Dune is an interesting novel which I think had the potential to be far better, but this potential was never realized in Dune or the sequels. I read all of the books quite a while ago (middle school, specifically), and found them mildly entertaining, but thought they became stranger and stranger later in the series. I remembered Dune best and as the highest quality of the novels, so I decided to reread it.

Dune is not a science fiction novel, in the same sense that Star Wars is not a science fiction movie: Star Wars is a space opera, and Dune, while not exactly a space opera, certainly has some space operatic tendencies. Herbert's technology is not based in science: lasguns (mainly in their interaction with shields), the Holtzmann effect (responsible for both shields and suspensors), and the supernatural abilities imparted by the spice and Bene Gesserit training are the primary examples. While important to the story and the culture, most of these things are not conceivably real. Along the same lines, Herbert chooses which technologies he wishes to have: the Butlerian Jihad is a relatively transparent means of eliminating computers from the world of Dune, while he ignores certain other technologies such as genetic engineering almost entirely. Note that I do not intend this discussion as criticism of Dune or Herbert, rather, I am simply pointing out that Dune is not and should not be read as science fiction, but as something more akin to a fantasy novel.

However, Dune takes place more than 20,000 years in the future. It is certainly conceivable that science and technology would have changed so much in that time as to become unrecognizable to us. If you told an open-minded scientist from one century ago about the internet, he'd laugh in your face. Our knowledge of scientific principles is by no means complete, and it is ridiculous to assume that anything which seems impossible by current standards is "fantasy".

I agree. The claim that Dune is not a science fiction novel is utterly incredible, and based on a ridiculously narrow view of the genre. Science fiction need not be about technology. Dune is about culture. Rather than follow the classic formula of fixating on a set of technologies and then inventing a society around them, Herbert fixes on a culture and on the effects of that culture on societal and technological development.

As for the specific complaints, I can't think of many novels written in the early 1960s that do feature computers in a significant way. As for genetic engineering, that is still completely absent from nearly all science fiction written in the 1990s, even ambitious far-future hard sci-fi like The Diamond Age by Neil Stephenson. It's not surprising to find it missing in Dune, published just three years after Watson and Crick got their Nobel prize. But this nit-picking is silly anyways. Shall I criticize each novel that lacks all but a few of {robotics, space travel, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, communication networks, nuclear power, genetic engineering, virtual reality, cyborgs}?

More examples that are "not science fiction novels":

If the litmus test for science fiction is that it does not contradict modern scientific thought, then not only Dune but The Left Hand of Darkness (gender-shifting androgynes), A Canticle for Leibowitz (immortality), Ender's Game (ansibles, MD device), The Martian Chronicles (tons of stuff), Wild Seed (everything), and Hyperion (tons) are all fantasy. There is such a thing as soft SF, and even hard SF need not be scientifically accurate.--Anonymous

Many of these are excellent examples of novels that people consider to be science fiction but aren't. Foundation has some severe issues with rates of technological and social development (FTL travel while humans still behave like they're trapped in the 1950s) and worse has psychic powers. Psychic powers immediately reclassify something from science fiction to fantasy, IMO. I can't believe that anyone would call Wild Seed science fiction: that book is a straight fantasy story of an alternate Earth where a form of magic is real. Ditto Stranger in a Strange Land. Just because something is written by an author who primarily writes "science fiction" doesn't make it science fiction. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep belongs, to my mind, in some category of surrealist fiction. Hyperion belongs to fantasy with sci-fi elements, as AndrewSchoonmaker notes.

Other are closer to science fiction though have details that render them fantasy. Ender's Game sits on a borderline with only a few violations (that aren't explained in a way that obviously contradicts science, ala the later books in the series). Snow Crash lives on the same borderline with the one major plot element related to the Julian Jaynes' stuff. The Left Hand of Darkness has some issues with the broader society (space travel) and history, but I don't see what about gender-shifting androgynes doesn't work with modern science; it's not like human gender is the only way to do it, as other species on Earth show. If you translated Le Guin's novel to a more plausible setting, I'd call it science fiction or alternate history.

