Life Versus Spice

Life Versus Spice

~ essay on Dune (1984) and Dune (2021) and the Dune mythos.

The spice must flow.

Dune is classic sci-fi. An epic tale of geopolitical intrigue and religious destiny. A story about power and its inevitable decisions. The “hero’s journey” darkened by the necessities of a mystical cult of personality.

In the far future, humanity has achieved an intergalactic civilization throughout the Known Universe.

On the desert planet Arrakis, also known as “Dune,” there exists infinite potential. Within the vast seeming wastes, the Spice Melange is mysteriously cultivated. This material empowers humanity’s interstellar flight and feeds royal addictions to hedonism and elite enforcements of psychical asymmetry.

Under the sands lay a future paradise. Dune’s complex ecological landscape is surreptitiously inhabited by battle-hardened indigenous people, the Fremen.

The spice must be harvested by an arm of the empire, wherein Fremen lives and environs are destroyed. Whether it is the Atreides or the Harkonnen house controlling the empire’s base on the planet, the lives of Arrakean humans — and worms — are violently disrupted to keep civilized balance.

And yet, stability on the planet is always in question. The spice cannot be reaped without attacks from Man and Worm; the empire cannot keep its foothold there against the ravages of the landscape and the relentless ingenuity of the indigenous peoples.

Inevitably, Dune pits life versus Spice. Nature versus Man. The worms against our technology. “Good” royalty fights “bad” royalty. One house versus another, in a war of extermination, with galaxy-spanning consequences.

Paul Atreides, the young son of Duke Leto, is our hero on his journey. But his revolutionarily righteous path is subverted and full of overdetermined genocidal bloodletting. He is the Kwisatz Haderach; he will be the savior of the Fremen people, leading an interstellar Jihad in his own name. He is the awakening sleeper and carries water for the future God-Emperor to wield in his name, Muad’ib.

From the moment he awakens, Paul knows completely the cult of his legend promises to sweep through the universe, killing and converting in His name.

Tasked with synthesizing the power dialectic between the noble Atreides and vicious Harkonnens, Paul uses the Spice’s psychoactive awakenings to transform his thinking. He finds and works with the Fremen to the point of becoming one of them, adapted to the desert. Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica, plot out his revenge against Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, going much further than just taking back what was previously his family’s.

With mystic prescience, Paul sees his legacy as a vision. An interstellar jihad in his name, Muad’Dib.

Alongside the epic tale, the foundational worldbuilding lore of Dune is undefeated — and so are the names.

The Bene Gesserit, a sect of psionic matriarchs, control imperial designs from the shadows.

The Landsraad represent the power-hungry council of major houses headed up by the Emperor, where decisions are hashed in unbalanced Socratic seminar-style discussions sometimes ending in “kanly.”

CHOAM — “The Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles or CHOAM, essentially controls all economic affairs across the cosmos, although it relies upon the Spacing Guild for transport across space due to the Guild’s monopoly on faster-than-light travel.”

The Sardaukar, a fanatical, officially-sanctioned death squadron invading and assassinating at the behest of the Imperium.

God-Emperor … speaks for itself.

Like I said, undefeated.


And now Dune is back baby! I re-read the book back in 2019, originally reading it in 2009. And I watched both films in the last few weeks, fully consummating my current Dune-pilledness.

Denis Villeneuve’s high art 2021 adaptation stars Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem, among others.

David Lynch’s funky, freaky 1984 adaptation stars Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Brad Dourif, Dean Stockwell, Virginia Madsen, José Ferrer, Sting, Linda Hunt and Max von Sydow, among others.

I found the Lynchian version to be more alive in pacing and energy and other-worldly impetus, showcasing the fanatical personalities of the Harkonnens in a sharper, more satisfying light. Villeneuve’s version (only part 1 of 2) is heavily focused on picturing the landscapes of Arrakis — utilizing the advanced tech of modern filmmaking. In each, the inner struggles of hero Paul’s course through the chaos of the desert planet’s intrigues provides a captivating scope to a grand story.

Villeneuve (and Lynch’s) cinematography is able to transport, with vast desertscapes and battle sequences captured to scale. And the worms! … they are simply the best worms in cinema, especially the 2021 monstrosities. Their immensity before the measly humans emphasize just how out of place we are within their ocean of sand and spice. Machachlan’s inner noir dialogues — which I loved! — are replaced by cinematic vision-quest dreams of a bloody, dusty future by Chalamet’s expert broodsmanship.

For any (inanely) questioning Dune’s real-world political and psychological implications as a work of art, in trying to decipher just what author Frank Herbert was trying to say, there is plenty of that pitched meaningfulness to be found among fans and analysts, to be read about.

An insight from the mouth of Herbert regarding the purpose of his tale is that he “deliberately suppressed technology in his Dune universe so he could address the future of humanity, rather than the future of humanity’s technology. Dune considers the way humans and their institutions might change over time.”

Each film, ’84 and ’21, succeeds in their own way, showing this human conflict and its… spicy power struggle. Both adaptations ultimately show the truth at the heart of Herbert’s complex mythological tapestry about an imagined future humanity:

Dune rocks. ~

Some sick Dune art.