Disclaimer: this piece discusses spoilers from the movie and book
Before anyone asks…no, I did not just watch Dune because Timothee Chalamet plays the main character. Okay well, I kind of did originally. But, after watching the movie and doing a deep dive on the internet, I promise that I will actually go read the books and try to understand the series. Pinky promise.
For those of us who had never heard of Dune until our beloved Mr. Chalamet was announced as the leading role, here’s a quick rundown of the franchise. In Dune, humanity has evolved into an interplanetary species that has taken over other planets. Noble families guard certain planets under the command of the great emperor. One of these noble families is the House Atreides, which is led by Duke Leto whose son, Paul Atreides, is the main protagonist.
House Atreides is called upon to take colonial leadership of the planet Arrakis, home of the indigenous Fremen people. A planet that is also commonly referred to as Dune. Arrakis is the most important planet to the emperor because it’s the only source of a spice called melange, or sometimes just spice. Spice is like a drug: it allows humans to live longer, gives them the ability to see into parts of the future, and most importantly, it is the key to interstellar travel. There is a lot of political conflict going on regarding the planet and its spice between the noble families as they vie for colonial control over Arrakis. After all, once noble families control the spice, they control all of civilization.
The story follows Paul whose family is given colonial control over Arrakis by the emperor. There’s a lot more to the Dune universe, but that is the main gist of it. The story can be read as a critique of settler colonialism, a commentary on the occupation of the middle east, and even as a cautionary tale about nuclear weapons and the policies that govern them.
WARNING: MAJOR DUNE SPOILERS AHEAD
Something we see in the Dune Universe is the existence of atomics. Atomics are described as weapons that derive their power from reactions of fission or fusion and radiation lingers after their usage. That’s right, the world of Dune has its own version of nuclear weapons. In the Dune universe, the use of these weapons against human life is strictly banned due to their capacity for destruction, unless it is an absolute emergency. Instead, these weapons are kept as heirlooms and are stockpiled by all the noble houses as a last resort for war. They also act as a testament to the houses’ power despite their use being banned.
The atomics act as a military deterrent—any House which violates the ban on the usage of atomics faces massive retaliation from any number of the other Houses. Sound familiar? Everything from the existence of atomics to the way that the leaders of this world interact with them is an exact representation of how modern countries today treat their nuclear weapon stockpiles.
However, despite the very strict ban on the atomics, our soon-to-be tyrant of a main character, Paul Atreides, just has to get some use out of the family heirlooms. Paul wages a guerilla campaign against his foes, compelling his enemies to shelter their forces behind the protection of the Shield Wall, a rocky geographic barrier that protects Arrakis’s capital. Paul then uses nuclear weapons to destroy the Shield Wall. His army overwhelms the forces and wins the battle.
Now, normally the use of an atomic would result in any house being decimated as punishment for violating the ban. However, Paul argues that he technically didn’t break it because the Shield Wall wasn’t human life and the treaty only places a ban on the usage of atomics against human life. This is accepted in court, saving House Atreides from the same fate as their enemies but not necessarily because Paul is in the right. After all, Arrakis is the only source of spice in the entire universe, granting House Atreides immunity from their war crimes and power. From an imperialist perspective, the territory Paul’s family has colonized is too important to nuke, even if the punishment is justified.
Sci-fi is a genre that is often used as a tool to illustrate many global issues that societies face today, and Dune is a perfect example. Not only has Paul stolen the land from the indigenous Fremen, but he has also launched this weapon on their planet ultimately leaving thousands of people on Arrakis to suffer from the effects of radiation while House Atreides continues to profit off of spice. Paul’s selfishness and lack of empathy for human life are disgusting. However, this thoughtless and cruel fantasy is based on an equally horrifying reality.
In the United States, the president has sole authority over the nuclear launch process. Meaning that the president can launch a nuclear weapon without approval from the Defense Secretary or any other outside source. There are very few checks and balances on the United States nuclear launch process. Despite the U.S. being the only nation to use its nuclear weapons in a time of war on August 6, 1945, in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The lives lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilian lives. They were innocents in a time of war and those who survived were left with the lasting effects of nuclear fallout.
To this day, victims of radiation suffer from health problems not only in Hiroshima and Nagasaki but around the world. Downwinders in the United States still feel the effects of nuclear weapons testing, storage, and production. Many without any compensation or help from their very own government. Just like Paul Atreides, the president has the ability to launch nuclear weapons at their disposal whenever and historically we’ve seen how there were very few repercussions for the United States actions. Despite the huge loss of life that resulted and continues to be impacted by those very actions.
While Paul and House Atreides got away scot-free with their use of atomics, we know that the use of a nuclear weapon now, in battle, or worse, by mistake or miscalculation, would be devastating. The consequences to the planet and the people impacted would be endless. The first step to preventing such a catastrophe is to implement a No First Use policy in the United States. A policy promising that the United States would never launch a nuclear weapon against another nation as a first strike, reducing the risk of nuclear war by choice or by mistake.
Paul Atreides and the world of Dune might be fictional, but its story is needed in our world today. There are many lessons we can learn from Paul’s actions, namely how we need to do better with our own nuclear arsenals. Nuclear weapons are not sustainable for the planet and the lack of checks and balances surrounding them is unacceptable. The president should not have the executive power to launch a nuclear weapon on another country when we know the costs of these weapons and the harm they are capable of doing.
Dune was purposefully written as a cautionary tale against many things, including nuclear weapons; we should be taking its messages to heart. We may not be dealing with deadly sandworms or interstellar travel like Paul, but we are certainly dealing with our own atomics. When it comes to a safety guard, No First Use is the bare minimum that we need for these weapons. Unlike House Atreides, there isn’t a single soul that would benefit from the use of these world-ending weapons.