A recent discussion reminded me of a friendly online argument I once had with another fan of Frank Herbert's Dune. This was at least twenty years ago, and it occurs to me that the disagreement was never resolved to our mutual satisfaction.

At the time, I said something to the effect that I took it for granted that the smugglers (as they operated during the first book of the series, at least, before Paul Muad'Dib became Emperor) operated entirely independently of the Spacing Guild, using smaller ships which were somehow capable of making successful interstellar voyages on their own. Since Guild Heighliners are so jaw-droppingly huge, it seemed likely that any cargo carried by the smugglers was statistically insignificant from the Guild's point of view.

In other words, I felt that according to the strict letter of Imperial Law, the Spacing Guild was supposed to have a 100 percent monopoly on interstellar transport . . . but in reality, they probably only had about a 99.9999999 percent monopoly in terms of "tonnage moved per year." That was probably close enough to let them tolerate the existence of small-scale smuggling operations without throwing a hissy fit about it. ("So all the smugglers in the galaxy, put together, only handle about one ton in every billion that travels from world to world . . . who cares?") I also suspected that interstellar smuggling was riskier and/or slower than shipping things via Heighliner, since it was pretty clear that the smugglers didn't have spice-addicted Navigators and Steersmen to use prescience to find the optimal paths for any long voyage.

My online acquaintance offered a different interpretation of the text of Dune -- one which I had not run across before. I believe his take on it was that the smugglers probably have short-range aerospace vessels capable of getting up off the surface of the planet, and way out beyond the breathable atmosphere, so that the cargo in the hold doesn't have to pass a customs inspection in a spaceport before take-off . . . and then the smuggler captain simply pays for his ship to hitch a ride inside a Guild Heighliner, parking it somewhere within before it heads out-system on its way to some other inhabited world. Once the smuggling vessel is aboard the Heighliner, no other passengers -- not even Imperial officials -- are allowed to poke their noses inside and take inventory of the cargo.

In my acquaintance's view of the matter: At the other end of the trip, the smuggler vessel flies out of the Heighliner and must find its own way down to the desired landing field on the surface of the destination planet without running afoul of any local authorities who might want to intercept this contraband cargo (or at least charge high tariffs on it).

I ended up spending some time flipping through my paperback copy of Dune afterwards, looking for references to exactly what the smugglers did with the quantities of spice which they managed to obtain on Arrakis. (Often buying it from the Fremen, who quite understandably preferred not to do business with the Harkonnens based in the cities near the north pole.)

As I recall, I didn't find anything in the text of Dune that proved my point beyond a shadow of a doubt -- but the flip side of this was I didn't spot anything that clearly demonstrated the truth of the other guy's interpretation, either. We see Gurney Halleck talking to smugglers, for instance, and we later learn he's been working for them nonstop for a couple of years (after he thought the Atreides family was extinct), until he suddenly bumps into Paul and his old loyalty reasserts itself. But we never saw any scenes describing exactly what a smuggling ship does after it leaves the surface of Arrakis with a bunch of melange stowed in a cargo hold.

One bit which caught my eye at the time, and I found it again just now, is a scene in which Lady Jessica is talking to Duke Leto about why she's invited Esmar Tuek, a well-known smuggler, to attend a formal dinner in the ducal palace that night. After she offers some reasons for why she and Thufir Hawat believe it will be a good idea to have him there, letting the other important guests see that Tuek is on good terms with the Duke, we get the following silent commentary:

And she thought: My darling, can't you see that this smuggler controls fast ships, that he can be bribed? We must have a way out, a door of escape from Arrakis if all else fails us here.

Twenty years ago I took this to mean that a hasty retreat via smuggling ship would be as independent a back door as Jessica thought she could find for her family -- even independent of the Spacing Guild and its mysterious agenda -- which was why she was buttering up a successful smuggler, instead of just trying to arrange a contingency plan with a local Guild representative. But I recognized then, and still do, that it is not crystal-clear just how far Jessica thought one of Tuek's "fast ships" could take a bunch of passengers while operating under its own power.

To clarify what I already know about the Dune Universe: I have read the six canonical novels which were written by Frank Herbert before he died, and I also own a copy of the non-canonical The Dune Encyclopedia. On the other hand, I have only tried to read one of the several "official" follow-up books which have been co-written by Brian Herbert (Frank's son) and Kevin J. Anderson. That was The Butlerian Jihad, soon after it was released. It totally failed to grab me, and I've never tried to read any of their other collaborations which are supposedly based on Frank Herbert's own notes about various aspects of the universe he had created.

So I'm asking: Does anyone know of solid evidence, in any "canonical" Dune book (whether written by Frank, or co-written by his son Brian), which provides a definitive answer to the question of whether or not big-time smugglers had the capability to move cargo from one solar system to another without relying upon the Spacing Guild to ferry them most of the way?

