I don’t know where my copy of Dune is. It is likely still at my parents’ house, although they may have also packed it up and sent it to me, in which case it is now in a box hidden away in my own home. Although I had rewatched the Dune movie recently, courtesy the unknown location of my book, I hadn’t had the opportunity to read the novel since I was a teen. Until now.
I was able to borrow a copy of Dune and so pushed myself, in the scant time allotted, to read it through. I have succeeded, and I am the better for it. My memories from having read Dune in my younger days did not do it justice. This is a book as relevant today as it ever was, so a refresher was definitely in order.
First off, reading the book in the shadow of Lynch’s film helps clarify how he got it so wrong. Watching the movie, I focus on scenes that are meticulously reproduced out of the book – up to and including the inner-dialog of the characters (for which Lynch was criticized). In the early chapters of the book (for example Paul’s Bene Gesserit test with the gom jabbar, or Paul’s father rescuing a spice harvester from a worm attack), I realize how much the film has created the images that I now imagine as I am reading. Yet, there are other key pieces of the story that are entirely absent. Taken as a whole, it is clear that Lynch missed the mark when it came to capturing the essence of the story. Is it because someone failed in their artistic vision for the film? Maybe. Probably. But the 1984 movie also looks like a project that someone started with fantastic ambition, but left it half-way done. Scattered amidst beautiful sets and detailed scenes are mere sketches of what should have been the rest of a movie.
We wonder about this today as yet another attempt at bringing Dune to the big screen is underway. Will the new filmmakers see what Lynch got wrong and get it right this time? One would think they’re trying to. Otherwise, why bother making yet another stab at a project that has fallen flat already three times? On the other hand, I did seem some internet mumblings that the new film may be trying to “update” the Dune story for today’s audience. A “woke” Dune for the Twitter age could be an even worse disaster than the previous three put together, but it also wouldn’t surprise me.
Because in many ways, the story of Dune appears to be ripped from today’s headlines. The Arab/Islamic traditions of the Fremen who are bringing jihad to the imperialists that would oppress them – surely we know all about this. It is easy to forget the world of the time when the novel was written. For example, Herbert seems to have used Lawrence of Arabia as an inspiration for Paul-Maud’Dib, a move that seems anachronistic in an age raging against cultural appropriation. The Bedouins may have seemed alien and inscrutable, but they were clearly on the side of good*, fighting against the twin scourges of the Imperial German Army and their Ottoman minions.
By the time Frank Herbert began** publishing Dune in 1963, he had the award winning Lawrence of Arabia as inspiration. The situation in the Middle East, however, had changed quite a bit. While England was still involved in the Arab world, they were no longer the supporters of Arab nationalism that they had been 45 years before. It was to the Soviet Union and socialist ideology that insurgent Arabs were turning. And while England’s loyalty was ambiguous in the recently-concluded Suez Canal crisis, the United States (Herbert was American) had come in on the side of Egypt. Behind this story may lurk a longing for the simpler world of the First World War.
If one looks at Dune as a mere retelling of WWI, then what is the role of the Spice. Spice could easily be considered allegorical for petroleum, as long as one isn’t sticking to the Lawrence of Arabia theme. By the dawn of the 20th century, oil was becoming an important commodity. England had converted her fleet’s future from coal to oil before the start of WWI, creating a world in which military power and access to petroleum would be inexorably linked. However, oil wasn’t discovered in Saudi Arabia until 1938 (preceded by Persia in 1908). It would have to be World War II that could start getting us closer to the idea that oil, this substance that foreign powers consider priceless, can be controlled and simultaneously considerably less valued by the native desert dwellers.
Fast forward to today and the terror cells of Osama Bin Laden and the badly-ruled tyranny of the Taliban or the Islamic State. The opportunity for analogy becomes less and less clear. But can you create a film based on the future of the Arab/Desert/Islamic culture while ignoring its present? Or does our better understanding of how an insurgency fights a foreign “empire” inform our understanding of Maud’Dib‘s two year campaign against the Harkonen which the book breezes past?
