“Keep a Glass of Water Nearby”
Reading Frank Herbert’s Dune during a worldwide pandemic
By Jack Huber
I leave alone. The grocery store is a short walk away if I take a shortcut through an empty field. Drops of rain hit my jacket. Nobody is outside, but it isn’t the water keeping them indoors. I slip through a hole in the fence and let my boots sink into the grass which leaks like a squeezed sponge. The field is wild and overgrown with thin paths barely kept clear by the occasional set of footprints. I walk around the two large hills in the center of the field. Grass feeds on the decomposing garbage underneath.
I pull a bandana over my face. They won’t let me in the store without it. I tread through one-way aisles and gather my essentials: almond milk, eggs, pasta, pasta sauce. I’m a dairy-free college student. Nobody says hello to me, and I say hello to nobody. Eye contact is rare. There are metaphors about the meanings of eyes being windows to the soul, but when they are all that you see of a person, they speak little. I self-checkout even though one of the cashiers is open. I leave the store and walk back home with my provisions.
In Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic Dune, Paul Atreides, the walks slowly through the sand on the planet Arrakis. Nearly its entire surface is covered in sand, giving it the titular moniker, ‘Dune.’ He is careful to watch for wormsign, the ripple in the sand that warns of nearby sandworms. Moisture is precious on the planet Dune. Paul wears a stillsuit, a water reclamation device that prevents any of his body’s water from being lost to the atmosphere. He walks in between sand dunes, underneath which is the planet’s only export: a drug simply called "spice." Paul is nobility and the planet is new to him. It’s a harsher world than the one he grew up on, but the challenges have made him stronger.
In the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, author Jared Diamond describes how environmental conditions in which a population lives is the most important factor in its future success. Natural resources and domesticable animals are the foundation upon which a human civilization can thrive. I read both Guns, Germs, and Steel and Dune during the COVID-19 pandemic, which left a lot of ideas floating in my head about how the world we live in shapes who are.
It wouldn’t be accurate to describe Dune as a man vs. nature story, but the natural struggles that Paul faced throughout the novel were the most interesting and unique parts of the story, especially given the context in which I read it.
I read a clever review for Dune online that simply gave it a five-star rating and the advice, “keep a glass of water nearby.” Every aspect of living on a desert planet is thought out and the reader is constantly reminded of the rarity of water. It forms the economic basis on which the society is built, and the lack of natural resources makes the native Fremen of the planet Dune seem primitive. These Fremen go to extreme lengths to conserve water. They live by the adage that a man’s water “belongs to the tribe.” Upon death, a Fremen corpse is sapped of its water in a ritual process. I sipped water more thoughtfully than ever as a I read.
Contrary to the conclusions shown in our own history and those reached in Guns, Germs, and Steel, the Fremen’s desolate planet does not weaken people. In fact, Dune preaches a narrative that the more challenges an environment, the stronger the society will be that emerges from it, a reassuring sentiment for our planet.
Near the end of Dune, Paul leads the united Fremen tribes against the advanced armies of the Emperor’s Sardaukar and the evil Harkonnens and easily wins. The emperor’s armies, while well-trained and experienced in warfare, hadn’t endured the daily struggles of living in a barren, inhospitable landscape. The endurance gained from willing yourself through tough circumstances is not something to be created artificially.
For me, Dune will never be a book about prophecies and holy war, but about overcoming natural obstacles the world throws at us. It is a book where knowledge and preparation are rewarded and characters emerge victorious through its landscape by learning from those who know it best.
Jack Huber graduated from Bethlehem Central High School. A junior at Michigan State University studying Biology and Creative Writing, he was one of 12 students selected to receive a CREATE! Micro-Grant Program cash prize to respond critically and imaginatively to events occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a distance runner on Michigan State’s cross country and track teams, Jack goes through Nikes almost as quickly as he goes through books. Follow his GoodReads account to read his reviews.