I don't know enough about Canticle to make a firm decision, but there are ways immortality can be made scientifically plausible, so I wouldn't forbid it out of hand. 2001: A Space Odyssey is firmly science fiction in my mind: Clarke proposes far advanced technology and makes it clear that the motivations of the wielders of that technology are rather alien to the humans involved in the story. He gets some of the details wrong, but wrong in ways that weren't ridiculous in light of the science of the time. His worst violation was presuming that governments would be willing to throw massive sums of money into space without return (there's a classic passage in the book where Heywood Floyd thinks about the amount of money the government is spending to get him into space; it's a shame that Clarke didn't think about the consequences).

I don't know enough about the Martian Chronicles to call it.--CurtisVinson

I actually don't consider Hyperion to be science fiction; I consider it science fantasy, insofar as a lot of the stuff that goes on in there is so far beyond the pale of current scientific thought as to seem inconsistent (the aging backwards thing being the prime example that pops to mind). This does in no way make it less of an awesome book. --AndrewSchoonmaker

And here I thought the word "fiction" in the genre was enough justification for all that stuff... - MarissaAnderson

Hmm. I recognize that my position is contentious, but hopefully not as contentious as the argument it has provoked here. I had intended to explain my position more, which means that my comments were not fully in context, but I had some other things I needed to work on first. Now I will go into more depth, and while I suspect that both Ari and Matt will still disagree, I stand by my definition.

So to begin: DefinitionOfScienceFiction

Just to throw in my bit- I'm of the opinion that fantasy and science fiction are really effectively the same genre, just approached in different directions. I'm sure I could write a fantasy adaption of any science fiction book, or a science fiction adaption of any fantasy book. You just change the rationalizations for things and keep the characters and plot exactly the same. Whether something is science fiction or fantasy merely depends on the author's mindset, how they feel the story is best approached, and how they actually did approach it. I still refer to things as science fiction or fantasy, but lately I've taken to calling some things sci fi/fantasy, since there's an awful lot of things on the blurry line.

And on that note, [Freefall] has an entertaining comic strip on the subject. -- EvilSouthie

If science fiction cannot include anything that science forbids, then many books will be written as science fiction, but will lose that status over the years, and some will be written as fantasy and become science fiction. This is a ridiculous way to classify the genre. The whole point of science fiction is that it does the things that we WISH we could do with science. In all likelyhood, if we only allow real science in our science fiction, we can never have any about humans travelling to other galaxies, time travel, or any number of other fundamental points of the genre. Star Trek, the grail of all science fiction works, does not even fall into the catagory of only-real-science (and that is even discounting the horrifying and apocryphal Voyager and Enterprise series.) Sensors alone make the universe impossible to fit into that catagorization, and I could continue the list from memory to fill this page. For anyone who has somehow missed this, I am a... rather large Star Trek fan; Dune was the first work of any kind which was able to significantly distract me from this interest. In my opinion, it is the best literary work of science fiction (if not the best literary work period) ever made. It contains far more than the key aspect of science fiction, which should be using a combination of science and imagination to portray another world or another way of viewing our own. As my T-shirt and poster say, "everything I need to know I learned from Star Trek," but Dune (and the rest of the series) taught me how to see the world. --MichaelMaindi

I think defining science fiction as being theoretically possible with our understanding of the universe is a legal definition, but should be pronounced Science Fiction, as opposed to "mainstream" sci-fi, which should be pronounced Science Fiction. At the end of the day, though, what matters to me is how well the story was written, physics be damned. --DuctTapeGuy

I'd be inclined to define science fiction and fantasy by the scientific standards of the time. For instance, this would mean that some of Jules Verne's novels which would now be considered fantasy (A Journey to the Center of the Earth) would be science fiction.

There are many things I wish I could do with science. I wish I could chat in Latin and summon elementals to do my bidding. I think that using that definition results in a single genre, speculative fiction, with no distinction between them.

