani but a man named Dahoum. Paul may have also been modeled partially on Alexander The Great, who many historians call "the greatest military genius of all time." Alexander was also gay, and his boyfriend was a strikingly-handsome soldier named Hephaestion.
The Qur'an: The sacred book of Islam ("One who submits to Allah") was revealed by Allah (God) to the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE) over the course of his lifetime. Herbert has often acknowledged that he uses color symbolically in Dune, but the only piece of the puzzle he's ever revealed is yellow, which means danger. Given that the Fremen are based mostly on the Bedouins, it seems likely to me that Herbert borrowed the color symbology of the Qur'an. For instance, in the Qur'an green is associated with healthy growing plants that have plenty of water, so it's good (and a symbol of Muhammad even today, which explains why his descendants wear green turbans). Yellow is associated with plants that are withering from lack of water, so it's bad.
The David Lynch version of the Dune movie doesn't work from the Qur'an color symbolism as far as I can tell. The Harkonnens, for instance, decorate mostly with green. Nor do I detect color symbolism in the Children of Dune miniseries (yellow, especially yellow sunlight, often falls upon Alia, but there are no green or other Qu'ranic color symbols, so the yellow may be either an isolated color symbol or a coincidence). The John Harrison version of Dune uses an original color symbology; Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro invented a system based on the Four Elements which the Ancient Greeks believed all matter was composed of:
Red = fire = danger = The Harkonnens
Green = water = life = the Fremen
Blue = air = aristocratic aloofness = the Imperium
Black = earth = strength = the Atreides
White = all elements combined = wholeness = Paul in final scene
Imam Mohammed Ahmed al Mahdi (1844-1885): Ahmed founded modern Sudan in 1885, by successfully leading a Muslim jihad against the Egyptian and British forces. Sudan had been under foreign rule since 1821, when Mohammed Ali Pashai had invaded in hopes of getting rich by enslaving people. In 1881 Ahmed announced that we was the Al Mahdi (literally "the guided one"), the messiah whose coming is prophesied in the Qur'an. The snappy uniform worn by the Atreides in the Lynch movie was based on the outfit worn by the Khedive, or Egyptian Viceroy, from around 1867-1914. Pop singer Michael Jackson was so impressed with the look that he had copies made and wore them on tour in the early 1980s.
John Carter of Mars books (1912-1941), by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950): Herbert absolutely adored these books as a young man, and in a way Dune is basically the serious, literary, adult version of Burrough's pulpy "scifi superhero conquers a desert planet" fantasy. ERB's Mars books were a direct influence not only on Herbert, but Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, George Lucas, Michael Moorcock, Leigh Brackett, Olaf Stapledon, Robert Heinlein, Edmond Hamilton, Philip Jose Farmer and Ray Bradbury, who once wrote "Edgar Rice Burroughs is my father."
Herbert originally set Dune on Mars, but quickly discarded the idea, feeling that ERB and others had done Mars to death. I can find only one direct borrowing: The Lady Jessica finds a note in an arboretum left by her predecessor, Margot Lady Fenring. The note contains the Bene Gesserit code-phrase "On that path lies danger." This tells Jessica that there's a secret message hidden somewhere in the room. She eventually finds the message, subtle bumps like Braille extruded into the tree-leaf that hung over the note. Compare with this passage from ERB's The Warlord of Mars (1913-14), in which John Carter finds a scrap of paper while imprisoned in the dark: "I became aware of strange protuberances upon the smooth surface of the parchment-like substance in my hands. For a time they carried no special significance to my mind - I merely was mildly wondrous that they were there; but at last they seemed to take form, and then I realized that there was but a single line of them, like writing." The bumps turn out to be a secret coded message.
Foundation Series (1941-1993), by Isaac Asimov (1920-1992): During the time Frank Herbert was writing Dune, most science fiction pundits agreed that Asimov's Foundation was the best science fiction ever written. Foundation even won a Hugo (the highest award in the field) in 1966 for "best series ever." Asimov's story concerns a scientist called a psychohistorian, someone trained to understand the broad patterns of history well enough to make oracular predictions. Asimov's psychohistorian hero, Hari Seldon, predicts that the Galactic Empire will eventually fall just as the Roman Empire fell. He suggests the creation of a library-planet called Foundation, where all human knowledge can be preserved through the dark ages, just as monks preserved the wisdom of the Greeks and the Romans through the historical Dark Ages. Seldon's plan basically works, though a significant challenge rises in the form of a mule, a superpowered mutant who is so singular that he falls outside Seldon's prophecies.
