Dennis Villeneuve’s <i>Dune</i> - A Brief History

Published: Mon 24 Jan 2022 09:48 AM
Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune - A Brief History
“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”
When Donald Trump announced plans to build a golf complex on the ancient sand dunes of the Aberdeenshire coast in Scotland in 2006, he told a group of assembled reporters at the windswept 2,000 acre site at Menie “As soon as I saw it there was no question [that] it would be the world’s greatest golf course.” After he purchased the land for US$12.6m, local fishermen denounced him as a “loudmouth bully” and outraged environmentalists warned the development would destroy the natural habitat. Today, the Scottish complex stands as a “premier luxury golf experience,” replete with five-star hotel and helicopter landing pad, at a membership of US$3,518 a year, inflicting so much damage to the ecosystem that the site was stripped of its protected status.
Within five years of purchasing the land, the Trump Organization’s financial statements valued it at $161m, a thirteen-fold increase. By 2014, its total value was put at $436m. These ridiculous price hikes caught the attention of Letitia James, New York state’s progressive attorney general known for her relentless pursuit of the rich and powerful, who forensically dissected how such strikingly large valuations came about in a 114-page New York court filing lodged this week.
Precisely how the Scottish property came to rise so meteorically in value is just one of the matters James is exploring in her continuing investigation - “It … appears that the valuation of Trump Aberdeen used for Mr Trump’s financial statement was prepared for purposes of providing information to Forbes magazine in a quote.” The 2011 estimate for the Scottish property, her investigators discovered, included $120,000 for undeveloped land at the site. The 2014 valuation was based in part on the projected sale price of 2,500 houses, even though none of the houses actually existed and the company had planning permission for only half that number.
Such startling disparities are important, James insisted, because the financial statements that contained them were used to secure loans from banks, cover insurance, and reduce Trump’s tax burden - “We have uncovered significant evidence that suggests Donald J Trump and the Trump Organization falsely and fraudulently valued multiple assets and misrepresented those values to financial institutions for economic benefit.” James is pursuing her investigation as a civil case, which means that if Trump is found liable it could cost him heavily in fines and penalties. More seriously, she is also working in coordination with the Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, a similarly tenacious and relentless prosecutor who is asking exactly the same questions - did the Trump Organization commit accounting, bank, tax, or insurance fraud?
The critical difference is that Bragg’s investigation is criminal, threatening Trump and his family not just with fines, but with hard time in the hoosegaw. The new material disclosed by James is so compelling that some close observers of Trumpland are now convinced that he is in serious legal trouble. “Trump could end up in an orange jumpsuit at the end of that one,” said Timothy O’Brien, a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, while Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney and an ex-vice president of the Trump Organization, commented, “The House of Trump is crumbling.”
Those of us who are appalled at Trump’s sociopathic behaviour, inveterate lies, and illegal connections to the Russian mafia through Deutsche Bank, both before and after he became President of the most powerful nation on planet earth, may take some solace in the knowledge that classical tales of hubris never end well.
Jump cut back to 1957, when the middle-aged American freelance writer Frank Herbert was researching an article about a US Department of Agriculture programme to stabilise shifting sands in the Pacific Northwest by introducing European beach grass. The dunes were moving eastward, pushed by strong winds and burying everything in their path, so Herbert hired a plane to survey the scene. “These waves [of sand] can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave,” he wrote in a pitch to his agent. He was especially intrigued by the idea that it might be possible to re-engineer an entire ecosystem and make the hostile desert landscape ‘green.’
In a prescient and well-researched Guardian article, Hari Kunzru told the story of how Herbert had been a working writer since the age of nineteen. Growing up in a small coastal community near Tacoma, Washington, where he enjoyed fishing and messing about in boats, he freelanced for various regional newspapers and sold short stories to magazines. He had enjoyed a relatively easy war, serving eight months as a naval photographer before receiving a medical discharge, after which he was employed in Washington DC as a speechwriter for a Republican senator and attended the Army-McCarthy hearings, watching his distant relative Joseph McCarthy attempt to root out communism. Kunzru describes him as “a quintessential product of the libertarian culture of the Pacific coast, self-reliant and distrustful of centralised authority, yet with a mile-wide streak of utopian futurism and a concomitant willingness to experiment.” During the period he wroteDune, his wife was the main income earner, producing ad copy for department stores.
