There are no computers in science fiction writer Frank Herbert’s universe, set twenty thousand years in humankind’s future. There is no artificial intelligence either, immediately separating his iconic Dune series of books from a lot of writing in the science fiction genre. In Herbert’s “Duniverse”, as the world of his imagination is popularly called among fans, humans of the future have gained vastly increased life spans due to using a mind-altering, addictive substance called “melange” or spice.
An enduring world
It would be natural to assume that human culture and nature so far in the future would be unrecognisable, the story laden with fantastical and unfamiliar concepts. But what endears Herbert to many of his readers, more than fifty years after the first book in the series, simply titled Dune, was published, is his astute and constant examination of the human condition – relatable and comfortingly familiar.
Dune may not have permeated popular culture the way some other works of science fiction and fantasy like Star Wars have, but it has a huge and dedicated following entirely its own. Entire forums on Reddit, Tumblr and Imgur are dedicated to Dune fan art, fan fiction, plot discussions and cosplay, testament to its immense popularity. Even astronomy tips its hat to Frank Herbert – many of the features of Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons, have been named after the planets in Dune. Heavy metal band, Iron Maiden famously wrote and performed a song titled To Tame a Land that strongly invokes the universe of Dune and then there’s English DJ Fatboy Slim, whose song Weapon of Choice unabashedly references Dune with all the enthusiasm of a groupie.
The spice must flow
Frank Herbert wrote Dune in the early 1960’s, followed by five more books to complete the series. The story, captivating in its intricate descriptions of Herbert’s vision of the future, is one of the best examples of world-building in its genre. Herbert constructs vivid imagery to communicate the distances humans have traversed in space and plausible explanations for the lengths they have gone to establish themselves as a species throughout the galaxy and beyond.
At the centre of the story, hangs the curiously special planet Arrakis or Dune. Entombed by a desert so gigantic that it extends from pole to pole, the planet is systematically ravaged by immense sandstorms which can “strip flesh from bone and whittle bone down to splinter”, a hostile and merciless home.
A colossal species of worm, often several hundreds of metres in length, dominates the surface and is linked to the mind-altering substance – a drug known as melange. The highly-addictive melange is found exclusively on Dune and gives its users prescient abilities, extended lifespan and in the process, turns their eyes entirely blue.
This becomes the main force that drives the story and its various sub-plots – an intergalactic struggle to control melange production. Uncanny parallels can be drawn between current dependence on petroleum and the Duniverse fuelled by melange. The late 1950’s saw many titanic battles to control oil mining in West Asia. Frank Herbert published Dune in 1965, yet the end result of his novel has a dark correlation to what would one day happen in our own world. Herbert’s planet, Arrakis, becomes a depiction of Iraq – from the discovery of oil beneath its dunes to the native population’s revolutions against the oppressive, foreign regimes that dared hold dominion over it. To Herbert, it probably seemed logical that the once powerless natives would use their power over those that once held them at their mercy.
Back to the basics
Herbert’s stories are based in a very familiar part of this universe. Humanity’s time on Earth (or Old Terra) forms a part of very ancient human history in the books. Sitting in 2018, then, the reader has a wormhole view twenty thousand years into the future, and it’s a view filled with familiar motifs.
The religions and cultures of the Duniverse are all rooted in our own history and Frank Herbert cements this by choosing names that evoke a recognisable medieval, feudal setting. Arguably the most engrossing characters, the Fremen, are “Zensunni”, an amalgam of Sunni Islam and Zen Buddhism while House Atreides, also prominent throughout the series, can, in name and ancestry, be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Although the names place the Fremen as an exotic Other in relation to the Western Atreides family, they also gesture towards a possible re-envisioning of this polarised relationship.
One of the most familiar and persistent motifs, however, is seen in Herbert’s underlying theme of ecological balance. The Fremen tribes of Dune, by virtue of living on a desert planet, are understandably a people whose most valuable commodity is water itself – they are obsessed with it. They wear special outfits that “reclaim the body’s moisture” and spitting on someone or crying over them is considered the highest form of respect as one expends the body’s moisture to do so. The dead are wrung to extract their water and an individual’s wealth is measured in litres.
With climate change and disasters like the drought in California and South Africa threatening to alter lives irrevocably, reading Dune is enough to make your hair stand on end because it strikes so close to home.
The human condition
Political, economic, religious and cultural forces are all motivators in the Dune universe, with a delicious helping of intrigue, subterfuge and folly. But in the disorienting world of Herbert’s imagination, recent history is all jumbled up and the pieces stuck back together in a different order. It’s what elevates Dune to the highest level of a science fiction saga, the vividly-imagined and painstakingly-detailed setting (Herbert had created enough of a backstory for his imagined universe that this son would eventually be able to write seventeen books drawing on this background material) is eventually a narrative device to explore the human condition, one that is reflected back though this jumbled funhouse of mirrors.
Ultimately, what is most captivating about Dune is the enduring nature of the questions Herbert raises about where we will go from here. What would it take for humans to become a species that will survive – Sacrifice? Brutality? Outlawing dangerous technology? Will any of it make a difference to an inevitable extinction or dormancy. Over half a century after he began posing these questions in his fantastical world, we are no closer to the answers in ours.