(Remember, I'm asking about what it was like in the period before Paul Muad'Dib became Emperor. He, and later his son Leto II, may have made all sorts of changes during their respective reigns!)

  • 8
    Friendly advice: your question might get more attention if it is more concise. I suggest moving some of the arguments and counter arguments into comments, leaving, as much as possible, just the question in the question.
    – Politank-Z
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 2:37
  • 8
    Hmmm? I didn't think I was supposed to do it that way -- posting a question, and then immediately posting "Appendices" (or whatever you'd call the rest of the material) as follow-up comments to clarify aspects of my own post. Seems to me that this would invite the natural criticism of "why'd you break it up that way before anyone else had even said anything? Instead of putting it all in one place to begin with?"
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 2:45
  • 5
    Lorendiac: I wouldn't move parts of the question to comments. Comments aren't meant for that. But I do agree with @Politank-Z your question is a bit too verbose :) You could trim it down a bit if you like. Still: a good question!
    – Andres F.
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 2:50
  • 7
    It is subjective. My POV is that you have what is at its core a simple question: did smugglers use the Guild for interstellar transport, and you've made a wall of text of it. Conveying in-depth arguments as part of a question is somewhat unusual here; it is more common to see such back and forth in comments, albeit between more than one person. Your question, your choice, of course.
    – Politank-Z
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 2:52
  • 2
    @Andres F. This is actually shorter than my rough draft was shaping up to be! (For instance, I had ferreted out one or two other passages from the original book about smugglers, but decided to trim them because they were even less persuasive than the one paragraph I did quote.) I'm not terribly interested in getting praised on my extremely terse style; I'd rather make it clear what the competing interpretations were, accompanied by my frank admission that I never did find a way to prove my point (and neither did the other guy). I figure a true Dune fan is accustomed to exposition.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 2:57

6 Answers 6


There is a third possibility: that the smugglers were selling the spice directly to the Guild. In that case all they needed was cargo shuttles to ferry goods from orbit to the surface.

I believe it's the same arrangement the Fremen had with the Guild when they paid bribes.

The idea of unlisted trips aboard the Spacing guild freighter is also doable, but, in essence, it redundant from the POV of the smuggling outfit. What is the point of smuggling whole ship if you can just pay the ship's purser to deliver the cargo (that means: hand out to the recipient). Cargo is easier to hide/disguise compared to a vessel which may not look... right.

The whole idea of large-scale smuggling is not doing it in secrecy, just staying under the radar. One does it using bribes... Which is logical because hiding in space is very difficult. And, of course, Navigator would know anyway. Certainly Duke Leto knew...

Which means that, yes, Guild is an active party in that business, not a blissful dupe.

  • When I was preparing the original post, I reread the scene where Gurney Halleck and Paul see each other for the first time in years. Gurney tells Paul that Guild agents in Arrakeen are all over the place, buying every bit of spice they can get their hands on. The implication seems to be that this is unusual. (Paul figures it's happening because the Guild's most prescient members can see a huge threat to the spice is coming in the near future.) That suggests to me that the smugglers normally sell much of their spice to other customers, at times when the Guild isn't taking such an interest.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Mar 25, 2018 at 22:51
  • @Lorendiac- Kind of like it, but... Highly unlikely. Guild's and B.G.'s existences are dependent on constant spice supply. SInce this is a monopoly item (and Harkonnens had to pay off Emperor since day one) Guild not taking interest is - in my opinion - flat out impossible. But agree on unusualness - it was more than a coincidence (as we learn later from Paul who saw that everyone started hoarding in a vision). Simply not buying Guild not jumping at opportunity to purchase spice (even though they get exorbitant bribes from Fremen)
    – AcePL
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 8:45
  • The Fremen party the guild through the smugglers. They are middle men.
    – user15742
    Commented Mar 23, 2019 at 2:09
  • @frеdsbend - I'd doubt that - that would defeat the purpose of the bribes. Unless smugglers were... Fremen? And we know they weren't, but... spoilers. Do you have a source for that? Not saying you're not right, just that... this just doesn't square.
    – AcePL
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 8:03

The smugglers, at least the ones on Arrakis, apparently do not have the ability to leave that solar system without aid. From Dune:

Piter shrugged. "If matters go as planned," he said, "House Harkonnen will have a subfief on Arrakis within a Standard year. Your uncle will have dispensation of that fief. His own personal agent will rule on Arrakis."

"More profits," Feyd-Rautha said.

"Indeed," the Baron said. And he thought: It's only just. We're the ones who tamed Arrakis ...except for the few mongrel Fremen hiding in the skirts of the desert ... and some tame smugglers bound to the planet almost as tightly as the native labor pool.

So apparently, the smugglers on Arrakis do not have a way to leave the system without Guild intervention.