Consider, too, the heavy ecological overtones. The concern over the environment was familiar to the author and his readers in the 1960s and 1970s, but the emphasis is quite a bit different these days. Can you imagine the permitting required to geoengineer a desert so as to be amenable to human life?
I don’t know where the new, Villeneuve project is taking*** it, but I foresee traps aplenty. The director has said he would like to make the Star Wars that could have been, “to do the Star Wars movie I never saw.” Like Lynch before him, he proposes a “Star Wars for adults,” although he has also said he expects his product to be very different than Lynch’s version. Perhaps his best course is, as in Star Wars, to ignore the continuity with our current world, to ignore the stab at timely allegory, and simply tell the Dune story taking place in (ours or another) galaxy far, far away.
By contrast, Frank Herbert has placed the world of Dune in our galaxy, as a continuation of our own people and culture. So we see what will be become in 10s of thousands of years, or do we? Because, in many ways, Dune portrays that culture as having regressed. The “known world” of Dune is ruled as an empire cast along the mold of the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperor is politically powerful, but not absolutely so. He answers to a electoral body made up of other noble houses, all of whom (including the Emperor himself) derive a significant share of their power from their joint ownership of CHOAM. From our viewpoint today, CHOAM seems like the anti-capitalist’s dystopian nightmare – a single corporation that controls all commerce in the universe. Sort of like Google, but more so. Or is it, rather, meant to be a stand-in for the East India Company? Given his other backward-looking themes, I’d tend to lean towards the latter.
In technology also, he shows a regression. His backstory becomes more plausible as the years go by. Herbert imagined that society had created sentient AI and that this intelligence stops serving mankind and seeks to enslave us. To resist and, ultimately, overthrow our creation, we humans must develop our minds to rival the capabilities of computers. This results a world that, despite being so far into our future, has remarkably little advancement in technology. Instead, we have powers akin to magic, cultivated by a handful of specialized schools. It isn’t intended to be magic, per se, because these abilities are meant to be extensions of real-world human biology, but it’s as good an explanation for magic as is found in most fictional worlds. Maybe the world of Dune should be thought of less as the HRE but instead a high medieval fantasy world. The Wheel of Time in space.
Frank Herbert specifically said that his “science fiction” shouldn’t be thought of as scientific. Futuristic writings of the 60s (and preceding that time) might be divisible into two classes. Some science fiction was intended to be predictive – imagining the impact of advancement, typically in science and technology, on humans. What are the implications for space travel, or computerization, or surveillance technology, etc.? The second class uses the passage of time to create a society that can be used as a new background for the story. Against that background, the author can explore aspects of human nature in ways that aren’t possible within a historical or contemporaneous setting. Herbert’s work is often cited as a prime example of “soft science fiction” in that he deliberately glossed over the details of technology in his stories, focusing only on the human interactions.
That said, I think it is impossible to imagine (and re-imagine) the world of Dune today without being sucked in by today’s technology. Part of where Herbert ended up had to do with the world in which he was writing. In the late 1950s, when he began working on the story, it was possible to imagine a world where sentient computers would rule over us, but the details of those machines were impossibly futuristic. Technology has, in some ways, advanced beyond Herbert’s conception and beyond the future as written in Dune. Herbert began writing shortly after the release of Forbidden Planet wherein, you may recall, travel to the moon was projected at 100 years out. Today, the hand terminals of The Expanse seem light-years ahead of Dune while at the same time looking like barely an improvement on today’s technology.
The anti-AI backstory can smooth over a lot of this conflict. If man has struck down AI, he probably had to avoid the internet as well. That’s well enough, but it leaves inconsistencies. One can imagine the sophistication of a control system capable of making an ornithopter work. It requires significant advancement over what we have today, but it is still conceivable. Success would ride on well-integrated micro-controllers that manipulate the aerodynamic surfaces in ways that mimic the flight of birds. While conceivable, I would say its definitely more advanced than, say, the forbidden accounting software that is replaced by the Mentats. Similarly, the control system for an individually-worn projectile shield would be quite elaborate.
