Dune at 50(ish)

2015 marked the half-centenary of Dune, Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction novel that is so vast in scope it almost defies categorization, although the combination of psychodrama, political thriller, eco-fable and space-opera-cum-Western begins to hint at its complexity. Much like The Lord of the Rings – perhaps the only title it can be compared to, in terms of the scale and credibility of an entirely invented world – its iconic images are familiar parts of popular culture even to people who have never read it; unlike Tolkien’s novel, Dune has achieved this without the aid of a wildly successful movie adaptation. (David Lynch’s film version, released in 1984, was commercially unsuccessful and critically panned as being so confusing as to be virtually unwatchable, and Lynch himself regarded it as a turkey, going as far as to have it credited to ‘Alan Smithee’ – the pseudonym used by Hollywood directors when they wish to disown a film – in the TV releases.) Stillsuited Fremen warriors, the addictive and life-extending drug melange, or ‘spice’, the shaven-headed Reverend Mothers of the Bene Gesserit and, above all, Paul Atreides with his blue-within-blue eyes riding a colossal sandworm across the endless Arrakeen desert – these are all recognizable to many internet users as memes, often turned into animated .gifs or image macros, or referenced in comics and animations.

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But before delving into the details, a very good question for the uninitiated, and perhaps also for many who’ve read the book two or three times, is: just what is Dune all about? It has become a bromide to describe novels and films as ‘working on so many levels’, but in this case the cliché actually does ring true. The most obvious layer of the story is that of a bildungsroman following the adventures of Paul Atreides, an adolescent nobleman treacherously cast into a pit of vipers, suffering the murder of his father, his mother’s and his own narrowly averted assassination, and their journey into exile in an unimaginably inhospitable desert, with a dream of revenge that goes far beyond the fate of his own family and involves him in the millennial prophecies of a race of ferocious desert fanatics. On another level, it is a masterful exposition of the psychology of power-politics, pitting powerful ancient dynasties, quasi-religious societies and vast corporations against each other in the context of a drug war upon which rests the fate of the galactic empire. And delving yet further, it explores the origin, nature and function of religion, the untapped potential of the human mind and body and the intimate relationship between humans who live in extreme environments and the landscape, climate and ecosystem that just about affords them the necessities of life, and constantly threatens to snuff it out altogether. It comes as no surprise that one of Herbert’s favourite books was Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the landmark work of anthropology that traces the origins of the universal belief in magic, which subsequently evolved into the basis for all religions, to the same urge to connect cause with effect that ultimately gave rise to the scientific method and with it the modern world as we know it.

Quite apart from any theoretical musings, the novel has a resonance with very concrete events that have effectively come to define the 21st century so far. It would be easy to dismiss as trite a comparison between the giant sandworms ridden by Paul Muad’Dib and his Fremen warriors crashing through a nuke-blasted gap in the great rock wall protecting the Harkonnens’ capital and the passenger jets piloted by jihadi hijackers that crashed into the World Trade Center, were it not for the curious hypothesis that Osama bin Laden may have been a fan of another classic of the sci-fi canon, Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ series. These novels, known to have been a big influence on Herbert, among many other writers, feature a vast and seemingly all-powerful galactic empire; apparently destined to last forever, just as all empires see themselves in their heyday, one man – a sort of mathematician-cum-historian-cum-sociologist – formulates an equation describing long-term cultural trends that predicts the decline and, eventually, the total collapse of human civilization. (Asimov may well have been influenced by the German historian and philosopher of history Oswald Spengler, who in his seminal Decline of the West outlines a hypothesis that great cultures naturally rise, peak and gradually fall with a lifespan of about a thousand years, and that ‘Western’ civilization was in its declining phase – something perhaps many people felt at the time, given that the work’s two volumes were written during WWI and in its immedate aftermath.) In order to shortcut what would otherwise be a dark age of many thousands of years until the rise of the next great civilization to an interlude of mere centuries, he brings about the establishment of the titular Foundation: a storehouse of all human knowledge and culture, securely located on an obscure planet thousands of light-years distant from the galactic capital. The first novel in the series, titled simply Foundation, was published in serial form during WWII and again as a single volume in 1951. Its success caused it to be translated into a wide range of languages, including Arabic, for which version the title was chosen simply as the common Arabic word for ‘foundation’ or ‘base’, in the physical sense, also meaning ‘basis’ or ‘framework’: al-Qaeda.

