The first trailer for the new film version of Frank Herbert’s Dune is out, USA Today reported. It takes place almost entirely on a desert planet that’s home to a valuable life-extending substance. Dune utilizes the theory of planetary ecology.
In Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune, the royal Atreides family relocates to a desert planet called Arrakis in order to govern it and to regulate the manufacturing of a priceless, life-extending, psychokinesis-granting commodity known as “spice.” Arrakis, informally known as Dune, is the only place in the galaxy to find spice—and sand worms that are several hundred feet long. As USA Today pointed out, the novel and its sequels were major sources of inspiration for the Star Wars franchise as well as Game of Thrones.
It also “deals with climate change, clashes between cultures, and coming-of-age themes,” the article said. One of the major themes used in the Dune universe is the theory of planetary ecology.
He Who Controls the Spice Controls the Universe
The ecology of Arrakis isn’t merely a backdrop against which the story is set. The desert environment and its native creatures regularly drive the story.
“The ecology of Arrakis is tied to the life cycle of the sandworms—giant, segmented worm-like creatures that swim through the sands of the deep desert,” said Dr. Charles Adler, Professor of Physics at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. “The sandworms are part of an ecological cycle that produces the spice and also ties up the water on Dune. Sandtrout, or immature sandworms, encyst the water, blocking it deep underground from reaching the surface of the planet.
“Water combining with their excretions produces the spice, in giant explosions called spice blows that occur due to the chemical reactions that create the spice.”
Dr. Adler mentioned that spice is so vital to the function of the galaxy that the main character, Paul Atreides, realizes that whoever controls the spice controls the entire empire. He even threatens to destroy it all, plunging the empire into a new dark age.
The Gaia Hypothesis
Liet Kynes, one of the characters in Dune, pontificates on the balance of plant and animal life on Arrakis, and it bears a resemblance to a controversial theory called the Gaia Hypothesis that was put forth seven years after the book’s publication.
“The Gaia Hypothesis is that one cannot view the ecology and the climate of Earth as separate entities; rather, life on Earth regulates its climate, on both small and large scales, to maintain Earth’s habitability,” Dr. Adler said. “Detractors of the idea focus on the fact that, naively, it seems to imply a purpose to evolution and the development of complicated ecologies, [which] has been called mysticism by some.
“However, others see the philosophy as viewing Earth’s ecology as an example of a feedback system, one in which elements of the system react against each other to stabilize it.”
A simple example of a feedback system is a house with a sophisticated thermostat, Dr. Adler said. If the thermostat is set to a certain temperature and it’s wired to both the air conditioner and the heating system, then when the temperature gets too hot, the thermostat sends a signal to the air conditioner to kick in, and vice versa. This ecological balance and the factors that trigger it into action or inaction encompass the feedback system that Gaia Hypothesis proponents see.
Fifty-five years after its publication, Dune remains a landmark work in the history of science fiction literature. Its influence on other franchises and its several adaptations to film and TV show its importance. When it was published in 1965, it won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award—the highest honors given to sci-fi literature.
Dr. Charles L. Adler contributed to this article. Dr. Adler is a Professor of Physics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He received his PhD, MS, and BS in Physics from Brown University, where he focused on experimental laser physics.