Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for…
When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.
A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what is undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction.
Ah, Dune. Colleen and I read this book back in 2016 for book club and, guess what, I stand by my bold and unflinching review of the time. However, I will admit I’ve softened just a tad rereading the book for #ANewChapter, raising my Goodreads rating all the way from one star… to two. Dune is certainly a giant of the sci-fi genre, and there is so much good and interesting material to be found here—which is perhaps where much of my personal frustration comes from, since I feel like the book’s potential falls far short of the end result.
I would say Dune is a book best read as a young person—when your imagination is still willing to work overtime to turn a mediocre book into absolute magic by taking these bones of great ideas and fleshing them out, filling in all the gaps and cheerfully explaining away any logical inconsistencies. For that reason, I think the novel is actually a great read for teens who are interested in sci-fi—or for any adults who really want to dive into the sci-fi genre’s origins.
Discussion questions below the cut!
Discussion Questions: PDF | Word Document
Reading Quiz: PDF of Quiz | PDF of Quiz Answers | Word Document
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- Dune was published in 1965 in the middle of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. At this time, no major wars between the United States and Middle Eastern countries had happened yet. The September 11th terrorist attacks, which created a sharp increase in Islamophobia in the United States, had not happened yet either.
Jihad is a central concept in Dune. Frank Herbert, drawing on his research on Islam and Middle Eastern cultures, understood jihad to mean a struggle of some kind—against your own internal evil, against external oppression, or in a search for knowledge. Herbert was also familiar with jihad through a number of Sufi-led fights against French, Russian, and English imperialist oppressors during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
- How might this information change the way you interpret the use of the term jihad throughout Dune?
- Overall, how do you think changes in American culture, politics, and prejudices since 1965 may have shaped the way you initially read the novel?
- Dune is a sci-fi classic and is often read by newcomers to the sci-fi genre. Do you think familiarity with Dune’s 1965 context is necessary in order to fully understand the novel’s ideas?
Speculative fiction like sci-fi and fantasy is often critiqued for the quality of its worldbuilding: how well the author makes the fictional world feel “real.” How would you critique the worldbuilding in Dune? Do you think Herbert’s world is complex and vivid? Do you think Herbert does a good job of delivering worldbuilding information in a way that makes sense and feels natural? Does the world of Dune feel “real” to you? Why or why not?
In a 1978 interview, Herbert stated: “If you want to give the reader the solid impression that he is not here and now, but that something of here and now has been carried to that faraway place and time, what better way … than to give him the language of that place.” With this quote in mind, why do you think Herbert specifically uses words taken from Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish throughout Dune? What effect was he trying to create? Do you think he succeeded?
Cultural appropriation can be defined as the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of elements from one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation is typically criticized when a dominant culture appropriates elements from a minority culture—for instance, when a non-Native person wears a Native American war bonnet. However, it can sometimes be difficult to draw the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.
- Herbert conducted considerable research into Islam and Middle Eastern cultures while writing Dune. However, he was also a white American author bringing in these elements from another culture in order to build his sci-fi world. With this in mind, do you think Dune is an example of cultural appropriation? Why or why not?
- Drawing on examples from your own life, what do you think makes the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?
Each chapter of Dune begins with a fictional epigraph from the writings of Princess Irulan. Typically, an epigraph is a short quotation included at the beginning of a work in order to suggest its theme.
- Why do you think Herbert included these quotations from Princess Irulan? How did they change—or not change—the way you understood the book?
- Do you think Herbert used these epigraphs effectively?
Herbert has often discussed his intentions to challenge a traditional “savior narrative” with Dune. For instance, he once described Dune’s larger message as follows: “Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. 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.”
- Do you agree with what Herbert is saying here? Why or why not? Feel free to bring in examples from your own life to justify your answer.
- Do you think Herbert successfully conveys this message in Dune? Why or why not?
Herbert introduces House Harkonnen in Chapter 2 of the novel, setting up the story’s antagonists early on.
- Using examples from the text, how do you see Baron Vladimir Harkonnen depicted as monstrous over the course of this chapter? How about Piter, his Mentat, or Feyd-Rautha, his heir? Consider various character traits, including physical appearance, sexuality, gender performance, and ethnicity. (Remember, Dune was published during the Cold War.)