The theme of a sect of purists who keep the flame of ‘true’ culture alive while an enfeebled civilization disintegrates around them, eventually emerging triumphant to establish their own order among the ashes of the old, makes sense as a story that may have appealed to the young bin Laden, perhaps around the same time he began to take on the influences of Salafism and Qutbism. But it is even more intriguing to imagine the influence that Dune may have had on the young future terrorist: consider the elementary plotline of a privileged young nobleman turned rebel guerilla hero who leads a race of fanatical desert warriors in an unstoppable jihad which eventually overthrows a vast and powerful, but decadent and declining, empire…while we will of course never have a full knowledge of bin Laden’s reading habits, the notion is suggestive, to say the least. It may further be noted that the name given to Paul after he is accepted into Fremen society is ‘Usul’, said by the Fremen to mean ‘the base of the pillar’; in reality, another Arabic word meaning ‘basis’ or ‘principles’, as in Uṣūl al-fiqh, the principles of Islamic jurisprudence.

But rather than look to the USA and the site of the culmination of bin Laden’s terrorist career, the parts of the world where real events have darkly mirrored those of Dune, both prior to its publication and afterwards, are surely the Middle East itself, and nearby regions of North Africa and Central Asia. Adam Curtis’s 2015 feature-length documentary, Bitter Lake, focusses mainly on the (mis)fortunes of Afghanistan from the 1950s to the present and the role of Saudi Arabia in propagating an intolerant and literalist form of Islam around the world. The Afghan thread of the story begins soon after the end of WWII, when the country’s king invited American engineers to his still overwhelmingly tribal and pastoral country to modernize it using state-of-the-art geological and hydrological engineering techniques. Specifically, a series of dams were build along the mighty Helmand River for the dual purpose of generating electricity and creating lakes, allowing previously barren land to be irrigated and therefore cultivated. The reader familiar with Dune should need no prompting to think of the backstory involving the Fremen’s long-term plan to terraform Arrakis using carefully hoarded water supplies, the musings of the ‘Imperial planetologist’ turned native, Kynes, and even the direct authorial quote before the start of the narrative: the famous dedication to “the dry-land ecologists”. It’s certainly not hard to see in the Mujahideen and their successors the Taliban, raised in the unforgiving conditions of an arid, mountainous country, something of the indomitable Fremen, the mystically-inclined warrior people whose culture has been shaped almost in its entirety by the climate and geography of Arrakis, the planet said to have been “created by God to train the faithful”.

The other main thread of Curtis’s film is the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the USA, begun in the dying days of WWII aboard an American warship on the titular Great Bitter Lake, connected to the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean by the Suez Canal. The ailing Franklin Roosevelt met with King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, and the two men cemented a deal that would ensure America’s access to Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth in return for a promise of American non-intervention in the internal politics of Saudi Arabia. In particular, Roosevelt had to provide a guarantee that the USA would not oppose the Saudi state religion, Wahhabism, founded in the 18th century as an ultra-conservative reform movement within Sunni Islam at a time when the dominant polity in the Muslim world was the Ottoman Empire. A desert land (or planet) with an economy based on the exploitation of a single natural resource which the rest of the world (or galaxy) depends on, and eventually goes to war over – Herbert didn’t have to invent this from scratch for use in his novel, of course. But back in Afghanistan, an unintended consequence of all the hydro-engineering was a general raising of the water table, which brought with it a great deal of rock salt. In many areas, fields that had briefly had good, fertile soil for growing wheat, fruit trees and vegetables gradually become too saline for most crops, with one notable exception: Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. So here is an arid region which is – very nearly – the sole source of an extremely valuable and addictive drug (Afghanistan is estimated to account for more than 90% of the world’s illicit opium and heroin production). A starker example of life (and death) imitating art would be harder to find.

