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‘Dune’ is, in fact, a cautionary tale

Herbert’s story draws from his time in Pacific Northwest

By Conrad Swanson, The Seattle Times
Published: March 2, 2024, 6:00am

House Atreides has fallen. Duke Leto is dead and his son, Paul, lives in hiding, gathering his strength and awaiting the right moment to reclaim his birthright from the twisted Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

Will our hero succeed? Is he a hero at all? What new challenges must he confront living among the dunes, storms and sandworms?

You see, Paul Atreides’ fate — and that of the intergalactic empire — is inextricably linked to the climate and ecology of the desert planet Arrakis. Frank Herbert designed his beloved story, “Dune,” that way intentionally, as a critique of our own world and a cautionary tale for the future.

“Dune: Part Two,” directed by Denis Villeneuve, premiered in theaters across the country on Friday.

Perhaps you’ve read the book(s) and already know how it turns out. Either way, “Dune” fans should be pleased that the trailblazing book finally has a good — dare I say great? — movie adaptation.

“Dune” has amassed a loyal following since the novel’s debut in 1965. Herbert served as an early pioneer of science fiction with a climatological and ecological spin — “cli-fi,” as folks in the know call it.

A Tacoma native and University of Washington attendee (not graduate), Herbert wasn’t the first to explore the subgenre, but his insights carry over into today’s world better than most. He cemented an uncannily prescient, even chilling legacy for his most beloved work.

Without spoiling the second half of the story too much, let’s take a look at some of Herbert’s most enduring warnings.

“It’s not a hopeful book; it’s a pessimistic book,” said Devin Griffiths, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. “It’s deeply critical of business as usual.”

A familiar situation

In the story, we’ve got a barren and dry planet covered in sand, occupied by the indigenous Fremen people and imperial colonizers who occupy the northern hemisphere and harvest “Melange,” also known simply as “spice.”

Melange is a drug, sacred to the Fremen and precious to the broader galactic empire because it enables interstellar pilots to safely navigate through space. Without the spice, interplanetary economies would crumble — as would the empire.

Therein lies the catch and the conflict. Not only do the Fremen detest colonizers mining their planet for spice and often attack them; the mining operation is also a dangerous activity in and of itself. Melange is a byproduct of the massive sandworms that also inhabit the planet. These scaly creatures, 400 meters long and with thousands of razor-sharp teeth, attack the mining operations without fail.

Take the sandworms out of the equation, and a few things about spice might start to sound familiar. This is a rare substance, found on foreign soil, needed for travel, underpinning entire economies, the building block of whole governments, something over which generational wars are fought.

You might think of oil, other fossil fuels, maybe even lithium. Could be any hard-to-come-by resource.

This is a story of scarcity, power and violence, said Jesse Oak Taylor, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Department of English.

“You have to be trying really hard not to see these convergences happening around us,” Taylor said.

Who loses when these factors converge? Often Indigenous, minority and less-wealthy populations who have fewer resources and less leverage to fight back and advocate for themselves.

Take the concept one step further. We understand that using fossil fuels generates greenhouse gases. Not only do those emissions poison the air — again, disproportionately harming poor, rural, Indigenous and minority communities — but the atmospheric warming they’re triggering also compounds that harm.

For his story, Herbert drew heavily from his time in his native region, taking into consideration both the ecology of the Pacific Northwest and its Indigenous people, Griffiths said. He also took inspiration from the Aboriginal Australians, the Bedouin of Northern Africa and the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania.

As with these peoples, water in “Dune” is a scarce resource among the Fremen on Arrakis, something to be conserved at every opportunity.

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Earth’s changing climate means we’ll be forced to find and conserve water in different ways as well. That’s even true in the Pacific Northwest, a region famously accustomed to an abundance of water.

As for the broader ecology of “Dune,” Herbert also tied the sandworms — called Shai-Hulud by the Fremen — to the production of oxygen on Arrakis. This is an important connection, Griffiths said, that actually predates James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which says living organisms on Earth help create, regulate and maintain the planet’s atmosphere.

Take in the whole scene together, and a picture emerges of a delicate climatological and ecological balance on Arrakis. To be sure, it’s a harsh planet that’s chewed up colonizers for as long as they’ve invaded the place.

So what does Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, do? He stops fighting the environment and the Fremen, and starts working with them. He harnesses the power of the desert and its people.

In the book, Herbert calls the concept “desert power,” a phrase he borrowed from T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) and his experience with the Bedouin, Griffiths said.

There’s another similarity between Atreides and Lawrence, perhaps Herbert’s most important one. They’re both white foreigners in positions of power using Indigenous people to suit their own desires.

While Atreides is living in the desert, learning the Fremen way, his mother stokes the flames of an ancient prophecy among the community, convincing them that her son is their chosen one. They rely on that prophecy and religious fundamentalists who believe in it to seize power.

Does Atreides use this prophecy to defeat the Harkonnens, who are objectively terrible? Yes, but his ascendancy results in a deadly, intergalactic holy war. Is that an improvement, or just more of the same brutality?

Herbert wrote about his distrust — hatred, even — of hero worship and how it influenced “Dune” for the July 1980 issue of Omni Magazine.

“Personal observation has convinced me that in the power arena of politics/economics and in their logical consequence, war, people tend to give over every decision making capacity to any leader who can wrap himself in the myth fabric of the society,” Herbert wrote. “Hitler did it. Churchill did it. Franklin Roosevelt did it. Stalin did it. Mussolini did it.

“Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to people in power no matter how admirable those people may appear to be.”