Herbert’s research into sand dunes initiated a life-long interest in deserts and desert cultures. It overpowered his article about the USDA and became two short SciFi novels, serialised in Analog Science Fact & Fiction. The prevailing publishing wisdom was that SciFi readers liked their stories short, but Herbert industriously reworked his two stories into a single, giant epic.Dune was rejected by more than twenty houses before being accepted by Chilton, known for publishing trade and hobby magazines such as Motor Age, Jewelers’ Circular, and the Dry Goods Economist. It ran to four hundred pages in its first hardcover edition.
Even though it went on to win the Nebula and Hugo awards, two of the most prestigious SciFi writing prizes, Dune was not an overnight commercial success. Its fanbase broadened during subsequent decades, circulating in squats, communes, labs, and art studios - anywhere the idea of global transformation seemed attractive. Sixty years later, it has sold millions of copies and many now consider it the greatest novel in the SciFi canon.
Herbert’s magnum opus is set in a far distant future where warring noble houses are kept in line by the ruthless galactic emperor Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. As a result of a Byzantine political intrigue, Duke Leto is forced to move his Homerically named House Atreides from their Edenic home planet of Caladan to Arrakis, where water is so scarce that whenever its inhabitants venture outdoors they must wear ‘stillsuits,’ skin tight clothing that captures body moisture and recycles it for drinking.
Kunzru points out that this scenario owes much to the Mars stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, as well as the tales of Elmer Edward ‘Doc’ Smith, creator of the popular Lensman space operas of the 1940s and 50s, in which eugenically-bred heroes are initiated into a “galactic patrol” of psychically-enhanced supercops. For Smith, altered states of consciousness were tools for the righteous to vaporise whole solar systems of subversives and aliens with undesirable traits.
Herbert, however, was no fan of big government. Having tripped out on peyote and read Jung, in 1960 he met the British Zen populariser Alan Watts, who was living on a houseboat in Sausalito. Long conversations with Watts, who was the main conduit by which Zen Buddhism permeated the West Coast counterculture, turned his simple adventure stories into an exploration of cosmic temporality, the restrictions of personal identity, and the mind/body connection.
Every SciFi fantasy reflects the time and place from which it came. IfThe Lord of the Rings is really about WWII and the rise of fascism and the cynical realpolitik of a vicious cast of entrepreneurial characters in Game of Thrones can be read as a fable of neoliberalism, thenDune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Aquarian Age. Its interest in environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness, and developing countries’ revolution against imperialism are welded together into a vision of personal and cosmic transformation.
Books read differently as the world reforms itself around them and theDune of 2022 has geopolitical implications it lacked in 1965, before the oil crisis and 9/11. Paul Atreides is a young white man who fulfils the persistent colonial fantasy of becoming a God-king to a tribal people. Herbert’s portrayal of these “Fremen” owes as much to TE Lawrence as it does to Wilfred Thesiger’s portrayals of the Bedouin of Arabia’s Empty Quarter. Fremen culture is described in words liberally cribbed from Arabic - they go on “razzia” raids, wear “aba” and “bourka” robes, and fear a devil called “Shaitan.” They are tough, proud, and relatively egalitarian, while the harshness of their environment necessitates an ethic of mutual aid and fellowship. They are, however, not carbon-copy mujahadin. Herbert freely mixes elements of Zen into their belief system and suggests that their messianic eschatology in which they are “waiting” for Paul to arrive may have been seeded in previous millennia by the Bene Gesserit order as part of its murky eugenic plans. Herbert, whose female characters are consistently strong and active, also ditched the sexual repression of Bedouin culture. Fremen women do their fair share of fighting and fearlessly contradict their menfolk, though there is still plenty of child-rearing and housework to be done while the men are off riding sand worms.
What made Dune so attractive was the sincerity of Herbert’s identification with the Fremen. They are not an ignorant mass to be civilised, but the moral centre of the book. Paul does not transform them in his image, but participates in their culture and is himself transformed into the prophet Muad’Dib, glossed as part of ‘the Fremen messianic legend, The One Who Will Lead Us into Paradise.’ If Paul is partly modeled on Lawrence of Arabia leading Beduin tribesmen to conquer Aqaba, he is also the Mahdi of Islamic eschatology. To the British, he was the warrior prophet who swept through the Sudan in the 1880s, killing General Gordon in Khartoum and inspiring a thousand patriotic newspaper etchings of the Mad Mahdi. Many Shia muslims, however, identify him with the twelfth or ‘Hidden’ Imam who will imminently reveal himself and redeem the world.
