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  • Writer's pictureKralingen

The 9 Thought-Provoking Lessons Dune Teaches us on Storytelling

Updated: May 6

The Dune films by Denis Villeneuve are exceptionally good. And anyone familiar with the books by Frank Herbert knows that they are even better. But why is that exactly? What's the whole story? The deeper reason is that Dune's tale is very thought-provoking and as such is fascinating to explore, with ideas that have many real world implications. Fair warning, spoilers ahead and make sure you've experienced the story... and now without further ado, let's set things off with a bang.


(set design from the films, with Timothée Chalamet)


1 - Mind over Matter

In the Dune universe, which is set many eons in the future from now, humanity has prevailed over technology, and in particular, artificial intelligence. The main message about the human condition that author Frank Herbert teaches, is that the strength of the human mind is so boundless, it can be taught to 'see' in both the past and the future (with a little help from hallucinogenics), based on the patterns around us, as well as having such control and dominance over one's mind, that it becomes possible to completely overpower the minds of others.


In particular, the mind can be trained so incredibly well, that artificial intelligence will not be able to overcome it. Which may arguably be exactly the right thought-provoking message we need right now against the mindless marketing drones that believe our AI 'automatons' are the future. But I digress.


When you know this plot point of 'humans over tech', you'll see it everywhere, although arguably the technology of the Still-suits that preserve water in the desert, gives technology a couple of points in its favor. Yet this mental power is demonstrated in a variety of moments, including the scene where an AI-poisoned dart is trying to kill our young Paul Atreides, yet he is able to fool it by becoming so still and calm, the AI cannot register his intended victim. The point is also made quite vividly with the Harkonnen baron being so fat, he's wholly dependent on technology to move and survive... which is a clear reference to spoiled billionaires, and ultimately his downfall. Also, Paul Atreides survives the excruciatingly painful 'hand in the box' challenge with only the power of his mind. Which too is a piece of technology, specifically designed to eliminate free will in favor of animal instincts.


Mind you, this 'overcoming of the mind' - which is essentially an acceptance of all your worst fears - is not easy to achieve and requires stiff training and a lot of talent in the story. Yet when achieved, it becomes so powerful, that it can even end up in the Bene Gesserit 'voice' that eliminates free will in its receiver and allows you to issue any command you'd ever want.


In its deepest essence the story asks us if we have reached the limits of human potential or if our largely unused brain power may unlock many surprises still to come. For all of us who are connected to mindfulness techniques present in Qi-Gong, Kung Fu, meditation, and yoga and such, this idea of your mind prevailing over matter is not new. It's quite old actually, and is arguably, proven already in astonishing feeds of human capabilities by some exceptional people at the top of their game.


So, the fictional Bene Gesserit mind-techniques are well rooted in reality, since they are based on both a pure form of objective observation (think: Stoicism by Marcus Aurelius) and the ability to be completely 'present in the moment' in a manner in which top athletes and extreme sports people live, such as big wave surfers. In a way, Herbert asks us what we think a few thousand years of human evolution would do to these practices... and answers that it'll likely develop much further. Although hopefully, without any poisonous needles and painful hand-in-the-box tests needed.

In the backstory of Dune, Herbert had even created a long war of sorts between humanity and technology, ultimately won by humanity through finally unlocking the true potential of our minds. Herbert issues a clear, in-your-face opinion here: betting on artificial intelligence is the wrong bet. Betting on the unfathomable intricacies of the human mind is the right one.


Mind over matter indeed.


2 - Make no mistake... It's a Jihad

One of the things I personally find most fascinating about the story is that Frank Herbert and Denis Villeneuve in his adaptations, have essentially made us empathize and even support the coming of a real-deal holy war: this story is the start of a literal Jihad. Paul Atreides even sees it coming, and understands that he can only try to minimize the damage both from and to the religious fanatics who believe he is 'The Chosen One', as they inflict it to billions of people galaxy-wide.


Herbert and Villeneuve show us the extraordinary lengths in which those who crave the 'spice' will go. The spice is so obvious as a reference to oil in the real world, that from a storytelling point of view it's a little too on the nose to be honest. What the story describes is that they form an oligarchy of dynastic families to preserve the spice harvesting. This is also an obvious real world reference to the political structures of the USA, The Middle East, many South-American countries and Russia, which can be seen as oligarchies of billionaire decision makers in business and politics. All highly - if not completely - dependent on oil income and usage.


The counsel of families resemble OPEC too, and shows that the rest of the galaxy (arguably Europe, Africa and Asia) play along, since they need the spice for interstellar travel. Only the Fremen don't care about that type of travel and are content with 'what they have' and to live with nature as one. These forces even form an empire, with an emperor or empress on top, whose power is measured by the stick of how well he or she can preserve the flow of the oil.


Erm.... the spice, I mean of course.


That's how on the nose it really is. In fact, the moment the emperor loses control over spice harvesting, is the moment he's lost all power. Which at the time of writing the book at least, was a direct reference to one of the main tasks of the American presidency, to keep that liquid gold flowing.


