Sands of Power: Review of Dune Part I

Daniel Chia Matallana
PhD Candidate at Victoria University of Wellington

Daniel Chia Matallana is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part II has garnered praise and applause from critics and fans worldwide, echoing the acclaim received by its predecessor, “Dune: Part One.” And it shouldn’t be a surprise. Villeneuve, not a stranger to the genre, has previously delved into the realms of science fiction. Crafting an impressive “Blade Runner 2049,” a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic, and the very well-praised adaptation of the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang –a personal favorite writer of mine, titled “Arrival

This review deliberately avoids delving into the quality and spectacle of these new “Dune” adaptations (there have been previous attempts, such as David Lynch’s 1984 rendition and the 2000 TV miniseries) as well as the film’s interpretative power, the marvel of special effects, or the coherence of the script and dialogue. In these aspects, I’ll simply note that, in my non-specialized view, the well-assembled sum of all these parts enhances the film’s enjoyability and understanding. This is particularly noteworthy given the inherent challenges of condensing a vast imaginary universe into a two-hourish movie. Instead, as expected on this platform, this opinion piece aims to explore the relationship between law and technology within the narrative of “Dune: Part One.”

Dune, the literary universe, was created by Frank Herbert across six different books: “Dune,” “Dune Messiah,” “Children of Dune,” “God Emperor of Dune,” “Heretics of Dune,” and “Chapter House Dune.” Following Herbert’s passing, his son continued to expand the “Dune” universe with more than ten additional books. Accordingly, numerous academic works across various disciplines have explored “Dune,” its influences, and its impact. However, interpretations vary widely, with many offering contradictory perspectives. Some critics argue that “Dune” exhibits sexist and misogynistic undertones, highlighting its male-dominated narrative and the relegation of women to primarily religious roles. Additionally, the expectation that the messiah, known as the Kwisatz Haderach, would be male further highlights these interpretations[1].

The novel has also been criticized by some for supposedly integrating colonialist and racist themes. The Fremen, indigenous inhabitants of the desert planet Arrakis, await a messiah from another world—a figure who also happens to be a privileged individual from a noble lineage endowed with knowledge, scientific prowess, and political insight[2]. At the same time, “Dune” has been interpreted by some as a critique of capitalist extractivism, incorporating significant postcolonial elements, particularly evident in the events depicted in novels two and three. Specifics that I will not delve into to avoid spoilers.

Regarding these newer “Dune” movies, their future interpretations and analyses by academics remain uncertain, especially considering the creative freedoms often exercised by writers and directors when bringing literature to the screen. For example, will Villeneuve textually copy the novel into the film, or is he aware of such criticism and will avoid certain themes? I won’t explore postcolonial, gender, or race analyses here, as more knowledgeable and academically sound people are better equipped to make these connections. Instead, this review will focus on presenting several points for legal scholars interested in the intersection of law and technology and those interested in broader humanities and popular culture within the legal sphere.

In “Dune: Part One,” I find an opportunity to delve into the question of the role of law in relation to technological innovation. Specifically, I’ll explore how the law should approach such innovation and consider whether regulatory responses are necessary or if they should exist at all. This question is particularly relevant today and has sparked various discussions, particularly in regulating artificial intelligence (AI).  Should regulation be founded on trust or apprehension? Should it be anticipatory or reactionary? Moreover, should the AI industry self-regulate, or should regulation be implemented through domestic laws or international agreements? These are issues demanding thoughtful consideration, and in this review, I’ll underscore a few key considerations.

In this movie, despite humanity’s expansion throughout the universe and mastery of space travel and genetic breeding, technology and science seem to play a supportive rather than central role, serving more as a backdrop. For instance, Paul Atreides is depicted as a product of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood’s genetic manipulation to perfect human evolution. While this is central to the unfolding drama, it remains somewhat in the background. Similarly, space travel, crucial to the narrative as Arrakis’ mineral resources facilitate it, also seems to stay on the backseat. Weaponized technology, such as the small and lethal hunter-seeker resembling a tiny flying insect used for Paul’s assassination attempt, is another example of this “prop” role of technology. The same applies to the energy fields serving as shields and the still-suits protecting against the sun and recycling body water. While technology, even as a prop, is indeed present in the movie, computers are notably absent. Automation is not seen anywhere in the film. And this absence is even more striking. Dune is a hardware-driven universe with a notable absence of software.

The absence of computers in “Dune” is a critical aspect rooted in this universe’s primary and most important law: the prohibition against creating thinking machines. This mandate, derived from religious beliefs, has its origin in the enslavement of humanity by such machines thousands of years before the events of the novel and the movie. As stated in the Orange Catholic Bible, “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind.”

While some argue that the prohibition on thinking machines ultimately saved humanity (a viewpoint I tend to disagree with), it also prompts further inquiries. Is it plausible that in a scenario where technology, computers, and automation are shown to fail, as in Dune, the only viable solution appears to be a return to a less computationally dependent past? For example, has the absence of computational power contributed to a somewhat archaic mining process, as seen in the movie? Even with the apparent robustness of the machines used for mining work, the mining process depicted in the film appears to be antiquated. Although effective in generating wealth for those who profit from it, these methods seem crude and ecologically problematic. Could the restriction on computation be the underlying reason for Dune’s seemingly medieval political structure, typified by emperors and fiefs?

Returning to the prohibition of machines that think like humans, a more specific question that is better suited for legal scholars and those interested in new technology regulations deals with the solutions reached by humanity in Dune when thinking machines got out of control. The most visible was forbidding them. However, it appears it was not the only one. I will explain why I believe this was the case and how our propositions are similar to what Frank Herbert envisioned.

Banning computers in Dune mirrors some propositions made by nonfictional legal scholarship sectors, which propose to ban the deployment of Artificial Intelligence in the military industry. A halfway proposition that points to a similar principle suggests halting innovation temporarily while the law catches up with technology—a proposal echoed by leaders in the technological industry, with some advocating for a pause in AI research[3]. Alternatively, to address technological development, some suggest expediting the law-making processes, implying that the slowness of democratic deliberation around the impact of technology acts as a barrier. Interestingly, this seems to have been the decision made in Dune, where the political system is an imperium. Democratic representation and processes also stopped with computers. Dune portrays a computerless, undemocratic universe.

Another alternative proposed by some sectors of legal scholarship to deal with technological innovation is self-regulation. This approach implies that the private sector, which also commands innovation, is more efficient and trustworthy than democratic institutions. However, the counterargument against this proposal is rooted in a profound distrust of private enterprises. Both views are biased and simplistic. Interestingly, private industry appears non-existent in the Dune movie, suggesting that self-regulation was not an option when humanity won the war against thinking machines. Hence, Dune portrays a computerless, undemocratic, and private-industryless universe.

The conclusion of this short review is not to claim a direct correlation between computational power and democracy. However, I’m certain there must be an academic paper out there exploring this connection. However, in the case of Dune, such a correlation seems evident. Instead, I would like to suggest that the discourse of “law should react” to technology did not prove effective in Dune. In my opinion, it is unlikely to succeed in our nonfictional world either. A system of coproduction, as proposed by Sheila Jasanoff, appears to be a more promising option.

[1] See The Traditionalism of Women’s Roles in Frank Herbert’s Dune by Jack Hand.

[2] See Ecological Colonialism and Messianism: Frank Herbert’s Critical Vision by Jean-Pierre Fortin.

[3] See Elon Musk and Others Call for Pause on A.I., Citing ‘Profound Risks to Society

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