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What Does Literature Feel Like?

The Worm and the Ecologist: Experiencing Planetarity with Frank Herberts Dune

Pierre-Louis Patoine

Résumés

Cet article explore la manière dont Dune, roman de Frank Herbert qui paraît en 1965, permet le développement d’une sensibilité écologique tournée vers Gaïa, poussant le sensorium humain vers le planétaire (qu’il articule aux imaginaires du global, du colonial, de l’impérial), en mobilisant une série d’outils typiques de la science-fiction et de la fantasy : la construction de mondes, l’immersion, le sensationnalisme, la progression à travers un terrain, les épistémologies non-modernes, la possession onirique, les actants géologiques, les vers de sable géant (qui rappellent le dragon médiéval), et les oiseaux mangeurs d’humains. Dans le roman, ces motifs s’assemblent pour former des situations denses, au sein desquelles les lecteurs empathiques, capables d’immersion, peuvent ressentir des aspects de l’écologie planétaire, grâce à la cognition incarnée et ses simulations sensorielles et motrices.

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1The ecological upheavals confronting us today are anthropogenic in their cause and planetary in their reach.1 That is why, what Bruno Latour calls the “New Climate Regime” demands of humanity—divided by dramatic differences in situations of environmental justice—that it find new (or maybe old) ways of Facing Gaia (2017), new/old ways of imagining and experiencing the total integration of human life within the life of the planet—not considered as a passive totality, but as a dynamic, historical web of relations, in which atmospheric, geological, and biological agents are continuously co-constituted.

2But to what extent can we imagine and experience such continuous co-constitution? Can we picture planetary processes like changing oceanic currents, rises in CO2 levels, or our own symbiotic enmeshment within bacterial worlds? An answer commonly given to that interrogation is that the arts, and literature in particular, can help us remediate the failure of our imagination in the face of global ecological turmoil (Buell, 1995 2; Clark, 2015 18, quoting from Hannes Bergthaller; Ghosh, 2016 9). The implication is that a poem or a novel can somehow metabolize ecological and planetary forces, fashion them into a digestible aesthetic experience. In so doing, they would supplement, or translate, more abstract scientific representations (graphs, stats, formulas...) with images and narratives, sensations and emotions: with forms of embodied knowledge.

3Research on embodied cognition (now often subsumed under 4E cognition: embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended; for applications in literary and film studies, see Caracciolo 4-6; Weik von Mossner 4-6; Patoine 2019 and 2022) has demonstrated that understanding a text relies, in part, on the sensorimotor simulation of what it describes. For example, reading the sentence: “she kicked the ball” (but also the metaphorical: “she kicked the habit”) can activate parts of the neural network and muscles we normally use when we actually kick a ball (Boulanger, Hauk and Pulvermüller). Literary texts can thus evoke our sensorimotor experience (the more engaging and familiar the experience, the stronger the embodied simulation, according to Holt and Beilock), repackaging it into new blocks of sensation (Deleuze and Guattari 176). But can these blocks of sensation connect the reader’s body to planetary processes happening beyond the scales of everyday life?

4If reading descriptions of sensorimotor situations can trigger embodied simulations, in literature these descriptions are molded by the craft of writing (the shaping of sentence and narrative), which in turn recomposes embodied simulations. Such re-composition de-familiarizes everyday perception (as in Shklovsky’s ostranenie, 1917), opening up for readers the momentary possibility of deviating from habitual regimes of sensation. According to neurologist Vittorio Gallese and literary scholar Hannah Wojciehowski, literary texts liberate embodied cognition from “the burden of modeling our actual presence in daily life” (17). For Alexa Weik von Mossner, such liberated embodied simulation allows the readers’ somatosensory and motor cortices to resonate with nonhuman actions, such as those of John Muir’s personified elements in “A Wind-Storm in the Forests,” in which “the snow bends and trims, lightning strikes, and avalanches mow down the forests” (Mossner 35). Muir’s writing would here “activate the somatosensory and motor cortices in readers’ brains” (Mossner 35), especially if they are absorbed in their reading, and disposed to experience the animation of snow, lightning and avalanches. Empathic readers might then also be able to resonate with the planetary entities that science fiction evokes with its “particular verbal freedom” and its ability to produce “the most violent leaps of imagery” (Delany 113). As Delany demonstrates, science fiction creates vivid planet-worlds with sentences as simple as “The red sun is high, the blue low,” sentences that liberate the reader’s imagining body from the everyday (while exploiting its habits, such as looking at the sun). We can hence revisit Suvin Darko’s definition of science fiction as the “literature of cognitive estrangement” (116), adding that cognitive estrangement de facto means estranging the body sensitive, allowing it to feel different environments, different planets. Our goal here is to understand more precisely how, by offering readers sensory and motor experiences that engage the planetary dimension, novels like Dune propel literature into what Dipesh Chakrabarty (2019) has called the “planetary turn.”

Planetarity in science fiction

5Dune (1965) is not the first narrative involved with planetary ecology. It is predated by novels such as Farmers in the Sky (Robert A. Heinlein, 1950), Chirurgiens d’une planète (Gérard Klein, 1960), or Solaris (Stanislas Lem, 1961); and by classics such as After London; or Wild England (Richard Jefferies, 1885) or The War of the Worlds (H. G. Wells, 1898), an early “scientific romance” that, with its Martian plants and alien-killing microbes, can be read as being “already about terraforming earth,” as Derek Woods convincingly argues (2019 9). But, in the words of science fiction scholar Rob Latham, Dune “probably did more than any other single book to bring ecological awareness [and the life sciences, see Kneale 429] into the centre of the genre” (113). Such centering has been fed by Herbert’s reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and by his investigation of the Oregon Dunes management (Immerwahr 193 and 212), two sources that aligned the novel with the hippie counterculture of its time. Written in the movement’s geographical heart, San Francisco, the novel shares with it more than an interest for ecology. It also partakes in its (partly related) fascination for messianism (as Robert notes, 233): Dune’s hero, Paul, has been compared to Jesus, then appropriated by hippies as a “flower power” rebel. More importantly for our investigation, the novel’s colonized people, the Fremen, present similarities with romanticized images of American indigenous peoples, images then used by “counterculturalists” to “think about a better way of living together” on hundreds of hippie communes (Deloria, 155-158); as models for guerilla resistance to Western modernity (Deloria 161); or as holders of a spirituality offering an alternative to Christianity, one that would involve forms of proto-psychedelic practice (Deloria 168)—all elements we find in Dune. Characters like the “countercultural and indigenous” Fremen, and the Christ-like Paul, inflect the novel’s development of an ecological, gaian sensitivity (or, to borrow Pak’s more accurate terminology, “proto-Gaian,” as Herbert could not have read Lovelock’s first paper on Gaia Theory, published in 1972, seven years before Dune). As we will see, the novel also lifts the readers’ sensorium toward the planetary scale through world-building, terrain navigation, oneiric possession, geological actants, and dragon-like sandworms. These tools are typical of—but not exclusive to—fantasy and science fiction, genres that dialogued with the 1960s ecological counterculture (Le Guin’s 1972 novella The Word for World Is Forest is a case in point).

