The question of whether a science fiction book written in 1965 is still relevant in 2021 seems answered by a $165m investment in another remake of the movie.
Frank Herbert did not call his book Science Fiction or Fantasy, but “an effort at prediction”. His contemporaries in Science Fiction were going strong: Issac Asimov had just published The Rest of the Robots, a long running franchise exploring artificial intelligence. Three years after Dune, in 1968, Arthur C Clarke would publish his most well-known work 2001: A Space Odyssey, reveling in details of relatively near-future space travel.
When I read Dune in 1992 as a 16-year-old, it was not Clarke or Asimov that came to mind, but instead Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings was indeed positioned to be influential to Herbert’s work, having been published a decade before. The similarities of rich histories, cultures and languages were clear to see; almost as if there was far more background than either of the stories required.
On my first reading, Dune did not appear to be a predictive novel. It was firmly in the realms of fantasy: alien planets, superbeings, monsters, a deep history of religion and politics which seemed to bear little relation to our world. It would be many years after my first reading that the comments on the 60s drug culture which allegedly permeated the book made me go back and re-read it through somewhat more adult eyes, and capture this review for those readers who may look beyond the cinema release to (re-)visit the original work.
The spice Melange … does everything from increasing a person’s lifespan to making interstellar travel possible … and whoever controls the spice controls the universe.
The story is of Paul Atreides, a boy when we meet him, his remarkable mother Jessica, with both superhuman control of her own voice and body, and an ability to read the minutiae of others’ body-language to the extent that in effect she can read minds, and the feud between his father, Duke Atreides, and the evil Baron Harkonnen, set in the theatre of the desert planet Arrakis, known as Dune.
The Bene Gesserit is a society of women, of which Jessica is a member, which exists with the purpose of manipulating both the politics of nations (Great Houses), and the genetic lines of families over generations, to advance human evolution. The book’s opening explores Paul’s place in this.
The first criticism of the story could be leveled after the first few chapters. In truth, the book does not have chapters, its fast-moving plot, told in Herbert’s masterfully poetic prose, is interjected only by quotations from materials written by characters we have not met referring to events which have not happened; an effect which layers a deep tapestry of both past and future history as a backdrop to the events of the story. The Duke Atreides is a heroic figure with angular, handsome features, a leader who fosters trust, aspires only to serve his people, and receives admiration and loyalty in return. The Baron is hideously obese, rules by fear and brutality, and has insatiable appetites be it for food, power, paedophilia, or violence. His tactics are clever, treacherous and without moral constraint.
Fear is the mind killer
Against such a polarised backdrop of good versus evil it’s easy to imagine a formulaic story which stagnates into predictability. Modern superheroes are flawed characters, riven by self-doubt, guilt and mistakes. This makes them real, relatable and unpredictable. This 60s simplicity is at risk of becoming as irrelevant as Adam West’s Batman in leotards when compared to Christian Bale’s psychopathic Dark Knight.
Well Dune runs right into, and diffuses, this trap as nimbly as one of its Fremen characters moves across the surface of the sand dunes of Arrakis “making only the natural sounds of the desert”.
The plot of the first third of the book is not so much foreshadowed as explained in advance in intricate detail. The reader achieves the same level of mind-awareness as the superhuman characters, and we see, through the choice of each word and the emphasis of each syllable, each protagonist’s character laid bare. This is not simply a battle between Good and Evil, Atreides and Harkonnen, the Empire and the Rebellious Fremen, it’s also a conflict between the human and the animal, fear and trust, loyalty and fanaticism, where a future of the absolute Triumph of Good is far worse than the Evil it would replace. As the plot plays out, the foreshadowing and explanation only serve to heighten the tension. The betrayals are more acute, the defeats are more brutal, and the small glimmers of salvation are brighter because of their prediction.
Thou shall not make a machine in the likeness of the human mind
The plot is steeped in themes which were at the forefront of society in 1965. The threat of Atomics looms between factions, held in check only by thin agreements which may be broken on a whim should the direction of the political wind change. Humans were yet to walk in space yet Dune predicts a human race spread across the universe. The internet did not exist, yet Dune has seen not only the rise but the fall of intelligent machines in the century-long “Butlerian Jihad”. And in a highly advanced world with no thinking machines, Dune examines in some detail what would replace them.
In the context of a harsh desert planet populated with giant sandworms, the advanced technologies explored in detail are those related to desert survival and geo-engineering. Many years before the need for climate change on earth was recognised, the dream of transforming a planet’s climate from a superheated dust bowl is an unintentionally relevant prediction.
Mentats are human computers assisted by sapho or spice to perform advanced computations. “But the fact that [this computer] is encased in a human body cannot be overlooked … I sometimes think the ancients with their thinking machines had the right idea”, quips the Baron.
In 1965 a computer playing chess would likely be defeated by a beginner. In 2021, computer AI is the best player at not only chess or the even more complex Go, but is also highly adept at games such as poker which require subterfuge and counter-subterfuge. Data is the most valuable commodity on our planet, with Big Tech dominating not only the stock markets but our daily lives. Given 100,000 more years, how will the race between human evolution and technological revolution resolve?
A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.
Chemical influences are infused into the lifeblood of the Dune universe: the threat of poison hangs over every person of political influence, blades are tipped with soporifics, sapho and spice are taken by mentats, elacca is given to prisoners prior to enforced gladatorial combat, and semuta is a recreational drug taken combined with music. It would be two decades after Dune was published that the electronic dance culture and ecstasy would become popular in Western society.
Spice itself is in huge demand but apart from its effects visible in every addict’s eyes, the nature of the habit itself is never explored further than it being a food flavouring. The true nature of addiction is most prominent in the desert-dwelling Fremen’s approach to water. It is synonymous with life, love, loyalty and anything of value. It is recovered from the dead.
He felt anew the hyperillumination with its high-relief imagery of time, sensed his future becoming memories
LSD was at the heart of the US counterculture in the early 1960s, with the US on the brink of much further engagement in the Vietnam War. It could be bought at a chemist, it was the subject of CIA experiments on mind control, it was spoken about at lecterns as cures for all pyschological illnesses. But it is too simplistic to write Dune off as a hippy-inspired narcotic story which was a product of its time. LSD was made illegal a few years after Dune was published. In January 2021, Oregon decriminalised LSD.
To accept a little death is worse than death itself
As Dune concludes Paul’s journey I found myself reclassifying Dune: it is not Fantasy, it is indeed better read as a prediction of a possible future. The conflicts in the plot are not a bipolar battle of Good vs Evil, but instead the conflagration of the church and state, whether the use of atomics can be justified, our relationship with nature, the benefits of human advancement against the drawbacks of substance dependency, and the place of technology in society. In many ways it is an indictment on the progress we, as a society, have made in the last 56 years, that each of these themes is as acutely relevant in 2021 as it was in 1965. And if Dune is a prediction, the implications are more terrifying than the giant sandworms roaming the desert.