December 10, 2023


Sapiens Digital

The Advanced Technology Behind the Massive Dune Universe

In 1965, science fiction author Frank Herbert published Dune, his most famous novel and one of the most influential works of science fiction ever. It inspired multiple generations of writers with its in-depth commentary on human history, sociology, biology, and ecology. It was also the book that (arguably more than any other) taught people to take science fiction seriously.

To be fair, many science fiction books have transcended genres and are considered timeless works of literature — such as 1984, Brave New World, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Handmaid’s Tale, We, etc. But Herbert’s work stands apart because of the way it combined science and social science with classic science fiction and space opera (SF/SO) tropes.

In the Dune universe (a six-book series), there are laser guns, spaceships, mutants, clones, swashbuckling space soldiers, all taking place in a galactic empire. Sound familiar? At the same time, Herbert used this universe to offer insight into human evolution, history, the connection between geography and identity, and humanity’s complex relationship with technology. 

All of these elements have inspired a tremendous amount of analysis and commentary since Dune’s publication. But it is the science and technology of the Dune universe that many keep coming back to because of the nature of Frank Herbert’s visions of future technology. In the course of our examination, we will be focused on the Dune canon, which is to say, the six books authored by Frank Herbert himself.

In other words, this analysis does not extend to the prequels, interquels, and sequels authored by Brian Herbert (Frank Herbert’s son) and Kevin J. Anderson. With that caveat out of the way, here’s our examination of technology as it appears in the “Duniverse.”

Artificial intelligence

Because of its importance in framing the backstory of Dune, artificial intelligence deserves a category all its own. In the original Dune novel and throughout the six-book series, there are multiple references to how humans lived before the emergence of the Spacing Guild, the Padishah Empire, and the Landsraad (the Noble Houses).

In Dune, the subject of artificial intelligence and the consequences of dependency on AI are raised during a conversation between the main character (Paul Atreides) and the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohian:

“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”

Eventually, humanity would revolt against these machines and their handlers in an event known as the Butlerian Jihad. In one of the Dune appendices (Appendix IV: Terminology of the Imperium), the Jihad is described as follows:

JIHAD, BUTLERIAN: (see also Great Revolt) — the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. Bible as “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Later in the series, the Jihad is described in greater depth by the “God Emperor” Leto II, who recalls the event because of his ability to access his ancestral memory. As he told it:

“The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines,” Leto said. “Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed.”

In short, Frank Herbert envisioned a future where humanity’s dependence on machinery and automation would culminate in the creation of machines that did the thinking for us. Inevitably, this would lead to a revolt where humans decided to rid themselves of artificial intelligence and anything resembling it.

Once the war was over, new rules were established for warfare and technological development. A permanent ban was placed on artificial intelligence and automation of any kind, which was summarized in the commandment, “thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

However, this also meant that something was needed to replace the role played by machines for so long. This led to the emergence of the five Great Schools, which trained humans to fill all the vacancies. Complex calculations and data-processing are entrusted to Mentats, human computers trained to crunch numbers and solve complex problems that call for a lot of calculation.

The Advanced Technology Behind the Massive Dune Universe
Source: Dune Wiki

The Bene Gesserit are relied on to detect lies and sniff out plots among the Great Houses, the Guild Navigators are responsible for guiding Heighliners through space instantaneously (see below), and the Suk Doctors use their comprehensive knowledge of medicine to heal and are conditioned to “do no harm.”

In addition, a “technocratic” class was maintained after the war, like the Ixians and Bene Tleilax, that were permitted to develop technologies for the Houses of the Imperium. Whereas the Ixians are expert machinists and create sought-out technologies, the genetically engineered Bene Tleilax (aka. Tleilaxu) include engineers who deal in biotechnology. 

This is one of the main pillars of science and technology in the Dune universe, which is the development of human-centered technologies that assist people in their labors without usurping their industry and intellect.

The “Holtzman Effect”

Another central scientific element to the Dune universe is the Holtzman Effe
ct, a scientific theory relating to the repellant force of subatomic particles. This theory is foundational to several technologies that are repeatedly mentioned throughout the fictional universe. The most notable is the Holtzman Drive, which is the key to space travel in the series.

As Herbert establishes in the first novel of his series, the Spacing Guild (one of the Great Schools) has a monopoly on all shipping and transport services in the Empire. The Guild spaceships (Heighliners) are massive in scale, to the point that they don’t move through space in the conventional sense.

Instead, the Holtzman Drive “folds” space at the quantum level, allowing the ship to instantaneously travel between two points in space without moving. While not explored in detail, it is mentioned in the sixth book (Chapterhouse: Dune) that tachyon particles (called “techys” in the novel) are involved:

“Resonances and tachyon theory held his attention for a time. Tachyon theory figured in Holzmann’s original design. “Techys,” Holzmann had called his energy source. A wave system that ignored light speed’s limits. Light speed obviously did not limit foldspace ships. Techys?”