As Paul’s destiny gradually becomes clear to him, he begins to have visions “of fanatic legions following the green and black banner of the Atreides, pillaging and burning across the universe in the name of their prophet Muad’Dib.” If Paul accepts this future, he will be responsible for “the jihad’s bloody swords,” unleashing a nomad war of ethnic resistance that will destroy the corrupt and oppressive rule of the emperor Shaddam IV (good), but will also kill untold billions (not so good) in the process. In 2022, after the disastrous US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the story of a white prophet leading a blue-eyed, brown-skinned horde of jihadis against a ruler called Shaddam produces a disorienting funhouse mirror effect, as if recent Middle Eastern history has been jumbled up and stuck back together in a different order.
AfterDune was published, Herbert wrote about education for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and lectured at the University of Washington. In 1972, during the American push to extricate itself from South East Asia, he worked in Vietnam on a project called ‘Land to the Tiller,’ aimed at cutting Vietcong recruitment by enacting land reform. He built a home on the Olympic peninsula which he envisaged as an “ecological demonstration project” and constructed his own solar collector, wind plant, and methane fuel generator. In a 1981 interview, he described himself a “technopeasant.” As the cult ofDune took off during the seventies, he wrote a series of increasingly convoluted sequels, following Paul’s descendants as they fulfilled the cosmic destiny of the Atreides. Since his death in 1986, his son and another writer have produced a further thirteen books.
An unhinged (and ultimately abortive) attempt by the visionary Chilean-French director Alesandro Jodorowsky to bring Herbert’s novel to the big screen became one of the great ‘what if’ stories of SciFi legend. Jodorowsky engaged a number of extraordinary collaborators, with visuals provided by Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and HR Giger and spacecraft designed by the English illustrator Chris Foss. Orson Welles was to play Baron Harkonnen and Salvador Dali the Emperor, while Pink Floyd and Magma were to supply the soundtrack to the film’s projected fourteen-hour running time. Unsurprisingly, Jodorowsky’s project never took flight.
Frank Pavich documented his effort to mount a screen adaptation inJodorowsky’s Dune, exploring its long creative shadow which has influenced all subsequent cinematic SciFi, from Bladerunner toAlien. Star Wars shamelessly lifted much from Jodorowsky, from the Bene Gesserit-like mental powers of the Jedi to the mining and ‘moisture farming’ on Tattooine. Herbert knew he had been ripped off and saw the ideas of many other SciFi writers co-opted into Lucas’ lucrative franchise. He and a number of colleagues formed a joke organisation called the ‘We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society.’
David Lynch managed to finish a fatally flawed version in 1984, only for Universal to release a cut that he hated so much he had his name removed from the credits. As might be expected, Lynch’s film contains its fair share of unforgettable images, from a steamy Sting posing with a codpiece and wings on his nethers to Kenneth McMillan’s pustular Baron Harkonnen floating absurdly through the incoherent madness of the movie, and it is actually a much better effort than its posthumous reputation suggests. Lynch has stated that he has "zero interest in Dune (2021),” insisting that his issues with Villeneuve’s version have nothing to do with the new director, but rather with his own painful memories of making the 1984 version - "Because it was a heartache for me. It was a failure and I didn't have final cut. I've told this story a billion times. It's not the film I wanted to make. I like certain parts of it very much - but it was a total failure for me."
At one stage, Ridley Scott was attached to direct an adaptation. Alien (1979) was written by Dan O’Bannon and designed by Giger, Foss, Moebius, and Ron Cobb, all of whom had previously collaborated on Jodorowsky’s failed adaptation and brought their original design work from that project with them. In 2007, Paramount began working on another proposed film adaptation, with Peter Berg hired as director in 2008. He dropped out to make Battleship and Pierre Morel subsequently took over the helm with Chase Palmer supplying a fresh screenplay. Morel dropped out in November 2010 and, despite Peter Jackson being associated with the project at one point, Paramount put the property in turnaround the following year, allowing the film rights to lapse into development limbo.