6Today, these genres maintain a special relation with planetary ecology. As Amitav Ghosh has recently observed, when trying to address climate change, “serious fiction” risks “banishment to the humbler dwellings” of science fiction and fantasy (32). Indeed, modern literary fiction, in its dominant realist mode, has traditionally focused on dimensions (the individual, the psyche, the family, the city or nation) that are relatively ill-suited to deal with planetary ecology. In contrast, the narrative possibilities afforded by science fiction and fantasy have allowed Herbert to write a landmark ecological novel. By dedicating Dune “to dry land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work,” he anchored his fiction in a terrain simultaneously ecological, and beyond the temporal and spatial scales of realism (“whatever time [...] wherever”). Science fiction has long been interested in the geophysical and the planetary. The development of the sciences and techniques in the nineteenth century, by enlarging the field of human agency—deployed with increasing ease across oceans and continents, and from lithosphere to atmosphere—invited writers like Jules Verne to imagine adventures taking place on the planetary scale (such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, published in 1870, and Around the World in Eighty Days, in 1873). Science fiction is then, from the start, a privileged site for the development of a planetary sensibility. But modern science is not the only way of sensing Gaia, and—as we will see below—fantasy, as a medievalist genre interested in premodern tradition, can also help us experience forms of planetarity.

7By mobilizing both the science of ecology and a premodern imaginary, Dune operates a transition between a Modern view of the planetary, one predicated on the international (the planet as quilt of competing nations), and a more post-modern, ecological one, which is now being imposed on humanity by climate change, but that solidified during the 1960s. In the modern era, the planetary has been decisively approached through projects of colonial and imperial mastery, an approach apparent for example in the commonplace phrase celebrating the fact that, on the British empire “the sun never sets.” The planet thus becomes a measure of empire. Is it a coincidence, then, that science fiction, the genre most interested in planetarity, is also one that emerges in industrialized, imperial nations: America, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union, as Csicsery-Ronary notes (444)? During modernity, the political (and commercial) treatment of planetarity competed with, and in part superseded earlier views coming from natural philosophy (Eratosthenes measured the Earth’s circumference in the third century BC), iconography (the medieval figure of the “cruciferous globe”) and religious dogma (Renaissance debates opposing helio- to geocentrism). The subsuming of the planetary under the international remains strong during the nineteenth (Marx and Engel’s internationalist slogan “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”) and twentieth centuries (the founding of the League of Nations, after World War I). But in the 1960s, the notion of planetarity evolves, with the rise of ecological consciousness (the World Wildlife Fund appears in 1961; Greenpeace, in 1967), and with the diffusion of the first pictures of Earth taken from space (the famous Earthrise, captured by William Anders during the 1968 Apollo mission; but also the images produced in 1966 by the Soviet satellite Molniya I, according to Achenbach). Dune participates in this cultural change, inviting readers to develop their sensitivity to planetary ecology, and to reflect on its conflictual relation to the (modern) colonial and imperial paradigm of the global. Preeminent in feeding this reflection are the Fremen, the population indigenous to the planet Arrakis.

Relating to the planet: the Fremen way

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8Dune is both a planetary romance in which a foreign exotic planet plays a central role2 and a Bildungsroman in which Paul becomes a man, notably by associating with the Fremen, here used in much the same way as the natural Indian was used, in early twentieth-century America, as a cure for the so-called feminisation of boys under urbanization and industrialization, for example by the Boy Scouts (see Deloria, chapter 4). The novel follows the rise to power of the messianic figure of Paul Atreides, the son and heir of Duke Leto Atreides and of the Lady Jessica, a member of the powerful Bene Gesserit order (martial arts witches pursuing a millennia-long project of genetic engineering to better humankind). The novel opens as the Atreides clan prepares to leave their home planet of Caladan (described in terms that recall a Northern European setting). The clan is moving to the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, recently given to them as a fief by the galactic emperor (as part of a scheme devised by their enemy, the Harkonnens). Soon after their arrival, Leto is kidnapped and dies, and Paul and Jessica flee in the desert, where they meet the indigenous Fremen. The mother and son quickly adapt to their harsh environment, Paul eventually becoming the leader of this barbarous (but, as it turns out, highly technological) people, in their war against imperial domination. This story has brought comparisons with the 1962 biographical film Lawrence of Arabia, and legitimate questions concerning its orientalist, white savior tonalities (Jacob 27-28). Indeed, Dune simultaneously denounces and implements a modern imaginary marked by fantasies of colonial adventure, geoengineering hubris, and heroic masculinity. But if we can find in Paul the incarnation of a colonial hero, we should also consider how the novel deconstructs this white savior figure, evoking—in the appendix concerning the ecologists Pardot and Liet Kynes—how the planet was afflicted by a Hero (541, emphasis mine). In Dune Messiah, the cycle’s second volume, published in 1969, Paul is furthermore revealed as a tormented tool of history, as he fails to prevent the intergalactic Fremen Jihad carried out in his name. In fact, the political and historical critique of charismatic leadership is one of the main thematic axes of the cycle: Herbert shows, notably in God Emperor of Dune, the fourth tome, published in 1981, how close the messianic impulse is to the fascistic (Robert 236).