  • 8
    I recognize that passage. I think my interpretation of it has always been: "Even the smugglers gradually have their eyes turn blue from exposure to the spice . . . therefore, the Baron knows their low-level addiction to melange means that the veteran smuggling outfits based on Arrakis could never simply pack up and leave for good, no matter how they felt about the current regime." I don't think "bound to the planet" proves anything about their space travel capability.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Mar 25, 2018 at 22:47

There are a few references in the Dune Encyclopedia to FTL travel not involving the Guild. Apparently the main proscription against a Major or Minor House having their own ships capable of interstellar travel is that their discovery would lead to being blacklisted by the Guild, and hence no longer being able to use the much faster and more reliable Guild ships.

Additionally non-Guild travel is referred to as


with enforcement carried out by the Empire. No mention is made of any punishments beyond the aforementioned blacklisting but I think we can reasonably assume that any FTL ship seized by the Empire would be immediately destroyed and its crew imprisoned.


...Because of the Guild monopoly, no frigate was capable of trans-light operation. In interstellar transit, frigates were mere cargo. In the confines of a planetary system, however, the frigate was dominant.

Obviously smugglers wouldn't have this same fear and hence could operate faster-than-light ships with impunity.

  • 1
    "Obviously smugglers wouldn't have this same fear and hence could operate faster-than-light ships with impunity. " Could they really though? Maybe they could get a ship that was technically capable of it. But how would they travel between system without a Guild Navigator or breaking the Butlerian Jihad with computers? Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 21:53
  • @suchiuomizu - One assumes that our old friend 'point'n'shoot' is alive and well. You just point your nose at where you want to go, then turn on the engines. For interstellar distances this should work reasonably well
    – Valorum
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 22:04
  • @suchiuomizu FTL travel was always possible without computers or the spice. That's how humans reached Arrakis in the first place. However, it was said that "one in every ten ships disappeared without a trace". The spice-infused navigators see into the future, thus allowing them to find a safe path - get rid of the 10% losses. Also, space-folding isn't the only FTL in Dune universe, it's just the fastest. If the smugglers got their hands on one of the ships with the old FTL drives, they could use them just fine for smuggling - spice isn't exactly a high volume trade anyway.
    – Luaan
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 15:37

There are two viable methods of interstellar transport available in the Dune Universe: Holtzmann Field Foldspace and an earlier Faster Than Light technology.

Since Holtzmann Technology is widely available, foldspace is easier to implement, but without a prescient to navigate the risk of getting caught in a gravitational field is 10% per jump. Prior to invention of the No-Ship, the loss rates effectively limited use of this technology to the Guild. It would take an organization on the scale of the Bene Tleilax to build and safely operate an illegal foldspace vessel.

The older Faster Than Light technology may no longer be easy to recreate with off the shelf parts, by the later imperial period. From my reading I would estimate a fast FTL vessel to travel about 1 light-year per day. Kaitain to Arrakis would take over a year, a crew of senior Guild Navigators can make this run in half a day. FTL would therefore only be viable for short runs. There are inhabited world beyond the Imperium and this would be the only means of interstellar travel there.

Slow Faster Than Light would be difficult to obtain and expensive to operate, but would be in the reach of smugglers such as Tuek. The Spacing Guild is far more interested in maintaining its own monopoly than in planetary customs enforcement and protecting CHOAM's market monopolies; the Guild's interest is that smugglers are not widely investing in illegal interstellar tech, especially when doing so is itself profitable to the Guild.

Slow Illegal Faster Than Light exists, but is uncommon even among smugglers within the Imperium and would mostly be seen beyond the Imperium. Tuek may have had it, Jessica did not know but thought it likely.

  • 1
    Where is this information sourced from?
    – blues
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 14:12

I'm dealing with this question for a (fan fiction) Role Playing Adaptation I'm working on. I've concluded that the books are deliberately fuzzy on whether smugglers (and rogue houses) have access to illegal interstellar transport. I'm restricting this answer to the Corrino Imperium Period. Based on technology and culture I have concluded the following:

The legacy Faster Than Light used at the time of the Jihad era prequels is too slow to be useful for other than short runs between neighboring systems. This technology does not require a prescient navigator, and would thus be the more common illegal technology. For long hauls just the time involved would make it more expensive than typical guild rates for everything except military transport, and no noble would want their fleet stuck in tranport for months during a conflict.

Holtzmann tech is widespread. with good engineers jury-rigging foldspace wouldn't be hard. Without a prescient navigator Dune canon is very consistent that loss rates run about 10%.

Since no illegal tech available to smugglers can compete with the guild for long range transport, the cost of guild sanctions (disruption of heighliner service) for being caught using illegal transport could destroy the economy of a world.

Out-Freyn worlds are not subject to the Guild Monopoly, and would presumably have to use legacy Lightspeed.