These oligarchies are willing to forgo any semblance of morality or decency, and are prepared to commit genocide to any and all of the original inhabitants, just to get their hands on the spice. Which is not only a reference to today's world, but also to Native Americans in the past and present living on oil-rich grounds, and even a reference to all resource-related wars in humanities' history. And so the story asks us this fundamental question:


Would you support a Jihad?


3 - Revenge is Successful

And the weird thing is, the answer is yes. In fact, it's a full blown hallelujah.


In real life, maybe your answer would be no, or mixed, or 'it's complicated'. But such is the power of storytelling, that in this story we wholeheartedly support the Atreides family and the coming of their holy war. Out of revenge no less.


Even when we find out that there was a secret marketing campaign spanning centuries by the Bene Gesserit to manipulate the idea of the coming of 'The Chosen One'. Even when we recognize that the Fremen are waging a guerilla, terrorist-like war, including bombings that kill innocent workers in storage facilities. Even when it's clear that Paul's decisions will kill billions of people galaxy-wide, and could stop all interstellar travel forever... we still support his decisions leading up to a Jihad.


Now, I'm not judging, I'm just observing. But I think it's fascinating to see how easily we all throw our support behind 'The Chosen One'. Makes you think, doesn't it? How well are we doing here, on this side of the spice-receiving isle?


But it doesn't stop there. Oh no... Another highly thought-provoking message is that it could be okay to seek out revenge. This isn't the Dark Knight Trilogy, in which we are told that justice is preferable to revenge on multiple occasions throughout those three films. No, no, no... the message here is an emphatic: "Revenge? Sure! Go for it!"


The story is very explicit in its approval of revenge. We receivers of the story get to revel in it. We want Harkonnen and Imperial blood, and we want it fast and loose. It's not just Paul Atreides his revenge on the emperor, which is arguably quite mild even (he allows him to live and marries his daughter), but all the people siding with the Atreides have their own revenge against their own adversaries. This includes Gurney Halleck's revenge on Rabban Harkonnen. And mother Jessica Atreides against the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother.


Now of course this isn't all that uncommon in storytelling. The bad guys had it coming, right? Yet both the books and the films make the revenge explicit in all instances. Including the needless, casual, and flagrantly dismissive, even absent-minded order of Paul Atreides to massacre all the remaining Saudakar, while his victory was already secured, giving the Fremen their bloodlust-filled vengeance.


And now don't say you didn't root for him.


4 - This Holy War Leads to a Green Paradise

And then... it twists the knife even further. Because the finish line of the stories that Villeneuve has adapted to screen (there are even more books...) is a green paradise. If you want to think that one through... at the moment the world is facing eco-protests that are pretty disruptive (again, not judging, just saying). This is in the form of non-violent action, such as blocking roads or cutting the power to a factory and such, but could arguably increase in its intensity when the world will suffer the tremendous consequences of global warming, literally leading to several new Dune-like deserts in the near future (or trigger a new Ice Age, I know... but we are not on Hoth here, that's a different universe).


Even without that green paradise currently in development, the Fremen are the ones who live as one with nature, symbolized by their symbiotic relationship with the sand worms. The spice this gives even brings them visions and solidifies their oneness with their planet. And their restraint in their water usage, and the millions of people who have died for those water reserves (literally their 'water' fluids...), strengthen their bonds with nature greatly.


Here, Dune tells us that this Jihad by the Fremen (the 'Free - Men') and their fanatical stubbornness, will ultimately result in a green paradise. This green paradise is the very thing the Green Movement in our world wants to achieve. I too share this green dream and try to actively cultivate nature around me. And with the increasingly apparent unwillingness of politicians and industry leaders - the oligarchic families if you will - to finally 'bite the bullet' and stop our global-warming inducing oil addiction... what will the Green Movement do? What would I myself do?


Again, I'm not judging here. But I have to admit, as a supporter of the green cause, it made me think. If our leaders cannot cut the chord with oil, threatening our very lives and existence, should there be a power grab against the elite, a revolution of sorts? Is that spillage of blood permitted, or would we be hypocrites, since we use the spice ourselves too? And would we follow a man such as Paul Artreides if push comes to shove? Would we rise against him, and side with Harkonnen-types to stop him? Who is the lesser evil? Is there even such a thing? Or would we ourselves be a Paul Atreides, including his cruelties to achieve the Green Paradise dream?


If your answer is yes to the last question... strap yourself in. Because the hits just keep on coming.


5 - Women Are Not Always Free

Herbert has not described the Fremen as being on the right side of morality. At least, not all the time. Paul's mother Jessica makes a conscious decision to religiously convert The South of Dune, a inhospitable land that is so conservative, that women have fewer rights than men, up to the point that they cannot speak on official matters. She is actively pushing this group into becoming zealous followers of her son, which arguably is not a very moral thing to do, as she explicitly picks out the 'poor and weak ones'. Her motive is clear as well: revenge for the death of her husband. And she leaves the impression she is willing to convert the entire universe if she had to, to achieve this vengeance.


The ends justify the means.