Asimov often cited Edward Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published around 1783) a primary inspiration for Foundation. I don't know of Asimov mentioning this, but it seems likely he was also influenced by the real-life attempts of H.G. Wells to persuade the Royal Institution to create a World Encyclopedia, to guard human knowledge against a potential dark age. Asimov was very familiar with Wells' writing and wrote admiringly of him. Wells believed that such knowledge would allow the encyclopedists to manipulate "everyone who controls administration, makes wars, directs mass behavior, feeds, moves and starves populations" for the good of all humanity - the same basic premise as Asimov's book. Asimov's Psychohistorians are basically the same as what Wells called "Human Ecologists." His Encyclopedia Galactica is basically Wells' proposed World Encyclopedia.
As the Foundation series developed, Asimov began opening chapters with epigrams from the Encyclopedia Galactica, the book the psychohistorians were working on. This introduced a brilliant way to address one of the main problems with writing science fiction: it takes a lot of description to explain an alien culture to a reader, but too much description is boring. By "hiding" his backstory, exposition and description in these little epigrams, Asimov was able to keep the main story focused on plot. Herbert expanded this idea in Dune, beginning every chapter with an epigram and flirting with neat literary devices like partial foreshadowing (revealing a few tantalizing details about "how it all turns out" but forcing us to read the chapter if we want the whole story).
Frank Herbert's father was agnostic, but his mother and his ten matriarchal aunts were Jesuits, and they ganged up on him and tried to convert him! Herbert's Bene Gessert are basically a cross between Asimov's Psychohistorians and the Jesuits (Jesuit = Gesserit). Herbert thought his aunts didn't play entirely fair, and he was especially unsettled by their readiness to do questionable things because they were so smugly certain they were right. Herbert considered this "the ends justifies the means" philosophy wrong-headed, and he thought he could prove it using Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and (to a lesser extent) Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.
Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (1930). For most of the history of mathematics, from Pythagoras (582 BCE-496 BCE) through the famous book Principia Mathematica (1910-1913 CE) by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, mathematicians had faith that everything will eventually be figured out using the wonderful tools of math and logic. In 1930 Gödel blew this 2,500-year-old conceit out of the water, by mathematically proving that no axiomatic (rule-based) system can ever be "perfect." There must always be a statement that "breaks" the system. So for instance English allows sentences which are syntactically valid (they obey all the rules) but logically irresolvable, such as "I am lying." (Is the speaker lying, or telling the truth?) Herbert's idea was that if systems by their very nature are incapable of perfection, then justifying questionable acts with a "perfect" belief system, as Herbert's Jesuit aunts and Asimov's Psychohistorians both arguably do, is logically insupportable. I agree with Herbert, though in all fairness I should mention that Gödel was speaking solely of mathematics, and it doesn't necessarily follow that his proof can be directly applied to something as messy as human politics.
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (1927): Werner Heisenberg (1901-76) pointed out that it's impossible to determine both the position and momentum of an electron at the same time. This arguably implies that the way we look at a quantum event may change the nature of the quantum event. "If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" Heisenberg's principle is the basis of a lot of new-age ideas like "...the basic stuff of the universe... is... malleable to human intention and expectation..." (from The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, 1993). Herbert felt that if the way we look at something changes the something, this is further proof that there can be no absolute "perfect" system. For the record, I think Heisenberg's Principle is way-useful for describing quantum events, but the "telekinetic miracle" aspect is merely an artifact of semantics.
To explain: no one has ever seen a subatomic particle. They don't have a "color," or an "appearance," or a "surface." In fact subatomic particles aren't really particles at all, but more like waves of probability. They're completely outside our experience, so to speak of them at all we create metaphors. But then we find paradoxes in the metaphors and, forgetting that the map is not the territory, we proclaim that the paradox exists in nature! Well... maybe, but in general I think it's more likely we're perceiving the edge of applicability of our current metaphor. For instance, do quanta (bits of light) behave like a particle or a wave? "Golly, they behave like a particle sometimes and a wave at other times, depending how you look at them... therefore scientists are telekinetic!" Doesn't it seem more likely we've reached the point where the particle/wave metaphor is no longer adequate to describe the reality, and we just need a new metaphor?
