Unseen Influences: Frank Herbert’s Dune

In a classic scene from David Lynch's 1984 film, Dune, Captain Picard oversees a duel between Sting and that dude from Sex and the City

Welcome to another Unseen Influences.  Today I’m going to talk a little about Frank Herbert’s Dune, and its influence on the background of 40k.

Dune is widely held to be one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, and is certainly one of the best-selling.  Unlike the very specific influence that Michael Moorcock had on the early development of Games Workshop’s lore, Dune’s influence was much wider and more diffuse.  This is because Dune is one of the first modern science fantasy stories, and the universe of Warhammer 40,000 is squarely within that genre.

These things are notoriously difficult to define, but a good working definition I think is that science fiction tells a story in a universe exactly like our own but with different technology, and science fantasy tells a fantasy story using the traditional trappings of science fiction (aliens, space, lasers, etc).  Basically, if it would make Asimov turn in his grave, it’s science fantasy.

When the GW Studio were looking to transplant their fantasy miniatures game into a sci-fi setting, they naturally turned to science fantasy and thus Dune for inspiration.  It has prophecies, heroes, witches, magic, monsters and sword-fights, but it also has lasers, atomic weapons and space-ships.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that without Dune, early 40k would have lacked depth and had few reference points for fans besides those taken from Warhammer Fantasy Battle.  The influence of Dune on 40k was varied, but probably the most obvious and minor influences were terminological.  “God-Emperor” and “lasgun” for example were both originally Dune terms.

But the inspiration was more subtle and deep than that.  Every epic science fantasy/space opera needs to make an effort to explain how travel and communication works between planets in the galactic empire.  Dune introduced the science fantasy trope of the Navigator, human beings who through the use of the magical Spice Melange can bend space with their thoughts.  Over time the Navigators, who by the way are bred in semi-independant noble houses and are avid players in imperial intrigue, are slowly mutated to become inhuman creatures.  Sound familiar?

This “bending space with the mind to travel vast distances” thing is pure science fantasy, as is the GW re-working of the idea, traveling through a parallel hell-dimension.  In 40k Navigators are born mutants, but other than that they are pretty much torn straight from the pages of Dune.

Some other themes that 40k shares with the Duniverse are:

  • A vast, ancient and semi-theocratic galactic empire.  Within this empire, aristocratic houses continually struggle for power.
  • A long-ago civil war that resulted in the outlawing of artificial intelligence.
  • Magic, in the form of psychic abilities.
  • High technology coupled with fanaticism, swords and superstition.

Now all of these shared tropes may seem so commonplace as to be trivial, but remember that Dune was written in 1965 and at that time they were innovative and exciting.  That’s why they were so attractive to the GW Studio designers back in the 1980s.

So there you have it.  I’m sure there are many other little Dune-isms in 40k, particularly in the older editions, but I’ll leave that up to you readers to discover.

17 responses to “Unseen Influences: Frank Herbert’s Dune

  • Atreides

    fantastic article! as my name would suggest (and its the name i use all over the web) i am a big dune fan, and its great to see someone give it the credit it deserves in terms of 40k lore. thanks!

  • Purgatus

    Really interesting reads thus far. How did you come by this information? Just been following 40k lore for a long time?

  • James S

    Thanks Purgatus. As to how I came by this info, I guess I’ve played 40k since I was about 10 or 11, and I’ve read a lot of old fantasy and sci-fi. I suppose I just have the sort of brain that remembers stuff I’ve read and likes to make connections.

    Ask me about a conversation from a week ago though and you’ll most likely get a blank look! 😉

  • kelvingreen

    One could also argue that the Space Marines draw from the Sardaukar. From Wikipedia:

    The Imperial Sardaukar are soldier-fanatics loyal to the Padishah Emperors of House Corrino, who ruled the Known Universe (the Imperium) for over 10,000 years until the events of the first novel in the series, Dune. The key to House Corrino’s hold on the Imperial throne, the Sardaukar troops are the foremost soldiers in the universe and are feared by all. They are secretly trained on the devastated Salusa Secundus, the Imperial Prison Planet, as the harsh conditions there ensure that only the strongest and most “ferocious” men survive. It is noted of Salusa that “the mortality rate among new prisoners is higher than sixty per cent.” Sardaukar training emphasizes ruthlessness, near-suicidal disregard for personal safety, and the use of cruelty as a standard weapon in order to weaken opponents with terror. In Dune, a Sardaukar Colonel sneers at Dr. Yueh’s mere mention of the word “pity.” Of the elite fighters it is noted that “The commonest Sardaukar trooper lives a life, in many respects, as exalted as that of any member of a Great House.”

