A very important Dune explainer

Why is everyone fighting with swords?

I love Dune the book and even its sequels,1 and I really enjoyed the Dune movie. But Dune-the-film stands in a somewhat unusual relationship to Dune-the-book — so unusual that I’m not quite sure we have the vocabulary to describe it.

It’s kind of like how kids read picture books where the pictures illustrate the text rather than telling a completely independent story. In other words, in order to make the move tractable and watchable, Villeneuve took out tons and tons of exposition. Oftentimes he’ll have a character briefly allude to something that’s spelled out in the book, though at other times really big obvious questions are left totally unanswered. If you take a strict il n'y a rien en dehors du texte view of the movie, for example, there’s a really dumb, obvious plot hole: “If spice is necessary for space travel and spice is only found on Arrakis, then how did people get to Arrakis?”

Now to be clear, I know the answer — it’s just not in the movie.

I think that’s fine. Both the book and TV show versions of Game of Thrones are borderline incomprehensible without access to A Wiki of Ice and Fire to help keep everything straight. We live in the 21st century, and the internet makes different kinds of art possible. But to help that process along, I’m going to do the most important journalism of my life and explain everything you need to know about Dune in order to enjoy a visually spectacular movie without worrying about the plot holes.

What’s up with all the sword fighting?

Dan Kois asked a fairly obvious question — why do people fight with swords given all this advanced technology? — that has a somewhat convoluted answer. I’ll note that Josh Brolin’s character Gurney Halleck alludes to the solution when he says you need a slow blade. But there are a few ins and outs that are actually quite important, because understanding the knife-fighting question changes the meaning of the fight with Jamis that ends the movie.

So here is the weapons situation in Dune:

  • Lasers (which they call lasguns) exist, and you can use them against doors and whatever. But shooting a lasgun at a shield will cause a nuclear explosion.

  • Nuclear bombs also exist (each Great House has a stash of “family atomics”), but the use of such weapons is barred by an agreement called The Great Convention. If the Harkonnens had nuked Arrakeen, everyone would in theory team up against them.

  • Shields block all fast-moving objects, so you can’t shoot a shielded person with a gun. It’s also why when they whack each other with swords, the sword usually bounces harmlessly off the body shield.

  • The key to Duneverse-fighting is you need to move your blade slooowly through your opponent’s shield. But of course if you just swing your blade slowly, they’ll block you. So successful fighting involves a mix of fast-paced and slow-paced moves and plenty of deception.

  • However, on Arrakis itself, things are different. If you use a shield in the desert, it will attract sandworms, so the Fremen don’t use shields and neither do spice harvesters or anyone else out there. That’s why near the end we see Paul take a “maula pistol” off one of the Fremen. Guns actually are useful on Arrakis; the Empire just doesn’t have a big firearms industry, and it’s not mainstream equipment for most armies.

That’s all a lot of blah blah blah on some level, but it’s important for fully understanding the significance of the duel with Jamis.

Lady Jessica remarks that Paul has never killed a man before, so winning the duel is a kind of loss of innocence for him. Paul has also experienced the prescient dreams of himself as the leader of a bloody galaxy-spanning jihad. He fears and loathes that destiny and doesn’t want to live it. But he wants to live even more than he wants to avoid that fate, so by beating Jamis, he makes a fateful choice.

That much is clear on screen. What all this tedious exposition makes clearer is that there’s no way in hell Paul should be able to win this fight.

He’s been training all his life to beat a shielded opponent while wearing a shield himself. He’s been training, in other words, to trust that he’ll be invincible to fast blows and only need to be ready to parry slow ones. And also to know that it’s useless to hit his opponent at high speed and that he needs to artfully make slow cuts. That’s obviously a crazy way to fight if neither you nor your opponent is wearing a shield. And adjusting on the fly to a totally unfamiliar fighting style while up against an experienced opponent is extremely difficult.

So how’d he do it? Well, he’s the Kwisatz Haderach, so he can do stuff. Like the prescient visions, this victory is a sign of his extraordinary abilities.

How did people get to Arrakis?

The exposition about this is totally cut from the movies, but you may have noticed that at one point Duke Leto asks Thufir Hawat (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson) to calculate something and his eyes get weird and white and then he knows the answer.

Hawat is a Mentat, someone who, with years of training, can perform the functions of an advanced computer. The reason Great Houses need Mentats is that there are no computers anywhere because the Empire was founded in the aftermath of the Butlerian Jihad against “thinking machines.” The Mentats replace some of the functions of the old thinking machines, and they use spice to enhance their mental abilities. Spice is also required for space travel because the Navigators of the Spacing Guild use it to enhance their own special mental abilities in order to safely pilot ships at faster-than-light speeds. But before the Jihad, you could use thinking machines for this, too.