9The novel is less explicit on the violence inherent to colonial occupation and empire, in part because it mainly follows the exogenous, exoticizing perspectives of off-worlders (such as Paul). Indeed, the novel reiterates the science fiction trope that imagines encounters with the Other [...] from the perspective of the dominant Self (Reid 257), here one reminiscent of humid England or France settling in a desertic North Africa or Middle-East, already under colonial (Harkonnen) dominion. This orientalist trope modulates the readers embodied encounter with Arrakis’ ecology, as they are invited to adopt Paul’s point-of-view (or more accurately, point-of-feeling; see Berthoz 266), in which the planet starts off as an exotic environment. From the beginning, Paul behaves somehow like a traditional anthropologist (Lewis), showing a curious and open attitude that contrasts with the extractive, managerial outlook of characters like his father Leto (explicit in his verbal joust with the ecologist Kynes, [Herbert, 2005 121]), or that of the evil Baron Harkonnen, but one that is still exogeneous and seeped in imperial and colonial trappings. Because Leto and the Baron are essentially interested in the desert planet for its precious spice—the addictive substance that prolongs life, facilitates prescience and makes instant space travel possible—they are more direct in performing a colonial perspective that turns the planet into a globe they expect to list, register, locate, enclose, and gobble up, just like the realist members of modern industrial societies endeavored to do for Earth (Latour, 2020 2). In so doing, they erect a cultural framework that keeps at a safe distance [or even erases as negligible quantity] the planet’s willfully and successfully ennatured indigenous people, the Fremen (Otto 36). On the contrary, Paul (and his mother), will take the full measure of the Fremen’s power, and exploit it to win back and deploy their family’s political dominion beyond the planet and into the imperial, interplanetary domain.

10When the novel begins, the Fremen have inhabited Arrakis for millennia. First arrived as religious refugees, they have adapted to a planet desertified by the introduction (by whom we do not know for sure) of the giant sandworm. Imagining the Fremen as an ecological people, living in an unchanging, a-historical state only disturbed by the arrival of imperials, would be entertaining a view as romanticized as that of the ecological Indian (Krech 26). We might instead turn toward the notion of transit, that Chickasaw thinker Jody Byrd uses to rethink indigeneity, an identity often taken as rooted and static, located in a discrete place (xvi). Indeed, the Fremen’s relation to Arrakis is not established through monotheistic, territorial sovereignty (xvi), but through diplomacy and disagreement, [...] relation, kinship, and intimacy [and] interpretation (xvi). Their evolving relation with Arrakis includes both the resistance to colonial conquest, and the intimate integration of foreign elements such as Paul and the scientists Pardot and Liet Kynes.

11Crucially, it relies on grounded, situated knowledge and techniques, such as worm riding: they attract a giant sandworm with the sound of thumpers, travel on its back across a distance, then release it to catch a new one. This technique leads them to measure their planetary environment not through the abstract cartography of the global, a paradigm that Gayatri Spivak, in her book on the death of comparative literature, describes as producing the gridwork of electronic capital [which turns the Earth into an] abstract ball covered in latitudes and longitudes, cut by virtual lines, once the equator and the tropics and so on, now drawn by the requirements of Geographical Information Systems (72). Instead, worm riders measure distance by the number of thumpers needed to reach a destination: their travel to the wild south is described as a twenty-thumper journey into the southland (421). Such embodied, action-based relation to the planet, performed by the Fremen and by characters such as Paul and Kynes, can be physically imagined and simulated by immersed readers. It is one of the conduits through which they can experience Arrakis, a world in which the political, the geographical and the biological are enmeshed.

12In their transit through history, the Fremen have also embraced the terraforming dream of the first imperial planetologist, Pardot Kynes (father of the half-Fremen Liet Kynes we meet in the novel). By adhering to planetology, they formulate an ecopolitical and eco-religious project that implies a shift away from the specificities of local ecosystems to a focus on the global (Pak 120). This project is based on science, but has taken on a spiritual dimension within Fremen culture, as Paul and Jessica discover when they are taken by their leader Stilgar to one of the water reservoirs hidden under their desert refuges (or sietchs):

‘It has been calculated with precision,’ Stilgar whispered. ‘We know to within a million decalitres how much we need. When we have it, we shall change the face of Arrakis.’
A hushed whisper of response lifted from the troop: ‘Bi-la kaifa.’
‘We will trap the dunes beneath grass plantings,’ Stilgar said, his voice growing stronger. ‘We will tie water into the soil with trees and undergrowth.’
‘Bi-la kaifa,’ intoned the troop. (Herbert, 2005 342)

13Here, the scientific and the religious combine in the form of a ritual measuring that is part of a project of planetary transformation. Although grass plantings and trees and undergrowth are involved in this project, their vegetal agency is not remarkable: in a sense, we are confronted with a typically modern view of nature as a passive, obedient object to be operated upon. This dream of terraforming—in which humans are seeking to make their planet more inhabitable for themselves, as in what Derek Woods critically calls a good Anthropocene (2019 16)—is here encoded in a religious ritual manifested by the repeated Bi-la-kaifa (defined in the appendix Terminology of the Imperium as Amen. (Literally: ‘Nothing further need be explained’) (Herbert, 2005 557). In this scene, the readers’ experience of planetarity is modulated by the Fremen faith in geoengineering, a faith through which they envision futurity, as a community (We shall, We will, We will). This exotic scene makes readers experience the planetary as a scale on which science takes on religious tonalities, as in the awe that techno-optimistic dreams of terraforming Earth currently trigger (Hamilton 180).

Arrakis: planet, bioregion or globe?

14Such dream of global ecosystem and climate design might however reveal a failure to imagine Gaia as anything other than a scaled-up bioregion, a territory amenable to gardening. In this perspective, despite all its talk of Arrakis—the desert planet—Dune can be read as a bioregional novel. Bioregionalism is an American/Californian eco-political movement (defined by thinkers and activists such as Peter Berg and Gary Snyder), that has consistently advocated a geographical, political, and economic reorganization of nations into bioregions whose boundaries would follow ecological dividing lines like climate zones, species distribution, watersheds, or mountain ranges (Heise 34).

