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An exploration of Dune
An exploration of the movie, the book and some underlying themes
First up, if you haven’t seen Dune, the 2021 movie, you should just go do that. I’ve rewatched it multiple times. This rarely happens to me!
While I count myself as a reader, I had not read the source material (the novels by Frank Herbert from the 1960s onwards) before I saw the movie.
I kept going back to it when it was part of my Prime Video subscription. When it went off Prime Video, I had to buy it on YouTube. This is my only “Buy” (I only “Rent” and that too occasionally).
The trailer, 2 years ago, seemed like a watchable mish-mash of a Star Wars movie with the stereotypical shots of the desert with arabian background music. I did look it up that the book was pre-Star Wars.
I went to see it.
Denis Villeneuve, a big fan of Dune, has painted a canvas with an immense scale while making sure the character building is careful and precise. The wide angle shots all serve to build the world the characters live in.
The combination of scene and sound sets the mood. The ominous delivery of the Emperor’s order. The frantic run from the sand to the rocks to escape the giant worms. The horror of the Reverend Mother’s test.
A proper watch of Dune requires you to have a decent sound system. Dune is multi-sensorial in a way few recent or past movies have been. You almost feel the sand falling through your fingers or the dread of knowingly walking into a trap. You seem to breathe in the spice.
And you want to go back for that experience.
You also want to go back for the layers in the story.
Is it about the insecure emperor? Or the competent looking Duke Atreides? Is it a good vs. evil story? Or a growing up story of a 16-year old? Is it about the ethics of eugenics? How important is the “wizarding” and “witching”? Is it just John Wick-style revenge? The technology? The worlds? Is it redemption for the hardy Fremen?
Every time you watch the movie you discover one or other nuance you missed earlier. The book is simply not enough because of the ability of a audio-visual medium to bring to life everything Frank Herbert imagined!
I recently picked up the 50th anniversary edition of Dune from my apartment library. Reading it, I realized that the movie was a great adaptation. Some of the exposition in the book is replaced by scenes that pack a considerable punch!
The book was also quite “un-putdown-able”. I started reading on a flight on the way to a vacation, sacrificing my usual enjoyment of the view from the window seat and spent a fair bit of 2 days to finish it.
I haven’t read a lot of fantasy science-fiction but I found some echoes of themes from Asimov’s Foundation series. Dune is also inspired by Lawrence of Arabia.
The book is written in an interesting way. You are told up front about what happened. The book just explains how it happened.
The book also gives some background about why the movie feels like the “future-past” and all the Arabian sounding influences.
This is an imagining of a future world that eschews AI/AGI (who would have thunk!) after an apocalyptic war against “thinking machines”. The worlds go backward in certain technologies because of this.
It also explains away the Arabian influences through the fusion of various religions (especially Zen Buddhism and Islam) over ten thousand years.
The politics is truly medieval. An emperor, rival noble houses, trade guild and commodities. Poison checks before eating. Hired assassins and so on. It is like Game of Thrones in space.
The book also details how substance dependent the Universe has become. The ‘Spice’ helps turn some people into human calculators because you can’t build actual calculators. It gives others the ability to see the future (or just hallucinations?).
“The spice must flow”, in fact, is the mantra that keeps the Universe working.
The book is also better at detailing the trap that Duke Atreides is falling into. He has a very “dead man (with a mission) walking” kind of vibe. This reminded me of how my father spent his last year, after a cancer diagnosis, trying to tie up a few loose ends. The sense of anticipated grief at his death fills most of his interactions.
The second half of the book will be released as the upcoming Dune 2 movie. While the first movie ends with the Duke’s son (Paul) finding the Fremen, the next one will explore how he moulds them into a marauding fighting force to get his revenge.
Paul’s transformation and his focus on revenge is quite worrisome for his mother. While Dune ends with his complete victory (no spoilers here), the mood is cautionary. It anticipates violence on a scale never imagined before.
Strength through stress
Much of Dune is set on the hostile desert planet, Arrakis a.k.a Dune. The natives (Fremen) reached here many generations ago. The extreme conditions apply a significant amount of everyday stress and the weak die or are killed (and their water reused!). This, over several generations, results in a very strong fighting force who have a stronger tribal unity than most other armies in the Universe.
This is an ecological theme that is the basis for Paul’s ability to get revenge.
Side note: This exact concept is exploited for Strength Training in Mark Rippetoe’s book: Starting Strength and further detailed in his follow-up book, Practical Programming for Strength Training. I plan to write about my experience with this program in another post!
adaptation = high but tolerable stress + recovery
If you apply too much stress and give too little time to recovery, the organism dies. With a very small stress, there is no adaptation. If you apply stress right at the margin of tolerance and allow the organism to recover, it adapts by becoming stronger and more resilient.