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And this is all before we consider the role of religion in Dune, which is given an exceptionally thorough treatment, especially by the standards of science fiction. Most notably, the Fremen follow one of the Duniverse’s widespread popular religions, the intriguingly named syncretic faith Zensunni – as its name suggests, an amalgam of Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam – in a particularly fanatical form, as befits their survivalist culture in the harsh environment of the Arrakeen desert. (A common Fremen proverb is “Speed comes from Shaitan” – an apt saying, warning the desert traveller of the perils of excessive moisture loss from sweating and breathing hard.) The origin of all three Abrahamic faiths in the arid and semi-arid regions of the Near/Middle East come through very strongly in the Fremen’s cultural background, in which the overwhelming totality of the planet’s harsh sun forms a natural basis for monotheism, with an utter absence of the oceans, rivers, marshes, grasslands and forests that form the home of the nature spirits of polytheistic and animistic belief systems. But the influence of landscape and climate on religion is only half the story, as another vital plot element is the Missionaria Protectiva, a specialized arm of the Bene Gesserit charged with undertaking a millennia-long programme called the Panoplia Protectiva, a system of myths, prophecies and superstitions implanted by the sisterhood on inhabited worlds throughout the galaxy to further their own mysterious ends and to ensure the cooperation of locals should a Bene Gesserit sister ever find herself there in need of assistance or rescue. It is ultimately for this reason, as well as Jessica’s ‘weirding’ abilities, that the Fremen who come upon the mother and son take them in rather than killing them; an act of prophetically-inspired mercy upon which the fate of the galaxy hangs.

Herbert’s novel doesn’t just take inspiration from the ancient monotheistic religions and the precepts of Zen Buddhism, but also from the great theorists of the 20th century who codified our understanding of these faiths and set about systematizing them within a greater framework encompassing the earliest animist beliefs, mediaeval folk tales and Hollywood epics. In the illuminating introduction to the Folio Society’s lavish 50th anniversary edition, Michael Dirda discusses the influences of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell on Herbert, as well as the earlier James Frazer, and describes the archetypal hero’s journey, which sounds like a pretty fair abstract of Paul’s resumé:

“[A] birth surrounded by mystery, evidence of special gifts, exile into the wilderness, conquest of a monstrous beast, a near-death experience followed by the assumption of a new identity, and finally a triumphant victory over enemies before an enigmatic disappearance and subsequent apotheosis.”

One or more of these elements appear in the life story of many a hero and heroine of modern science fiction, fantasy or other mythopoeic forms of fiction, of course, but in few if any other works are they explored as thoroughly, and fleshed out as believably, as in Dune. And it may be that only in Paul are the physical, intellectual and spiritual aspects of transcendent heroism fully realized in one person. Compare his career to that of the muscularly anti-intellectual Conan, the self-sacrificing, non-violent and ultimately passive Frodo Baggins and the exclusively mystical Luke Skywalker. For while Luke begins his transformation into a fully-fledged Campbellian warrior-messiah by turning off his rational mind (and his X-wing’s targeting computer) and trusting his instincts, it is by exactly the opposite mechanism – the use of the human intellect to override the animal instinct – that Paul survives the ordeal of the gom jabbar and gives the shrewd crone who tests him the first inkling that he may be the One for which her organization has waited millennia.

Another possible influence from Frazer is the tantalizing mention in The Golden Bough of the ritual of the so-called ‘poison ordeal’, found among a number of tribal cultures around the world. Although Frazer doesn’t go into detail about the nature of these poisons, it’s certainly highly suggestive of the ordeal of the Water of Life, the so-called ‘illuminating poison’ of the Bene Gesserit, which each initiate to the status of Reverend Mother must ingest and transform within her own body, and which is responsible for Paul’s near-death experience as he attempts and ultimately succeeds in the deadly test that no male has hitherto survived.