15This tight coupling of cultural identity, political agency and ecological niche is at the core of the Fremen fight for decolonization and terraforming (a bioregional fight enlisted by Paul in the service of his own project of placing the Atreides at the center of the galactic empire, a project that, in the end, denies [the Fremen] the total independence that the terraforming plan would have permitted, and forces them further into the hands of the ruling class [Otto 43]). In this configuration, Arrakis feels more like a radicalized bioregion than a planet, like a vast Sahara; while Caladan—the Atreides’ home planet—could be a faraway, foreign Ireland. In Dune, like in most space operas, planetarity is generally not foregrounded as such, as it can be for example in this passage from The Heretics of Dune (the cycle’s fourth volume, published in 1984):

Teg has seen many planets, learned their ways and how they printed themselves on their inhabitants. Some planets had a big yellow sun that sat in close and kept living things warm, evolving, growing. Some planets had little shimmer-suns that hung far away in a dark sky and their light touched very little. Variations existed between and even outside of this range. Gammu was a yellow-green variation with a day of thirty-one point two-seven standard hours and a 2.6 SY. (Herbert, 2021 133)

16Although the idea that the astronomical properties of planets can print themselves on their inhabitants is only lightly implemented in The Heretics of Dune (see Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia, 1982-1985, for a more accomplished exploration of the idea), this passage hints at the type of story that only planets, and not bioregions, can tell: stories in which a planet’s orbit, rotation and distance from its sun are important parameters. It might thus be that the planetary can only be truly distinct from the regional (or continental) when considered in its relation to other celestial bodies like suns and moons. We should however note that, in science fiction, relations between planets are often subsumed under a global or international imaginary, in which they become like nations at war (as for example in Asimov’s Fondation, 1942-1993, but also in Dune, with its feudal and imperial interplanetarity).

17In Dune, the character most keen to turn Arrakis into an exploitable globe is the main antagonist, the Baron Harkonnen. It is thus no coincidence that, as Bruce Clarke observes in Gaian Systems, the chapter introducing him begins with a close-up on a globe: It was a relief globe of a world, partly in shadows, spinning under the impetus of a fat hand that glittered with rings (Herbert, 2005 14). Arrakis here appears under the guises of a globe manipulated by a human hand, a hand whose fatness makes the planet look small, and suggests a vampiric transfer of energy from globe to hand. From the Baron’s global perspective, Arrakis is a small abstract ball, manageable from afar. In contrast, and as we will discuss below, Paul will be dwarfed by the giant sandworm, a synecdoche that materializes the planet. The Harkonnen globe of Arrakis is moreover made for planetary governors of the Empire, and marked by [l]atitude and longitude lines (15), lines that reduce the living planet to an object of imperial management, an abstract, single-resource territory. For Bruce Clarke, the Baron Harkonnen thus consistently:

[...] voices a global imaginary that responds not to planetary matters, their processes and their interrelations, but to maps, grids, and lines of control. In contrast, the planetary imagination corresponds to a necessary partial view of interconnected territories. The former is political and economic, all too human; the latter is ecological and geomorphic, more than human. (187)

18The opposition between the global and the planetary is one we can also find in the characters’ relation to the mineral realm. In the quote above, the Baron’s fat hand glitter[s] with rings—rings flaunting his extractive power over stone and ore, which contrasts with Paul’s frequent inhabitation of mineral structures in the novel. For example, the novel’s incipit follows Paul at home inside an ancient pile of stone: It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather (Herbert, 2005 3). Four lines into the novel, the reader meets a geological entity (the pile of stone), and the long time-frame of its action (serving the Atreides for twenty-six generations). Although the stone here appears as a servant, it can also be seen as part of the Atreides family. It participates in a human/nonhuman community in which all members (including the immersed, embodied reader) inhabit a field of tactile sensation created by meteorological conditions: in that warm night, the mineral bears an animal feeling of cooled-sweat.

19Paul thus inhabits a world in which bodily sensations (warmth, coolness) bridge the mineral and the animal—a bridge that leads to a sensuous, situated epistemology, through which the novel’s good characters encounter their environment. On the contrary, the bad characters associated with the global perspective tend to defend laboratory evidence, knowledge disconnected from the terrain. For example, during a formal dinner at the Atreides keep on Arrakis, when the water tycoon Bewt contests Kynes’ dream of enhancing water availability for all:

‘Impossible on Arrakis,’ he said. ‘Don’t listen to this dreamer. All the laboratory evidence is against him.’
[...]
‘Laboratory evidence tends to blind us to a very simple fact,’ Kynes said. ‘That fact is this: we are dealing here with matters that originated and exist out-of-doors where plants and animals carry on their normal existence.’
‘Normal!’ Bewt snorted. ‘Nothing about Arrakis is normal!’ (Herbert, 2005 150)

20Relying on laboratory evidence, Bewt sustains an exoticizing view of Arrakis—although one devoid of curiosity—in which nothing is normal. To this configuration, Kynes opposes careful field-work and a life-long practice of daily observation, resulting in his proto-Gaia theory concerning the planet’s atmospheric composition in relation to its geology and biology. Kynes’s position should not be read as a sign that terrain-oriented science necessarily liberates the planetary from the global—after all, careful observation and frequenting of foreign territory in the name of science has been associated with colonial conquest, for example by James Cook’s Pacific voyages, that were [l]aunched under the auspices of scientific discoveries [and] inaugurated a wave of Pacific invasions that would sweep missionaries, merchants, convicts, and military occupations into the lives and lands of the Pacific peoples (Byrd 2). Within the operation of the novel, Kynes’ engagement with the planet’s out-of-doors where plants and animals carry on their normal existence participates in shaping the reader’s experience of Arrakis: it foregrounds ecology and other-than-human lives, in close relation to the Fremen bioregional project of liberation. The ecology that readers are invited to inhabit when reading Dune is thus poised between the planetary and the regional, and between the scientific and the religious.

