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Thoughts on Dune

Canyon, Texas

I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer in Canyon, Texas, and I’ve been asked to talk a little about this month’s Radio Readers Book Club Read, Dune by Frank Herbert.

The novel is a sci-fi epic set in the far-distant future, in a time when a remote desert planet called Arrakis is the only source of the most valued substance in the universe, a mind-altering space-fuel known as Spice. The climate on Arrakis is so hostile that the planet’s sand-dwelling tribe, the Fremen, must wear stillsuits that recycle their own body fluids into water for them to drink. When the Fremen kill an enemy, it’s traditional to convert the body of the vanquished into water and drink that, too.

The novel is therefore an extreme examination of how a people might adapt to life without water—and how that culture might become more cohesive due to drought. In this sense, Dune makes for an interesting read for High Plains residents. As the Ogallala Aquifer continues to dwindle, life on the High Plains goes on as usual, with many of the residents blithely oblivious to the approaching catastrophe that will render rolling sprinklers and green lawns unsustainable. I’m not suggesting we flatlanders be forced to start wearing stillsuits. But our lives will change eventually, and perhaps dramatically.

There are further similarities between the High Plains and the novel’s desert planet, aside from scarcity of water. As I’ve said, Arrakis sits on a spice motherlode. As is often noted in the universe of the novel, “He who controls the Spice, controls the universe.” Like Arrakis, the southern High Plains sits on a natural resource, which has been the cause for wars and the toppling of regimes. I’m referring, of course, to oil. As Americans, our foreign policy has often been based around the notion that, “He who controls the Oil, controls the universe.”

But there’s one major difference between Arrakis and the High Plains. In the world of Dune, due to the extremely hazardous nature of mining Spice, the Fremen control the process of extraction. The imperial powers must make treaties with these lowly desert denizens—as the Fremen are the only ones with the skill, knowledge, and fortitude to remove the Spice from beneath the sands.

If we were to draw a High Plains parallel, the Fremen are the equivalent of the oil riggers in Borger and Fritch and Perryton—those red-dirt dwellers who have been extracting oil from the earth for generations. And if the High Plains were like Arrakis, then those workers out in the oil fields—and the people in the surrounding communities—would be more in control of the profits they extract from the earth.

In Dune, the young nobleman Paul Atreides manages to leverage his position as leader of the Fremen to bring peace and possibility to his beleaguered desert people. The High Plains, however, have seen a different scenario play out. During the fracking boom of 2008-2014, oil companies in Oklahoma and Texas drew in massive cash hauls. Oil-friendly politicians slashed tax rates to oil companies, so that these companies saw massive profits while very little of that money made its way to the communities dotting the land among those pumpjacks.

As a result, some schools in Oklahoma have been forced to go to four-day school weeks, lacking the money for a traditional five-day week. Hospitals have been shuttered and state parks have closed. Small towns in Oklahoma and West Texas have rarely seen evidence of the staggering profits from the powerful substance being extracted from beneath their feet. In hopes of seeing a change in fortune, voters from these rural communities sent a new leader to Washington last November, praying he’ll remember them from his faraway seat of power.

Thus, the Flatlanders lack the bargaining clout of the Fremen—and they likely won’t see profits from their own spice anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the water levels in the reservoir beneath this dry land continue to sink lower, and lower, and lower.

Writer Jonathan Baker reflects on Frank Herbert's Dune.