By Lucas Rucchin ’24
Dune’s publication in 1965 sent tremors throughout the science fiction genre—a category ripe with inspiration at the time—propelling the genre forward into a new age of futuristic depth. As the creative basis for later works such as the largely influential Star Wars, the cumulative work of author and ecologist Frank Herbert is nothing to be laughed at.
From the complexity of the novel’s characterization and storyline to the sheer grandeur of its eight-hundred pages, it becomes immediately evident that Herbert has created a story of unparalleled intricacy. Whether it be the realism of the conflicting politics, the understandable ideals of the desert religions, or the struggle for life in the novel’s lifeless setting, Herbert constructs his world with no puzzle pieces left discarded. But instead of centering on the state of technology—as did many other science-fiction classics—Herbert’s Dune uses the sophistication of its world to speak to humanity’s ongoing dilemma with environmentalism.
Set thousands of years from the present, the events of Dune are experienced through the eyes of Paul Atreides: wise, learned in fighting, and—as an heir to the command of one of the universe’s prevalent political ‘Houses’—uncompromisingly authoritative. Trained by the high-functioning Bene Gesserit, the young master has earned his place among the most exceptional in the universe, possessing cognitive and physical abilities well beyond the average individual. The rest of the Atreides family, too, is unarguably noble. Jessica, the mother of Paul, is a knowledgeable Bene Gesserit herself; Duke Leto, the present leader of House Atreides, is as capable as he is commanding. The Atreides are leaving behind their bountiful home planet to pursue greater monetary and political control on the unforgiving yet valuable Arrakis, a planet also known as ‘Dune’. The planet’s harsh desert climate and apparent savagery of its inhabitants are overshadowed by its dominion on melange: a precious, drug-like commodity that benefits the processes of one’s mind and is thus valued across space. Through their political influence, the Atreides wish to gain a monopoly on the widely desired substance.
As the strings of Arrakis’s melange economy are pulled, the underlying corruption of the planet is released upon the unknowing members of the Atreides. Betrayal swarms the House, puppeteered by the immoral Baron Harkonnen. With trust and structure permanently frayed, House Atreides escapes into Arrakis’s barren desert, where they encounter the Fremen: the planet’s indigenous race of people who actively seek the replacement of the harsh deserts with a green utopia. Seeking refuge with the populace and merging their forces as one, Paul learns to foster a mysterious power held within him, the Fremen step closer toward their distant goal, and Arrakis’s planetary authority falls into an unclear fate.
How Dune explores ecological change can be found primarily in the influence of the novel’s setting. Arrakis, in its severe and sparse conditions, has shaped the mentality of its inhabitants to center around environmental appreciation. To the Fremen, water is gold; greenery is but a distant dream. They live not for the pursuit of wealth or power but for the selfless repair of the environment around them. In fact, power or wealth have no place in the Fremen’s desert at all: Paul’s relationships with the Fremen are formed through his intelligence and unwavering trust, not via his status as House Atreides’s heir. And though his strengths originate from his fortunate past as a noble, they are nonetheless something that required willpower and dedication to cultivate—this the Fremen recognize and respect. To gain the support of the Fremen, Paul must discard the political entitlements he held as nobility and open his eyes to the purpose of their environmental wishes.
This suggests a potent connection—or rather lack of a connection—between the hunt for power and the maintenance of ecosystems: it is difficult for these objectives to coexist. As one is pursued and fulfilled, the other is unfavourably affected. In the universe of Dune, melange equals power; hence the environments of Arrakis are relentlessly pillaged for this valuable resource, transforming it into the green-devoid wasteland that greets us in the novel. At the same time, rebuilding Arrakis’s deserts as a lush, rolling landscape has adverse effects on the planet’s power structure: without the planet’s familiar sandy environment, melange is unable to form, rupturing the trade of this coveted resource.
This can, in the words of Arrakis’s ‘planetary ecologist’ Leit-Kynes, be explained more simply: “The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.”
If a balance can be struck between these clashing proportions—between the environmentalist Fremen and the political Houses—perhaps peace can arise, in both the world of Dune and in the world we live… if such a balance even exists.