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Quite apart from the complex and subtle themes explored by Herbert, his novel is remarkable for the vivid mental images he conjures up. Dune is full of visual contrasts; between the pomp and decadence of Shaddam IV’s imperial court and the ascetic, spartan lifestyle of the Fremen, between city-sized Guild spacecraft that travel between distant star systems in mere moments and the low-tech physicality of a knife fight to the death, between the simple elegance of the Bene Gesserit-trained Lady Jessica and the extreme corporeal grossness of Baron Harkonnen (who – spoiler alert – turns out to be Jessica’s biological father and consequently Paul’s grandfather). There was plenty of inspiration for David Lynch when he came to direct his movie adaptation, certainly, and it’s perhaps in the costumes, sets and props that the film can be considered an unqualified success. The tight-fitting military uniforms worn by Duke Leto, his son Paul and their various advisors and retainers suggest the 19th or early 20th century, while Lady Jessica’s dress and intricately coiffed hair are inspired by the European high middle ages – as befits the Duniverse’s galactic feudalism. The interiors of the royal residences on Caladan and Arrakis are marvelously future-gothic, while Giedi Prime, the Harkonnens’ homeworld, is a nightmarish vision of techno-Hades, complete with an enslaved populace fitted with all sorts of sadistic surgical modifications. (The book describes the planet in terms perhaps more reminiscent of the Roman Empire during the reign of one of the more notably tyrannical emperors; all pomp and glamour in the main streets for an official celebratory event, with an oppressed and impoverished populace carefully pushed out of sight.) The acme of physical ugliness mirroring moral degradation is found in the loathsome Baron himself, so grotesquely fat that he requires a personal antigravity generator (‘suspensor’) just to move around. The Baron, portrayed with great gusto and evident glee by Kenneth McMillan, has a capricious camp about him, like a great despotic toddler; Lynch’s decision to play up the Baron’s homosexuality, along with giving him a hideous skin disease – bearing in mind the prominence of the Aids epidemic in the public consciousness at the time – led one reviewer to call Lynch’s Dune the most homophobic film he had ever seen. (It must be said that the costumes and sets are rather more impressive than most of the special effects, which, though they may have a certain retro charm about them to the modern viewer, often look primitive when considered in light of the film’s year of release: Dune postdates the entire Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner, came out the same year as Ghostbusters and predates Aliens and Flight of the Navigator by just two years. Film reviewers Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert called the SFX “cheap – surprisingly cheap because this film cost a reported $40-45 million” – a lot of money in 1984! Flight of the Navigator, with its innovative early use of CGI that hasn’t dated too badly even today, was made on just $9 million.)

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Stylistically, Dune (the novel) manages the neat trick of telling an intricately complex story without resorting to intricately complex sentences and paragraphs. The writing is for the most part spare, lean and efficient. The dialogue is almost always believable, with a tone always appropriate to the situation, be it a meeting between a planetary duke and his closest advisors, a frank conversation between a mutually devoted couple or a mother and her son, or a pair of battle-scarred old comrades sharing a joke. The lines spoken by any of the major characters are often preceded or followed by a line in italics indicating to the reader the character’s thoughts and feelings, which are typically at odds with the spoken words, even to a loved one or trusted companion. The device is used cleverly, and avoids seeming like an authorial cop-out; further, it gives the reader an insight into various specialized schools of thinking, such as Gurney Halleck’s lifetime of fighting expertise, the mentat training shared by Piter de Vries and Thufir Hawat, or the ‘weirding way’ of the Bene Gesserit, taught by the elderly Reverend Mother Helen Gaius Mohiam to her sometime pupil Jessica, and by the latter to her son Paul.

This is not to say that the writing is uniformly excellent. Herbert occasionally falls prey to what I call the “Why, Lord Exposition, what an unexpected pleasure!” technique (or, as Terry Pratchett termed it, ‘the “As you know, your father, the king…” school of storytelling’). Most jarringly of all, he has the novel’s principal villain introduce himself with the line:

“Is it not a magnificent thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, do?”

