Dune: A Story about Power

dune-film-2021
Warner Bros by Chia Bella James

Note: The article does not contain major spoilers.

Every good story is ultimately libertarian in nature. This is especially true of the science fiction and fantasy genres. This is because such stories have strong characters. While the goal of authors is often to create characters with whom the reader or viewer can identify, they must also not lose sight of a kind of literary exceptionalism – fictional heroes must remain role models and villains must remain readable archetypes, their fates must be extraordinary in some sense, and their actions must have a profound impact, whether on their lives or on the world. Stories in general are simply individualistic by nature.

This is especially true of the genres mentioned above, whose domain is monumental narratives about the fate of fictional worlds. While the genre of science fiction often warns us of future dystopias, and fantasy convinces us of the horrors of fictional tyrannies of the past, it is the individualism inherent in the greatness of their legends that typically underlies their liberalism.

What ultimately spoils most of these stories is the literary craftsmanship. Again, it is more often the weakness of the characters than the believability of the world in which they are set that dooms the narrative to failure.

Quality storytelling lies in understandable characters, and the main creative process is to present them with a controlled degree of randomness that will give rise to a logical story in the form of a meaningful response to rare coincidences.

A story is like a macroeconomic model: it must have a coherent narrative with well-chosen assumptions – the default setting of the world – and then it just minimizes the randomness.

A bad author has characters who take random, incomprehensible, or uncharacteristic actions, or gives up on a logical progression of events and uses too many inputs of chance. Instead of greatness, then, we see cringe and awkwardness that few authors escape.

Among those unaffected by this, however, is certainly Frank Herbert, author of Dune, a new adaptation of which is now entering cinemas.

Dreamer of Dune

It is not an exaggeration to say that Herbert was to his genre what Tolkien was to fantasy, to whom Herbert himself defers in several places, just as it is not too presumptuous to describe Herbert personally as a liberal advocate for a freer society, not only in his literary works.

As a journalist for many years, a military photographer during World War II, and a Senate speech-writer with a security clearance, he gained a first-hand look at the conduct of war and the power machinations in Washington, and in his many years of research for the Dune hexalogy, he gained knowledge of psychology, ecology, and the effects of psychotropic substances – growing psilocybin mushrooms has remained his hobby. In addition, he was also a jungle survival instructor and oyster diver.

As a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Washington, he led students to analyse the illusory liberality of the institutions of the time and their fragility – as he put it, to “see the dystopia within the utopia“.

Throughout his life, he was a critic of the Soviet Union, but also of repressive McCarthyism and the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. He understood well the incentives facing public officials and was generally cynical about the good intentions and truthfulness of public servants, Herbert’s son Brian writes in his father’s biography Dreamer of Dune.

On the Watergate affair, Herbert reportedly said it was an important lesson to Americans in distrusting their own government.

The Desert Complexity

Dune itself demonstrates Herbert’s great understanding of issues close to the heart of the liberal mind; from the Malthusian population fallacy to an almost Hayekian understanding of spontaneous order and complexity in describing how far-reaching the consequences of controlled interventions in the ecology of the planet and human society can be:

“The thing the ecologically illiterate don’t realize about an ecosystem is that it’s a system. A system! A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche.

A system has order, flowing from point to point. If something dams that flow, order collapses. The untrained might miss that collapse until it was too late. That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.”

But Herbert’s desert planet, Dune, which is the central setting for the entire series, is also highly resilient to such unintended interference in the complexity of its ecosystem. “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it,” says Herbert’s protagonist – and it is this quest for this kind of control over the Arrakis desert that the book and the film are ultimately about; it is the ability to destroy the only source of a necessary resource by disrupting the ecosystem that produces it that proves decisive.

Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

Above all, however, Dune is a treatise on power. Like Lord Acton, Herbert understood that power corrupts.

Or rather, in his words: “Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptable. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.”

Dune has a number of clear-cut villains and political opportunists to illustrate this statement, but they are not the ones on whom we primarily observe the impact of power on the individual – or the impact of the individual with power on society. Rather than a straightforward warning against villains, Dune is a warning against saviors; it shows the fragility of political systems susceptible to heroic domination.

No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero,” writes Frank Herbert.

The central theme is centred in the figure of the protagonist. In him, Herbert shows how easily power overwhelms those who wield it, how the leader himself comes under the control of the crowd he leads. Herbert specifically accentuates this on religious leaders and myths.

The protagonist himself declares that “when law and duty are one, united by religion, you never become fully conscious, fully aware of yourself. You are always a little less than an individual”.

This theme is somewhat suppressed in the new film (for example, the word jihad, which appears frequently in the book, does not appear in the film).

The Unfree Liberator

The hero remains a hero. His goal is first and foremost survival, but also justice, and ultimately a better government. To this end, in a moment of crisis, he resorts to manipulating the beliefs of the native peoples of Dune.

He uses his natural talent and education, which far surpasses that of his peers, including a few fortunate coincidences, to cloak himself in the mantle of superstition and conform to local prophecies of a savior – themselves the result of manipulating the local population for political purposes.

Initially, he does so out of a need for self-preservation. Once invoked, however, the messianic cult is a runaway train. Soon Paul is using it to build his position and further his goals and ambitions. As he gains control over the gullible desert dwellers, however, he also loses control of the cult he has built – his public persona is part of the savior myth, and it is, for all his efforts to control it, shaped by the crowd.

Thus, in addition to waging a battle for justice and freedom against a tyrannical government, he is also waging a battle with an anonymous mob of followers over his own persona, and trying to avoid the horrors of the religious fanaticism he has ignited and which he continues to need to channel and use.

East of Free Will

All of this is complicated by the only truly mystical theme in Herbert’s rigorously analytical saga: predestination and the issue free will that goes with it.

And while Steinbeck‘s answer to this question is appealing to many liberals – “you can triumph over predestination” – and suggests that regardless of that shackles that circumstance and fate have forged for us, sufficient determination and strength of character will eventually enable us to break these bonds, Herbert’s answer is more complicated.

Yet, it may seem more logical – determinism is understood by Herbert as a property of the external world, and in the end it is Steinbeck who seems more esoteric by comparison with his locating the solution to the problem of determinism in the nature of human beings rather than in the universe as such.

Herbert’s Paul first tries to prevent the devastating religious war that he foresees must inevitably come. Eventually, however, he accepts his own myth, and comes to the conclusion that the predicted catastrophe is not only the inevitable, but also the best possible future.

In subsequent books, Herbert picks up on this theme with the idea that if we entrust the fate of humanity, even for millennia, to human computers – mathematicians with near-perfect predictive accuracy who are essentially following the optimization prescription of maximizing the general welfare – the results may be less than desirable from the perspective of individuals.

Despite all this, Dune does not abandon the notion of free will. Frank Herbert offers an extensive exposition of the fact that autonomy does not lie in mere ignorance of a determined fate, and also that if there were a person who had sufficient data to piece together a reasonably reliable prediction of a predetermined future, he would be the least free of all in his choices.

But determinism is a property of the world and not of man, is Herbert’s thesis and the solution to the resulting paradox, and it is not men that need to change to end predestination, but the world.

The new film has various shortcomings compared to the book, and many of Herbert’s central ideas and themes discussed here are only hinted at for the sake of the book readers, or promised for an eventual sequel, but of all the film versions to date it comes by far the closest to it.

So go and see Dune, so that we get to see the second part – Herbert’s book and Villeneuve’s film deserve it.


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Jan Mosovsky
Liberalni Institute