World-building

21The invitation to visit Arrakis’s proto-Gaian ecology is at the core of Dune’s functioning, and is extended to readers through a number of world-building devices. As we have seen, the planet-world emerges thanks to embodied, locally produced knowledge (distance measuring through sandworm riding). But Herbert also uses maps and appendices—world-building devices that have been integral to speculative fiction at least since The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), but that, as Ekman notes (14), are already present in More’s Utopia (1516), Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), or Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1885). In these works, maps convey a form of explicit, rational knowledge about a foreign imaginary land, knowledge that serves to anchor and deepen reader immersion.

Fig. 1. Original map drawn by Dorothy deFontaine (1965). Dune 2005 edition.
Dune Wiki, dune.fandom.com/wiki/Map:Arrakis, consulted November 11, 2023.

22The original map of Arrakis drawn by Dorothy deFontaine (and still included in recent editions), presents a projection centered on the North Pole (Ekman’s survey of fantasy maps shows that, for those indicating hemispheres—approximately one third of his sample—the northern hemisphere is clearly more common, possibly reflecting the cultural and political bias toward the northern hemisphere that we find in the actual world, 30). By employing the abstract longitudes of modern cartography, superimposed on local geographical features, the map presents Arrakis as an object for modern science and measurement, reactivating the imaginary of the global we have just discussed (in contrast with contemporary attempts to elaborate more Gaian cartographies, as in Ait-Touati, Arènes, and Grégoire), but it also clearly locates the narrative on the planetary scale, countering its bioregionalist tonalities. Compare with Robert E. Howard’s map of the Hyborian Age, drawn for his Conan series (1932-1936):

Fig. 2 “The Hyborian Age of Conan.” Savage Sword of Conan (Marvel Magazine), no. 124, May 1986, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyborian_Age, consulted November 11, 2023.

23As with Tolkien’s map of Middle-Earth, we are on the continental level, often exploited by fantasy: according to Ekman (30), around three quarters of fantasy maps do not include information about the planet on which the story is set (this figure would likely vary for science fiction). If, as we have seen, Dune rarely foregrounds planetarity in its most essential qualities (i.e. orbit and rotation), its map furnishes readers with a tool to envision Arrakis first as a globe, and then as a planet, when they enter the embodied, environmental perspective of characters like Paul. The map is furthermore supplemented by cartographical notes, data zooming in on geographical entities such as the polar sink, or the Minor Erg desert. Crucially, these notes—placed with the map at the beginning of the novel—perform, for the reader, the science of planetology, mixing biology with climatology and geography. For example, the entry Wormline designates the farthest north points where worms have been recorded. (Moisture, not cold, is the determining factor) (Herbert, 2005 0). Readers are here engaged with planetary ecology through the explicit, scientific discourse of maps and notes. In these, a thick world germinates. But how does that planet-world flourish into one that readers can experience sensually?

Listening to the planet: a model for immersion

24Dune is a novel that invites us, in the same gesture, to develop our sensitivity to planetary ecology, and our capacity to immerse ourselves in a storyworld. At the beginning of the novel, the main protagonist, young Paul Atreides, discusses his meeting with the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (the leader of the Bene Gesserit), with Thufir Hawat, his family’s head of security. We can read this exchange as an explanation of how the good reader should experience the novel’s storyworld:

[Paul:] “Then she said a good ruler has to learn his world’s language, that it’s different for every world. And I thought she meant they didn’t speak Galach on Arrakis, but she said that wasn’t it at all. She said she meant the language of rocks and growing things, the language you don’t hear just with your ears. And I said that’s what Dr Yueh calls the Mystery of Life.”
Hawat chuckled. “How’d that sit with her?”
“I think she got mad. She said the mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience. So I quoted the First Law of Mentat at her: ‘A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.’ That seemed to satisfy her.” (Herbert, 2005 34)

25On the intradiegetic level, the goal of the Reverend Mother Gaius’s teaching is to make Paul very aware of Arrakis’s native culture and ecology in order to make him a good ruler who can feign embeddedness while exploiting the Fremen (Otto 37-38). But considered extradiegetically, this passage appears as an ars poetica for fiction premised on the immersive inhabitation of secondary worlds. In the same way that a good ruler cannot learn his world’s language [...] by stopping it or by treating it as a problem to solve, the good reader cannot hope to visit the world of a speculative fiction only by trying to resolve its mystery, by trying to understand it rationally. On the contrary, the immersive stance—the ability to experience text through embodied simulation—demands of readers that they move with the flow, that they treat fiction as a reality to experience. Only then can they learn a world’s language, the language of rocks and growing things, the language you don’t hear just with your ears. Immersive reading then takes on an ecological dimension: it becomes a technique of attunement readers can also use to engage their geophysical, biological and possibly planetary environment.

26Going with the flow of such a world demands a capacity for empathic resonance that sensationalist artworks have learned to exploit. According to Linda Williams (143), when watching a horror film, the spectator’s body mimics (through embodied simulation) the pain of the suffering hero; in the same way, the tears we shed when watching a melodrama mirror those running down the heroine’s face. Dune uses a similar sensationalist set up to involve the reader’s body in its world. After Paul has killed a man for the first time, in a duel he has been forced to accept, a moving funeral scene unfolds, full of dignity and tenderness (338). At the peak of this melodramatic scene, Paul sheds tears; a powerful demonstration of emotion in the context of the Fremen desert culture, with its obsession with saving and recycling water. Absorbed in this scene, readers can also feel tears welling up, thus mirroring Paul’s bodily-affective state. Through this empathic mimicry, and through Jessica’s accompanying reflection on the cultural value of giving water to the dead, the readers’ perception of their own tears is changed (the embodied meaning of the word is modified, as for words like fish (40), drowning and boat (153), and water (333): the planet simultaneously dis-locates sensation and language). Absorbed in the sensational scene, subjected to the pressure of Arrakis’ ecology, readers fleetingly undergo a realignment of sensation, emotion and cognition.

