- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Like the compass-baffling deserts of Arrakis, the Dune universe can be an inhospitable place. Simply picking up Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel requires readers to pause and swallow manfully before plunging ahead.
At a portly 500-plus pages, it’s a lavishly operatic sci-fi adventure set 10,000 years in the future which bulges with Machiavellian intrigue, dense metaphysics and arcane technologies. It tells the story of a space-faring noble dynasty, House Atreides, who are sent to the mysterious planet of Arrakis, where they’re caught up in a galactic conspiracy and an ancient prophecy about a saviour who will lead a rebellion against the malevolent Empire.
Dune has left a wreckage of filmmakers in its wake. Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky was the first to try to adapt it, in 1973. His adaptation, though, was sunk by its grandiose 14-hour running time and the diva-ish antics of his stars. (Salvador Dalí, for instance, cast as the evil emperor Shaddam IV, demanded a $100,000-an-hour fee. Jodorowsky’s solution? Film Dalí for only four minutes, and use a life-size doll in his place for the rest of the shoot.)
The next director to stumble out of Herbert’s source material was David Lynch. His campy 1984 attempt at least got made, but its clod-footed storytelling and lumpen visual effects baffled critics and angered fans. John Harrison’s 2000 Sci-Fi Channel mini-series, Frank Herbert’s Dune, was well-received, but many felt it failed to capture the scale of Herbert’s creation, and it was criticised, too, for its confusing storytelling.
So perhaps the greatest achievement of the latest version, directed by Arrival and Blade Runner 2049’s Denis Villeneuve, is that it makes sense. In fact, such is the visual force of Villeneuve’s filmmaking – allied to Hans Zimmer’s immersive, chest-beating sound design – that you could sink into its soaring spectacle.
Yet Dune should be more than pure dazzlement. Herbert crafted a rich and layered hinterland in his novel, and Villeneuve’s take – adapting only the first half of Herbert’s book – does occasionally sink into a quicksand of woozy visions and garbled prophesying. It’s best, therefore, to enter it forewarned. So saddle up your spice worm: this is the bluffer’s guide to Dune.
The noble houses & the Imperium
In the universe of Dune, power teeters on a knife-edge. It’s split between the Landsraad, a loose alliance of noble houses, and the Padishah Emperors, otherwise known as the Imperium.
As in Game of Thrones, the noble houses are sometimes allies, but more often are at each other’s throats – with the ruling emperor playing them off against each other to ensure one doesn’t get too powerful. The Padishah Emperors, aka House Corrino, have ruled for thousands of years; the current emperor, Shaddam IV, is the 81st of his line.
He rules with the help of the Sardaukar, an army of Spartan-like fanatics. Press-ganged into service as infants, they are trained on a prison planet, Salusa Secundus, which has such an unforgiving environment that it kills six out of every 13 recruits before they reach their teenage years. In David Lynch’s version, the Sardaukar were realised as anonymous foot soldiers in hazmat suits. Villenueve, though, gives them snazzy white armour and a taste for ritualised cruelty; when we first meet them in his film, they are being daubed with the blood of human sacrifices while a priest warbles on.
The story of Dune follows the fortunes of House Atreides, one of the noble dynasties. Our heroes are Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac), his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet). House Atreides has ruled the watery planet of Caladan for 20 generations. In Villeneuve’s film, it looks like the Scottish Highlands spliced with Norway’s fjords. (In Lynch’s Dune, it was, like the rest of the film, largely a muddy series of woebegone interiors.)
At the beginning of Dune, House Atreides are on the rise and the emperor fears they may come to challenge his rule. So he cooks up a plan with the brutish House Harkonnen to clip their wings. That scheme involves spice mining and the mysterious planet of Arrakis.
Spice and Arrakis
Spice Melange – known merely as “spice” – is the most valuable substance in the universe. It prolongs human life, grants prescience and, most significantly, is the essential component of interstellar travel. The Spacing Guild, a brotherhood that controls intergalactic movement, uses spice to safely guide ships through warp space; it gives them a limited ability to see the future and thus navigate the intricacies of faster-than-light travel.
Yet spice is found in only one place: the desert planet of Arrakis, right out in the universe’s unfashionable sticks, on the outer edge of imperial control. Also known as “Dune”, Arrakis has two moons, one which is marked by an asteroid crater like a claw scratch. The extreme scarcity of spice means that control of its meaning rights is fantastically lucrative.
Dune, therefore, is both “the wasteland of Empire, and the most valuable planet in the universe,” Herbert writes. “Without [spice] there is no commerce in the Empire, there is no civilisation. And he who controls it, controls our destiny.”
As Dune begins, House Harkonnen has brutally ruled Arrakis for eight decades – then, suddenly, the emperor grants the planet to House Atreides. An offer they cannot refuse.
Arrakis is far from deserted. It is home to the Fremen, an indigenous people who, like the Bedouin on Earth have evolved to cope with its crushing temperatures and lethal sand storms. They are the last remnants of the Zensunni Wanderers, a loose coalition of peoples who migrated between planets, fleeing persecution and enslavement by imperial raiders. They practise the Zensunni religion, a blending of Sunni Islam with Zen-Buddist influences.