At a group level it is a bit like lions becoming social creatures in opposition to the generally solitary nature of cats. The environment they live in has packs of hyenas which can easily pick off one lion at a time. A pride of lions on the other hand can take on almost anything.
Who is the bad guy?
The book is written from the point of view of multiple characters. But it is clear that Paul Atreides is the protagonist.
You feel sorry for him as he first loses his ancestral home, then his father and is then left for dead in the desert in his hostile adopted planet with his mother by the Harkonnens.
You feel for him as he comes to terms with what his mother has done to him as part of his training and the effect the spice has on him. The burden he carries of being able to see all visions of future possibilities is frightening.
But this is also the story of the rise of an almost omniscient dictator. The consequences must surely follow.
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He has manipulated and unleashed a fanatical fighting force that is looking for a prophet and a cause. The quick victory over the Emperor at the end of the book will surely not quench their thirst.
So Paul is also the antagonist.
The modern liberal democracy has evolved for good reason as a decent solution against cycles of violence. You cannot kill the man who killed your father. This kind of honour-bound violence is recursive and never-ending. The only way to end it is to wipe out one or both family trees in its entirety!
A functioning state will punish the criminal and you are supposed to get justice and go home with your grief.
In the book, Paul calculates that he cannot get justice for his father’s murder. The Harkonnens and the Emperor go to great lengths to conceal the nature of the plot and keep it hazy for any future arbiters like the council of the Great Houses.
Paul seems set on a path, John Wick-like, in the service of revenge despite a high bodycount. And yet, you want to be on Paul’s side.
The book, through his mother mainly, does raise questions about his desire for revenge and he brushes them aside with barely any thought. Yet at other times, he gets nightmares about the violence about to be unleashed.
The movie also makes it a point to show the Harkonnens as subtly subhuman. Somewhere between man and the orc.
The book is more nuanced on this. They show a fairly sophisticated culture within Harkonnens with a lot of smarts and an ability to inflict and celebrate horrifying violence. Very human.
Tianxia: Justifying violence
Without having read the sequels, it feels like Paul is on a similar path as Qin Shi Huang who first unified China after centuries of brutal violence.
Francis Fukuyama, wrote about this in his work, The Origins of Political Order:
Between the beginning of the Eastern Zhou in 770 B.C. and the consolidation of the Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C., China experienced an unremitting series of wars that increased in scale, costliness, and lost human lives…
…Toward the end of the Warring States period, sieges could last for months and wars for years, and involve armies as large as five hundred thousand troops. Compared to other militaristic societies, China under the Zhou was remarkably violent. By one estimate, the state of Qin succeeded in mobilizing 8 to 20 percent of its total population, compared to only 1 percent for the Roman Republic and 5.2 percent for the Greek Delian League.
Qin’s logic was to unify everyone in one bloody struggle to stop never ending wars between smaller Chinese states. His goal was described as the concept of Tianxia (“all under Heaven” meaning a unified people) achieved through conquest.
This story is explored in the visually stunning Chinese movie, Hero, where the protagonist is a would-be assassin of Qin Shi Huang.
The story of the unification of China is extremely bloody and probably inevitable given the geography and prevailing political, economic and technological conditions.
In Dune too, if Paul Atreides doesn’t do what he does, it is indicated that the Harkonnens will make a play for the throne, having stockpiled immense wealth from their hold on mining the “Spice” for decades.
The reality is that many currently modern, peaceful states have emerged through violence during times dominated by Malthusian (zero-sum) economic conditions, where control over land and people was important for prosperity.
The coming of the free market and improved productivity has saved many, many lives through its enabling of win-win transactions.
One path (which would make for a pretty boring books!), could show how Paul embraces free markets and liberalizes the Spice trade. This might do more for peace than the Qin Shi Huang school of thought!
Influence on Star Wars
Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader is kind of like Paul Atreides / Muad’Dib. They are both marked out as special or “The One” and will end up overseeing or responsible for large-scale violence with revenge as one of the main drivers.
Tattooine, the home planet of Anakin, is a desert planet like Dune.
Dune has the witches of the Bene Gesserit who can envision the future or use “The voice” to force people to do stuff just like Jedi/Sith and “The force” in Star Wars.
There is a lot of emphasis on close-quarters knife-fighting in Dune (due to shields that can stop bullets). The lightsabers seem a cooler version of this.
Star Wars Imperial storm-troopers seem like the personal army of Dune’s Emperor: the Sardaukar. The Sardaukar are presented as very competent and feared while the stormtroopers seem like both bumbling idiots during fights with the good guys but also able to conquer and maintain order in the galaxy otherwise.
The main difference is the struggle shown between a democratic republic vs imperial dictatorship in Star Wars along with a well demarcated good vs. evil line that is absent in Dune.