In this, Herbert in his simpler time had an advantage over us, today. He lived in a world where “thinking machines” filled entire rooms. The miniaturization of computer technology was as inconceivable as is faster-than-light travel or future-revealing drugs. On the other hand, control systems had predated computer technology by generations. Herbert may not have been able to imagine how a system of flywheels, hydraulics, and rudimentary electro-mechanical designs could fly an ornithopter or project a body-shield, but mankind had some 10-20,000 years to figure that out. Today, however, it is impossible for me to forget about microcomputers. They are so accessible and effective, why would one even consider an alternative?
The technology of Dune needs to be thought of as plot devices rather than technological wonders to make sense. Why shields? Well, with shields, guns are mostly ineffective. It allows the world to return to the “sword” part of the “swords and sorcery” without having to eliminate the rather basic technology of firearms from human memory. This, then, creates a problem with the shields themselves, which is solved by a clever rock-paper-scissors mechanism. Energy weapons (lasguns) have been developed, but cause megaton scale releases of destructive energy when they interact with shields. Thus, nobody uses lasguns, for fear of setting off the shields. Then, on the planet Arrakis itself, the shields can’t be used because they’ll get you eaten by a worm. All we’re left with are knives and swords, and a good measure of sorcery. QED. Do we really want do kill the buzz with an analysis of the technological evolution that created it?
Unfortunately, this presents problems for those who would bring Dune to the screen. We won’t be pleased to see a 2020 Dune set in some odd, circa-1960 rocket technology world (I’m picturing Twilight Zone and the like). We’ve got decades of on-screen sci-fi that tell us what we should expect to see and a successful movie is going to have to build on that.
Consider another Dune creation, the “weirding way.” This is a Bene Gesserit discipline that allows the sisters to excel at combat through a mastery of mind and body. In the book (and lets stick with the original for this post), the actual art isn’t detailed. Where it is used, it described only in general terms. Lynch’s re-interpretation of the power was a true abomination of cinema. He suggested had it related to the Bene Gesserit “voice” power and had the Atreides family develop some kind of device to convert shouts into energy blasts. I hope we never see anything like this again. However, given that film is a visual medium, the audience will expect to see an illustration of this remarkable power critical to saving the lives of Paul and Lady Jessica and so amazing to the Fremen. Since Lynch’s film was made, I can think of a few movies that illustrated a similar faster-than-human-perception combat as described in the book. Interview with the Vampire, for example, attributed a similar power to the undead and showed it on screen through blurred movement – letting the audience perceive it as a non-initiated might perceive it within the film’s world. Compare and contrast with The Matrix, where slow-motion depiction is used to demonstrate what faster-than-a-speeding-bullet reaction time feels like to the wielder.
Getting Dune right has a lot of appeal. In some ways, the goal is tantalizingly achievable. Despite being a futuristic space-opera, the story is mostly focused on conversations between individuals or small groups. It is almost suited to a stage play, which should make it easy to capture on screen. What flummoxed Lynch was the Herbert’s ubiquitous internal dialog. This might actually have been easier to portray in a stage play (where breaking the fourth wall is less disruptive) than in a modern movie. If that can be solved through something that seems natural and aesthetic, converting the books could really work. Given the current state of the sci-fi genre, a filmmaker would probably want to recreate some of the battle sequences that were “off stage” in the book version, just because that’s what films do best. In this the filmmakers can pick and choose without straying from the book, which would seem easier than when one needs to remove scenes that are too large to film.
Harder still will be creating “Star Wars as it was meant to be” while at the same time faithfully bringing Dune to the big screen. These goals may wind up being in conflict. I don’t know. Like everyone else, I will be eagerly waiting to see what comes out later this year. I’m glad I had a chance to read the book in anticipation.
*The ending of Laurence of Arabia is morally ambiguous. Having led the desert people to a victory that they cannot sustain, T. E. Laurence returns to the England that steps into the power void left by the defeated Ottoman Empire. Laurence was never the prophet that Paul Atreides is in Dune. Or is he?
**The first publishing of the Dune story was in the magazine Analog (later Astounding) starting in 1963. The text was significantly reworked for the book version, published in 1965.
***Or has taken? It is already in post-production.