The Spice Didn't Always Flow

Apr 1 2024
5 minutes

Dune: Part Two hit theaters recently, which got me thinking about my own experience reading Dune in the past, what I enjoyed about it, and my own personal headcannon that made this novel more enjoyable for me. And hey, it’s April Cools, so why not put pen to paper here?

Credit to this reddit thread for the initial discussion, but I hope I’ve expanded on the concept below.


I’ve read Dune a few times over the past ten years, and as immersive as the world and politics are, a few discontinuities kept bothering me.

The universe’s best-kept secret

Spice is commonly referred to as a geriatric drug that slows down the effects of aging before Paul escapes to the desert, and this is the explanation given to the reader and to Paul as to why it’s so valuable a commodity. In the final chapter, it’s considered a big reveal that the Guild Navigators are addicted to the spice, and have the Eyes of Ibad just like the Fremen, carefully concealed by colored contact lenses even in front of the Emperor:

The taller of the two, though, held a hand to his left eye. As the Emperor watched, someone jostled the Guildsman’s arm, the hand moved, and the eye was revealed. The man had lost one of his masking contact lenses, and the eye stared out a total blue so dark as to be almost black. (Book 3, Chapter 48)

If the Spice has been around for thousands of years, how is it still not common knowledge among at least the Great Houses that spice induces hallucinations and limited prescience?

When was spice discovered?

Melange is described as essential to space travel, and yet the narrator and many characters talk about the time of its discovery as if it was close to within living memory.

He thought of the filmbook Yueh had shown him — “Arrakis: His Imperial Majesty’s Desert Botanical Testing Station.” It was an old filmbook from before the discovery of the spice. (Book One, Chapter 9)

Beyond the logistics of a filmbook being preserved for over 10 millennia, it’s described as “old” rather than “ancient”, the preferred word used throughout Dune to describe the incomprehensible age of structures like Castle Caladan and languages like Chakobsa.

Evidence of a human presence on Arrakis before the discovery of the spice, but after the establishment of the Empire in the wake Butlerian Jihad, brings up another question: how did humans even make it to Arrakis without spice in the first place?

The Theory

My own personal headcannon does in fact contradict the later books, but makes Dune as a standalone story more consistent to me. Rather than being an ancient part of the traditions of the Fremen, the Spacing Guild, and the Bene Gesserit, Spice is a relatively recent discovery by the Empire, probably in the last hundred years or so.

Arrakis itself was discovered at some point in the more distant past. It remained mostly an ecological and scientific oddity rather than a center of commerce and resource extraction. The Fremen’s ancestors were expelled from their previous home at some point in the past and discovered the spice soon after arriving on Arrakis integrating it into their spiritual rituals and replacing other awareness-spectrum narcotics. As much is described by Jessica after she becomes a Reverend Mother of the Fremen:

… [T]he Fremen culture was far older than she had suspected.

There had been Fremen on Poritrin, she saw, a people grown soft with an easy planet, fair game for Imperial raiders to harvest and plant human colonies on Bela Tegeuse and Salusa Secundus…

And she saw the thread of the past carried by Sayyadina after Sayyadina — first by word of mouth, hidden in the sand chanteys, then refined through their own Reverend Mothers with the discovery of the poison drug on Rossak… and now developed to subtle strength on Arrakis in the discovery of the Water of Life. (Book Two, Chapter 37)

Spice is just one awareness-spectrum narcotic in Dune. What makes it special and valuable is its potency and lack of side effects. Especially notable is its addictive properties. Once you use the spice, any other drug fail to have the same awareness-expanding effect. Paul’s lecture to Gaius Helen Mohaim and the Spacing Guild representatives at the end of the book makes way more sense in this context:

[The Spacing Guild] might have taken Arrakis when they realized their error of specializing on the melange awareness-spectrum narcotic for their navigators. (Book 3, Chapter 48)

And pages later:

“Even your Bene Gesserit Truthsayer is trembling,” Paul said. “There are other poisons the Reverend Mothers can use for their tricks, but once they’ve used the spice liquor, the others no longer work.” (Book 3, Chapter 48)

Considering the life-extending properties of spice and large-scale extraction only beginning 80 years before, it’s likely that Mohaim and the Guild navigators or others in their generation were likely the ones who made the decision to go all-in on Spice and Arrakis, rather than Paul admonishing their predecessors thousands of years in the past.

While it’s not really consistent with later books in the series, I feel like this retcon/headcannon gives the characters of Dune a lot more agency in the history of their world, and makes the Imperium feel like a more dynamic human society rather than ossified in a single pattern for millennia.

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