Why You Should Read Dune: An Animated Introduction to Frank Herbert’s Ecological, Psychological Sci-Fi Epic

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 14-Hour Epic Film, Dune, That Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky, Pink Floyd, Sal­vador Dalí, Moe­bius, Orson Welles & Mick Jag­ger Nev­er Made

Moe­bius’ Sto­ry­boards & Con­cept Art for Jodorowsky’s Dune

The Dune Col­or­ing & Activ­i­ty Books: When David Lynch’s 1984 Film Cre­at­ed Count­less Hours of Pecu­liar Fun for Kids

Why You Should Read The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Bulgakov’s Rol­lick­ing Sovi­et Satire

Why You Should Read One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude: An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Why You Should Read Crime and Pun­ish­ment: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Dostoevsky’s Moral Thriller

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.

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Comments (3)
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  • Lance Goodale says:

    Would like to point out the ancient war against “robots” was Bri­an Her­bert’s pre­quel nov­els. In Frank Her­bert’s Dune it was humans that enslaved men using Machines.

    To quote Frank Her­bert’s Dune nov­el

    “Once men turned their think­ing over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only per­mit­ted oth­er men with machines to enslave them.”

  • Abebw says:

    I read your news about Voyn­ich Man­u­script. Realy I appre­ci­ate for proc­cesing this gen­uine and authen­tic infor­ma­tion to the media. Thank you and wish­ing you a very hap­py New Year 2020.

  • Jesse says:

    Don’t know if you care to edit your arti­cle, but “Dune” is the first of six books in the series writ­ten by Frank Her­bert, not five. fol­lowed by “Dune Mes­si­ah”, “Chil­dren of Dune”, “God Emper­or of Dune”, “Heretics of Dune”, and “Chap­ter­house Dune”.

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