Study Guide

Dune Setting

By Frank Herbert

Setting

Arrakis

Most of Dune takes place on the planet Arrakis. It's a barren wasteland of a planet covered almost entirely in desert, with just a smidgen of polar ice caps on its poles. Only dune buggy enthusiasts rank it among their top ten vacation spots. However, Arrakis is the only place in the universe where the worms roam the deserts and the spice grows, making it an exceptionally valuable location. It's also home to the Fremen, a fierce tribe who have learned over centuries to live in the desert.

Ecology

In a book as obsessed with ecology and the environment as Dune is, you can bet the setting is gong to be super, super important. And it is. Arrakis is perhaps the defining force that moves the novel's plot, more so than even the characters or the political conflict.

In fact, the ecology of Arrakis touches and affects everything in the novel. It's like a spider-web of consequences with Arrakis at its core. Here are some examples of how important Arrakis is in the novel's universe:

  • The Fremen religion is constructed entirely around the idea of oppression. The environment oppresses them, so they dream of a paradise to compensate for their suffering. This leads the Fremen to accept Liet-Kynes's plan of reshaping the Arrakis environment, and it also allows them to accept Paul as their messiah.
  • The political structure of Dune's universe centers on the spice of Arrakis. The three political structures—the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, and the Landsraad—all require the spice to retain power and their personal brand of order.
  • Since the spice is such a rare substance and so pervasive in politics, the entire economy of the universe centers on Arrakis's spice production. It's like the gold standard, only based on a highly addictive drug instead.
  • The Fremen evolved in the planet's harsh environment, meaning they've created a society of Chuck Norrises. This effectively disrupts the military power balance of the entire universe.

And that's just looking at the big-picture consequences. The web of consequences gets much finer, much more nuanced, as we begin to dive into the individual lives of the characters that must contend with Arrakis's environment. In short, those who allow Arrakis to shape them survive, while those who do not perish.

Head Honcho?

Okay, so we're going to throw this idea out at you. If you like it, keep it. If not, throw it right back. Ready? Arrakis is the protagonist of the story. Wait, hold on. Let us explain.

In any story, a protagonist is a character whose inner life we are most concerned with, the person whose actions we follow with the greatest degree of interest. Well, that seems to fit Arrakis pretty well, if you ask us. Just take a look at almost any chapter—but especially chapters 15 and 30—and you'll see a character discussing or thinking about the importance of Arrakis's environment. The characters consider how Arrakis's environment affects them or affects their goals every time they make a decision about anything. What do eat, what to wear, how to travel from point A to point B. Anything.

But if we're going to have a protagonist, we'll need an antagonist, right? So who fits that role for an entire planet? The people living on it, of course. Almost everyone is in conflict with the planet in some way, desiring to shape Arrakis's non-idyllic landscape to fit his or her ideals. The Harkonnens, for example, want to make it a prison planet that will produce warriors and unlimited spice for them. The Fremen want to make it a green paradise full of rivers and forests. In each case, the characters are trying to shape Arrakis to a new standard, putting them in conflict with the current ecology of the planet.

So, Arrakis is the protagonist, and its inhabitants the antagonists. What do you think?

Caladan

In the Arrakis section, we mention that the planet Arrakis may be considered a character in the story, maybe even the character—you know, that guy. If that's the case, then maybe Caladan is Arrakis's foil planet. Caladan contrasts with Arrakis in a way that makes aspects of the desert planet seem more potent and powerful:

  • Whereas Arrakis can grow little flora, Caladan has greenery spread across its surface. 
  • Arrakis has seas of sand; Caladan has seas of actual water. 
  • It rains on Caladan, but the Fremen have a hard time wasting water even to mourn the dead.
  • Perhaps most importantly, there is a ton of fresh water for drinking on Caladan, so much so that Caladan produces rice, a plant requiring an exorbitant amount of water to grow (27.229).

Since a lot of the characters* we get to really know come from Caladan, we often get comparisons between the two planets like the ones listed above. The result is that we feel the drastic living conditions more vividly because we recognize the change in the characters who must adjust to the harsh environment. Then there's the fact that Caladan closely resembles Earth, allowing us to further understand Arrakis from an outsider's perspective. It helps the outsiders' perspective become our perspective.

Think how different it would be if the main characters all came from Arrakis. From their perspective, everything would look different: the planet's harshness would be dulled, since the Fremen have already been hardened to its ways.

*Psst, hey, down here. Check out our "Narrator Point of View" section for more on this.

Giedi Prime

We don't visit Giedi Prime, the Harkonnen home world, very often in the story, and thank you, Herbert, for that. The place is a dump. Here's the description we get of the landscape:

The old Baron decreed a meridian-to-meridian rest from labors, and effort had been spend in the family city of Harko to create the illusion of gaiety: banners flew from buildings, new paint had been splashed on the walls along Court Way. (35.2)

Well, that doesn't sound so bad, you might think. Oh, but wait, there's more:

But off the main way, Count Fenring and his lady noted the rubbish heaps, the scabrous brown walls reflected in the dark puddles of the streets, and the furtive scurrying of the people. (35.3)

Nasty. Giedi Prime remains an important place thematically, though. On Arrakis and Caladan, great pains are taken to show how the ecology and environment shape the society of those planets. Giedi Prime demonstrates that the reverse is also true. The political rule and society established by the Harkonnens influences the ecology and environment of Giedi Prime, and not in a pleasant way at all. The planet provides a parallel for Baron Harkonnen in much the same way Caladan does for Leto Atreides.

Salusa Secundus & the Landsraad

Voted 2nd Worst Beaches in the Universe

Not a bit of the story takes place on Salusa Secundus, but it becomes an important part of the Dune universe nonetheless. The short and skimpy is that Salusa Secundus is a prison planet, a place so horrible it rivals Arrakis in terms of no thank you. On this planet, the Padishah Emperor trains his elite fighting force, the Sardaukar.

Interestingly enough, the Sardaukar don't hate the planet's ecology—quite the opposite. They feel "Salusa Secundus is justified because it produced them—the elite" (39.60). The natural ecology of the Salusa Secundus directly results in the unique politics, society, and culture of the Sardaukar, just as the ecology of Arrakis directly results in its own politics, society, and culture.

Also, take note of the initials of Salusa Secundus: S.S. These letters are an allusion to the Nazi Schutzstaffel. Just like the Sardaukar, the S.S. felt their heritage, society, and culture—three things resulting from their historical ecology—made them an elite group. The result? Members of the S.S. went on to perform heinous war crimes against an entire people they judged to be inferior.

What's the Landsraad Got to Do with It?

The Landsraad isn't a place in Dune. It's actually a government body, kind of like a parliament, but we're including it in the "Setting" section because it's an important part of the universe Herbert built for our reading pleasure.

The Landsraad is a political body comprised of the various Houses (or fiefs) in the Dune universe. There are two divides between the Houses in the Landsraad: on the one side we have the Major Houses, and on the other we have the Minor Houses. It's very similar to the House of Lords and the House of Commons in the British Parliament (source), only with nobody really representing the average Joe.

It's important to see the Landsraad in connection with Salusa Secundus, because the two represent the major political balance in the Dune universe. It takes all the Houses of the Landsraad (Major and Minor) to compete with the military strength of the Sardaukar (25.100). This balance of power makes it critical that Harkonnen keep the Sardaukar's involvement in the attack on the Atreides secret. If word got out, it would disrupt the balance of power between House Harkonnen and the other Houses. It's also this balance of power that Paul Atreides seeks to overthrow when he recruits the Fremen under his banner.

And that, in a nutshell, is Intergalactic Politics 101. Can we have our A now?