Which doesn't answer the question of how much smugglers depend on their own illegal lightspeed vs paying the premium to the guild for no questions asked service. It would seem that smugglers usually pay the premiums and bribes to customs and the guild. Customs evasion would seem to be the more pressing advantage of faster than light. Paying double the normal rate to hop a heighliner is probably still a lot cheaper than running illegal tech.

  • 1
    This seems like little better than guesswork
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 17:02
  • Unless Brian Herbert himself chimes in on the subject, there is no solid answer out there. My thoughts were a bit long for a comment so I posted it as an answer. There are passages that suggest some smugglers are able to avoid Guild Transport but no concrete references I know of to a smuggler definitely doing so.
    – brainbuz
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 18:00
  • Canonical answers often turn up in odd places
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 18:08
  • The Jessica quote in the original post is the strongest indication in the canon that I know of -- the Atriedes had plenty of fast ships and could have hid a few small fast launches that they registered to other owners. The only reason to need a fast smuggler ship is that it might be able to do something their ships couldn't -- get to another system on its own in less than several centuries. For my RPG where my players might decide to be smugglers or a rogue house I need more information.
    – brainbuz
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 21:42
  • 1
    "Without a prescient navigator Dune canon is very consistent that loss rates run about 10%." I've only read the original novels by Frank Herbert, and offhand I don't recall that statistic. Can you tell me where this was repeatedly stated as "canonical fact"? For instance, in specific books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson? Or am I simply forgetting something from Frank's own work? (Which is possible -- it's been a long time since I refreshed my memory of most of the books, except for the original Dune.)
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 23:12

You seem to be Asking simply whether the smugglers could make interstellar trips by themselves or had to rely on the Guild for the major part of each journey, using their own resources solely to sneak aboard the heighliners unseen.

If that misses anything relevant, could you Post it now? Otherwise, why might you mind dropping all from “A recent discussion… to… “… the smugglers operated independently of the Spacing Guild…”, at least… the more so since you've gone to such lengths to dismiss so many suggestions against verbose Questions?

Since the amount of cargo flowing through any large port on Earth is so jaw-droppingly huge, what’s special about Guild heighliners? How would any cargo carried by smugglers not be statistically insignificant from the authorities’ point of view?

To what are you comparing the strict letter of Imperial law, and what difference does that show you? Where did anyone else - smugglers, joy-riders or whomever - get their percentage outside the monopoly? How are you measuring that, except in terms of "tonnage”? What might “per year” change? Is “one ton in every billion” an arbitrary figure, or where does it come from?

When smuggling is riskier and/or slower, what factors are you comparing? Assuming “riskier” means losing R% of shipments, how are you comparing the cost of that loss to the tax evaded?

If smuggling is slower why does that matter, in and of itself? If speed matters by itself, what comparison are you making of cost per time… whether that be per day, per month or what? Underneath that, how does any greater cost per time compare with the tax evaded?

How could it matter whether any doubts or queries were your own, or your on-line acquaintances or anyone else’s?

How is “the cargo in the hold doesn't have to pass a customs inspection in a spaceport before take-off” thanks to short-range aerospace vessels “a different interpretation?” Different from what?

When your smuggler captain “pays for his ship to hitch a ride” inside a Guild Heighliner, did you notice how different the meanings of “hitch” and “pay for” are? To “hitch” a ride means to get it without paying. Which would you like to consider here?

That not even Imperial officials may poke their noses inside a parked vessel is clearly necessary if the Guild is to maintain its reputation… unless you can specify how the Imperium is exempt from corruption. How might it matter to you whether intruders were “taking inventory” or doing anything else?

Did you notice, no-where in your dissertation is there any mention of how your own point was different, of what it was or of what your copy being a paperback might change?

When you ask exactly what the smugglers did with the spice they got, does that mean what they did with it, other than sell it for a greater profit, or exactly how they handled it? Either way, from whom might they have bought it other than the Fremen, or corrupt Harkonnen?

When Jessica thought: “My darling, can't you see that this smuggler controls fast ships, that he can be bribed? We must have a way out, a door of escape from Arrakis if all else fails us here” what more did you need?

Clearly any - let alone a hasty - retreat via any route would be handy. How could miring that in complications such as “independence” or “back doors” or the Guild or anyone’s mysterious agenda make anything more clear? Who would a foresightful strategist in a universe like Dune’s not be buttering up a successful smuggler? Why should that be “instead o” rather than “as well as” just trying to arrange a contingency plan with the Guild?

When it’s not crystal-clear just how far Jessica thought Tuek's "fast ships" could take a bunch of passengers under its own power, why isn’t “far enough for her purposes” enough?

After all that, what are you Asking but whether the smugglers could make interstellar trips by themselves, or had to rely on the guild for the major part of each trip, using their own resources solely to reach the heighliners unseen?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.