Welcome to the Dune universe. At this stage in human development Earth is a nature preserve. Around 16,000 AD, humanity was forced to defend itself against its own creations: the thinking machines. After a war that nearly wiped out all of mankind, the major governments and religions of the worlds banded together in an effort to define acceptable scientific, religious, and political standards. The first commandment of the new, universally accepted Orange Catholic Bible: “Thou shalt not create machines in the likeness of a mind.” Only simple, clock-based computers are allowed. Anything beyond that is a capital offense.
So what has humankind been up to since this post-war social reconstruction? Science has progressed to the point of almost absolute understanding. There is a Grand Unified Field Theory, which has long been the holy grail of theoretical physics. From this came shielding technology, including personal body shields. These ones deflect fast-moving projectiles and thus necessitate the use of knives and swords when in use. Hence the phrase “the slow blade penetrates the shield.” Shields have the fascinating effect of producing thermonuclear-like reactions when impacted with lasers, thus armies rarely employ the beam weapons of most science fiction novels.
These advances in science and yet avoidance of advanced computing also affects other aspects of life. There is no computational-based genetic engineering, though selective breeding is still possible. Manufacturing techniques have become incredibly refined, allowing extremely high-quality products, such as wire thinner than you can see yet capable of great tensile strength. It’s quality over quantity. In addition, the only true final frontiers left involve life itself: the complexity & diversity of ecology and the mysteries of the human mind. Control and manipulation of one’s own body has become the subject of advanced physical training and meditation techniques, which have themselves become valued, protected commodities.
There are three main consciousness studies camps in Dune. The first group is highly religious and has been institutionalized into a sort of cult of psychic nuns: “The Bene Gesserit”. The second is a mostly unbiased, highly disciplined and intellectual group that has been institutionalized as a school for humans with computer-like ability – The Mentats. The last is a paranoid, secretive transportation monopoly that utilizes a cinnamon-tasting psychotropic (mind-altering, or in this case mind-warping) drug, called the spice Melange, to allow a special man-machine interface that allows for superluminal space travel. This “Spacing Guild” has their foot in nearly everything. So much so, that the book’s initial date is counted as the year 10,190 A.G. or “After the Guild”, instead of about 26,390 A.D.
Politics has reverted to a sort of feudalism, an interesting concept if those best able to survive the machine war were the rich elite and their loyal subjects. A community of member feudal houses known as the Landsraad acts as the final mediating body in many political and economic decisions. This organization follows ridged rules known as the Cannley accords, forms, and agreements which limit exactly what weapons and techniques must and may not be used in war, assassination, formal communication, and other interactions between the houses. For instance, nuclear weapons may not be used on human targets. Yet, while large-scale bio-chemical warfare is also outlawed, when other political avenues have failed individually poisoning one’s political enemy is completely legal. The Landsraad also has the interesting position of rallying for political marriages, which inevitably leads to the universe’s Emperorship. This reining Emperor wields a large, elite military and is also the singular authority in the jointly held (i.e. Guild, Landsraad, Emperor) CHOAM Company who decides which house gets the contract to mine the Spice. As a result, he is in a position of enormous power.
The Spice can only be found on a single, desert planet called Dune, or Arrakis by the natives. This is where things get even more complex. No one publicly either knows or wants to reveal how that planet even generates the chemical. There’s a veil of secrecy over Arrakis -- the mining operations that occur there, its ecology, and its "indigenous" people -- which has yet to be truly compromised.
Having a dictionary with you during your readings will be incredibly valuable. For instance, “ornith” means bird – thus “ornithopter” is an aircraft that flies like a bird, with flapping metal-feathered wings and everything. If you don’t know a word, look it up, because every word is important here. I recommend you start by reading the appendix at the end of the novel. It contains a wealth of information that will enrich the reading experience. Then start at the very beginning of the book and read very carefully. This is an extremely long, yet fast-paced and complex novel. As a result, the best way to read it is slowly and thoughtfully, allowing its compressed style to stretch out in your mind. Herbert is extremely detailed in his descriptions, so if you’re like me and you visualize & subvocalize everything you read, you’re in for a treat. Good luck!