Advertising and Psychology: Herbert's wife Beverly had been an advertising copywriter, and the Herberts were good friends with psychologists Ralph and Irene Slattery: Ralph had doctorates in philosophy and psychology, and Irene had been a student of Jung in Zurich. Herbert drew on their ideas about how the mind worked and how to "sell" things to make Dune as subliminally appealing as possible. For instance, Herbert told Tim O'Reilly that he intentionally structured the climax of Dune like a sexual climax. He revealed that "It's a coital rhythm. Very slow pace, increasing all the way through. And when you get to the ending, I chopped it at a non-breaking point, so that the person reading skids out of the story, trailing bits of it with him."
Alia: Arabic female name; the feminine of A'La, which means "most high."
Lady Jessica Atreides: I suspect that Jessica is largely a reversal of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. Both are in league with the witches, and in fact are witches themselves. Both have an intense relationship with Duncan (Lady Macbeth tries to manipulate her husband into killing Duncan, while Herbert's Duncan is secretly in love with Lady Jessica). But there's a fundamental reversal: while Lady Macbeth is always scheming against her family, Lady Jessica is always scheming on her family's behalf.
Paul Atreides: The name Paul is taken from Paul the Apostle. Herbert said "He is every prince who ever went in search of the Holy Grail." Atreides literally means "the son of Atreus"; Paul is directly descended from Agamemnon Atreides, a hero from The Iliad (written around 850 BCE). Paul is the most perfect, powerful superhuman Herbert could imagine because he wanted to communicate what he saw as the central theme of Dune, that "superheroes are disastrous for humankind." Dune is a warning to mankind: "Don't give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be." Why not? "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." Perhaps more importantly, "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." This is dangerous because "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." Herbert drew examples of larger-than-life heroes from Hitler, Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Stalin, Mussolini, and especially John F. Kennedy and George Patton, who he believed consciously "fitted themselves into the flamboyant Camelot pattern."
Piter De Vries: May be based on American novelist Peter De Vries (1910-1993), who wrote clever things like, "It is the final proof of God's omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us." "Piter" is the Russian version of the name "Peter," which literally means "a rock."
The Baron Vladimir Harkonnen: The title Baron may be an intentional homonym for "barren" (as in "one unable to have children"), given Herbert's low opinion of gay men. The name Vladimir is probably a reference to Vlad the Impaler (1431-1476), the real-life inspiration for Dracula the vampire. Vlad's father was called Prince Vlad Dracul ("Prince Vlad the Devil"), so he was called Vlad Dracula ("Vlad the Devil's son").
The Bene Gesserit: A cross between Isaac Asimov's psychohistorians and Herbert's Jesuit mother and ten Jesuit aunts. Gessert = Jesuit. Herbert rejected their religion, but felt that he benefited greatly from learning their methods of argument. He said "My father really won. I was a rebel against Jesuit positivism. I can win an argument in the Jesuit fashion, but I think it's flying under false colors. If you control the givens, you can win any argument."
Herbert also lifted a few riffs used for the Bene Gesserit from E.E. "Doc" Smith novels, in particular the centuries-long breeding programs and superheroic mental abilities.
CHOAM (Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles): Herbert said "The scarce water of Dune is an exact analog of oil scarcity. CHOAM is OPEC."
Fedaykin: Almost certainly based on the Arabic "Fedayeen" from The Qur'an. Fedayeen means "one who sacrifices himself" (for Allah). Saddam Hussein's most trusted soldiers, who the American media called his "Elite Republican Bodyguards," Hussein himself called the Fedayeen. Yasser Arafat, addressing a press conference at the United Nations in 1983, called Jesus "the first Palestinian fedayeen who carried his sword." This reflected the popular Muslim idea that Jesus was a prophet of Islam.
Fremen: Based mostly on the Arabian Bedouins and the American Apache, plus a few ideas borrowed from the peoples of the Gobi, the Kalahari and the Australian outback. Their language is adopted from colloquial Arabic. The name "fremen" is probably meant to suggest "free men."