- How does Herbert draw on stereotypes and prejudices in his depiction of House Harkonnen in order to make readers dislike them?
- Do you think Herbert could have made House Harkonnen clearly despicable without drawing on these stereotypes and prejudices? Why or why not?
Consider the major female characters of this novel: Jessica, Chani, Alia, Lady Fenring, and the Reverend Mother.
- How are they characterized? Are they individuals with their own interests and goals or are they defined entirely by their relationships to male characters? Do they have power of any kind or are they powerless?
- Do these characters play active roles in the novel with their decisions and actions pushing the plot forward? Or are they mostly passive?
- With your previous answers in mind, do you think Herbert succeeds in creating complex and believable female characters in Dune?
The Bene Gesserit uses the gom jabbar to identify people who are “humans” as opposed to “animals.”
- How do the Bene Gesserit define “humans” and how do they define “animals”?
- What do you yourself see as the difference between “humans” and “animals”? Do you agree or disagree with the Bene Gesserit?
- The Bene Gesserit specifically “[separate] human stock from animal stock—for breeding purposes” so that they can maintain “a thread of continuity in human affairs.” This goal resembles that of eugenics, a movement that was popular in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as in Nazi Germany. Eugenicists wanted to alter and “improve” the human gene pool by excluding people they judged inferior, including people of color, poor people, incarcerated people, and mentally ill or disabled people. Do you read Dune as critical or supportive of the Bene Gesserit’s decision to sort people into categories and breed them accordingly? Use examples from the text to support your answer.
After drinking the Water of Life, Paul informs Jessica that, although “there is in each of us an ancient force that takes and an ancient force that gives,” only men find it easy to face their taking force and only women find it easy to face their giving force. If a man were to look into his giving force, he would “[change] into something other than man,” with the reverse being the case for a woman.
- Does this statement from Paul ring true for you, based on the behaviors of male and female characters throughout Dune?
- Does this statement ring true based on what you know of men and women in your own life?
- Do you see a place for transgender and nonbinary people within this statement or are they excluded entirely?
Dune is a novel extremely concerned with politics, economics, and power.
- What are some of the different methods you see in Dune for gaining and maintaining power? Consider many different characters, including Duke Leto, Baron Harkonnen, Paul, Jessica, and Stilgar.
- How do you see each character’s situation influencing their strategy for gaining and maintaining power? Consider their education, resources, and current circumstances.
- Paul is the protagonist of Dune and Baron Harkonnen is the antagonist, which typically means we are supposed to root for Paul and against Baron Harkonnen. What difference do you see between the ways in which Paul uses the lives of Arrakis’ people to gain power and the ways in which Baron Harkonnen uses them? Do you think Paul is a “hero” at the end of the novel?
When discussing whether the Harkonnens or the Fremen control spice on Arrakis, Paul states: “The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.” Think about Paul’s statement in the context of our world today and the struggles for power and ownership you’ve witnessed yourself. Do you think Paul’s words hold true? Why or why not?
Dune was partly inspired when Herbert learned about a government project that sought to control the spread of sand dunes by using an ecological approach, planting grasses instead of building walls. As a result, Dune is an early example of what we now call climate fiction, literature that deals with themes of climate change, ecology, and environmentalism.
- What parallels do you see between the world of Dune and our own world facing climate change? Think not just about climate change itself but also why climate change is happening, who it affects the most, and who is (or isn’t) doing something about it.
- When the Fremen ask Kynes when Arrakis will be successfully transformed, Kynes replies, “From three hundred to five hundred years.” Despite how far away their goal is, the Fremen continue to work towards turning Arrakis into a “paradise.” Given the difficulties we’ve had addressing climate change in our own world, why do you think it’s possible for the Fremen to work towards this far-off goal without receiving any immediate reward?
For February 2023, the Imagine Society, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, and the Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center have partnered together to create a science fiction reading club for teens—and I wrote the discussion questions for all nine books! If you are a teen—or know a teen—who would be interested in exploring some classic and/or contemporary sci-fi, please check out the Imagine Society’s event page. Participation can come in many forms!
If you are able to do so, consider supporting Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center’s young men by donating to their ongoing library book drive. Librarian Julie Forbes works incredibly hard to encourage a love of reading among her students and these donations are extremely important when it comes to achieving that goal.