Now this might seem redundant coming from the head of one of the most ancient and powerful Great Houses in the Imperium, who is also the governor of a planetary fiefdom, regardless of his audience: the fact that he says it to his own nephew and the man he’s employed as an advisor and confidante for many years renders the line ridiculous. Later, Duke Leto feels the need to spell out the full acronym of the mega-corporation CHOAM for the benefit of his son, who has already been established as significantly more canny than the average 15-year-old; the effect is a bit like a character in a present-day setting talking about “Apple (the well-known consumer electronics brand)…”

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The legacy of Dune goes far beyond the novel itself and Lynch’s adaptation. It was just the first – although also by far the best, undoubtedly – in a series of novels by Frank Herbert, left unfinished at the time of his death in 1986. These comprised Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, set within Paul’s lifetime; God Emperor of Dune, concerning the end of the 3500-year reign of Paul’s son and successor, Emperor Leto II; and Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune, set some thousands of years later still. While the second and third books quite nicely round out what we might call the original Dune trilogy, there is a marked case of diminishing rewards as you further down the series. Some interesting new concepts are introduced, certainly, and the sequels significantly extend the metaphysical and in particular epistemological problems introduced in the first novel: principally, how can prescience be reconciled with free will? The ability to foresee the future is the agelong dream of anyone who would rule, but the greater one’s knowledge of future events, the greater the constraint on one’s actions. Further, knowledge of the dramatic consequences of the least utterance or action must produce something close to a paralysis of indecision for Paul and the other characters (his sister and children) endowed with the questionable ‘gift’ of prescience.

In more materialist terms, Herbert was clearly very preoccupied with the idea of cultural stagnation – an influence from Asimov and perhaps also directly from Spengler – and this shows through in many of his major characters’ and organizations’ attitudes towards humanity’s future, such as the Bene Gesserit’s ten-thousand-year-long breeding programme intended to create the Kwisatz Haderach, the man who would survive the ordeal of the ‘illuminating poison’, combine the abilities of the Bene Gesserit and the Mentat and be able to see back along both his female and male lines of ancestry via genetically encoded memory. Paul Atreides, the realization of this programme who unexpectedly appears a generation early, gains insights into the far future destiny of humanity and realizes that the species is doomed to stagnation and eventual extinction by reliance on melange for interstellar travel and on members of specialized schools such as the Bene Gesserit, Mentats and Navigators of the Spacing Guild to do all the serious thinking and acting – just as the Thinking Machines had once done, before the Butlerian Jihad resulted in their destruction and universal prohibition. Leto II’s prescient abilities far outstrip even those of his father, and he sets about intentionally becoming the greatest despot humanity has ever known – going so far as to terraform Arrakis and bring about the end of the great sandworms and therefore also of spice production – in order to cause a new age of space exploration and scientific discovery following his eventual assassination (which he also, of course, foresaw and effectively permitted to occur). This ‘Golden Path’, and the extent to which it thwarts or is thwarted by the competing schemes of the Bene Gesserit and other power blocs, forms the central theme of the later books.

And so on, and so on. The epic reach of the ideas swells with each subsequent book, but it’s hard to fend off the feeling that some of them have resulted from Herbert’s need to constantly outdo himself with extravagant creations. This is compounded by the additional sequels and prequels to Frank Herbert’s work co-written by his son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson, which recount the events leading up to and during the Butlerian Jihad. These novels have had a decidedly mixed critical response, although by all accounts they’ve sold well; to be honest I haven’t read any of them and so can’t pass any subjective comment on their merits.

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The legacy of Dune extends far beyond the novels and Lynch’s film. A three-part TV miniseries titled Frank Herbert’s Dune was written and directed by John Harrison for The Sci Fi Channel in 2000, followed by Children of Dune three years later; both were generally well received by critics, although ironically they don’t seem to have had the same impact on popular culture as Lynch’s ill-fated adaptation. Outside the Dune franchise, the 1990 humorous action thriller Tremors (dir. Ron Underwood, starring Kevin Bacon) took the obviously appealing element of burrowing wormlike monsters attracted by vibrations, scaled them down somewhat (although still easily big enough to swallow a human in one bite) and relocated them to a small town in an arid region of the modern-day American midwest. It’s no cinematic masterpiece but is nonetheless a highly entertaining homage to the monster-themed B-movies of the 1950s, with pleasingly visceral, pre-CGI SFX for the killer worms. Less obviously but more pervasively, the Dune influence is all over the Star Wars films, from the desert planet of Tatooine, complete with fierce, primitive ‘sand people’ and a gigantic, all-consuming monster (although static rather than free-roaming), to the various tribulations of Luke Skywalker on his path to warrior-messiah-hood – even the physical appearance (and indeed character) of Jabba the Hutt bears comparison to the loathsome Baron Harkonnen, and he’s also been likened to the form taken by Paul’s son Leto II in God Emperor of Dune, in which the titular character has become a monstrous hybrid of man and worm. In print and on the small screen, the theme of rival Great Houses duking it out for absolute power both in open battle and a non-stop war of subterfuge and intrigue, with ferocious barbarians beyond the borders of ‘civilization’ who may constitute an irritation, invaluable ally or nemesis, is surely an influence on George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the hit HBO show Game of Thrones adapted from it.