So the galaxy (including Arrakis) was populated, and the spice was discovered before the Butlerian Jihad made the spice necessary for interstellar travel. Or perhaps another way of putting it is that the existence of the spice and its mind-enhancing powers makes it possible to do away with the thinking machines.

I think screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts probably correctly calculated that this is a lot of (frankly odd) exposition for very limited narrative payoff. But in terms of world building, it’s absolutely necessary, or else the basic premise doesn’t really make sense. I also think it’s kind of a clever idea. Realistically, if human civilization persists into the future without some collapse or huge technological setback, we’re likely to see continued incredible advances in computing power. So any “realistic” effort to do distant future sci-fi should really just end up being a story about artificial intelligence. If you want to generate a space opera scenario, you really need some mechanism to explain away the advanced computers, and the Butlerian Jihad does it well.

What does the spice do, exactly?

The movie mentions that spice is necessary for space travel and shows Paul getting visions when surrounded by spice dust, but doesn’t really get deep into the nature of spice.

In the book, the product is first introduced as “the geriatric spice, melange,” which is to say that one of the spice’s properties is that it has anti-aging effects. And in mainstream society, this is actually its major use. Spice functions as a seasoning (it tastes like cinnamon) and rich people use it to promote health and longevity. But in larger quantities, it also impacts mental functioning. The Bene Gesserit use it to help with their extraordinary control over their bodies. The Mentats use it in their calculations. And the Guild Navigators use it to obtain “prescience” — a kind of future-seeing ability that helps guide starships safely.

So the commodity is in high demand throughout the galaxy, and Paul — as a rich kid — has probably been exposed to some all along, which is why even way back on Caladan, Paul (who has special powers and is maybe the Kwisatz Haderach) has prescient dreams about Chani (Zendaya) and, according to his conversation with the Reverend Mother, about other things as well.

On Arrakis, Paul finds himself in situations that are saturated with spice dust in a way that a normal room on Caladan never would be. This steady exposure to the spice gives him prescient visions while awake, as seen in the film, and the longer he spends there, the more he’ll be able to see into the future.

Where does the spice come from? What’s up with the worms?

Here I don’t want to say because it gets into spoilers for the second movie.

But what’s changed between the book and the movie is that in the book, it’s clear that this is a mystery within the fictional universe. In other words, Dune contains lots and lots of exposition about all kinds of things. But one of the things the exposition explains is that the characters themselves do not really know where the spice comes from or why it’s only on Arrakis or what the deal is with the worms. Suffice it to say that this is all connected, but it’s something Paul has to find out about.

There’s a lot of missing exposition, so I think part of the lack of clarity for movie audiences is that it’s not obvious that the off-worlders themselves don’t really know how this works. They’re just there to exploit the natural resources and not ask too many questions.

Okay, but what about the implications of Virginia for the midterms?

See, this is the difference between a Mentat’s calculations and a Kwisatz Haderach’s prescient visions.

The Mentat uses data and produces calculations, which gives you facts like this:

  • The swing against Democrats in Virginia was fairly uniform across geography — rural precincts, suburban precincts, urban precincts, Black precincts, white precincts, diverse precincts — and it was also visible in New Jersey. So the main causes are probably macro in nature rather than specific to Virginia.

  • It’s not really surprising that you’d see a broad swing against Democrats given that Joe Biden is dramatically less popular today than he was one year ago or even three months ago.

  • Virginia results have essentially zero predictive power. Democrats won the governor’s race there in 2001, and then in 2002, the GOP had by far the best incumbent party midterm on record.

Boringly, the answer is that if the incumbent Democratic President is still very unpopular in 12 months, then Democrats will do very poorly. But I think people knew that. Will he still be this unpopular?

I don’t think there’s any way to know, analytically. What you would need is an actual spice-fueled mystical vision of the future that lets you know things that are basically unknowable.

That’s impossible, obviously. But personally, I get bad vibes from the current state of the party. Not because I can see the future, but because I can see in the present a kind of paralysis about the fact that based on the way electoral politics works, you need to cater to existing public opinion. Instead, you get a lot of this kind of take that basically begs everyone to call the electorate racist and say there’s nothing to be done.

There’s no way to tell the future, but I think this is a widespread attitude in the present that makes it really hard for Democrats to be tactically or strategically adept. Everyone talks about how Trump and the GOP are a threat to “our democracy” but when push comes to shove, there’s very little patience for things like Barack Obama’s habit of targeted pandering to culturally conservative voters. If you don’t try really hard to win, it’s going to be hard to win.


The real sequels were written by Frank Herbert, not the awful sequels and prequels done by Brian J. Anderson with Herbert’s son.