Dune. An epos of humankind.

Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.  (Herbert, 1965)

This quote is probably the one line that can introduce you to the Dune universe in the best way because author Frank Herbert drops you into the middle of an unknown universe that seems both futuristic and ancient, both unfamiliar and historic.  A world of men ruling the stars, but still clinging onto false gods and some formula of life that will give them a feeling of importance and purpose. A story that takes place hundreds of years in the future, written in the 60s, but feels never than before current. Story of a desert planet called Arrakis, also known as Dune.

The name is probably not unfamiliar to those trying to escape suffocation of our world by diving into fantasy and science fiction genres. The saga is regarded as magnum opus of science fiction by many. Yet, the funny thing about the novel that has inspired every work in the genre after itself is that Dune’s world does not have any computers or robots or artificial intelligence. It is an ultimate tale of human endurance and adaptability, examining those on basis of politics, sociology, religion, ecology, history, philosophical dilemmas, and so much more. Some even call it anthropological fiction. The author of the book Frank Herbert was a journalist at the time he was inspired to write Dune. He was very much concerned about the political and ecological state of the world; and after his travel to Oregon Dunes for writing a report, Herbert knew exactly what he had to say to that world. He had already published a book before, called “The Dragon in the Sea,” which foresaw worldwide conflicts over oil consumption and production; and after 5 years of research and revising, Herbert finished his 2nd novel Dune in 1964. However, it was rejected by more than 20 publishers. Finally, in 1965, a printing house which was known for publishing car repair manuals at the time accepted to take on the task of publishing one of the most influential novels of all time.

Since then Dune has been an inspiration for probably every science fiction and fantasy saga created after it; you can see how Star Wars heavily borrows from it and follow its traces up to Game of Thrones. Nonetheless, it has been overshadowed by its successors for years because of its so-called unfilmable nature. There have been several attempts to bring this story to big screen, but sadly all have failed for different reasons. Most famously, it has been made into a movie in 1984 by David Lynch. That version is very precious to many science-fiction fans all over the world. It had been only visual source book fans had for years. Nevertheless, movie also takes a lot of liberties in adapting the book, ignores intention behind it; also cramming a huge story into 2 hours. Now sleeper has awakened to make itself known through the lens of filmmaker Denis Villeneuve who worked on recent huge science-fiction movies like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. Though the latter have failed at the box office, it amazed true fans of the franchise with the attention to detail and respect to the original movie. Villeneuve has been fan of the Dune books since his teenage years, and he is trying to create “adaptation of his dreams” as he so eloquently puts it. The director is dividing story of first book into two movies for telling the story in its full scope.

I should also inform you that there are 6 original books that take place in the span of millenniums. The first 3 books are often read as trilogy, as their stories concern same characters with few years of gap in-between. Starting with the 4th book, stories start to take place a lot later in the same universe. There are sequel and prequel novels by late author’s son Brian Herbert, but they do not have the same storytelling style as the original books.

The story of Dune takes place hundreds of years in the future after a revolution in which humankind destroys all kinds of devices that replicate that of a human mind, ending “enslavement of men by other men with the use of machines” (Herbert, 1965). It does not mean not to use any kind of vehicles or technology, but just the kind of technology that help with tasks we could do with our own minds. This view takes a form a lifestyle and even religion in time. “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind,” says OC Bible of the Dune universe. Humankind returns to its roots, focusing on improving physical and mental abilities. Nevertheless, humans had already paved their way up to the stars. As history changes its course of “progress,” the governmental system also evolves (or degrades back) and takes form of a feudalistic Imperium. Each of the planets in the known galaxy has a ruling House lead by a lord (or duke) who has to govern their planet in Empire’s name.

Moving onto planet Arrakis and why it is so important to story, we have to talk about the economy of the Empire. All interplanetary transport and even life itself in the Empire are dependent on a substance called “spice melange.” Probably everyone in the galaxy uses melange; it gives one heightened awareness, awakening inactive parts of the mind and expanding sensory perceptions. It can even unlock prescience in some humans, allowing them to see through space-time, meaning they can see the future and the past. Spice’s effect is dependant on the dosage taken, person’s physiology, genetic aptness and psychological training. The substance can also prolong lifespan. It is not hard to see why humans who can no longer use computers, phones, or other devices that would think or do things for them would be so much in need of it. There are even political factions in Dune universe that try to manipulate genetic pools and mental training for using abilities spice grants in their full power. Spice is also a highly addictive drug, and its constant use gives one blue within blue eyes that is the Dune franchise’s trademark. Moreover, all interstellar transportation and trade also rely on spice, as spaceship navigators use it to see through space-time to get passengers and commodities safely from one point to another. Jon Michaud of The New Yorker (2013) wrote: “Imagine a substance with the combined worldwide value of cocaine and petroleum, and you will have some idea of the power of melange.” Oh, and I forgot to tell spice comes only from one planet in the galaxy – Arrakis, also known as Dune for its vast deserts; and whoever governs Dune has the key to control all. Everyone wants their share of Arrakis and its treasure. I assume that you can see the metaphors here.

Dune is a violent, inhospitable planet where water is the most sacred, the sun will devour you if you are not at the right place at the right time, and you can face sandworms at the size of a dragon if you do not walk with the rhythm of the desert. Only people who seem to not fear the open desert are natives of Dune called Fremens (a nice wordplay here); but for that, they have developed quite an impressive lifestyle shaped by the brutal nature of their world. Fremens value their unique beliefs and privacy of their community, so they do not communicate with outsiders beyond necessity. They have to wear special costumes called “stillsuit” almost constantly, which are designed to preserve body moisture, also extracting everything from sweat to urine in one’s body and filtering it into drinkable water. Fremens take even the water of their dead for not wasting liquid. Their planet owns the most valuable commodity in universe, but Fremens have to live in very harsh conditions and even poverty compered to the rich houses and organizations that fight and trade over their world. This reminds of something too.

Finally, moving onto the novel’s final aspect for now, though there is much more to talk about, we have a young, very privileged man whose family is sent to govern Arrakis. He finds himself tangled in a very dangerous political game, facing a new world and a culture very unknown, while trying to find his path and place through the cracks of his broken world. In that regard first book can also be considered a coming of an age story.

You see, it was hard to explain this universe in the simplest way I can, as it has been one of the first science fiction series with the world-building of this scale. I left out many important aspects for the ones who want to discover wonders of this world on their own, also laying basis for those who want to undertake this journey. I would want to give a detailed analysis of story, but I guess I am going to save that for another time. Dune may scare one with its density, complexity, and a long list of made-up concepts; but do not forget that fear is a mind-killer and if you permit it to pass over you and through you, you will find an old friend with blue within blue eyes looking at you in the mirror and asking what are you willing to do for your world and its future.

References

1.Herbert, F. (1965). Dune. Chilton Books.

2. Jon Michaud. (2013). Dune Endures. Retrieved from:

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/dune-endures

Tahmina Jumshudlu
Orta Doğu Teknik Üniversitesi 3. sınıf sosyoloji öğrencisi. Daha çok sosyolojinin siyasi ve sosyal hizmete yönelik yanlarıyla ilgileniyor. Sinema, edebiyat ve özellikle bilim-kurguyla ilgili her şeyi sorabileceğiniz biri.