“Not even Guild Navigators professed knowledge of how they guided foldspace ships. Ixian scientists made machines to duplicate Navigator abilities but still could not define what they did. ‘Holtzman formulae can be trusted.’

“No one claimed to understand Holzmann. They merely used his formulae because they worked. It was the “ether” of space travel. You folded space. One instant you were here and the next instant you were countless parsecs distant.”

The Advanced Technology Behind the Massive Dune Universe
Source: Warner Bros. Pictures/Youtube

The job of guiding a Heighliner through the chaotic quantum nature of “foldspace” falls to the Navigators (Steersman), mutants that have undergone spice saturation. In lieu of complex computers prohibited under the Great Convention, these Navigators rely on their limited prescience to calculate the safest route through space and time.

The Holtzman Effect also led to the development of Suspensors, anti-gravity devices that counteract the pull of gravity. This technology allows people, vehicles, and spacecraft to remain airborne without the need for thrusters. Last but not least, the same understanding of quantum mechanics led to another important piece of technology in the Dune universe: Holtzman Shields.

This technology relies on the Holtzman Effect to project a kinetic force barrier around the user, shielding them from an oncoming attack. As described in the first novel, these shields cannot be penetrated by anything other than a slow-moving object. This requires that melee weapons or slow projectiles (see below) be used.

A minor drawback to these shields is the way they interact with Lasguns (see below). Once an energy beam makes contact with a shield, a subatomic reaction takes place. This creates a kiloton-range explosion (the same yield as a small nuclear device) which destroys the attacker and defender alike, plus anyone and anything in the vicinity.

For these reasons, melee weapons and hand-to-hand combat are a regular part of warfare in the Dune universe. In the third installment in the series, Children of Dune, Duncan Idaho reflects on how shields are responsible for shaping the nature of contemporary warfare:

“Force shields were a complete defense against projectiles and explosives of non-atomic type, the basic reason why hand-to-hand conflict had reentered human combat.”

Together, the ban on advanced machines and the Holtzman Effect constitute the foundation for science and technology in the Dune universe. Aside from developing altered human specialists to replace the tasks previously performed by machines, the instruments, and devices presented in the series are generally a combination of advanced science and analog thinking.

Technologies of the Imperium

Information is encoded and shared using Shigawire, which the Dune wiki describes as the: “metallic extrusion of a ground vine (Narvi narviium) that was made into reels to transmit messages.” This wire is used in devices of all types, from filmbooks (portable projectors) to transmitters and recorders.

Another method for covertly conveying information is the Distrans, a device of Tleilaxu manufacture that allows information to be implanted on animals or humans for storage and retrieval. The information would be stored subliminally by voice and retrieved by uttering a specific word or phrase.

The Great Houses also rely on a device known as a Damper to prevent people from eavesdropping on conversations. This Ixian technology emits distortions to hide the sounds and lip movements of anyone within its field. In Heretics of Dune, the device is described as a “black disc” that floats with the help of Suspensors.

Lasers, or Lasguns, are still very much in use in the Dune universe, though their interaction with Holtzman Shields requires that they be used very carefully. It’s also for this reason that Maula Pistols, slow-pellet Stunners, and other projectile weapons that fire poison-tipped flechettes or darts are commonly used.

Transportation in the Imperium is handled mainly by Ornithopters (or ‘thopters) — vehicles that rely on wings and jet engines to achieve flight. Smaller versions of these aircraft are used as personal transports and can carry up to nine passengers, while heavier cargo versions are known as “carryalls.”

These larger ‘thopters are used on Arrakis to transport and deploy Spice Harvesters, large, mobile factories designed to extract the all-important “Spice Melange” from the desert sands. Carryalls are also responsible for lifting Harvesters from the desert floor if their activities attract a Sandworm.

Snoopers, devices of Ixian manufacture that sniff out poisons in food, drink, and other delivery mechanisms. They can be fixed devices mounted inside a room to detect any toxins brought inside or portable modules used during travel.

Many technologies in the series are also directly related to the primary setting: the planet Arrakis (aka. Dune). On this desert planet, conditions are very hostile, and water is extremely scarce. For this reason, the Fremen (the native inhabitants of the deep desert) wear Stillsuits to reclaim their bodies’ water when traveling across the surface.

In the original novel, the fun
ction of the Stillsuit is described by Dr. Liet Kynes, the imperial planetologist of Arrakis and the secret leader of the Fremen:

“It’s basically a micro-sandwich — a high-efficiency filter and heat-exchange system. The skin-contact layer’s porous. Perspiration passes through it, having cooled the body… near-normal evaporation process. The next two layers… include heat exchange filaments and salt precipitators. Salt’s reclaimed.

