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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

Beyond all these internal power struggles – ecological, religious and dynastic, all of which intersect – is the overarching conflict of the new nation in conflict with the multi-planetary empire. This is where we begin to see a clear link with George Lucas’s original Star Wars story (1977), not to mention the fact that his saga also begins on the rather lawless desert planet of Tatooine.

Herbert’s story is obviously more sophisticated and thoroughly developed, although Star Wars is no less evocative. One other point of comparison is the depiction of the indigenous people, which on Tatooine are the aggressive, languageless, cultureless Tusken Raiders. The Fremen are also warriors, living nomadically in tribes, but we come to gain an appreciation of their way of life and an understanding of their customs.

Paul, the Atreides duke and the novel’s protagonist, is cast out as the Harkonnen move to monopolise control of Arrakis and he integrates with these people in order to survive. Dune does a commendable job of exploring his contradictory love of the Fremen and exploitation of them for his own dynastic ends.

One of the main paradoxes Paul must contend with is his relationship with the Fremen’s religion. The indigenous people have a holy reverence for water on a planet where it never rains – this has practical significance for survival but also endows simple gestures, such as the shedding of tears, with great symbolic meaning. This is interesting from an anthropological and philosophical perspective because it shows how their belief system and culture was shaped by the environment from which it arose. However, there is also a non-organic, external element to all of this brought to the people by the quasi-missionaries/spiritual organisation of the Bene Gesserit who fuse their worldview with the indigenous culture by adding a prophetic element, which allows the Fremen to accept Paul as the “chosen one”.

What makes Dune unique

In many aspects, Dune seems ahead of its time, and not just because of its distant future setting, but some things do strike the 2019 reader as not particularly modern – archaic even. There are plenty of dark and unpleasant aspects to the world Herbert created, which go unresolved even after 500 pages on the desert world. For one thing, the future is dynastic and is obsessed with “breeding programmes”, which are now enhanced by precise knowledge of genetics and controlled by the mysterious Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Gender roles, too, are largely maintained, although there is more distinction rather than outright misogyny and there is an interesting Jungian interplay at work. We also see the recurrence of the “chosen one” trope, but this is also complicated by Paul’s ability to choose and his election by the people, rather than self-declaration as a messiah.

Dune’s fight scenes are also surprisingly intense. Herbert cleverly explains a lack of laser gun skirmishes and force fields by claiming that the frequencies produced by these attract the sandworms, which are capable of destroying infrastructure. This means that the remaining knife brawls, dictated by ritual but never devoid of dirty tactics, feel properly dangerous.

The tone of Dune is elevated throughout and most characters are concerned with an overarching goal, or as Paul puts it a “terrible purpose”. Its sustained, mystical interests exist in a volatile relationship with organised religion, science and politics. For all the deriding of sequels in an age of remake saturation, Frank Herbert’s masterful debut novel is definitely worth revisiting.

More information about the 2020 film adaptation of Dune can be found at its IMDb page here.

Lead image credit: Maria Rantanen via Flickr

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