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Dune and the History of the Future

Will Garbett | Lancaster University

A strange tube shaped spaceship looms over a planet
The Heighliner over Caladan, Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The archaic, annelid-like shape of the Heighliner looming over Caladan in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) is one of a handful of moments in the film where the viewer glimpses interstellar transport. Yet, these few lingering shots of a shuttle disgorged from a silent tube are far more generous than anything Frank Herbert offers in Dune (1965). In the novel, depictions of spaceflight and its mechanics are limited to short conversations about where the Atreides fleet will sit inside the belly of the Heighliner, and about the strangeness of the caste of Navigators who pilot it. Much like the space feudalism of the Houses Major and their fief worlds, like the novel’s ‘Inglo-Slavic’ lingua franca, and like the consciousness-expanding ‘spice melange’, the absence of the illustration of transport can be read as an historical artefact within Herbert’s work that speaks to the time and place of its writing: the twentieth-century United States. In Dune’s epigraph, a dedication to ecologists, Herbert calls the novel an ‘effort at prediction’. Although informed by Herbert’s interest in ecology, this also emerged from a context with an emergent interest in environmentalism; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had been published only three years before. These futures imagined in 1965 have histories of their own.

Some of these histories are easier to trace than others. The novel is written as a history of the events within, and like all good history books it contains a glossary for the general reader. In this glossary, Herbert describes Galach, the language of the ruling Imperium, as an ‘Inglo-Slavic’ hybrid. This presumably hints at a peaceful resolution of the Cold War and a coming together of the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as the assumption that those two powers would take people to the stars. Such an idea might look, at best, strange to the eyes of the twenty-first-century reader, but it would have been difficult to imagine the eclipse of either state in the mid-1960s. The idea of a futuristic ‘Inglo-Slavic’ language makes sense only in Dune’s Cold War context.

A black and white photograph showing the crumbling ruins of an ancient arch in the desert
A photograph of the remains of the Kasra arch in Ctesiphon, capital of the Sasanian Empire, in 1932. Public Domain

The politics of the Imperium, the space feudalism of the Houses Major, is more difficult to relate back to mid-century America. Comparisons with the distant past come more easily. As there is something of the early Islamic conquests in the novel’s climax, when its protagonist Paul Atreides defeats the Padishah Emperor and the Fremen (the desert nomads of the planet Dune who follow Paul as a prophet) explode across the stars, so there is something of the Sasanian Empire in the Emperor’s teetering Imperium. But, the sense of an ancient but overmighty empire swept away by a spiritual force gives Dune an uncanny resonance; Dune’s empire does not stand for the United States per se, but an entire way of life. The spiritual supersedes the material and the pure supersedes the corrupt. The novel’s end is an eschatological one, and it is compelling because it reflects long-held anxieties about the corrosive nature of wealth and power.

These anxieties were endemic in mid-century America, and plenty of novels grappled with contemporary material and spiritual conditions. Another work of fiction published in 1965, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 explored LSD, the expansion of the psyche, and the erosion of the ego, as one of many possible solutions to these perceived problems. There is an interesting resonance with the themes of Dune, here, and the image of the Heighliner over Caladan combines this interest in the unconscious with the mechanisms of space travel; the spice, a substance that grants great prescience to those who consume it, allows the Navigators to fold space and traverse great distances. We can turn to another contemporary text to illuminate this.

Published only the year before Herbert’s Dune, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) attempted to describe the history of the relationship between human beings and things. McLuhan believed that the preceding century had been a time of transition between a mechanical age, defined by the extension of ‘our bodies in space’, and an electric age, defined by the extension of the human nervous system. McLuhan’s mechanical age encompassed a huge swathe of time, from the domestication of animals and the invention of the wheel to the invention of the printing press and the aeroplane. He predicted that these technologies would be superseded by an increasing tendency towards instantaneous, long-distance communication, where the instruments of the electric age – the telegraph, the radio, the satellite – would allow people to communicate and consume more information more quickly than ever. Although McLuhan did not describe the internet, personal computers or smartphones, Understanding Media now reads as eerily prescient.

An astronaut stands next to the American flag on the surface of the moon
Eugene A. Cernan salutes the American flag during the final crewed moon mission, Apollo 17. 12 December 1972, Public Domain.

Despite the contemporary role of computers in space flight, this prescience was not obvious; the 1960s are probably best remembered as a mechanical age, an age of rockets and missiles. McLuhan’s mechanical age reached a climax in the space race, and the moon landings marked its apogee, the furthest humans had ever gone, or would ever go. Although the space race and the moon landings reflected older ideas in science fiction that had crept into the imagination, and although these events would set expectations for the future among the hundreds of millions who watched the Apollo 11 landings, the ability to move the human body through physical space is now somewhat eroded from its mid-century zenith.

The image of the Heighliner, the fusion of the immense spacecraft and the spice needed to use it, is a strange refraction of these ideas. If this scene generated any sense of foreboding and unfamiliarity in its twenty-first-century viewer, it is because it is a product of the 1960s. In only a handful of shots, Villeneuve offers the reader a glimpse of an interpretation of Herbert’s speculative insight into how humans might extend their bodies into space, melding contemporary concerns about psychoactive chemicals with the driving force of the electric age that (in McLuhan’s words) ‘abolishes space and time’.


Further Reading:

  • Dune, dir. by Denis Villeneuve (USA, 2019).

  • Frank Herbert, Dune (Ace, 2010).

  • Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (Routledge, 1997).

  • Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Penguin, 1965).

  • Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (HarperCollins, 2006).


Will Garbett is a PhD student in History at Lancaster University. He works on histories of modern satire and popular culture.


Twitter: @will_garbett


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