27This realignment is channeled through Paul and Jessica’s environmental sensitivity, which contrasts with the more distant gaze most other foreign characters pose on the planet. This opposition appears early in the novel, when Thufir Hawat teaches young Paul about stillsuits (the suits with which the Fremen recycle their body’s water):

Paul swallowed, suddenly aware of the moisture in his mouth, remembering a dream of thirst. That people could want so for water they had to recycle their body moisture struck him with a feeling of desolation. Water’s precious there, he said.
Hawat nodded, thinking: Perhaps I’m doing it, getting across to him the importance of this planet as an enemy. (Herbert, 2005 32)

28Where Paul’s relation to Arrakis is already sensual, immersive and affective (re-experiencing in desolation a dream sensation of desert thirst, and feeling anew his mouth’s moisture), that of Hawat is rational, strategic, and military: he conceives of the planet as an enemy. Together with his mother Jessica, Paul thus appears as one of the few non-Fremen characters with an environmental sensitivity, which will be key to his capacity to inhabit a new planet, and to enlist it in the imperial project he is carrying. Indeed, just as, for Jodi Byrd, the transit of empire was made, in the American context, through paradigmatic Indianness (10), it is by first becoming savage and a Fremen messiah, that Paul becomes the next galactic emperor. As Paul acclimates to the desert, readers acclimate to the novel, adopting his point-of-feeling, for example by experiencing a new awareness of the moisture in their mouth, in the passage above. In doing this, they also train their sensorimotor capacity to imaginatively inhabit a new planet, to immerse themselves in a fictional ecology—first as foreign visitors to an exotic land, and then, for fans and re-readers, as more durable, caring inhabitants.

29This affinity between ecology and immersion is a core aesthetic principle around which science fiction and fantasy function. In his essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien writes:

Fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about [...] Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faërie [...] holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. (1965 9)

30Enumeration (the seas, the sun, the moon) is here paramount to ecology-building, an ecology readers can inhabit when they are enchanted, or in other words, immersed. If Dune is not a fairy story per se, it also revolves around a realm, a planet-world that the Reverend Mother Gaius describes to Paul in a list reminiscent of Tolkien’s: He recalled another thing the old woman had said about a world being the sum of many things—the people, the dirt, the growing things, the moons, the tides, the suns—the unknown sum called nature (35). Even tough, taken as a whole, Dune rarely gives voice to the growing things, the moons, the tides, the suns,it still encourages a type of immersive, embodied reading necessary to resonate with these environmental entities, and with the planet to which they belong. In this, it aligns with other planetary romances, a genre that Asaro and Dolan (39) link to ancient myth and its interest for other worlds, like Jötunheim, the fairy world of Norse mythology. In Dune, the planet-world Arrakis occupies center stage, and psychology is regularly toned down in favor of environmental determinism, agency and navigation.

Beyond the psychological: becoming planetary

31If Dune’s readers first encounter planetarity on the cartographic mode, it soon emerges again through questions of identity and belonging, in the novel’s opening epigraph about Muad’Dib (the name Paul gains when he becomes the prescient leader and messiah of the Fremen), taken from the writings of the imperial Princess Irulan. The inclusion of palimpsestic layers of texts and discourses within the story world is another way of thickening it (Chatelain and Slusser 165-166), a strategy that features prominently in the fantasy tradition of Tolkien, who might have borrowed the trick from Beowulf (see Tolkien, 2002 124):

To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib […] take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there.
Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.
– from ‘Manual of Muad’Dib’ by the Princess Irulan (Herbert, 2005 3)

32This initial association of Paul Muad’Dib with the planet hints at his final transformation, from a relatively normal, psychological hero into a mythical, inhuman figure. For its first two parts (Dune and Muad’Dib), the novel can be read as a relatively classic science fiction Bildungsroman, focused on Paul’s psychological development, and on the installation of the Atreides clan on Arrakis. But in its third and final part (The Prophet), Paul begins to morph into a vector of destiny whose existence has left the temporal and spatial scales of human life (a trajectory confirmed in the following tome of the series, Dune Messiah, as I briefly mentioned above).

33Paul’s shift toward the inhuman and the planetary is also hinted at in the moments leading to the famous scene of the Gom jabbar (when the Reverend Mother torture-tests him to discover his true potential). As the Atreides heir muses upon his coming departure for Dune (There had been so many things to learn. Arrakis would be a place so different from Caladan 4; Paul fell asleep to dream of an Arrakeen cavern 5), the narration is thrice interrupted by a mysterious phrase: Arrakis – Dune – Desert Planet. Written in italics, presented twice as an independent paragraph, and marked by a solemn ternary rhythm, this phrase contrasts with the normal narrative voice: is it the voice of the planet itself that takes possession of Paul’s (and of the reader’s) consciousness? In any case, this triple, toponymical incantation functions as a performative utterance that manifests the planet, and turns Paul into a receptacle for its voice. Moving from the arbitrary proper name Arrakis, to the metonymical Dune, and finally to the ecological Desert Planet, it points toward Paul’s progressive departure from human considerations, as he enters, through Fremen ritual, the post-psychological, oneiric and psychedelic domain of prescience central to the whole cycle.

34Another instance of de-personalization linked with the planetary environment happens when Paul and his mother Jessica are escaping into the wild desert, a terrain that restricts their consciousness to the immediate and particular – the sand pockets between rocks where their steps were slowed, the wind-carved ridge that cut their hands (262). As is often the case in territorially-oriented narratives, navigation then takes precedence over personality, so that dialogue lines are suddenly left unattributed:

They spoke only when necessary and then with the hoarse voices of their exertion.
“Careful here – this ledge is slippery with sand.”
“Watch you don’t hit your head against this overhang.”
“Stay below this ridge; the moon’s at our backs and it’d show our movement to anyone out there.” (262)

35Dialogue—and the type of dialogic subject-formation it normally implies—is here reduced to an adjunct to impersonal movement in the desert. The importance of the planetary environment in the novel thus produces scenes in which characters are co-constituted with a territory, and in which psychology and individuality are attenuated. This configuration relies on sensorimotor images that reactivate and rearrange familiar experiences (slipping on sand, hitting your head on rock, seeing your shadow in the moonlight): entry points for readers seeking to visit Arrakis.

