Looking back at Frank Herbert’s Dune, the birth of high science fiction
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Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), the first published in the series of Dune novels, is considered by many to constitute the origin of all high science fiction, but it’s a novel in which science is largely a tertiary concern. Ahead of the new film adaptation, due to be released in 2020, it is worth taking a look again at what makes the desert planet so compelling. Although Dune is set in the far future, the universe is recognisably our own, the protagonists are human and the characters have limited knowledge of the titular desert planet, Arrakis’s landscape. The world’s harsh atmospheric conditions, where winds frequently blow at several hundred miles an hour, are unpredictable due to a lack of satellite infrastructure. This leads us back into an age of exploration-type setting, or alternatively of colonisation, both of which tend to go hand in hand in any case. Beyond this, however, we may even be being launched even further back to a quasi-Biblical time with its Moses-like desert expeditions, Christian temptations and Mohammed-like conquest.
Image credit: Maria Rantanen via Flickr
Herbert and science: ecology and industry The desert, certainly in Abrahamic cultures, is a deeply spiritual place where God is pitted against man and can only survive by a combination of divine mercy, or luck, and survivalist initiative. In Dune this confrontation is coupled with the prized opioid-like substance – melange, or, “the spice”, which is the most valuable resource in the universe. This drug is highly addictive, turns the consumer’s eyes “blue within blue” over time and grants visions, or at least states of heightened perception beyond the here-and-now. “Mining” the spice is the sole industry of Arrakis, so it also has a vital economic function. Control over the exploitation and distribution of this resource means power over the planet beyond the feudal claims of birthright. In fact, these dynastic struggles between the ruling houses of Atreides and Harkonnen prove to be superfluous versus the ecological negotiation that the five million native Fremen population are undergoing with the environment and above all with the terrifying giant sandworms, who are the real rulers of Arrakis. A successful relationship with these awesome creatures guarantees “desert power” – the true key to rule in Dune. Alongside the rival Harkonnen and Atreides dynasties’ attempts to conquer and exploit natural resources and subjugate the indigenous population, there is also an internal colonisation project underway by the Fremen to terraform the inhospitable planet. Although desirable from the point of view of living standards and the possibility of populating the sparsely peopled Arrakis, you get the feeling that plans to accelerate this process by their adopted leader, the exiled Duke, Paul will completely change their way of life, which centres around a deeply felt water cult. This is a conflict that remains unresolved. Sci-fi: science vs fiction
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