Science fiction has become popularized over the years across various media. SF at its best has potential for shocking thought experiments that can mold the public consciousness. Some of the most memorable and influential SF asks important questions or takes important ideological stances. It can be bold, or nuanced, or hidden under layers of familiar conventions and tropes. People that know me know that I’m a fan of Dune by Frank Herbert. It’s not just my favorite SF novel but one of my favorite books under any category. I don’t just find the story and rich universe fascinating, I also appreciate Herbert’s message and sentiments. The Dune series was a big influence on my own writing and inspired the approach that I took towards worldbuilding in my own Gordian Knot trilogy. This blog is partially based on an essay that I began writing while studying creative writing in grad school. It was always my goal to keep refining it and eventually pitch it to a market, but based on the tepid replies I was getting from editors, my impression is that the timing is unfortunate. With the Denis Villeneuve film coming out this year, people like me are excited and can’t get enough. Unfortunately, many websites and magazines have been publishing Dune-related content for the better part of a year and frankly many of them are tired to death of talking about it. That puts me in an odd predicament, and it could be that my pitches and article aren’t what markets want.
For an international bestseller and SF classic, Dune is probably one of the most poorly-understood books in the genre (in the future I may do a whole series of blogs related to classics). I’m including myself. I’ve been re-reading this massive book before the new movie’s release and realizing that I misremembered or conveniently forgot entire plot points and critical details in a kind of cultural Mandela effect. The Dune books are also overshadowed by the 1984 David Lynch film which, despite its charms, is almost singlehandedly responsible for a lot of the common misconceptions still floating around. And while I admire Villeneuve’s work and think he’ll do a great job, a book like Dune has been widely viewed by fans as impossible to adapt because of its incredible complexity. Despite having a number of conventional SF staples like FTL “space-folding” travel, the Dune universe is notably lacking aliens and AI (in the latter case, thinking machines were outlawed following an event known as The Butlerian Jihad). Ostensibly, this was a deliberate choice so that Herbert could keep the focus of the story of humans and humanity. This is important because Herbert philosophically had a lot of things to say about humanity. Aliens and AI could easily overshadow a story that seeks to highlight this kind of deep discussion. This blog isn’t a review or literary criticism. It’s about why I feel that Dune is extremely relevant to everything going on in the world today. Dune is a massive book and an expansive series, but I’ve focused on three topics: social commentary, ecology, and what Herbert called a warning about “charismatic leaders.”
The feudal system displayed in this far future setting seem anachronistic initially. I believe that this was another deliberate choice. It wasn’t just a storytelling shortcut to create a social milieu that would seem rather familiar to us. I think it was also a way for Herbert to express skepticism about human progress. In the Dune universe, technology doesn’t guarantee an “advanced” society. Technological advancement and social advancement occupy separate lanes, and in Dune’s fictional timeline, humanity can advance nonlinearly or took enormous steps backwards. Despite all of our recent scientific advancements, we are witnessing an unprecedented global wealth gap which is widening a class divide and effectively creating a two-tiered society. Perhaps not the rigid and highly-organized Landsraad of the Dune universe, but a warning of precisely the kind of hierarchal system that we could return to.
While a subject like global climate change might seem rather contemporary, Herbert was using Arrakis to examine the symbiotic relationship between humans and their planet. At the time of its publication, ecology was thought about on a smaller, local scale. We had yet to learn about how fragile the Earth was. We are still learning about the complex feedback loops and cycles that play out over the eons. The Fremen people in Dune have an intimate relationship with their environment. They respect it because they know its power. They have a profound reverence for the sandworms (the Shai-Hulud, literally “makers”). They feel a sense of awe beyond the commonplace fear that outsiders feel. The desert planet forces the humans on it to adapt, and reminds us that the same planet that can foster life can easily take it away. I don’t think I need to add any further context, but wonder how sad Herbert would be if he were alive today and saw how little we’ve done. Humanity continues to demonstrate exceptionally poor stewardship of the planet and all creatures on it.
The main character, Paul Atreides, is not a conventional protagonist. Like all well-written characters, he’s complex and compelling. And superficially, he seems like a prototypical “hero.” Dune is rather a work of the SF literary New Wave, unlike the pulp fiction of the Golden Age that preceded it. Herbert sought to subvert many of the genre’s tropes and claimed "I wrote the Dune series because I had this idea…that charismatic leaders ought to come with a warning label on their forehead: May be dangerous to your health.” With Paul’s prescient powers, he can see a coming genocidal jihad that will kill billions across the galaxy. A war that he will help initiate. I can think of other perhaps more poignant examples of leaders who, despite their noblest intentions, have unleashed unspeakable atrocities. Especially now when we are seeing the return of nationalism and strongmen, the horrors that can come from cults of personality are all too easy to imagine.
The scenarios in the Dune books are as familiar as the idea of struggles over planetary resources. And sadly, the fictional conflicts playing out seem as real and relevant today as when Dune was written in 1965. No Messiah can save us from our own doings any more than a new machine can. Humanity must somehow work within and around its own restraints and shortcomings. It must change and evolve–not necessarily through selective breeding programs and genetic engineering. Rather, humanity must grow on a deeper, more foundational (possibly even spiritual) level. We must have faith and bear our hearts and risk ruin, because we know what’s at stake if we fail and the kind of society that we can slip back into. Just as people mature with age, so must humanity if we have any hope of surviving on just this one world, let alone on many.
Jonathan E. Hernandez is a science fiction writer and visual artist who decided to pursue a career better suited to his muses after an honorable discharge from the military. His first novel, ONE DAY AS A LION, debuts March 2, 2021 with Aethon Books. A Nuyorican originally from the Bronx, he now lives in Astoria, New York with his partner Anita and a cat named Jonesy.