Every science-fiction story needs an iconic setting. Frank Herbert’s Dune saga has no shortage of them, the most notable being the desert planet of Arrakis. Even if you’ve never read or seen Dune, chances are you’ve seen imagery of Arrakis. Long rows of sandy dunes (the planet is also known as Dune for these formations), bright orange sand, enormous worms bursting from below. Herbert’s planet is so memorable, it also served as inspiration for Tatooine in Star Wars.

But why is Arrakis so important to the story of Dune? Why do we spend so much time there? What is its history? And just what is it with those sandworms? Here’s everything you need to know about the planet.

The cover for the novel Dune: House Atreides.Spectra

What’s the history of Arrakis prior to Dune?

In the first Dune novel, the reader first visits Arrakis when protagonist Paul Atreides arrives there with his family. But what happened on the planet before this point? The Dune Encyclopedia, published in 1984 as a companion to Herbert’s books, speculates that the planet was hit by a comet in ancient times, which depleted its oceans and caused its desert climate. The Imperium (the government system that rules the Known Universe) once tried to terraform the planet but was unsuccessful, although it did result in some new native life forms.

The planet was of little geological interest to the Imperium until the discovery of a substance known as spice melange: the most powerful material in the Known Universe and a drug central to the plot of the Dune saga.

Universal Pictures

Where does spice melange come from and why is it important?

The giant sandworms of Dune are native to Arrakis and live deep beneath the surface. They are powerful and revered creatures whose life cycles are integral to the production of spice melange. This spice is created by the secretion of liquid from sandworm larvae that mixes with water beneath the surface of Arrakis. This mixture then erupts to land and combines with elements of the atmosphere, creating melange that is then harvested by humans. This spice is highly desired; when consumed, it gifts its taker with abilities and longer lifespans, and is responsible for safe interstellar navigation and more.

Because sandworms are native only to Arrakis, the planet is the soul source of spice melange, making it a vital and prestigious part of the Known Universe. The Imperium assigns House Atreides to the planet to oversea the harvest of the spice, an assignment that proves devastating for the family, but also fateful for young Paul Atreides.

Tor Books/Steve Stone

Who else lives on Arrakis and where?

The harsh conditions of Arrakis make it nearly uninhabitable. However, humans found ways to live on the planet, mostly in the city of Arrakeen. The capital city houses a government mansion that House Atreides moves into in Dune. Arrakis is also home to a group of humans known as Fremen who live in sietches, or small communities, on the planet.

The Fremen live in the dangerous outer areas of Arrakis and are able to survive thanks to stillsuits that trap and filter the body’s moisture to keep the humans hydrated. They worship the sandworms and ingest large amounts of spice melange, which exists in the planet’s atmosphere. They are a very mysterious group of people who Paul Atreides finds himself drawn to and eventually immersed within.

Arrakis was once a fief to House Harkonnen, but the arrival of House Atreides—their enemy—sparks a series of events that make up the bulk of the first novel’s plot.

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