Peter Bradshaw describes French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve version of Herbert’s novel as much better than Lynch’s “interesting, rackety, and deeply flawed movie … an eerily vast and awe-inspiring epic, a cathedral of interplanetary strangeness.” It opens with the words “Part One” and closes with a declaration that “this is just the beginning.” Sensibly, Villeneuve tackles only one manageable section of the story, avoiding the baffling narrative compressions and ellipses that blighted Lynch’s movie, while reining in the sort of extravagant excesses that hobbled Jodorowsky before he had even started. He and his co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth have adapted less than half the novel, allowing it room to drift through unimaginably vast reaches of fictional galaxies, with images of architecturally enormous spacecraft delicately lowering themselves on to alien landscapes of parched and austere beauty.
Adapting Dune for the big screen had been a lifelong dream for Villeneuve, ever since reading Herbert’s novel when he was twelve years old and learning about Lynch’s doomed cult classic from the magazines Fantastic Films and Starlog. He wanted to make a faithful adaptation, so he waited to complete his previous SciFi films, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 (both of which were strongly influenced by his early ideas for Dune) in order to gain sufficient experience in the genre before starting work on this film.
Villeneuve deftly manages to juxtapose a colossal sense of spectacle with the intimate encroachment of danger. At one point early on in the movie, Paul realises that a tiny metal insect floating towards him is a remote-controlled, hunter-seeker device intended to kill him. As this insidious little device with its lethal sting approaches he realises that any sudden move will allow it to locate his position, remaining completely still before snatching it out of the air wth his bare hand. In contrast, the most disturbing and lethal predator to be avoided is the gigantic sandworm that snakes under the earth’s surface, occasionally surfacing to reveal a huge and hungry aperture, like the cloacal tip of an enormous elephant’s trunk. Its appearance spells disaster for those unlucky to be close enough to discern the fine hairs ringing its massive orifice of doom. In an interview with Empire Magazine, Villeneuve described the year-long process that went into its design - "We talked about every little detail that would make such a beast possible, from the texture of the skin, to the way the mouth opens, to the system to eat its food in the sand. It was a year of work to design and to find the perfect shape that looked prehistoric enough." All credit (and probably an Oscar) goes to Paul Lambert’s visual effects team.
Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West’s costumes and Patrice Vernette’s set design both display a stunning consistency and inventiveness. The helmets of the Harkonnen soldiers were based on the heads of insects. Visual allusions to Classical Greek tragedy abound and many pieces of Atreides domestic furniture portray images of a bull. In the prequel novel "House Atreides,” written by Herbert’s son Frank, the matador imagery is a memorial to duke Leto's father, Paulus Atreides, who was killed during a bullfight tampered with by a Harkonnen assassin. Paulus liked to fight bulls to impress his people. In Herbert’s original novel, Paulus was assassinated when his concubine arranged for the bull to be drugged. The severed bull head is that of the bull that killed him. The lettering on Paulus' grave is Greek, since House Atreides is itself of Attic ancestry.
Although not mentioned in the movie, the Great Houses originally all came from Earth, which explains the use of Latin terms such as 'Bene Gesserit', meaning 'well done', the Scandinavian word 'Landsraad', the Latin name Caius, and the Dutch name De Vries. Although they live on planet Caladan, the Atreides trace their genealogical roots back to Ancient Greece, where the Minoan civilization was associated with the bull-creature Minotaurus. The Prelude to Dune trilogy states that they took their name from the ancient House of Atreus and their ancestry goes back to King Agamemnon. In the Legends of Dune trilogy, it is revealed that a cymek warlord took the name Agamemnon and gave his only son, Vorian, the surname Atreides. Paul's middle name, Orestes, cements this classical connection. In this extended universe, an ancient Atreides ancestor traces his lineage all the way back to the Greek King Atreus, a character mentioned by Homer in his Iliad. He adopted the surname 'Atreides', which literally means 'son of Atreus'.
Harkonnen calls Duke Leto ‘cousin,’ implying they are related. As part of the Bene Gesserit plan to beget the Kwisatz Haderach, the Reverend Mother Mohiam requests a child from Harkonnen, who brutally rapes and impregnates her with Lady Jessica, who later becomes Paul’s mother, making him the Baron's grandson. After the rape, the Reverend Mother infects Harkonnen with a disease that causes his extreme obesity, which is why he can no longer walk and has to resort to floatation devices in order to move his Trump-like bulk around. French-Icelandic actor Tómas Lemarquis, who suffers from alopecia universalis which rendered him completely hairless, appears prominently in concept art as a Harkonnen soldier. This glabrous quality is a feature of all the inhabitants of Giedi Prime - Dora Kápolnal-Schvabm and Joelle, who play the Baron's servants, are also portrayed with the same rare medical condition.
