Escapism in the year 2018 is a strange thing. If you want to refresh a brain beshitted by weeks and months of workaday corruption and brutality, sometimes you have to scale that corruption and brutality up.
Hence the experience of enjoying Dune, Frank Herbert’s iconic novel, in 2018. Set thousands of years from now, it’s a story of political bastardry at an intergalactic level. In Dune’s future, all space travel, as well as the near-supernatural mental abilities of several different semi-monastic orders that rose to replace computers following an anti-technological holy war (this is science fiction, after all), is fueled by a mind-altering substance called the spice. The spice is found only on the desert planet Arrakis, where it is secreted at an early stage in the life-cycle of gigantic, deadly sandworms. As the mostly noble House Atreides and the mostly vile House Harkonnen vie for supremacy over the world and its nomadic warrior tribes, only young Paul Atreides — heir to the slain Duke Leto and the product of millennia of careful genetic breeding — can harness the forbidden prophetic powers required to overthrow the Harkonnens and the Emperor who backs them.
He is Muad’dib, the messianic figure known as the Kwisatz Haderach. He’s a Girl Talk mashup record of every major real-world religious figure and revolutionary leader. He’s really fucking weird. And for some reason, people love talking about him, and about Dune. People love talking about Marvel and DC and Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, too, but this is different, because Dune isn’t anywhere near that level of cultural commonality and reach. Since its publication in 1965, it’s become the bestselling science fiction novel of all time, but other than the obvious debt owed to it by George Lucas (desert planet, evil emperor, chosen son, mystical forces, you get the idea) it has made no other lasting inroads into mainstream culture. It’s about as popular as a work of fiction can be without feeling or functioning like it’s popular. And like the Bene Gesserit witches and the mutated Guild Navigators, the reclusive Fremen and the rapacious Sardaukar, we fans of Dune, its sequels, and its David Lynch adaptation are members of a secret order, but there are signs of us everywhere.
Dune’s appeal stems at least in part from an all things to all people element endemic to genre fiction. The science-fiction ferment from which Dune emerged followed a period of political upheaval so tremendous — from World War I through the Cold War, with the Depression, fascism, Communism, World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb along the way — that its authors began to see limitless potential for transformation and mutation not just in the reaches of space or the advancement of technology, but in human behavior itself. From Isaac Asimov’s Foundation to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (to SF writer L. Ron Hubbard’s get-rich-quick scheme turned personality cult, Scientology), understanding and projecting the sweep of societal change emerged as a primary concern.
But mid-century SFF novelists operated in a political context so different from ours — and were often so personally odd — that pinning their work to any fixed point along a political axis is usually a fool’s errand. Herbert is a prime example. In 1970, he edited a non-fiction Earth Day tie-in book called New World or No World with a preface by Walter J. Hinckel, Nixon’s Republican Secretary of the Interior… and a foreword by Edmund Muskie, the Democratic Senator whom Nixon’s henchmen would ratfuck into oblivion when he challenged the old man in a run for president two years later.
Moreover, the societal extrapolations of these authors’ books are frequently so big and broad that individual aspects which match your individual beliefs, whatever they are, are easy to find; that there’s a breed of fascist who loves Orwell, who literally went to war against fascists, is one of the more obvious examples. Naturally, right-wingers and Randian tech freaks have never met a fantasy text they aren’t stupid and vicious enough to twist into a leader-cult training manual, and thus, nincompoop messiah Elon Musk can and will unironically compare himself to Muad’dib. Meanwhile, Paul’s “jihad” (uh-oh) to secure control over the known universe after he and his die-hard followers overthrow the Emperor claims something like 60 billion lives, to the point where there’s a throwaway mention of an ancient warlord called Hitler being something of a piker in terms of body count. On a basic narrative level, Paul is the good guy. If you want to treat Dune as a tale of might makes right, the soil is fertile enough, and the conditions of fandom easily enable anyone’s personal interpretation to surpass the creator’s intent.