The sandworm

36That Dune experiments with alternatives models of subjectivity—departing from the (modern) focus on the individual willful self to emphasize ecological sensitivity—is not surprising if we consider its proximity with medievalist fantasy. As Stockwell posits, Dune is an example of an escape to the past, ostensibly set on another planet but appearing much more like a return to a medieval utopia” (205). Indeed, medievalist fantasy is a genre that tends to dissolve psychology into epic ecologies peopled by nonhuman entities (think of the weakness of the characters’ inner life in comparison with the vivid presence of forests, mountains, wolves, and giant spiders, in Tolkien). In Dune, the main nonhuman character is the massive sandworm, Arrakis’s master species. When Paul and Jessica meet one during their flight through the desert, the sandworm functions as a scalar evocation, or synecdoche for planetary ecology (see Woods, 2020 120, for an illuminating discussion of ecological synecdoche):

The worm blotted out the moonlight as it brushed the rocks above them. A shower of small stones and sand cascaded into the narrow hiding place.
Paul crowded his mother farther back.
Cinnamon!
What has the worm to do with the spice, melange? he asked himself. And he remembered Liet-Kynes [the planetologist] betraying a veiled reference to some association between the worm and spice.
“Barrrroooom”
It was like a peal of dry thunder coming from far off to their right.
Again: “Barrrroooom!”
The worm drew back onto the sand, lay there momentarily, its crystal teeth weaving moonflashes. (Herbert, 2005 286)

37As soon as it appears, the terrestrial worm acts on a celestial level: it blot[s] out the moonlight and weav[es] moonflashes with its crystal teeth. It thus brings mineral matter (crystal) in contact with the planet’s satellite (the moon). It also turns small stones and sand into a shower and a cascade; exercising a transformative elemental agency in the image of the ecological cycles in which matter changes from solid to liquid to gaseous, and travels from deep soil and sea to high atmosphere. Through the worm, the landscape animates itself, demanding of language that it produces neologisms like moonflashes and the onomatopoeia barrrroooom. The worm here appears as an ecological monster that allows readers to feel aspects of Arrakis’s planetary ecology, such as spice production. Indeed, the spice is a by-product of its metabolic activity, one we perceive through olfaction: Cinnamon! is an exclamation we can smell, sharing Paul’s attunement to the worm and its environment. Our perception of the sandworm here implicitly deploys scalar play, as our familiar earthworm is blown up to titanic dimensions, and its agency extended to the planetary level. Where our earthworm—an ecosystem engineer (Blouin et al. 161)—is able to redesign regions of soil, Dune’s sandworm supplies oxygen to a planet mostly devoid of vegetation, and (in its larval form, the sandtrout) maintains the desert environment through water capture (see Steyer for an in-depth discussion of this ecological cycle). The images, sounds, and smells of that scene thus connect the reader’s body to the intermeshed scales of worm, desert, and planet.

38This ecological role is reminiscent of the one played by the dragon in Beowulf’s (circa 700-1000) final episode, a link confirmed by the declarations of Frank Herbert’s son (B. Herbert, 2003 114 and 179). Indeed, in both cases, the monster acts on the level of territory (in Beowulf, the dragon razes “the coastal region and turns back human architecture into basic materials, reducing forts and earthworks to dust and ashes, ll. 2333-2334). They are both able to reorganize the elemental order (the dragon brings under ground fire up in the night sky, ll. 2273-2276), and to produce or protect precious mining resources: the spice or heathen gold (l. 2276). Through these qualities, the two ecological monsters materialize chthonian forces on a perceptible scale, the inescapable agency of world (or of planet). Just as the destiny of living organisms is decided by planetary forces (gravity eventually pulls us all back into the Earth), that of Beowulf and Paul Atreides is determined by the ecological monster they face: the dragon ends Beowulf’s life, while the sandworm ends Paul’s humanity, turning him into a messiah, a figurehead for an intergalactic Fremen jihad. In Dune, the medievalist motif of the ecological monster thus serves to critique a certain modern vision of Man as master of his own destiny, a destiny disconnected from his planet and environment. By exploiting the sensationalism attached to the worm-dragon, Herbert furthermore encourages a form of immersive, sensuous reading that can contribute to the development of an ecological sensitivity.

The hawk and the hand

39Immersed in sensational scenes in which we meet the sandworm, attend a Fremen funeral, navigate the desert terrain, or share Paul’s dream of thirst or of Arrakis calling, we experience aspects of planetarity, not as an abstract idea, but as activated within a situation belonging to what Isabelle Stengers has called the thick worlds of speculative fiction:

Speculative fictions do not stage an idea [such as planetary ecology], but a world peopled with characters dealing with a situation that affects them, and makes them feel, think, and act through contrasted, conflicting, hesitant modalities. Some may be spokespersons for an idea [like planetary ecology], but this idea is that by which they are possessed. As such, it contributes to the thickness of the situation, but it does not have the power to define the situation. (131)

40Speculative world building and environmental design allow science fiction and fantasy to grow experimental situations around an idea, in such a way that readers can experience sensuously, and emotionally what this idea implies and generates. As we have seen, the condition of belonging to planetary ecology is one around which Dune has grown thick. In its first appendix, the novel presents us with a spokesperson for this idea, one indeed possessed by it: the imperial planetologist Pardot Kynes, who declares:

Life improves the closed system’s capacity to sustain life. Life – all life – is in the service of life. Necessary nutrients are made available to life by life in greater and greater richness as the diversity of life increases. The entire landscape comes alive, filled with relationships and relationships within relationships. (Herbert, 2005 533-534)

41The situation here is a little thin: a spokesperson presenting ideas about life’s recursive exuberance, and landscape vivification. Of course, literary style makes it thicker: as the sentences become recursive themselves (“Life – all life,” “life by life,” “relationships within relationships”), readers who are immersed in the text, internally simulating its rhythm and sounds, can resonate fleetingly with the recursive quality of planetary ecology. They can also experience this quality during scenes rich in sensory and motor images.

