‘Dune’: Old Spice in a New Age

Dune is an extraordinarily impressive (if not utterly enjoyable) adaptation of the first half of the epic 1965 science-fiction novel that George Lucas borrowed heavily from for his boys’ version in Star Wars.

The book by Frank Herbert, a GOP speechwriter who sensed early various late-’60s currents such as drugs and ecology, is a spectacular pastiche set 21,000 years in the future under a galactic empire where, because intelligent aliens don’t exist and technology is advanced but stagnant, human politics is all-consuming. The governmental system resembles that of Renaissance Europe, with aristocrats struggling to maintain their planetary autonomy despite the growing power of absolute monarchy.

Both sides are advised by the Bene Gesserit, a Jesuit-like order of cynical sorceresses, who have been pursuing a vast eugenics project to breed a superhuman who can see into the future.

“How many recent movies bring Lawrence of Arabia to mind?”

They may have found him in 15-year-old Paul Atreides (played by the annoyingly spelled Timothée Chalamet), son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), a culturally Spanish aristocrat modeled on Machiavelli’s optimistic portrayal of the House of Borgia in The Prince, and his loving concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), the most adept graduate of the Bene Gesserit convent school.

The emperor, for murky reasons of his own, gives House Atreides the desert planet of Dune as a fief. On Dune, the profitable mining of the psychoactive performance-enhancing drug “spice” is being hindered by the guerrilla rebellion of the indigenous Fremen (i.e., free men). They are modeled on Lawrence of Arabia’s Bedouin revolt in the desert, the 19th-century Muslim Caucasus resistance to Czarist imperialism, and the Sioux struggles with intrusive gold-miners that led to the battle of Little Big Horn.

The Bene Gesserit have planted a prophecy among the Fremen that Paul will be their Mahdi (messiah) and lead them on an interstellar jihad, which eventually turns out in the sequels to be a bloody catastrophe for the whole galaxy.

Herbert deserves credit for his prescience in worrying about jihad in the early 1960s when everybody else assumed that secular Nasserite Arab nationalism was the future of the Middle East.

As with Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, it took several years for the public to grok Dune, but it finally became a huge hit among hippies. It’s considerably higher in literary quality than the verbose and self-indulgent Stranger, although Herbert couldn’t quite maintain his Dune career peak in his sequels.

Herbert became a star speaker at early Earth Day events, although I must confess that the novel’s environmentalist themes were too subtle for me to follow. A simpler (but ironic) conservationist plot device would have been if the bad guys, the German-Russian House Harkonnen, had been trying to exterminate Dune’s colossal metal-eating sandworms to stop their spice-harvesting juggernauts from being swallowed whole.

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