In other media, it’s hard to overestimate the influence the Dune franchise has had on the RTS (real-time strategy) genre of video games. Dune II, developed by Westwood Studios and released in 1992 by Virgin Interactive for Megadrive, Amiga and PC. (Confusingly, Dune II wasn’t a sequel to Dune. The ‘II’ suffix was needed because a game titled simply Dune had been released earlier the same year, also by Virgin although developed by the now-defunct French company Cryo Interactive; it was a point-and-click adventure game, incorporating footage from Lynch’s film. It was fairly well received by critics but is now basically a footnote in video game history.) The game puts the player in the role of leader of one of three Great Houses, namely Atreides, Harkonnen or Ordos (the latter having been invented for the game) on Arrakis, where they harvest spice, build factories to produce war machines, recruit and train soldiers and of course make war on each other. While it wasn’t the first RTS game as such, it introduced a number of elements that have become standard features of virtually every game in the genre since, such as a harvest-and-spend resource-management model, a complex technology tree (a network of dependencies determining which new units can be developed according to which types of technology have already been mastered), a ‘fog of war’ system (areas of the map remain terra incognita to the player until explored by his/her units) and a different set of unit types, with finely balanced strengths and weaknesses, for each playable faction. Although the game was a success in its own right, its lasting legacy was cemented three years later when Westwood produced the first in the long-running Command & Conquer series, which used and extended many of the features demonstrated in the earlier game – comparable to the way id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D codified many of what would become the standard features of the first-person shoot-em-up genre, but arguably more through the runaway success of the subsequent Doom games from the same developer than through Wolfenstein itself.


4 Responses to “Dune at 50(ish)”

  1. Louise Harris Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this; it’s so detailed and you make so many good points and valid connections. You really know your stuff! And I totally agree – it’s an amazing read.

  2. routemasterflash Says:

    Ha, cheers mum. It’s not finished yet – I clicked Publish by mistake! I’ll try and finish it off soon and see if anyone’s interested in putting in a magazine or a blog that gets a few more readers than mine does.

  3. Evil Elk Says:

    A very nice summary indeed. I haven’t read Dune for around 20 years or so but still recommend it to everyone I can. I had a weird obsession with the incomprehensible film from the age of eight or so, which I had once seen but took till my late teens to track down as being Dune and so leading me to read the book. One of the things that makes it more striking for me is that it obviously made me try reading a handful of Herbert’s other work, which I found terrible. Pulpy, facile, crude etc are my memories but maybe I was just unlucky with my choices? Anyway, they made Dune stand out almost like Herbert had had some sort of mystical once-in-a-lifetime revelation – which is charmingly appropriate and only increased my evaluation and appreciation of Dune. Perhaps you could add something about the rest of his non-Dune work?

    • routemasterflash Says:

      Thanks for commenting. Apart from Dune itself, I’ve only read the other stories in the series up to God Emperor. They’re not bad books but I think they get progressively less good the further you get from the original. I don’t really have strong memories of them to be quite honest, apart from a sense of ‘oh here we go again’ as Alia gradually gets possessed by the genetic memory of her evil grandfather, and finding the endless bloody gholas of Duncan Idaho increasingly ridiculous. I’ve not read any of Herbert’s works outside the immediate Dune series but I gather some of his shorts stories are quite good, and explore some of the same eco-philosophical ideas that he used in Dune.

      This piece is still a work in progress btw – I published it by mistake while still writing it! – so do please check back in a few weeks and I might have it in finished form by then. Cheers!

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