"The highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences."
— Pardot Kynes
Readers that take on Dune with this quote in mind will begin to see what Herbert’s intentions were in writing this monumental story. Dune is a story of consequences; the consequences of the smallest and largest of actions and, most of all, the consequences of humans inflicting themselves on a planet. It is a story primarily concerned with ecology. In fact, there is an entire appendix in the back of the book dedicated to the ecology of the desert planet, Arrakis. Anyone, whether they are interested in the changing of Earth's climate (which they should be) or not, would do well to pick up a copy of this masterpiece of speculative fiction.
The world of Dune is one that has occupied my mind for a couple of years now. The story is set in a very distant future universe in which interstellar travel has completely transformed human existence. (To give this universe a sense of deep history, each chapter of the book has a brief excerpt from historical texts that have been written years after the story we are reading). The universe has become a feudal empire that no longer uses computers or any form of artificial intelligence because of a multi-generational war with machines called the Butlerian Jihad. When machines were deemed a threat to human existence, they were completely wiped out and computation is now undertaken by Mentats, humans that are born and raised to conduct complex mathematics and logical analysis at incredible speeds. Religions that are practiced today have become amalgamated and the primary religious text of the Padishah Empire is the Orange Catholic Bible (Herbert provides a second appendix that explains the post-Butlerian Jihad religious development of the Empire). One of the new religions—though they do not consider themselves a religion— is the Bene Gesserit, a mysterious female order that pulls the strings of the empire in subtle and effective ways.
The story is divided into three books in one volume: Book I, Dune; Book II, Muad’Dib; and Book III, The Prophet. At the center of this story is a planet called Arrakis (Dune). Arrakis is a desert planet that is the only source in the universe of the geriatric spice, melange. The spice is the most valued commodity in the entire universe because of its effects on the mind and body. It is a consciousness altering substance that gives those that ingest it the ability to see glimpses of the future, and grants the gift of longer life. The spice is used by mutated humans known as Navigators of the Spacing Guild to see which trajectory is best for faster-than-light travel. This form of travel was impossible before the discovery of melange due to the fact that no one knew what obstacles they would collide with, like a planet, or a star. The most interesting effects of the spice are the effects it has on our protagonist, Paul Atreides.
Paul is the fifteen year old son of the Duke Leto of House Atreides (one of the Great Houses of the Landsraad) and Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. Within the first chapter of the novel, we learn that Paul is no ordinary human, he is the first male born of a Bene Gesserit, breaking a long genealogy of strictly female offspring. After being tested by the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, Paul learns that his being the first male offspring of a Bene Gesserit makes him the Kwisatz Haderach: the one who can be many places at once. It is during Paul’s test that readers learn the Litany Against Fear, one of the most famous recitations repeated throughout the novel:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Paul’s role as the Kwisatz Haderach becomes very significant when the House Atreides is given control of the planet Arrakis by the Padishah Emperor.
—A lot of what makes Dune so special is the sense of discovery one feels when learning about the deeper spiritual, political, mystical and historical aspects of the novel on one’s own so I will forgo discussing what the Missionaria Protectiva is and its role in myth-making on Arrakis.—
The House Atreides takes fiefdom of Arrakis and replaces the rivalling House Harkonnen. Once on the desert planet, Paul, Leto and weapons master, Gurney Halleck are introduced to the spice harvesting process by one Liet-Kynes, Planetologist of the Imperium and son of Pardot Kynes (the man behind the quote at the beginning of this review). It is here that we are given our first glimpse of the giant sandworms that reign supreme over Arrakis and produce the treasured spice.
The Harkonnen’s, led by a the grossly obese Baron Harkonnen (a representation of consumption) take back control of Arrakis in a single night of brutal treachery and betrayal. In order to survive, Paul and Jessica are forced to take their chances with the open desert. While surviving the hellish landscape and doing what they can to avoid sandworms, Paul and Jessica are taken in by the natives of Arrakis, the Fremen. It is here that Paul starts his transformation into the Lisan Al-Gaib, Muad’Dib and his “terrible purpose” begins to take shape.
Plausibility and Prescience
A desert planet such as Arrakis could realistically harbor human life. The reason for this is that in an arid landscape there is no risk of water evaporating into the atmosphere and trapping UV causing a runaway greenhouse effect such as the case of the environment of Venus. While the reality of giant sandworms is highly improbable, reader’s will learn in Appendix I that they are the source of oxygen in the atmosphere of Arrakis.
Dune was published in 1965, so the fact that Herbert was able to foresee artificial intelligence as a possible threat to human existence and extrapolate from that an impending war with machines and a resulting agreement amongst humans that “thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind”, is astoundingly prescient. The story takes place about 20,000 years in the future, the year 10,191. I, personally, am of the mind that faster than light travel will never be possible no matter how far into the future we speculate, the laws of physics simply do not allow it. Reality ceases to function properly beyond the speed of light.
The technology of Dune is where Herbert’s speculations truly begin to shine. Water on Arrakis is so scarce that the Fremen have devised numerous methods by which to preserve it. The stillsuits worn by the Fremen should interest us in 2021 with the threat of possible desertification of large swaths of the Earth’s surface. Stillsuits are a water reclaiming system that is worn in the desert to recirculate the body’s lost water content by absorbing sweat, saliva and urine, filtering it and gathering it in a bladder for consumption. The Fremen also deploy dew collection systems that consist of a sheet of metal upon which dew collects in the morning and trickles down into a reservoir. One of the most brutal methods is reclaiming the water content of the bodies of the dead.
Herbert’s studies of deserts and dry-land ecology had a major influence on the ecology of Arrakis. The goal of the Fremen is to engineer the landscape and turn Arrakis into a green paradise. They begin this endeavor when Planetologist Pardot Kynes teaches them how to build water reserves and about “trapping” the dunes by growing plant life on them, the latter being much like the methods used by the US Forest Service in Oregon. One has to imagine this as a reversal of the climate change we are seeing on Earth. In true science-fiction fashion Herbert has created a plausible and believable world by extrapolating outward from existing theories and technologies. He makes up words or combines words to invent new terminologies and vocabularies. He extracts existing theories from our own time and gives them life in a distant future, such as the "Tansley Effect", an esoteric ecological theory based on the work of Arthur Tansley, inventor of the word "ecosystem".
Frank Herbert claims that over 200 books went into the research for Dune. The story analyzes archetypes, politics, religion, mysticism, colonialism, imperialism, ecology and technology. Dune is eco-fiction, it is speculative fiction, it is a classic of science-fiction and it is a classic of American literature. It is flawed but its flaws are dwarfed by its planet sized influence on the world of literature. If you are a reader of science-fiction, fantasy or books in general, this one should be on your to-read list.
Thursday April 15, 2021