The Primitive Warfare of 'Dune'
Going forwards, back
I finally got to see Dune this past weekend. I will refrain from reviewing it here and offer no spoilers. Instead, what struck me anew in watching Denis Villeneuve’s vision of the Frank Herbert novel is how combat in the 11th Millennium AD has been imagined as a scene from the 3rd Millennium BC.
For example, the climax of the film is a fight between Paul Atreides (seen above) and a Fremen challenger. Both use bone knives less than twelve inches long — an actual Stone Age duel. These are the same weapons with which the indigenous Fremen engage the galactic emperor’s Sardaukar troops, who use metal(?) blades about fifteen inches long. When the doomed Atreides army charges into the Sardaukar, they have similar weapons. No one is shooting any sort of firearm in these scenes. Instead, the combat is all hand-to-hand. Everyone is armed with stabbing weapons that might as well be made of bronze, for all the futuristic art in their use. Meanwhile, there are explosions. More on that in a moment.
Of course, shield technology explains this resort to edged weapons in Herbert’s world. Acting as a kind of repulsive force-field, shield generators can stop the instant impact of a bullet, but not the slow cut of a blade that is pressed home with relentless leverage against the force-field. Thus the slow killing strokes of Duncan Idaho, played by Jason Momoa, and the rocket-assisted darts that penetrate force shields slowly enough that a quick hand can remove them without harm. No such technology exists in 2021, nor is anything like it even on the development horizon. Any sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic in science fiction, this is the “magic” that returns the reader of Herbert’s far-future world to the past.
Jihad, Herbert says, is not a new thing to humanity. Neither are good intentions gone wrong, or feudalism, or colonialism, or exploitation, or genocide. The sandworm-like interplanetary ships of the Spacing Guild symbolize the close link between resource extraction economy and militarism; the film shows them as Herbert describes them. The Fremen use sandworms for military transport; resistance to empire is built on the products of empire. These ideas are common enough in contemporary popular culture now, but they were prescient at the time.
Without spoiling anything, I will note that in the second half of the book — and presumably in the sequel, now greenlit for production — “atomics” make an appearance. The future has not exactly forgotten how to build advanced weapons, it seems. But the shipborne laser tearing through Arrakeen in a vain attempt to swat a tiny, dragonfly-like aircraft demonstrates that the future has gotten a bit clumsy with its toys. One effect of high technology becoming part of the everyday background is that we become dependent on things we have no idea how to fix ourselves if they break, and have no means to make more of them ourselves if we run out. In such an environment, Herbert expects that strategy and operational art will suffer, to say nothing of tactics.
Let us summarize the conclusions of an imaginary “after action review,” the process by which the US Army trains its chain of command. The Atreides, who so proudly claimed the planet of Caladan “with air and sea power,” have no satellite in orbit to give early warning of an attack. Why not? Gurney Halleck, played by Josh Brolin in the new film, is last seen leading a forlorn hope in a headlong charge. Where are his crew-served weapons? Why was there no combat air patrol in the sky? And so on. Everything, all the way down to the troop doctrine, has been simplified to the point of stupidity. Given time to prepare, the defenders are caught flat-footed, with their most powerful weapons sitting in neat rows on the ground. Herbert suggests that such incompetence is the ultimate condition of military organization in a galactic (or global) empire, that the very impossibility of bringing force to bear at such great distances inhibits the wisdom necessary for effective action. He may well be right.
Herbert is hardly the only science fiction author to portray a future that resembles the past. See, for example, David Weber’s swashbuckling Honor Harrington universe, in which his techno-magic and mythopoeia are carefully constructed to recreate the Age of Sail in space. Or consider the Jedi light-saber, a weapon that consciously recalls medieval knighthood. These are not exactly dystopias, however. Herbert’s Dune series is apocalyptically dystopian, and in that sense its influence is more visible in the vast, multiauthor, grimdark universe of Warhammer 40K, or darker TV fare like Farscape and Lex. When the same government has reigned for thousands of years, be it Old Republic or Evil Empire, people and systems ossify into impotence; when a single person or institution monopolizes loyalty long enough, incompetence becomes absolute. The larger the domain, the more hollow the reign.
Finally, everyone in Herbert’s universe is deeply concerned with matters of honor. A demand for satisfaction results in the deadly knife duel at the end of the film. The rivalry of House Harkonnen and House Atreides at the center of the narrative is a matter of honor so old that its origins might as well be forgotten. Characters fear for their honor and are told in turn to stuff their honor by characters who extol honor themselves in other scenes. This is a return to the primitive, indeed, to a past that is not so long ago. Blood debts and matters of honor account for most homicide in pre-state societies, which have surprisingly high male death rates from violence. Dueling traditions codified in the 19th Century have historical antecedents going back to the resumption of record-keeping in Europe during the 2nd Millennium AD. We moderns are the exception; what is to prevent our descendants from reinventing every bad idea their ancestors ever had?