The story-line also shares many similarities to Shakespeare's Henry V, in which a callow youth ascends to the throne and is matured by personal loss and hardened by battle, a comparison that would not have excaped Timothée Chalamet, who portrayed Henry V in The King (2019). Other plot elements are taken directly from Hamlet, such as Leto’s death and the usurpation of his throne by Baron Harkonnen which parallels Hamlet’s murder by his uncle Claudius (Harkonnen is later revealed to be Paul's maternal grandfather).
Villeneuve constructs a series of clear narrative arcs that also accent contemporary colonial parallels. This is a story, after all, about wealthy overlords battling over mineral resources in a vast sandy region that they find hostile and dangerous, yet irresistibly profitable. Here, the rival houses vie for control of the ‘spice’ trade, a magical dust viewed by the desert-dwelling Fremen as “the sacred hallucinogen that prolongs life” and harvested by ‘off-worlders’ as the highly prized key to navigating interstellar travel. The only comedic element (and a momentary one at that) is the scene of Duke Leto’s arrival on Arrakis, heralded by the blaring of bagpipes.
As the movie’s protagonist, Chalamet does his patented, pasty-faced, Edward Scissorhands impression, beset by visionary dreams of the blue-eyed Arrakian Fremen girl Chani (Zendaya).
Stellan Skarsgård’s Harkonnen channels Brando’s Colonel Kurtz and even gets a hauntingApocalypse Now moment as his bald head emerges from beneath the water. Villeneuve envisaged him as a "rhino in human form" and required Skarsgård to spend seven hours each day applying prosthetics and a fat suit before filming his scenes.
The somehow still gorgeous Charlotte Rampling shrouds her admirably straight face behind sinister black lace as Mother Mohiam, attempting to divine whether Paul is actually the prophesied one, while Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica is clearly torn between her desire to protect her son and the mysterious legacy of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.
There are plenty of kinetic action sequences and a booming score by Hans Zimmer, who also grew up with a deep appreciation of Herbert’s novel and turned down working on long-time collaborator Christopher Nolan’s Tenet for the film. Before Villeneuve left to film overseas, Zimmer said to him, "Don't fuck it up!” and after Villeneuve locked picture and handed it over to Zimmer, he returned the sentiment in the same words. Zimmer spent a week alone in the Utah wilderness to assimilate the sounds of the desert landscape into his score, which was recorded in the midst of the COVID lockdown and necessitated converting his sitting room into a makeshift recording studio. As he fondly recalled, it was located next to his daughter's bedroom - "She will tell everybody that she suffers from bagpipe PTSD, because it's 5:30 in the morning, and I'm still blasting away, and the whole house is shaking."
For the first trailer, Zimmer gathered a thirty-two voice choir to cover Pink Floyd's song ‘Eclipse’ via FaceTime, conducting them from his home. Use of the Floyd song in the first trailer caused it to skyrocket on streaming music platforms by 1,700%. Zimmer chose the words for the lyrics based on words that sing well, as opposed to their meaning, explaining "The professor of linguistics is probably quietly horrified by what I did … the point isn't the understanding of the words, but that someone is telling you something important." The extraordinary vocals on the musical score were supplied by Dead Can’t Dance’s Lisa Gerard, who recorded them in her bedroom cupboard during the lockdown. Zimmer enjoyed the irony of "the sound meant to echo through the desert and bounce off mountains was actually recorded in a Brooklyn clothes closet.” Supervising sound editor Mark Mangini’s mix seamlessly combines Zimmer’s score with David Whitehead’s sound design with suitably minatory throbs, grinds, and whispers.
In an interview for Wired, Mangini explained his use of what he termed ‘Fake Documentary Realism’ to try and break with SciFi movie tradition to create the most plausible audio effects possible for what is a fantasy universe filled with unreal life forms. He not only recorded the sound of sand moving across California's Death Valley, but also placed a small microphone in his mouth and inhaled deeply to create a realistic swallowing noise, both of which were used for the sound of the approaching sandworm.