IMO, Star Trek is the absolute antithesis of the holy grail of science fiction. It's a morality play (there's a better term for this, but I can't think of it right now) using science-fiction-like setting elements; in this sense, it's similar to Star Wars, which is an epic using science-fiction-like setting elements. Star Trek is certainly one of the apexes of popular "science fiction," but I don't think popularity alone makes something a good example of the genre. Science-fiction-like setting elements are not enough to make something "science fiction:" it should take more than replacing fireballs and galleons with lasers and spaceships. --CurtisVinson

I'm going to take a different tack on 'defining' science fiction, cause, while i haven't read Dune, books like TheLeftHandofDarkness? are not Sci-fi (and its not the gender changing androgynes that cause me to say that either). I will first agree with Curtis that the science of the time of publication should be the arbiter of what is science fiction. However, im not convinced that a logical definition that categorically divides it from fantasy is possible or plausible. Instead, i will take a systematics approach.

First, the work of Jules Verne is the first science fiction. It created the genre. One could well call 20000 Leagues Under the Sea the stereotypical example. Regardless, it is sufficiently good at being science fiction that i designate it the holotype of the "genus" science fiction. Other works of his (Around the World in 80 Days, for instance) are arguably as good, but i don't wish to deal with paratypes or explaining what those are, so there. On the other hand, the best candidate for the holotype of fantasy is probably LotR?. Now, the systematics paradigm proceeds by defining a holotype (the first instance of some thing to be described sufficiently different from other things to deserve separate classification. This can be true at any level. Species have holotype individuals, genre and up have a holotype individual from a species they contain), then as new things are collected they are compared to the available holotypes and categorized appropriately. In this case, we are dealing effectively with assigning new species to genera based upon agreement with a holotype. The best way to do this involves comparative character analysis.

(1) Sci Fi makes specific predictions or claims backed up by reasonable inference and extrapolation of the science fact of its day. 20000 Leagues gives specific measurements of the submarine in terms of the basic details of construction (pressure to withstand, thinkness of wall, etc...). These conform in all ways to what was known about the ocean deeps at the time, in fact, he was incredibly close to the real values. One could almost build a submarine to his specifications. The existence of the giant squid was eventually confirmed, and at the time of Verne's writing was supported by sucker marks on sperm whales. No science ever will explain Tolkien's magic; neither will science ever explain hyperdrive or warp drive. Oh, one day someone may invent FTL travel (unlikely, but i'll leave open the possibility), they may even call it hyperdrive or warp drive, but it is extremely unlikely it will behave in the same way as those 'technologies'. It will probably involve some funky stuff with accelerating the surrounding spacetime (assuming energetic feasibility, a current theoretical problem). Compare this to the specificity and preciseness of Verne's imagined submarine.

(2) Sci Fi does not contain unexplainable elements. No, human behavior does not count as unexplainable (it may not be totally explainable from chemicals to output, but if we couldnt understand human behavior, not only couldnt we interact with people, nor could we identify with characters in books). Every technological claim made in 20000 leagues could be explained by invoking physics principles as they were understood. He goes into some detail on it in fact. By contrast, a defining element of fantasy is unexplainable phenomena, commonly referred to as magic. While Tolkien cloaks it in what is considered its canonical form (unsurprising since LotR? was the first), hyperdrive, the force, psychic powers, antigravity, warp drive, ray guns of all sorts, and a host of other devices are magic. Now, there are border areas here (Andromeda Strain, for instance), and violation of this does not necessarily disqualify something as Sci-fi, as we are going with a similarity approach, but the more grotesque the violation, the less likely it is to be scifi, and the likelihood function falls off rapidly. So inclusion of a virus that evolves to eat rubber is borderline enough to not be important, but inclusion of hyperdrive without any explanation likely calls for instant exclusion from the category of SciFi?. I will note that something like Journey to the Center of the Earth doesnt violate this character. The Hollow Earth Theory had a strong following at that point in history, in varying incarnations. No one had seen the hollow interior of the earth, according to the more reasonable interpretations (as opposed to the one which caused a number of V2 rockets to miss their targets in WW2), thus what was inside wasn't known, but Verne's extrapolation from past life on earth was plausible because it was known such things had existed.

