Spice. When you strip away all the subplots, the personal and dynastic rivalries, and the acting flourishes (think of all those longing looks between Timotheé Chalamet and the Fremen warrior Chani, played by Zendaya), the movie Dune (based on the 1965 book of the same title by Frank Herbert) is about the intergalactic struggle over Spice, considered the most valuable substance in the Universe.
In the movie Dune, Spice, formally named Melange, is a natural substance only found on the desert planet Arrakis (also called Dune), which is inhabited by an Indigenous population called the Fremen. Spice is said to possess hallucinogenic and life-extending properties, and to provide the foresight needed by members of the Space Guild to navigate spaceships across interstellar distances. Whoever controls the Spice trade thus controls the vital arteries of the galactic economy.
In Dune Part I, the movie currently showing in movie theaters, control over Spice production on Arrakis has been handed over to House Atreides by the Padishah Emperor Ghaddan Corrino IV in a devious plot to crush that House and turn control over to House Harkonnen, the bitter enemies of the Atreides. As the story unfolds, the head of House Atreides, Prince Leto (played by Oscar Isaac), is murdered in a coup organized by the Harkonnen.
His son Paul, played by Chalamet, escapes into the desert with his mother, Lady Jessica (played by Rebecca Fergusson), where they link up with the Fremen and initiate preparations for a revolt against the Harkonnen. (These events will have to await Part II, when and if that ever reaches the screen.)
For many cinema fans, this plotline will trigger recollections of another epic science fiction movie, Avatar, released to much acclaim in 2009. Written and produced by James Cameron, the plot of Avatar revolves around another precious resource – a very rare mineral called “unobtanium,” which was said to be essential for energy-starved Earth.
Unobtanium, we are told, is only found on Pandora, a habitable moon in the Alpha Centauri star system. It is being exploited by a rapacious corporation, the Resources Development Administration (RDA), at a terrible cost to the moon’s environment and its indigenous humanoid population, the Na’vi.
As in Dune, a heroic white male figure—in Avatar, Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington)—arrives on the scene and takes up the cause of the Native population. Employing sophisticated technology, Jake inhabits a replica Na’vi body, an “avatar,” and adopts the Na’vi lifestyle. Like Paul Atreides in Dune, Jake falls in love with a native woman, Neytori (played by Zoe Saldaña), and with her, organizes a revolt against the corporate monstrosity responsible for the planet’s ecological destruction.
Spice has many similarities with unobtanium, in that both are rare substances deemed “the most valuable commodity in the Universe.” Both are found in relatively small quantities on a remote planet/moon and are being exploited by giant corporate entities at the expense of the Indigenous population. Both, moreover, are considered so valuable that greedy people and organizations are prepared to use unrestrained violence to secure control over its production and sale.
It is easy to compare both of these substances, Spice and unobtanium, to resources currently being fought over around our world today by rapacious groups and corporations, such as cobalt, lithium, and rare earth elements—scarce metals needed for electric car batteries, and now the subject of an intense geopolitical struggle between the U.S. and China. One might also think of uranium (rhymes with “unobtanium”), a scarce mineral essential for both nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
When conjuring up the idea for “Spice,” however, I think Frank Herbert was thinking of the “Spice Trade” of the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods, when the European powers of the time—Spain, Portugal, England, and the Netherlands—set forth on unprecedented oceanic journeys in a bid to control the trade in Asian “spices” – then the most valuable commodities in international commerce.
Before we go further, a few words about “spice,” as viewed in this earlier age. We are not talking about a flavor enhancer for meals. “Spice,” in those days, meant anything from pharmaceuticals, perfumes, aphrodisiacs, and hallucinogens. Saffron, for example, was used to relieve pain and produce euphoria, much like opium is today.
Nutmeg, another valuable “spice” in earlier times, contains psychoactive substances that are converted by enzymes of the liver into amphetamines, and have similar effects to mescaline, the active ingredient in the Mexican peyote cactus. Frankincense, a substance with Biblical associations, was used as an intoxicant and an anesthetic. When some of its component oils are burned, it produces tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana.
Given all the varied ways in which these “spices” were used in those ancient days, it is not surprising that the major economic powers of the day fought for control over the sources of these materials and the trading routes connecting them to markets in Europe. Some of the most desirable spices, including nutmeg, originated in the Moluccan Islands of what is now Indonesia, then called the “Spice Islands” of the East Indies.
First the Portuguese, then the Spanish, then the Dutch and English sought control over these small islands, fighting a series of skirmishes and small wars until the Dutch gained control over most of them, creating the Dutch East India Company – then among the richest corporations of its day, the equivalent of the RDA in Avatar. To gain control over spice production, the Dutch enslaved the Indigenous population and, as in Avatar and Dune, massacred those who resisted.
I have no doubt that Frank Herbert was fully aware of this rich history and incorporated it into his thinking about “Spice” in Dune. Melange possesses many of the qualities once attributed to saffron, nutmeg, and Frankincense, including their hallucinogenic and life-enhancing properties. He was also aware, no doubt, about the geopolitical struggles for control over this ancient Spice Trade, and used that as a model for the intergalactic struggle over Spice.
So if you haven’t seen Dune yet, keep all this in the back of your mind when watching the spectacular entertainment on the Big Screen; and if you go back to see it for a second or third time, maybe this background will enable you to appreciate the movie anew.