I once watched a documentary called "The Future is Wild" about what life on Earth would be like in 5,000,000 or 100,000,000 years. It was a string of conversations with top scientists about all the crazy crap that could eventually happen. It was amazing (hilarious, because it showed a bunch of incredibly smart people putting a lot of thought into perhaps the geekiest subject matter ever, but otherwise totally amazing.) They came up with the nuttiest stuff I’ve ever heard, like how the squid could evolve to be the size of elephants and walk on land with giant leg- tentacles, or maybe swing from trees like squid-monkeys. Most mammals would die off, but spiders would become super-smart and begin farming the remaining small mammals in order to fatten them up and eventually eat them. My point is science makes a lot of things possible, given enough time.
So when creating your science fiction universe…
1) Find your starting point by adding zeroes
Frank Herbert does a really great job of this by coming up with a society which has progressed so far beyond Earth that people don’t even mention it in day-to-day conversations. The society’s knowledge of people who lived on Earth is the same kind of dim, hypothetical knowledge our society has of Stonehenge or Easter Island. Grounding a story in such an unfamiliar time period gives Herbert all kinds of room to create things like the Bene Gesserit, the Butlerian Jihad, or the Gom Jabbar.
2) Know your history
Another thing Herbert does, even just in the first chapter of “Dune,” is give the reader a sense of social history and collective unconscious. There’s a general sense from Paul’s conversations with the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother that the universe in “Dune” has a history all its own punctuated with its own watershed events. Herbert treats the society of “Dune,” fittingly as a different universe, not an extension of our own society as is sometimes done in dystopia literature like “1984” or “Brave New World.”
3) Know your philosophy
Part of being able to create an alien world like the one we encounter in “Dune” is being able to understand life from different perspectives, and giving your invented society a unique one. “Dune” is a perfect example of this because much of first chapter, when viewed philosophically, is really sort of disturbing. The Reverend Mother talks to Paul about the need to separate human stock from animal stock for “breeding purposes” which in our world might sound like Hitler’s early experimentation with eugenics which eventually led to the construction of gas chambers. But the society of “Dune” doesn’t share this association. While Paul feels vaguely offended by the idea of the Bene Gesserit’s genetic manipulation of the society’s population, he does not object to the division of people into human and animal stock. Regardless of whether or not “Dune” takes these either of these ideas any further, the reader is given the sense that the society has a situated order and sympathetic reasons for it.
4) Know your science
Even though science opens up a lot of possibilities for fictional futures, it is still science, not magic. When the Reverend Mother produces her pain box for Paul’s test, it seems mystical but it produces painful sensation by “nerve induction.” Maybe it’s possible to recreate something similar in reality, maybe it’s not, but even just imagining a box that induces pain via the nerves in the human body requires some general knowledge of the human body, and how much it hurts to pinch a nerve. Similarly, Paul learns how to read body language and vocal cues from his mother, and though Paul’s ability to understand body language is exaggerated, it is still based on real research like that of Paul Ekman. Using even general scientific knowledge indicates to readers that even though this world is alien, it is still recognizable and relatable because it is based in reality.
5) Trust your reader:
Perhaps the best thing about the first chapter of “Dune” is that Herbert starts immediately with character and action. Even though it becomes clear that Herbert spent a lot of time piecing together a new universe, he doesn’t spend much time giving a full account of every aspect of the society he’s created. Instead, he allows the reader to view it for ourselves by introducing us immediately to Paul and giving us insight into the political structure and ideologies of the world through Paul’s own experiences. Herbert focuses his narration specifically on Paul’s perspective and describes Paul’s world as Paul himself perceives it. This gives a reader the sense of reality in the characters themselves. By doing this, Herbert has not only created a new universe, or a new society, he has also populated his fictional world with people we identify with and believe.