Dune (2020) needs to get one thing right that Star Wars got wrong
The most lauded literary sci-fi epic of all is mostly about goofy space drugs that taste like cinnamon. Will we get hooked?
Dune may be the mature, adult-oriented answer to the Star Wars space opera, but it's also a science fiction series that relies exclusively on the audience buying into one very specific bit of world-building: Space Drugs. You've probably heard "the Spice must flow," but beyond that quotable reference, how will the non-Dune fan deal with the fact that everything in this world revolves around an addictive alien narcotic?
Frank Herbert's sprawling sci-fi series swirls around a MacGuffin called "the Spice" or "Melange." It's an addictive drug that fulfills the purposes of magic fairy dust, non-renewable fuel, and hardcore party drug all at once. It's cool, but can the mainstream take it seriously?
Both the story and situation of Dune are 100 percent dictated by a power struggle to control the intergalactic supply of a rare-ish substance called Melange, but colloquially called "the Spice." If you're fuzzy on Dune knowledge, the reason why they say "the Spice must flow," is because, as in the prologue to the David Lynch adaptation, you also learn that "the Spice makes space travel possible." How do you ask? Quite simply, if you do large qualities of Spice, it gives you precognitive powers, which, it turns out, is very useful for space navigators. In essence, getting your Spice buzz-on gives you extremely good accuracy when guiding spaceships, pretty much anywhere. This means, that Spice is essential for interplanetary commerce, trade, and travel.
In 2013, Jon Michaud described Spice in The New Yorker like this:
"Imagine a substance with the combined worldwide value of cocaine and petroleum and you will have some idea of the power of melange."
This analogy is pretty solid, and possibly the only way to improve it would be to also imagine if various Goop-ish anti-aging cremes touted by pseudo-science were, also, somehow, real. Spice would be like if oil and cocaine were the same thing, and you could drive your car without thinking about it all while tripping your face off and living forever.
Because you gotta love a sci-fi novel with a glossary at the back, here's how the Spice is defined in the glossary at the back of the original Frank Herbert novel:
Melange: the "spice of spices," the crop for which Arakis is the unique source. The spice chiefly noted for its geriatric qualities, is mildly addictive when imbibed in quantities above two grams daily per seventy kilos of bodyweight...Mua'Dib [Paul Atreides] claimed the spice as a key to his prophetic powers. Guild navigators make similar claims. Its price on the Imperial market has ranged as high as 620,000 solaris the decagram.
Did you get all that? Make sure to calculate your body weight against Spice by the gram, okay? You don't want to get addicted or accidentally become a prophetic messiah and lead a huge revolution. Unless of course, you do.
This catch-all substance is so important to us believing in the Dune status-quo that there's literally no way the new Denis Villeneuve movie can get away with not talking about it. But there's a danger in explaining Spice: Too much exposition, and you're going to lose the audience.
This isn't a problem unique to Dune, since before science fiction was called science fiction, authors, critics, and readers have feared the dreaded "info dump" perhaps more than they feared the ability to suspend their disbelief. In terms of mass appeal (and let's face it, that's what the new Dune is going for) the best sci-fi world-building explanations reduce a complex idea down to one or two sentences. This is generally why people liked the first Matrix and had iffy feelings about The Matrix: Reloaded. The long, complicated speech from The Architect at the end of The Matrix: Reloaded is a good example of an info-dump that comes across as overwhelming to the point where we actually buy into the fiction less the more it's explained.
Generally speaking, science fiction novels don't have to worry about this as much as science fiction movies. At the risk of offending the sensibilities of all the great sci-fi authors and editors who I'm friends with, readers of science fiction novels will simply put-up with more clunky exposition than watchers of science fiction movies. (Obviously, these two groups overlap, but you know what I mean.)
Arguably, half of the reason why Dune is so beloved is that its exposition and info-dump stuff is really, really awesome. Not only do you have a glossary, but you also have references to various other fictional historical texts, which give you the notion that all of this has already happened, and what you're actually reading is an 800-word -long condensed account of these stories.
Still, if you don't understand (or believe) that Spice is the one resource that makes the galaxy function, and that it's only found on the planet Arrakis, and that it's made and guarded by Sandworms, then you can't really worry about the larger stakes for Paul Atreides and the story of Dune in general. People love mocking The Phantom Menace because the plot revolves around the "taxation of trade routes" in a certain part of the galaxy, but spoiler alert, all of Dune is about interplanetary trade and how resources are harvested, taxed, sanctioned and distributed. Star Wars didn't even bother trying to tell us what hyperspace fuel was, or where it came from until Solo: A Star Wars Story, and I'm not sure anyone would agree that we're better off for knowing that fact. (I'm also not sure how comfortable I am knowing Kessel is a massive Dune rip-off.)
The point is, as a book, Dune is fantastic because it has the guts to pin all of its story on a fictional catch-all drug thing that everyone seems to want. In some ways, the multi-faceted aspect of the Spice means its probably easy for audiences to insert whatever real-world analogy they see fit. That said, like David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky before him, the biggest challenge for Denis Villeneuve is to both make us care about the Spice a lot, but also, on some level, make us forget about how it works. More than anything, this will be the hardest trick for Dune to pull off. Yes, we know that Spice turns your eyes blue when you do a lot of it, and apparently it tastes like cinnamon but, for the casual audience member will that be enough for us to believe this entire culture is built around it?
For better or for worse, very popular, mainstream science fiction cinema relies on people not thinking too hard about the things they are encouraged to think hard about. There's a minimalist approach to every true classic sci-fi film, from Alien to Blade Runner, to The Wrath of Khan. As a concept, Dune is inherently maximalist. Villeneuve could subtly change that perception, but it all rests on how effectively he can sell us those sweet space drugs.
If we get addicted to this world, everything will be fine. But, if the vast majority of Dune-curious, non-sci-fi diehards, start asking too many questions about Spice, it will almost certainly stop flowing.
Dune is still expected to hit theaters in December 2020.