A vision of humanity’s future without most of the high technology we expect from science fiction, but with a surfeit of religions, martial arts, and medieval politics we don’t; pronunciation-unfriendly names and terms like “Bene Gesserit,” “Kwisatz Haderach,” and “Muad’Dib”; a sand planet inhabited by giant killer worms: nearly 55 years after its publication, Dune remains a strange piece of work. But applying that adjective to Frank Herbert’s highly successful saga of interstellar adventure and intrigue highlights not just the ways in which its intricately developed world is unfamiliar to us, but the ways in which it is familiar — and has grown ever more so over the decades.
“Following an ancient war with robots, humanity has forbidden the construction of any machine in the likeness of a human mind,” says Dan Kwartler in the animated TED-Ed introduction to the world of Dune above. This edict “forced humans to evolve in startling ways, becoming biological computers, psychic witches, and prescient space pilots,” many of them “regularly employed by various noble houses, all competing for power and new planets to add to their kingdoms.” But their superhuman skills “rely on the same precious resource: the spice,” a mystical crop that also powers space travel, “making it the cornerstone of the galactic economy.”
Herbert sets Dune — the first of five books by him and many successors by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson — on the desert planet Arrakis, where the noble House Atreides finds itself relocated. Before long, its young scion Paul Atreides “is catapulted into the middle of a planetary revolution where he must prove himself capable of leading and surviving on this hostile desert world.” Not that Arrakis is just some rock covered in sand: an avid environmentalist, Herbert “spent over five years creating Dune‘s complex ecosystem. The planet is checkered with climate belts and wind tunnels that have shaped its rocky topography. Differing temperate zones produce varying desert flora, and almost every element of Dune’s ecosystem works together to produce the planet’s essential export.”
Herbert’s world-building “also includes a rich web of philosophy and religion,” which involves elements of Islam, Buddhism, Sufi mysticism, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, all arranged in configurations the likes of which human history has never seen. What Dune does with religion it does even more with language, drawing for its vocabulary from a range of tongues including Latin, Old English, Hebrew, Greek, Finnish, and Nahuatl. All this serves a story dealing with themes both eternal, like the decline of empire and the misplaced trust in heroic leaders, and increasingly topical, like the consequences of a feudal order, ecological change, and wars over resources in inhospitable, sandy places. At the center is the story of a man struggling to attain mastery of not just body but mind, not least by defeating fear, described in Paul’s famous line as the “mind-killer,” the “little-death that brings total obliteration.”
The scope, complexity, and sheer oddity of Herbert’s vision has repeatedly tempted filmmakers and the film industry — and repeatedly defeated them. Perhaps unsurprisingly Alexander Jodorowsky couldn’t get his plans off the ground for a 14-hour epic Dune involving Pink Floyd, Salvador Dalí, Moebius, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger. In 1984 David Lynch managed to direct a somewhat less ambitious adaptation, but the nevertheless enormously complex and expensive production came out as what David Foster Wallace described as “a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop.” Dune will return to theaters in December 2020 in a version directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose recent work on the likes of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 suggests on his part not just the necessary interest in science fiction, but the even more necessary sense of the sublime: a grandeur and beauty of such a scale and starkness as to inspire fear, much as every Dune reader has felt on their own imagined Arrakis.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.