The desert planet Arrakis, also called Dune, is created by the fervid imagination of Frank Herbert. Set more than twenty-thousand years in the future, the story focuses on the battle to control Arrakis. The climate on Dune is frighteningly hostile. Water is so scarce that its inhabitants have to recycle their body moisture for drinking.
A psychotropic substance called Melange grows on Arrakis. Melange prolongs life and gives the user glimpses of the future. It can induce an enhanced space-time perception in pilots of interstellar spacecraft. Spice is what prevents the entire communication and transport system of the Imperium from collapse. Spice mining is dangerous because the noise attracts giant sandworms, behemoths many hundreds of metres in length that travel through the dunes like whales through the ocean.
The galactic empire of which Arrakis is a part keeps the warring noble houses in line by political intrigue. Duke Leto, head of the House Atreides, is forced to move from the green planet of Caladan to the desert planet Arrakis. House Harkonnen is the sworn enemy of the Atreides. Its evil head, Baron Vladimir, is monstrously obese and takes the aid of antigravity suspensors to carry his bulk around.
Shortly after their arrival, the Atreides are betrayed, and Leto killed by the Harkonnens. Leto’s concubine, Jessica, along with his son, Paul, escape the attack by vanishing into the desert, where they are helped by the aboriginal people known as the Fremen. The Fremen have adapted to the harsh climate of Arrakis. Paul evolves into a kind of T. E. Lawrence-like figure and leads a Fremen insurgency against the Harkonnens. The victorious Paul corners the Emperor into putting himself on the imperial throne.
Frank Herbert’s Dune investigates the best and worst aspects of human nature in a multi-layered futuristic setting. He explores two major themes: ecology and religion. Arrakis is an organic entity, breathing organism, complete with creatures from desert mice to the terrifying great worms. Herbert uses the tribal society of Fremens, to illustrate the eternal conflict between people and their environment. The Fremen has its messianic myth and compels comparison with the Judeo/Christian/Islamic desert tribes that inspired the Abrahamic religions of our world.
Paul Atreides’ story fits the mould of the classic hero’s journey: fall from grace, tribulations, and return to grandeur. The book has many instances which point to the metaphysical abilities of Paul, known as Muad’Dib. His angst at taking on a mantle that causes carnage is palpable.
Dune cleverly sidesteps the future dominance of computers, the internet, and AI by inventing a rebellion against sentient computers thousands of years before the events of Dune, which lead to a galactic ban on “thinking machines. “Alternatively, he speculates on the advances in genetics and mental potential. This has led to entities called mentats: Thufir Hawat and Piter de Fries, humans trained to acquire the computational power of supercomputers. Then there is the Bene Gesserit sisterhood possessing magical prowess. In a way, Herbert took the neo-feudal fantasy settings and advanced them thousands of years into the future, giving them proper biological and technological foundations for validation.
Dune is a dense, somewhat difficult book for the average reader, though it has influenced many subsequent works, from Star Wars to Game of Thrones to the Wheel of Time. Strangely, Dune has not penetrated pop culture as “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” have. However, the book has spawned a proliferation of sequels and spinoffs. Much of this happened after Herbert’s death in 1986.
Herbert worked as a reporter in the pacific northwest and had started publishing stories in science-fiction magazines, though with modest success. The idea for Dune came to him in 1957, while he was reporting a story on the efforts to stabilize the Oregon Dunes. Herbert’s work on dunes evolved into research into deserts and desert cultures. Herbert reworked his story and in six years, turned it into what would become an epic trilogy. Critical acclaim and the fact of its winning the Nebula and Hugo awards eventually boosted sales. Its fanbase grew through the 60s and 70s in places where the idea of global transformation had traction. Fifty years later, many consider it to be the greatest novel in the SF canon.
Dune has been filmed twice. I have watched David Lynch and Dino De Laurentiis’ disastrous attempt in 1984. There is a recent version by Denise Villeneuve, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival this September. The film exploits the advances in special effects, with computer wizardry enabling faithful recreation of Herbert’s most bizarre ideas. Villeneuve renders Arrakis with a gritty, tactile quality. It is as good as an epic like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings while also evoking parallels with the great desert Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia.
Paul Atreides’ ascent to the Fremen leadership is a fulfilment of the recurring colonial fantasy of becoming a pagan deity to a tribal people. Herbert’s portrayal of the “Fremen” is inspired by TE Lawrence’s portrayal of the Arabian Bedouin. The harshness of their environment endows in the tough, proud, and relatively egalitarian Fremen an ethic of fellowship and mutual aid making them form the moral centre of the book. Paul absorbs their culture and emerges as the prophet Muad’Dib. If Paul is one-part Lawrence of Arabia, leading his men on to victory in Aqaba, he is also the Mahdi, the great savior who will establish the divine kingdom of Allah.
Herbert was a child of the libertarian culture of the Pacific coast with its distrust of authority and with utopian values. In Dune, the planetologist Kynes muse that within a finite space, beyond a critical point, freedom diminishes as the population proliferates. The number of people who would survive within the system is not the relevant question. What kind of existence is to be had for those who survive?
Dune can also be read as a treatise on asymmetric warfare. It is a world where conventional military conflict has given way to subtler ways of acquiring dominance. The guerrilla tactics of the Fremen ultimately prove superior. Contemporary history proves that no matter which conflict you choose, Iraq or Afghanistan, the insurgents outlast the superpower.
Herbert has freely borrowed from the history of some Islamic tribes of the Caucasus. Fremen speaks Chakobsa, named for a language from that region. Herbert’s term for the formal feud or vendetta is any, which is also a word for “blood feud” used for centuries by these tribes. The emerging theatre of cyberwars is becoming another domain for any to play out. This is where Herbert’s speculations on non-traditional approaches to war are the most appropriate. Asymmetric warfare thrives defying global conventions.
Every fantasy reflects the place and time of its origin. The Lord of the Rings was borne out of the trauma of the second world war and the rise of fascism. The Game of Thrones, with its insidious politics played by a cast of exotic characters, is a narrative of neoliberalism. Dune reflects the present, progressive, forward-thinking, rebellious, innovative, period in human history. Environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and asymmetric warfare — are blended into a vision of personal and cosmic transformation.