(3) Sci Fi depends on the envisioned technology for the plot of the story. 20000 Leagues doesnt work without the submarine. Its existence is the entire motivation of the story. 2001 needs the computer and the spaceship or there is no story. StarTrek, on the other hand, could easily replace the spaceships with sailing ships, and the worlds with islands, and tell basically the same stories. The props are just what the writers fancied when they put it together. Consider Odysseus's adventurers across the islands and a string of StarTrek shows, each new island for Odysseus brought him strange and fantastic encounters, its just that by the 20th century we knew our world a lot better.

(4) Sci Fi is not far beyond science fact. It can't be if its going to be explainable. The technology Verne writes about was either implausible or extant within 50 years of his writing. If you get too far ahead you will have to invoke magic, because you will not be able to either understand or explain technology. As a corollary, sci fi also makes predictions. Verne predicted the submarine in 20000 Leagues. 2001 foreshadowed the space program and computers. In its way, Brave New World could be considered Sci Fi in many senses, the critical part that reproductive technology plays in it, and the prediction of eugenics run wild, something that we are starting to run into more and more. Its technology is almost within our grasp, and that is the mark of good sci fi. It doesnt propose the unimaginable, it proposes tomorrow. Fantasy proposes things which are far beyond our ken, things that it is only through the imagination of the author we are able to arrive at. Sci Fi merely points out the pieces of a puzzle we may have assembled ourselves and says "look, this is possible given what we know, it could happen."

Now, not all of these things are necessary for something to be sci fi, but a work should possess the majority of these to qualify. There are probably other characters, and its been awhile since i read 20000 Leagues. But this seems like the best way to divide SciFi? from Fantasy, based upon the authors that gave the genres existence. --NickJohnson

Regarding Dune specifically, CurtisVinson responds (from DefinitionOfScienceFiction):

I have no problem with the soft science fiction attitude of culture first. What I disagree with is that he only takes the interaction one step: he considers a culture, then he shapes the technologies around it. But he never considers the feedback effect of technology on culture again.

This really surprises me, because I saw exactly the opposite in Dune, which is really what drew me to the story. Herbert's culture is in every way influenced by its sci-fi setting. He presents a social structure that has evolved to meet the demands of a civilization spread across planets. Everything from the economies to the religions is shaped by space travel. Herbert wrote detailed histories of the Dune universe, evolving the religion, technology, culture, and politics in tandem.

It was the completeness of the Dune universe that really absorbed me into the book, allowing myself to believe that everything within was possible. I think this is more characteristic of science fiction than Curtis's insistance that everything actually be possible.

(continued) I do not regard the progress of technology inevitable, so I can believe in something like the Butlerian Jihad. But when you look at technological reversals in our history, they occurred under specific circumstances, and one of those circumstances was a single authoritarian government. Historically, situations like Dune's, with many Great Houses scheming against one another, fed technological progress because having the upper hand in technology meant greater success in the battles between powers.

I think this ignores the influence of religion on the Dune society, which acts as a stagnating force. Also, the Great Houses are scheming at the level of court intrigue; they do not want to topple the galactic empire but merely to rise its top. All the nobility is invested heavily in the status quo; any break from convention will give the other factions cause to unite against the rebel house. Dune's galaxy is the Roman Empire; the Great Houses are mere provincial governors, hoping through politics and alliances to gain advantage over one another. The Roman Empire was not a setting for rapid technological advancement. -- MattBrubeck

The Roman Empire also wasn't stable: from the dissolution of the old Republic in ~50 BCE to the division of the Empire in ~300 CE was only a few hundred years, marked by dramatic and increasing problems. Herbert is proposing a period lasting several order of magnitude as long.--CurtisVinson

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