42One of those is the scene in which Liet Kynes (Pardot’s son) dies at the impersonal hands of his planet (291). During the Harkonnen raid on House Atreides, Kynes, who has been helping Paul and Jessica escape the onslaught, is captured, then left to die in the desert. Rapidly dehydrating in the scorching heat, he starts hearing the annoying voice of his father, lecturing him on the recursive logics of ecology: ‘Life improves the capacity of the environment to sustain life,’ his father said (292). If Liet does not understand why he is thus hallucinating his father in full scientific mode, the reader cannot but notice that the patriarch’s ecological discourse is beginning to materialize around the son: Desert hawks, carrion-eaters in this land as were most wild creatures, began to circle over him. Kynes saw a shadow pass near his hand, forced his head farther around to look upward (292). The hawks, here defined as ecological agents (carrion-eaters), but also identified in close relation to their environment (desert hawks), offer Kynes the promise of a quick reintegration into the cycle of life sustaining life. Such reintegration is here envisioned as an embodied process of becoming-prey, a becoming centered around his hand (a shadow passes near his hand).

43As a densely innervated part of the body, the hand is the site of special empathic sensitivity, as studies on the perception of touch (Schaefer, Heinze and Rotte) or of hands in painful situations (Gu and Han) have shown. You can probably imagine quite easily the feeling of a nail penetrating your palm, or of cutting your finger with sharp paper. Writers have exploited this sensitivity, from the pandy bat scene in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to the chemical burn ritual in Palahniuk’s Fight Club, and to the Gom jabbar ordeal in Dune (the Gom jabbar is a Bene Gesserit box into which Paul has to leave his hand despite excruciating pain). When the hawk’s shadow passes over Kynes’ hand—an image repeated and intensified two pages later—empathic readers can feel its vulnerability, as if their own hand might be presently clawed and pecked at. They thus share Kynes’s becoming-prey, and experience planetary ecology, with their sensitive, sensorimotor body.

44This sensorimotor pattern of the vulnerable hand is reactivated two pages later. Liet Kynes is still hallucinating his father, now sermonizing about Arrakis’ near-ideal nitrogen-oxygen-CO2 balance being maintained [...] in the absence of large areas of plant cover (294). And once again, ecological discourse becomes an embodied situation: A hawk landed on the sand near his outstretched hand. Kynes saw it fold its wings, tip its head to stare at him. He summoned the energy to croak at it. The bird hopped away two steps, but continued to stare at him (294). If Liet Kynes is the warden of a terraforming project that aligns with the modern, hubristic dream of taming the planet—as if the planet was an inanimate object exterior to Man—here predation promises to reintegrate him within the bowels of planetary ecology. This motif is also illustrated by Jack London’s trapper short stories like The Law of Life (1901) or Love of Life (1907). Moreover, as in these two stories, the human prey continues to obey the biological push for self-preservation, as he summons the energy to croak at the hawk, as opposed for example to the hero’s ego dissolution into planetary ecology we can find at the close of Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) or of Le Guin’s Vaster than Empires and More Slow (1971). Kynes’ attempt at croaking the hawk away does not appear very promising here, as it continue[s] to stare at him. The planetologist is however not destined to die through animal predation.

45As he lays on the desert floor, he feels a pre-spice mass below him: a bubble of water gathered and transformed by sandtrout into an organic growth that turns into spice when it explodes and is exposed to air and sun (293). This ecological cycle, first discovered by his father Pardot, is here experienced by Kynes with his very body, as the soil engulfs him:

He felt the bubble lift him, felt it break and the dust whirlpool engulf him, dragging him down into the cool darkness. For a moment, the sensation of coolness and the moisture were a blessed relief. Then as his planet killed him, it occurred to Kynes that his father and all the other scientists were wrong, that the most persistent principles of the universe were accident and error.
Even the hawks could appreciate these facts. (Herbert, 2005 297)

46Somatic feelings of being lifted and engulfed, of coolness and moisture (after descriptions of the desert dry heat) are the modalities through which character and readers experience the geological, and its inescapable, doom-like agency. Arrakis becomes an agent (his planet killed him), responding to the trembling architectures of geontological governance (Povinelli) that seek to manage it through terraforming or extractive imperialism. Somatic feelings participate in a situation thick enough to make world for the immersed reader, to make tangible the idea that the most persistent principles of the universe were accident and error. This idea of course rebukes projects of planning the planetary future, but also manifests here on the smaller scale of the hawk’s point-of view, as its meal has just been stolen by the planet, by accident.

Conclusion

47As both a medievalist fantasy and a science fiction novel, Dune furnishes us with new/old ways of facing Gaia, of sensually experiencing aspects of planetary ecology. Exploiting familiar sensations rearranged within a thick storyworld, Herbert’s novel gives readers a terrain on which to develop their joint capacity for immersion and environmental sensitivity. The strategies it uses are diverse: it invites readers to align with a planetary imaginary that deviates from that of the global (performed by the Baron Harkonnen); it presents them with mineral and biological actants (a stone castle, exploding sand, the sandworm, a hawk); it promotes forms of embodied, locally produced knowledge and technology (sandworm riding and distance measuring); it employs world-building devices such as maps and appendices; it encourages readers to enter the flow of the text and to attune their body to the language of “rocks and growing things” (through Bene Gesserit philosophy); it renews our imagination of tears and moisture through sensationalist scenes (the funeral); it propels characters beyond psychology, and into planetary ecology (through predation or oneiric possession). These strategies are not exempt from the colonial and imperial imaginary that the novel both implements and critiques. Herbert’s ecological and anti-messianic novel can thus be seen as participating in the “cacophony of moral claims” that saturates our “liberal multicultural settler colonialism” (Byrd xvii). I believe however that we can use Dune as an occasion to exercise ways of relating to our planet that go beyond humanity’s long history of territorial rivalry and seizing. In a moment when the prosperity of the Earth’s remaining species hinges on the ability of humans to insert themselves more harmoniously within their planetary ecology, we might find, in visions such as Frank Herbert’s, a terrain on which to train our environmental sensitivity and response-ability.

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Notes

1

My thanks to Liliane Campos, Bruce Clarke, Derek Woods, and Marie-Pier Boucher for the interplanetary travels; to Reka Gal and reviewers, for insight on colonialism and indigeneity; and to Claire Vial, concerning dragons.

2

For a definition of the genre, see Asaro and Dolan.

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Pierre-Louis Patoine, « The Worm and the Ecologist: Experiencing Planetarity with Frank Herberts Dune »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22124 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.22124

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Pierre-Louis Patoine

Sorbonne Nouvelle

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