  • James S

    Yeah, I can definitely see that connection Kelvin. Especially in the earlier editions of 40k, the Space Marines were often portrayed as being quite a bit darker than they are now. Which is funny since everything in the 21st century looks darker 😉

    Back in the 80s though the psychopathic killer aspect of the marines was often emphasised, and that passage you quoted above does have quite a few similarities with the older descriptions of space marines. They weren’t always the shining space knights we love (or love to hate) today.

    Thanks for contributing!

  • Bix

    Such a great post I had to go and watch the David Lynch film again, first time in years.

    Another connection for you, the Weirding Way (the film depiction not the books) of power words that can kill, very much like Enuncia, the unwords that manipulate the warp by vocalisation causing all kinds of damage. Mentioned in both Dan Abnett’s Ravenor & Prospero Burns novels.

  • James S

    Thanks Bix. Yeah, that movie cops a lot of flak but I quite like it. The Baron scared the bejesus out of me when I was a kid!

    I remember that bit in Ravenor, it was a lot like the Weirding Way now that you mention it.

  • John

    I played 40k back in the early 90’s, but only recently started reading the dune novels (am on number 4 as I speak). The similarities are imposible to miss, GW obviously lifted so much material from it.

    BTW. The sci-fi channel miniseries’ are about a million times better than the crap David Lynch film, definately worth a watch.

  • James S

    Yeah, I saw those a few years ago, they were good.

    The Lynch film has a lot of atmosphere at least, and I think it captures the weird feel of the setting well. Pity it barely makes sense, even if you’ve read the book 😀

  • Crotalidian

    Played 40k and read some of the Space Wolf Books a while back and halfway through Dune at the moment. I instanatly saw a lot of the thinks I recall from 40k in Dune.

    First was obviously the lasguns, then Sardaukar as the space marines. on top of that doesn’t the emperor have his own set of ‘normal’ troops (Imperial Guard)

    Not to mention the plasteel mention in the bunkers on Arrakis and the almost universal use of it in 40k. Didnt think of the Navigators.

    Some more subtle points would include the inital prescience of Paul when he sees a fanatical army led by his Fathers men with the skull of the Duke as their focus wearing dark green and carrying a Hawk emblem…Dark Angels?
    NB Still reading so pls dont spoil if any of this comes to pass

    glad I found this article although I am surprised there isnt a more official catalog of Dune references (would love to see a special eedition 40k set come out with Dune based rules and miniatures!)

  • James S

    @Crotalidian, thanks for the input. That’s a good one about the plasteel, I forgot about that.

    As for a more official catalogue, I don’t know how much cross-over there is between the 40k and Dune fanbases. And I definitely don’t see GW doing anything to let people know where they got their ideas!

  • Mike Howell

    In addition, the visual design of the David Lynch movie seems to have had a profound influence on the visuals of 40k. I saw Dune when it came out, but hadn’t seen it again until last year. I was amazed at how much that movie resembled the 40k universe as I had imagined it.

    • James S

      I agree totally. Especially Rogue Trader, which really is, to me, a visual mash-up of Lynch’s Dune and 2000 AD. Except for the Eldar, who are Jes Goodwin’s particular and unique vision.

  • Erik

    Excuse me, but the Lynch adaption of Dune is without a doubt, atleast IMHO, one of the greatest book-to-film translations atmosphere wise that has been done in film history, Closely followed by Boorman’s Excalibur. And that’s in spite of him inventing the Wierding Modules and taking some artistic liberties. Lynch is our times Weaver of Magics in cinema.

  • pavo6503

    The Rogue Trooper rules specifically mentioned Dune set pieces like ornothopters, lasguns and such in the introductory paragraph.

  • pavo6503

    Oops, I meant Rogue Trader. I’ve been playing Rogue Trooper on my PS2 lately and it’s on my brain…

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