“Motions of the body, especially breathing and some osmotic action provide the pumping force. Reclaimed water circulates to catchpockets from which you draw it through this tube in the clip at your neck… Urine and feces are processed in the thigh pads. In the open desert, you wear this filter across your face, this tube in the nostrils with these plugs to ensure a tight fit.

“Breathe in through the mouth filter, out through the nose tube. With a Fremen suit in good working order, you won’t lose more than a thimbleful of moisture a day…”

The Advanced Technology Behind the Massive Dune Universe
Source: Warner Bros. Pictures/Youtube

Stilltents and Deathstills. As the names suggest, a Stilltent is a portable shelter that allows the Fremen to sleep in the desert and reclaim any water lost overnight. The Deathstill is used to reclaim the water of a member of the community after they’ve died. As the Fremen saying goes, “one’s water belongs to the tribe.”

The Fremen also employ Windtraps in their sietchs (cave dwellings) to capture moisture from the atmosphere and store it in large catchbasins underground. Along with condensers, dew collectors, and other means of reclaiming moisture, these basic technologies allow the Fremen to accumulate water over time.

The Fremen also employ a device known as the Thumper, which is described as a “short stake with a spring-driven clapper at one end.” This is then placed in the sand to create vibration and sound, which the Sandworms are attracted to. The device can either be used to distract them so that people can get to safety or to draw a Sandworm to a place where Fremen can mount and ride it.

“Forbidden” technologies

Space must also be set aside to deal with the many technologies in the Dune universe that straddle the lines of what is considered taboo. When it comes to technologies that the Great Houses find revolting or morally repugnant (but will still privately use), the Tleilaxu are the masters!

This includes Axolotl Tanks, which no one outside of the Tleilaxu has ever seen. As the series progresses, it is revealed that these “tanks” are what remains of female Tleilaxu, whose bodies have been converted to breed and grow clones. This is something the Bene Gesserit suspected, since no one has ever seen a Tleilaxu woman.

These tanks are also used to create genetically-engineered assassins known as Face Dancers, who can take on the appearance of others (for the sake of infiltration). In time, Axolotl Tanks are even used to produce an artificial substitute for the spice melange.

Another technology that emerges later on in the series is the Ixian Navigation Machine, an advanced computer system capable of replacing the Guild Navigators. This machine was invented in response to the “flow of spice” being reduced to virtually nothing. These machines were built in contravention of the Butlerian Jihad but were kept in active service henceforth.

There’s also the Ixian Probe, a device used to capture a person’s thoughts and memories (living or dead) for analysis. As described in Heretics of Dune, the device is used for interrogation and “can raid the mind even of a dead person.”

The God Emperor Leo Atreides II also enlisted the Ixians to build him a device known as a Dictatel, a recording device that captured his thoughts and transcribed them in a volume that would come to be known as his Stolen Journals. This device was also specially developed to be hidden from prescience detection so that no oracles or Guild Navigators would know it. 

This same technology is said to have given rise to the Ixian No-Chamber, No-Ship, and No-Globe, which describes rooms, vessels, and even entire planets that are invisible to prescience. The key to this technology involves a form of radiation shielding or quantum effect that removes the ships, chambers, and globes (and anyone within them) from the normal flow of spacetime.

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Frank Herbert passed away in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1986, at the age of 65. He was survived by his daughter Penelope (from a previous marriage) and his two sons, Brian and Bruce. Among the considerable body of work he left behind, the most famous was the six-part series that began with Dune. This series, it should be noted, was unfinished at the time of Frank’s death.

Fifty years after its publication, Dune remains one of the most influential and time-honored works of S.F. While the universe itself makes liberal uses of undeniable Space Opera and Fantasy/Sci-Fi elements (spaceships, lasers, galactic empires, chivalry, royals, nobles, special abilities, etc.), the depth and insightful nature of the story is what makes it so timeless.

Like so many other elements of the story, the science and technology of the Dune universe is something that Herbert worked into the background, rather than making it a focal point. Nevertheless, it manages to capture the spirit of Frank Herbert’s social commentary and historical insight perfectly.

Herbert’s work predicted that humanity’s dependence on automation and computing would result in the birth of A.I. He further predicted that humans would find it intolerable to have machines do everything for us (including the thinking) and inevitably revolt. In Dune, this revolt was puritanica
l in nature, giving rise to new social structures that were decidedly “medieval” in nature.

In other words, Herbert understood that technological and social development are intertwined and that a society can be measured by the machinery it creates, employs, and tolerates.

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