Sword-and-Planet Elements in Dune

Sunday , 11, October 2020 1 Comment

October 8th was the 100th year birthday of science fiction writer Frank Herbert. Of course, he is best remembered for Dune.

His first story was in Doc Savage in 1946. His next story was in Startling Stories in 1952.  Thereafter he had stories mostly in Astounding Science Fiction/Analog with appearances in Galaxy, Amazing Stories, Fantastic Stories, Fantastic Universe, If. He was not prolific in comparison to some but has a respectable number of stories and novels in the science fiction magazines. “Dune World” in Analog (Dec. 1963, Jan., Feb. 1964) was his second novel. That would be combined with “Prophet of Dune” (Analog Jan.-May 1965) to become Dune.

Dune has been called the greatest science fiction novel. That is a hard call to make. It is near the top if not the greatest. There are different interpretations on its importance – ecology, political intrigue, religion. I will make the case it is a damn good sword-and-planet novel.

I like adventure science fiction. On any given day, give me a story of exploration and action with a fantastic setting. Dune delivers all of that. The classic sword-and-planet novel goes back to Edwin Lester Arnold and developed in classic form by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The general plot is an Earth man is transported to some other planet where he becomes involved in adventure with native humans. The technology is a mix of futuristic and feudal. There is generally plenty of swords play along with super scientific airships.

It was a form that was getting repetitious by the 1930s and had died out by the early 50s. Mass market reprints of Edgar Rice Burroughs in the 1960s led to a rebirth with Michael Moorcock (as Edward P. Bradbury), Lin Carter, and Kenneth Bulmer (as Alan Burt Akers). Those were slavish to original Burroughs’ model. Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure series was a breath of fresh air in showing what could be done in modern times. Dune has a lot of different things going on, sword-and-planet adventure is an element within the novel.

The setting is thousands of years in the future. There was an anti-technology war in the Butlerian jihad against the machines. The political set up is a galaxy wide feudal system with an emperor, the Padishah in nominal control. Dukes and Barons control planets. The system reminds me of the Parthian and Sassanid Persian systems.

The Guild controls space travel. You don’t have any space armada battles as a result. Everything is on planet. That is like Alfred Coppell’s “Warlord of Valkyr” from Planet Stories where you have starships transporting warriors across space to fight on horseback on other planets.

The use of the shields reduces the use of lasers. If you shoot someone with a laser when their shield is activated, both are destroyed. The shield gives some protection against projectile weapons such as the dart guns. Therefore, much of the fighting is old school with edged weapons close and personal.

Great emphasis is placed on swordsmanship. Duncan Idaho is a sword-master of Ginaz. Gurney Halleck is also a noted swordsman. The Padishah’s personal troops, the Sardaukar are tough and brutal. They are formidable with the sword. The Fremen use the crysknife made from the tooth of dead sandworms. The knife could not be resheathed until it had drawn blood.

Sardaukar

The Beni Gesserit have Prana-bindu, supreme control of nerve and muscles. The Fremen want Lady Jessica to teach them “the weirding way.” They adapt it for righting that involves strikes and maneuvers at unimaginable speed.  It is said that David Lynch changed that in the 1984 movie as he did not want Kung-Fu in Outer Space.

Frank Herbert gives space to describe some of the sword and knife combat. He did not gloss over it. He logically laid it out for having hand to hand and edged weapon combat ten thousand years in the future.

Herbert packed a lot into 489 pages + appendices. It makes me want to explore some of his other fiction to see if there were earlier attempts at using edged weapons and hand to hand combat in other stories. Here is an exercise: reread Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and then read Dune. The two have connections.

One Comment
  • John E. Boyle says:

    The Sword & Planet elements were the ones I liked best about Dune.

    I’ll have to take a look at Princess of Mars again.

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