Yet Herbert saw that great-man historical thinking led not just to Hitler and the Holocaust, but to Kennedy and Vietnam — a more sophisticated critique of imperialism than mainstream American liberalism has ever freely entertained. (Though in 1972 he worked as an ecologist with the South Vietnamese government on a land-reform project designed to win the hearts and minds of farmers to keep them from supporting the Communists. He also directed TV shows for a while. The man had a weird career.) Herbert’s books are predicated on long-range environmental preservation, on the right of indigenous populations to fight imperialist aggression, on respect for non-“Judeo-Christian” religious and spiritual traditions, on skepticism toward fundamentalism and the will to power, on borderline terror of technological overreach and nuclear war. In Dune, misguided attempts to raise the standard of living regardless of cost lead to depletion of natural resources and total ecological catastrophe. If you operate on the left side of the political spectrum, you’ve got plenty of ammo if you need it.
The text is opened up for interpretation further by Dune lacking anything resembling an Extended Cinematic Universe in which the pieces must perfectly fit. Indeed, failed or pending adaptation attempts currently outnumber those that have gotten off the ground at all. In the 1970s, three SF legends — Planet of the Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs, Holy Mountain director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and future Alien impresario Ridley Scott — tried their hand at the project, with equally influential figures Moebius, H.R. Giger, and Dan O’Bannon riding shotgun as visual and effects consultants along the way. Jodorowsky’s version in particular has become a sort of “lost album” for critics and fans; Frank Pavich’s 2013 documentary on its gestation and eventual abortion is popular enough to serve as an ersatz adaptation on its own.
Instead, in the appropriately science-fictional year 1984, David Lynch’s famously strange version (scored by yacht-rock masters Toto, with a lone Brian Eno contribution) hit theaters, in a bowdlerized edit overseen by super-producer Dino De Laurentiis rather than the director himself. The result was so disheartening to Lynch that he insisted on having final cut on all his films moving forward; if you enjoyed just how far-out Twin Peaks: The Return got, you’ve got the Dune debacle and the contractual hardball Lynch was willing to play with Showtime as a result to thank.
The small screen became Dune’s next destination, in a pair of Sci-Fi Channel miniseries that adapted both the original novel and its two sequels in 2000 and 2003 respectively. Director John Harrison, a horror specialist who’s collaborated with George A. Romero and Clive Barker, hewed closer to the text than any of his predecessors, and both miniseries did gangbuster numbers for the network. However, their critical and commercial success was quickly supplanted by the Battlestar Galactica reboot — aka the one good thing the Sci-Fi Channel has ever really done — and lack any real cult cachet today.
Not that this stopped Hollywood from trying to keep the spice flowing. In the ensuing decade, tough-guy directors Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) and Pierre Morel (Taken) were attached to potential remakes, ostensibly with an eye toward beefed-up blockbuster-style action; neither effort went anywhere. The latest attempt at adaptation is currently in the hands of Denis Villeneuve, who between this and Blade Runner 2049 appears to be settling into a groove stewarding updates of other people’s big avant-garde sci-fi visions, like an arthouse J.J. Abrams.
Lynch’s Dune, it must be said, has been given a bad rap. I was first introduced to it five years ago, at a time when it seemed the director had retired from filmmaking in favor of his longtime passion for painting and a sideline making bizarro music projects. After watching it I felt no need to put quotation marks around its quality: This was a straight-up Good Movie, blending Lynch touchstones like sinister surrealism and a cast full of wondrous weirdos — including Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, Jack Nance, Brad Dourif, Dean Stockwell, Max Von Sydow, Kenneth McMillan, and, gloriously and shirtlessly, Sting — with the expensive look, scope, and ambition of post–Star Wars Hollywood.
Once I finally got around to reading the books, criticism of the adaptation felt even more off-base. The elements that seemed strangest, like the near-constant voiceover narration of the characters’ thoughts, were no more or less than an attempt to translate the relentless interiority of Herbert’s writing. In a time when social media induces us to share nearly every idea we have for public consumption, including the idea of whether or not our ideas are worth sharing, Herbert’s singular “Character X thinks something, Character X decides how to talk about it, Character X says what they decided to say, Character X thinks about how what they said was received by Character Y, Character Y thinks something in response, and so on” daisy-chain structure of representing human thought, and Lynch’s cinematic simulacrum of it, are actually relatable.