That's quite the message, isn't it? This resembles almost all organized faith (for the record, not just Islam) and shows the schism in religion about the place of women in society... since in this particular story the women from The North of Dune are completely free. Again, the links to organized religion are numerous, up and including to what is currently happening to women's rights in the USA under a 'religiously fanatic' Supreme Court.


However, whatever your judgement, in the end, the religious fanatics from Dune's South are instrumental to the victory. Without them, victory could not be achieved! Which again shows just how ambiguous all these characters and plot lines are, and how many lines everyone is willing to cross. Lines that are clearly visible in our own society as well.


Would you work with the fanatics to achieve the Green Paradise? Even if they suppress women?


6 - It's Gritty as Hell

In essence, Herbert shows us just how bad we are as a species. Of course, that's a cool thing to do in such a science fiction story, and he wouldn't be the first to hold that mirror up! The first rule of good storytelling is that it needs conflict and friction. Trials and tribulations are an integral part of life, and so as an evolutionary gift, our minds are trained to recognize challenges, not perfection.


It's also quite grounded in reality. Not only do people fight over water, there's sandstorms, poison, individual combat, betrayal, assassination attempts, intricate politics, economics, alliances that shift, technology, all-out war... it's the world right now, isn't it? One could argue that only the giant sandworms are a bit 'out there', but even they fit perfectly in this sandy world that has been created.


What the Dune story does particularly well is giving the friction a real tangible and relatable feel. In other words, it's gritty as hell, just as in real life. The Harkonnen in particular are extra savage. But so are the sandstorms. Or the Bene Gesserit for that matter. And the Atreides are no sweethearts either. It shows us a world in which no one has clean hands.


Except for one person.


7 - Love is The Redeemer

Herbert draws all of these lines in the sand concerning morality... and then crosses them all! Except for one line. The line of love.


Chani is the story's redeeming figure. Played brilliantly by Zendaya in the movies, her hand is more instrumental than you may think. And she is the only one whose motivations are pure at heart.


It's her insistence on trusting Paul to trust himself, that leads to the start of this holy war. However, it is very easy to argue that this holy war would've happened sooner or later: neither Chani nor Paul started this conflict, they are just reacting to it. And it's also her influence that mitigates the ultimate damage.


In the end, she is the only one who will not bow for Paul, when she knows his intentions are not pure and a Jihad, led by the fanatical and women-suppressing South, will come of it. And because of his love for her, he stays human enough not to ask her to bow either, and bases his decisions as much as he can on his humanity, his love for her and his Fremen cultural connection to her.


And that brings us to a fascinating point: is Paul 'Muad-Dib' Atreides truly a divine figure that everyone should bow for?


8 - It's an open question if God - or universal karma - actually exists

Most of Herbert's messages are crystal clear, and some of them are even on the nose. Yet in a final masterstroke, he leaves one important question hanging in the air, which he never really answers... is Paul Atreides truly send by the Gods? Or the Universal Creative Energy, the Brahma or Karma if you will?


The beauty of the story is: Paul actually could be divine.


We are presented with that centuries long marketing campaign by the Bene Gesserit 'witches' who prepare the Fremen for the coming of their holy savior. In that sense, Paul's rise to power is based on false pretenses. He's no God, no chosen one, just a guy at the right place at the right time. Yet, the Kwisatz Haderach - the anomaly of a man having female Bene Gesserit powers - is something very real in the story, and something very much feared by everyone - and planned by no one - except the Fremen. How do we explain his powers, while they shouldn't be possible? And Paul fits all these prophecies perfectly, up to the point that divine intentions and interventions just keep confirming his inevitability as a savior.


Surprising even his mom...


Was it a marketing campaign? Or has God, or karma, or the Universal Creative Energy really given us the Kwisatz Haderach, the savior of all, who is at the very least connected to the divine? Herbert nor Villeneuve give us the answer. They do however leave some hints on what they feel.


The conflict that breaks out between the Fremen and these families is as inevitable as gravity. No one can escape this conflict because the sides are clearly opposed and a breaking point would always have been reached, especially given the importance of the spice to the universe. The question isn't whether they would go to war. The question was always how that war would pan out exactly.


Did Paul Atreides have enough wiggle room in these inevitable events to assert his extraordinary strong will power on these events... and steer them to different outcomes? In other words, is Paul instrumental in the 'how' it plays out? Is his free will a deciding factor? The story answers this with a firm yes, because Paul - after drinking the water of life - can see many futures, and is the only one who can, as he finds one 'narrow route to victory', which he then consciously chooses. In other words, he has enough free will to influence the exact outcome...


...based on the power of seeing multiple futures. One could argue that this is the result of the development of mankind's mental powers, as is the central message of Herbert, and can be called a very strong version of free will. However, one could also argue that such power transcends space and time. And is thus, divine.


Or could it even be both?


9 - It's All Wrapped Up in a Captivating Story

One thing that isn't thought-provoking or controversial is the way these characters and this world is represented both in the books and the films. It's just excellence. Villeneuve his stylish films highlight, that in many ways, the subjects are now even more important than when the original books were released.


As if Herbert was able to see the future... and write the perfect book for it.

The narrow path to victory indeed.


Love, as always,

Rogier




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