Kwisatz Haderach: Taken from the Hebrew term K'fitzat Haderech (קפיצת הדרך), which means "A jump forward along the path" (K'fitzat means "jump", ha means "the" and derech means "path/road/way"). Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040-1105 CE) popularized the term to explain how Moses' spies were able to cover so much distance in such a short amount of time: God shortens the path of the righteous (in Numbers 13.25 from the Hebrew Bible). The Bene Gesserit believe the Kwisatz Haderach will be a jump forward along the path of mankind's evolution. Herbert's character is probably at least partially a reversal of The Mule from Asimov's Foundation series (this time the plan-upsetting, unpredictable man is the hero instead of the bad guy).
Duncan Idaho: Named after Duncan the Scot from Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Muad'Dib: Dune defines a Muad'Dib as a kangaroo mouse imported from Old Earth. Paul takes Muad'Dib as his nickname among the Fremen people. It seems probable Herbert is referring to "The Mahdhi," the Muslim name for the second coming of the Messiah. (Al Mahdi literally means "the guided one.") Many Arab leaders have called themselves Al Mahdi over the last several hundred years, notably Imam Mohammed Ahmed al Mahdi (see above).
Ornithopters: This word means "an aircraft designed to derive its chief support and propulsion from flapping wings." The first ornithopter was probably the one used by Menippus to fly to the moon, in Lucian of Samosata's story Icaromenippus, written around 160 CE. Lucian intended the ornithopter as a high-tech modernization of the wax-and-feather wings Deadalus and Icarus used to escape Crete in Greek myth. Interest in ornithopters was rekindled by the blueprints for flying machines by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). The "ornithopters" in both Dune films had short insect-like wings, but neither actually derived propulsion from the wings, so technically they weren't really ornithopters. In all fairness, flapping wings are a highly inefficient way to move machines through the air. Herbert said "Ornithoptors are insects preying on the land."
Stilgar: Paul's Fremen mentor was probably modeled on Herbert's Native American mentor, a man named Indian Henry (of the Hoh tribe). The name "Stilgar" combines the words steel and guard.
Usul: Paul's girlfriend Chani calls him Usul, a nickname which literally means "base of the pillar" in Arabic. In Muslim scripture pillars are usually symbols for the masculine aspect of divine strength and fertility, so at the risk of appearing flippant the most succinct translation is probably "god phallus."
The Sandworms: Visually, Frank Herbert called the Sandworm "Earth shipworms grown monstrous." The shipworm (Lyrodus pendicellatus) is technically not a worm but a mollusk, with a tiny clam-like shell at the head. The shipworm uses its shell like a rasp, to burrow through wood ships and docks. Thus its nickname, "the termite of the sea."
Herbert said that his inspiration for the sandworms came from a line in Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough (1922), which alludes to "the mindless animal in the depths of the psyche that guards the pearl of life."
Spice: The most valuable commodity in the universe of Dune is the spice melange, since it extends the human lifespan and gives Guild Navigators the perceptions they need to carry transports between star systems. The most obvious influence on Spice is oil, the wealth under the deserts of our world (it's probably not a coincidence that Arrakis is pronounced Iraq-iss). But Spice also represents Frazer's "treasure guarded by the great serpent," which may be thought to be consciousness, or divinity. Herbert's friend Willis McNelly said that Herbert intentionally encoded the idea that spice is the sandworms' sperm, which is why they're so protective of it. This revelation supports the widespread perception that the sandworms represent, among many other things, giant phallic symbols.
1 From Vertext Interviews Frank Herbert, October 1973, Volume 1, Issue 4, by Paul Turner. Found at Christian Gilmore's old Fedaykin website.
2 The Jedi fighting technique was called "Jedi Bendu" in an early draft of the script, but this was later changed to "The Jedi Arts." "Prana" literally mean "breath" in Hindi (India's most common language). Metaphorically it means "the energy created by all living beings," very similar to The Force. Indians brought the idea of prana to China, where it is today called chi or ch'i. The Chinese brought the idea to Japan, where it is now called zi. "Bindu" is a minor chakra, or energy point, in the back of the head.
Star Wars: Origins © 1999-2006 by Kristen Brennan,
part of the Jitterbug Fantasia webzine.