And on a plot level, Lynch’s additions to and deviations from the source material — lethal voice-based telekinesis via “weirding modules,” catchphrases like “the spice must flow,” the presence of pugs on the battlefield — all have one thing in common: They’re fucking awesome. Nothing here violates the spirit of Herbert’s original; all of it ratchets up the story’s gonzo coolness considerably. But since Dune is both a blip on the overall blockbuster-cinema radar and considered borderline apocryphal by Lynch himself (though Herbert loved it), it lacks a toehold in pop culture in general and a lock on the hearts of a large, fervent online fandom in particular. It provides some common ground for discussion, but demands little in return.
Beyond that, Dune is not a corporate cash cow, and being a fan doesn’t carry with it that icky feeling you’re doing an unpaid PR internship for Disney or AT&T Time Warner. You’re not being cultivated when you make a Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim Appreciation Thread, the way you are when you do something similar for, like, Harley Quinn or Groot. Nor are you helping billionaires whitewash their crimes if you point out politically positive aspects of the series, like its environmentalism or its bone-deep skepticism of leader cults. People who quite reasonably respond favorably to long-overdue representation of non-white-dudes in movies like The Last Jedi and Black Panther have to grapple with stuff like Marvel teaming up with defense contractors Northrop Grumman, or its CEO Ike Perlmutter being a noted Trump supporter.
In the contemporary internet sense, the Dune discourse is wild and wide open, without the warring-camp, protect it at all costs mentality that plagues so many other geek-culture staples. If you say “The spice must flow,” you aren’t risking hours of replies from angry pedants the way you might if, oh I don’t know, you point out that in Justice League, Aquaman’s trident (from the Latin for “three teeth”) has five points instead of three. Unless you try very hard, you’re also unlikely to encounter anyone complaining that Dune has been ruined by SJWs and soyboys, or that critics who like it have been bought off by that sweet De Laurentiis money. Yet it’s still a sprawling invented world that provides you with all the esoterica and trivia and map-reading and jargon-slinging joy of any other. You can get stoned and stay up until the wee hours making dank Duncan Idaho memes with your friends, or with no one at all, completely unmolested.
Dune references signal shared knowledge to those in the know, and that’s about it. Dune fandom is an un-fandom.
And perhaps I’m going out on a limb here, but based on the source material and the filmmakers historically associated with adapting it — including Villeneuve, whose Blade Runner movie gives us a solid recent point of comparison — Dune-iverse phrases like “Tleilaxu ghola” or “prana-bindu training” or “He is the Kwisatz-Haderach” are never gonna reach “Infinity Stones” or “Ten points for Gryffindor” or “A Lannister always pays his debts” levels. Anyone who’s seen the very real Dune coloring and activity books, which look like an elaborate prank, can attest to how tough it is to boil this stuff down to four-quadrant consumability. It’s true that the books are bestsellers, but so is the comparable work of Jeff VanderMeer, author of Annihilation, which became a well-regarded science-fiction film that nevertheless won’t be getting Happy Meal tie-ins anytime soon.
No matter how much Lynch’s version trends upward in critical estimation, no matter how (or if) Villeneuve’s new version pans out, this is just not a franchise that’s scalable in the Transformers or Harry Potter way. It’s too dense, too weird. It smells like sun-bleached library paperbacks. Which, by the way, are the only form in which Dune has been successfully franchised, in the form of sequels co-authored by workmanlike SFF writer Kevin J. Anderson and Herbert’s son Brian. Dune references signal shared knowledge to those in the know, and that’s about it. Dune fandom is an un-fandom.
More than anything else, this is what makes immersion in Dune such an attractive prospect. Paul Atreides found anonymity, friendship, and freedom in the secret ways of the unconquerable Fremen desert tribes (Fremen, “free men,” get it?); his life after that point was a prolonged struggle to export that sense of freedom to others. Consciously or not, Herbert himself summed up the promise of Paul’s life in his introduction to New World or No World, repackaging it as a plan for the survival of the species and the planet we live on.
“The thing we must do intensely is be human together,” he wrote. “People are more important than things. We must get together. The best thing humans can have going for them is each other. We have each other. We must reject everything which humiliates us. Humans are not objects of consumption. We must develop an absolute priority of humans a head of profit — any humans ahead of any profit. Then we will survive. Together.” Dune is one small, goofy, vital way of sharing something wonderful with each other, and with nothing and no one else.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Dino De Laurentiis’ name.