The Fremen have no interest in spice, except as a hallucinogen in their religious rituals, and they were viciously persecuted by the Harkonnen during their fiefdom. These nomads live in underground redoubts, called sietch, which are built into rocky outcrops scattered across the surface of Arrakis. The defences protect them from prying eyes, the heat of the sun – and the voracious attentions of the sand worms.
If you’ve picked up a copy of Dune, you’ll likely have seen a sand worm on the front cover. Arrakis’s iconic megafauna, these vast invertebrates can grow up to 400 metres long. Their burrowing is responsible for Arrakis’s rolling dunes and, in their larval form, they excrete spice. Water is fatal to them.
Though not predatory, the worms are highly territorial. The noisy extraction of spice enrages them and they’re known to attack miners. Navigating by vibration, they are attracted to rhythmic noises. The Fremen exploit this by using an irregular walking pattern – like a bee-stung disco shuffle – to throw them off and employ distraction devices, called thumpers, to ensure safe passage and lead them to their enemies.
They’ve also been known to ride sand worms using grappling hooks; and even measure distances in terms of how long they can ride a sand worm before it is exhausted. The Fremen consider sand worms to be semi-divine, and worship a primordial sand worm deity, called “Shai-Hulud”, which lies at the heart of their Zensunni religion. This term also refers to the creatures in general.
The religions of Dune
Herbert had a keen interest in the nature of belief, and Dune works as an intellectual laboratory as he bounces ideas of predestination, salvation and fanaticism off each other. He imagined that a frantic period of space exploration took place thousands of years before the action of Dune. This fit of discovery sparked a flourishing of hundreds of different religions and creeds as humankind confronted the fearful “outer dark”. The Book of Genesis was rewritten; its fundamental dictat became to “increase and multiply, and fill the universe, and subdue it”.
One of those religions was the Zensunni religion of the Fremen. Herbert drew on Islamic motifs in his depiction of the Fremen’s beliefs, a syncretism of superstition, messanic religion and animism. Like Sufi mysticism, it combined monotheism with ancient adherence to spirits and demons – known in Dune, and in the Islamic world, as “jiin”.
The Fremen believe that one day a saviour – “Muad’Dib” – will arise and lead a jihad to banish the outlanders exploiting their planet. This messiah will not be a Fremen, but a “voice from the outer world”. And they will be recognised from their mastery of “The Way” and “The Voice”.
The Way and The Voice
Dune’s answer to the Jedi mind-control of Star Wars, The Way combines telekinetic powers with self-negation. Herbert was an enthusiast of Zen Buddhism and many of the sayings of The Way resemble paradoxical Buddhist teachings, or koans. A typical example runs: “Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘Now, it’s complete because it’s ended here.’”
Adepts of The Way can endure great suffering, see into the future and manipulate others to do their will. This manipulation is achieved via a mesmeric technique called The Voice. Paul Atreides has these nascent powers, but when Dune begins, they aren’t yet fully developed. He has inherited them from his mother, Lady Jessica, who has some psychic abilities and is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a shifty order of space nuns.
Alongside the noble houses and the Imperium, the Bene Gesserit are the other great power in the universe. But unlike those forces, they prefer to use cunning, stealth and behind-the-throne tinkering to achieve their aims. A largely female religious school, their mental and physical conditioning gives them telepathic abilities. Like Star Wars’s Jedi Knights, the Bene Gesserit often play the role of counsellors to the noble houses and the Imperium.
But they have their own aims, too. Unbeknownst to most, they have been conducting a centuries-long breeding programme, mixing the blood of the noble houses, to produce the “Kwisatz Haderach”. This figure will be a person of enormous psychic powers capable of exploiting higher dimensions of consciousness. Alongside this intergalactic matchmaking, the Bene Gesserit also dabble in a spot of psychological warfare, using the order’s mystique to sow superstition and subdue indigenous populations like the Fremen.
The Bene Gesserit grew out of the aftermath of the Great Revolt, or the Butlerian Jihad. This was a crusade against “thinking machines” promulgated centuries before Dune. It led to the abolition of all AI and computational machines. Hence why Dune takes place in a whizz-bang Middle Ages – battles are decided by poisoned darts and sword fights, and the galaxy carved up between rival dynasties which jet around in massive interstellar cruisers. Like 19th-century Japan, its world is a mix of rigid caste structure and ultra-modernity: a sort of feudal futurism.
This dynamic is clear on Arrakis. The colonising houses fly about in ornithopters, bird-like aeroplanes, protected from the sand worms and ravaging sunlight, while the Fremen use their specialist walking technique to avoid the wildlife, armed with ingenious inventions. Chief among these is the stillsuit: body-enclosing armour which cools its wearer and recycles their moisture; in this way, the user is sustained on desert crossings by their own sweat and urine. Delightful.
Herbert’s Dune is an intimidating hunk of world-building. And Villeneuve’s monumental film doesn’t try to handhold viewers through it. So be sure to tuck a copy of this guide into your stillsuit. After all, Arrakis is not kind to the unwary. It pays to be prepared.
Dune is in cinemas now