Photo Credit: Francesco Ungaro (via Unsplash)
The first Dune novel was originally published in 1965, making it 56 years old this year. Although society has gone through many changes over the past five decades, namely technological advancements, the dystopian perspective through which Frank Herbert describes Dune’s universe remains a futuristic concept. The concept of artificial intelligence is portrayed here by “mentats;” human vessels that embody the calculating intelligence of AI and use their superior cognition to advise the royal families of the time.
The idea that AI can exist without computers is something that hasn’t been explored very often in sci-fi literature. Most of the sci-fi content that we see today is chock-full of droids, iPhone Siri-like artificial intelligence, and robots that perform many of the duties that were once regulated by humans. Along with the lack of artificial AI, Frank Herbert also introduces the concept of an addictive, necessary-for-life resource called spice mélange. Once you have consumed spice, your body develops a life-sustaining dependency on it and your appearance takes on distinct character traits. Those who control the spice, therefore, have the most political bargaining power.
Water is also a valuable resource on the planet Arrakis (Dune). This is a potential outcome in our own future once excessive use deprives us of our limited water resources. Recycling bodily fluids into drinkable water is an essential part of life on Arrakis, while expressions such as crying are considered a “waste of water.” However, they are also considered an honour depending on the circumstance (such as in the case of a loved one’s death).
The book’s main character Paul Atreides retains fresh memories from his home planet Caladan, where water was available in abundance. Meanwhile, Dune is reminiscent of Earth’s deserts with a dry and arid climate that is hardly able to sustain any form of life. Dune natives work in secret to rehabilitate the planet and achieve their goals of growing fauna and making water abundant. Their determination invokes a timeless question: “Is it possible to undo the effects that humans have had on our world?” While Dune’s climate is not specifically said to have been damaged by human existence, it is tempting to compare their situation with our plagues of deforestation, excessive agricultural activity and global warming.
While the imagination of our future as a desperate struggle for survival on a planet that has suffered over-population is a common idea these days, the concept was much more unique in 1965. The fact that Frank Herbert’s works remain believable and relevant into this century is an incredible feat and is likely due to his lack of use of AI technology, as has been popular in science fiction novels throughout history. Because our current technological advances have not seen a necessity to exceed the advances made in Dune (for example, stillsuits, that are used for recycling the body’s water), we can continue to imagine a future in which the tales of Dune become somewhat of a reality. In some ways, Dune can be seen as a warning of an inevitable future, with Paul Atreides serving as a harbinger of what might be our distant successors’ experiences.