Linguistics expert David J Peterson, who devised the languages of Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones, also helped create the Fremen language for this movie. The Sardaukar army's chants feature a peculiar vocal technique called throat or overtone singing. While its use is attested in traditions from all over the world (with the best known examples coming from Mongolian, Tibetan, and Northern European traditions), one of the best known singing styles to employ it in the Mediterranean area is cantu a tenore, unique to the Barbagia region of Sardinia. The similarity between the Italian island's name and that of the Sardaukar people suggest this was an intentional choice.
Fight coordinator Roger Yuan derived the fighting style of House Atreides on Filipino martial arts and based the soldiers of House Harkonnen on ancient Mongolian warriors in order to make them seem more barbaric. As an elite military caste, he Sardaukar were inspired by the samurai of feudal Japan and the úlfhéðnar guard of the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair, a fanatical warrior cult practicing blood sacrifice and blood anointment before battle.
So many elements of Herbert’s novel, from the silly swordplay and inner voices ofStar Wars to theMatrix-like question of Paul’s foretold divinity, have since become tropes of popular SciFi that Villeneuve’s film sometimes seems deceptively derivative. What makes all this nonsense worth revisiting is his astonishing visual sensibility. From ‘ornithopters’ that flit around like dragonflies to enormous spaceships glistening in the dust, these are precisely the kind of sights that the dying android Roy Batty rhapsodised over at the end of Blade Runner - "I've seen things, you people wouldn't believe … Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who worked with Villeneuve on Blade Runner 2049, was initially slated to reprise his role, but scheduling conflicts made him unavailable, so Greig Fraser was hired as director of photography instead. Principal photography took four months, with the scenes on the ocean world of Caladan being filmed in Stadlandet, Norway, and the desert scenes taking place in Jordan and Abu Dhabi. Although the film was originally shot digitally on the IMAX-certified ARRI Alexa LF and Mini LF cameras fitted with Panavision lenses, Villeneuve subsequently transferred the picture onto 35mm film and then scanned it back to digital to achieve its textural specificity. Editor Joe Walker, who also cut Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, somehow manages to assemble all these disparate components into a coherent whole.
Villeneuve voiced his intense displeasure when Warners Bros announced the movie would be streamed on HBO Max at the same time it was released in cinemas, claiming that the studio "might have just killed the film" and that "streaming can produce great content, but not movies of Dune's scope and scale. Warner Bros' decision means Dune won't have the chance to perform financially in order to be viable and piracy will ultimately triumph ... My team and I devoted more than three years of our lives to make it a unique big screen experience. Our movie's image and sound were meticulously designed to be seen in theaters." Although he also expressed concerns that streaming the film would kill its box office potential, studio executives gave their assurance that the sequel would be greenlit provided the movie performed well on HBO Max. In the event, it was the most-watched film on the streaming service for the first three weeks of its release in the US.
Herbert himself enjoyed huge success in his later years, but remained distinctly ambivalent about the future. Kynes, the “First Planetologist of Arrakis” and hero of his novel’s first draft, muses that “beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase. This is as true of humans in the finite space of a planetary ecosystem as it is of gas molecules in a sealed flask. The human question is not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of existence is possible for those who do survive.” During the 1960s and 70s Malthusian pessimism was all the rage and Paul Ehrlich’sThe Population Bomb, which predicted mass starvation unless population growth was restricted, became a runaway bestseller. The flip side of the green movement’s valorisation of small scaling, tiny homes, and self-reliance is an uneasy relationship with the urban masses and the hidden costs of global economic ‘growth.’
Herbert’s libertarian politics reinforced these concerns. Paul knows that if the desert planet is made to bloom, it will support a larger population and the Freman ethic of individualism will be eroded. As he is transformed from aristocrat to messiah, he begins to lose his individuality and dissolve into myth, becoming a legendary part of the Jungian collective unconscious. Perhaps Herbert found solace in the thought that history does not appear to be teleological and long-term planning is not the same as inevitable destiny.
Sixty years after its publication, the USDA is still at work on the Oregon dunes, now trying to root out all traces of the European beach grass as an invasive, nonnative species. The goal is to return the dunes to their natural, pristine condition. As Javier Bardem’s Stilgar observes, “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”
howard davis
Scoop Arts Editor
Educated at Cambridge and UCLA; worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles; currently enjoying life in Wellington.
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