In recent times, it has become very easy for people to make comparisons to “1984,” George Orwell’s seminal dystopian work about repressive government, when they witness something in the news that they dislike. While perhaps there might be a ring of truth to these claims, it is also not intellectually bold to say that everything one sees in the world is reminiscent of a particular novel. Given that Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of the novel “Dune” was just released in theaters and on HBO Max, it seems appropriate to revisit Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic and its many relevant themes in today’s world. “Dune” is set in the distant future where houses of noble families are given planets as fiefs. The novel is centered around the youth Paul Atreides, next in line to lead the Atreides House, which has just been given control of the desert planet Arrakis.
Some of the most important themes consistently portrayed throughout “Dune” are those of colonialism and empire. The reason that Arrakis, which House Atreides is given command of, is so valuable is that it is the source of melange. Melange is the spice that makes interstellar travel possible. Whichever house is in command of Arrakis has a dictate to harvest as much spice as possible, as it is necessary to maintain a massive space empire and is extremely profitable due to its value. Harvesting this spice often comes at a cost to the Fremen, the indigenous people who populate Arrakis, as anyone who rules Arrakis sees the Fremen as merely a resource to be exploited. The rulers of Arrakis before the Atreides family — the Harkonnens — simply collected as much spice as they needed to with no regard for the havoc they wreaked on the Fremen. Even the Atreides family, who nominally chooses to respect the Fremen, plans to use the Fremen as warriors to defeat their rivals.
The Fremen are presented in “Dune” as knowledgeable and skilled people with a rich culture. They have found uses for the spice and have their own language, but the houses of the empire never see them as anything other than an end to a means. The Fremen’s struggle is clearly allegorical to those who struggled to free themselves from colonialism in the post-World War II period during which “Dune” was released, but it is also easy to see the parallels between the plight of the Fremen and the troubles faced by the populations of Iraq or Afghanistan. People in both countries had to deal with massive foreign interventions for extended periods of time to protect the interests of nations that were not their own. The spice on Arrakis could easily represent Middle Eastern oil — a highly valuable commodity for which powerful forces are willing to do nearly anything to control. Even if neither country was truly a colony by the dictionary definition, they were used in much the same way.
Perhaps the most lasting aspect of “Dune” is its focus on ecology and the environment. When the Atreides family arrives on Arrakis, the local population immediately impresses upon them the importance of water conservation. In the deep desert, the Fremen wear stillsuits, which preserve the body’s natural moisture and recycle it into drinkable water. The emphasis Herbert placed on the environment in “Dune” has tangible, real-world effects. Gerry Canavan, an assistant professor of English at Marquette University, stated that “’Dune’ is really a turning point for science fiction that takes ecology seriously as a concept.” Five years after “Dune” was published, Earth Day was officially celebrated for the first time. “Dune” was perhaps the first widely popular work of science fiction that brought themes of environmentalism and ecology to a young audience.
Today, the emphasis on water conservation in “Dune” seems particularly noteworthy. Last year, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange founded the inaugural futures market for water, allowing anyone to conduct speculative trading on water much like one would on commodities like gold or oil. Of course, the difference is that water is a necessary resource for human life. The drought in California over the summer of 2021 was the worst recorded in the state’s 126-year history. According to the World Wildlife Fund, two-thirds of the world’s population could face water shortages by the year 2025. Unfortunately, this does not sound very different from Herbert’s novel. Water is soon to become a precious resource on Earth, much as it is on the fictional desert planet of Arrakis.
“Dune” truly is a fantastic novel that everyone should read if they have the chance. The recent movie is excellent as well, and deserves to be experienced in theaters. Paul Atreides’ story is extremely compelling, but what makes the book so great are its meditations on numerous important issues. Even outside of colonialism or ecology, there are plenty of other aspects of the novel that reflect events in the real world, such as the impact of religion or gender roles. Although “1984” may be the popular choice for the novel that best explains today’s world, the themes “Dune” addresses are far more urgent and in-depth. Government censorship and overreach is of course an important topic to discuss, but it has become somewhat overwrought in popular discourses. The important motifs in “Dune,” however, are unique, multilayered and relevant, proving why it so well reflects our world more than 50 years after its publication.
Theodore Brita is a sophomore majoring in political science.