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The problem with Liet Kynes…

So I read “Dune” a long time ago, and then I re-read it many times. I’ve now watched AT LEAST two filmed versions of the story. And I want to have a discussion about Kynes, his dream for Arrakis, and its ramifications – in general – and in particular touch on the choices made re. Kynes in the Villeneuve Dune version.

The general overview, first,then.

Here we have a harsh and inhospitable planet which has ended up honing and cultivating its own breed of men (what Duke Leto called ‘desert power’, fighters whom he believed to be capable of taking on the fabled imperial Sardaukar legions, and with good reason, as it turned out). The Fremen have made their terms with their desert planet. They survive with stilsuits which recycle their moisture, they consider water holy, and they also venerate the great worms, the Shai Hulud, as (in at least a certain sense) divine…although they are not above leaping on their God’s back and exhausting him while he takes them into desert depths otherwise inhospitable to humankind. Revere your god but remember the bit and the bridle, in other words; praise god and pass the ammunition. The Shai Hulud is instrumental in the gestation of melange, the spice that is all things and that exists nowhere else in the universe because the worms exist nowhere else in the universe. And in order to reach the size which they are described as reaching – the true Old Man of the Desert worms – they need that deep desert. The endless sand. The desiccation. The dryness. WATER POISONS THESE CREATURES, and dinky little desert reservations preserved on a planet which is otherwise reclaimed to moisture and an easier human existence would simply not be big enough or dry enough for the Shai Hulud to exist. No Shai Hulud, no spice. No spice, everything goes to hell in a handbasket, right?

And yet here we have Liet Kynes, planetologist with a dream. The dream of greening Arrakis. Of remaking Dune.

And not only does he have this dream – and has already taken steps to pursue its fruition – but somehow Kynes the Imperial Planetologist has gone fully native (and spice addicted) and has become Liet to the Fremen, an entity respected and revered and obeyed. He has married into the Fremen. Chani, Paul’s Chani, is Liet Kynes’s own daughter, in the books.

What my problem with Liet Kynes is boils down to a couple of salient questions.

What happens if he gets his way and Arrakis changes according to his plans – and the desert disappears?

What does he think is going to happen to the Fremen (whom he has adopted as his own) in any such scenario?

Does he sacrifice the Fremen or the world of Dune? Because ONE of them has to give. The Fremen have been portrayed magnificently in Herbert’s books – but how would those Fremen, if they completely understood Kynes’s endgame, agree to supporting anything that would have as its logical conclusion the extinction of their Shai Hulud?

Was there ever a point at which the Fremen, as a people, were faced with making that decision – Shai Hulud and Dune and spice, or a soft world where water falls from the sky and flows on the surface and grows green things? And whichever path was chosen how do you justify it to those of your people who would not agree with that choice – and I have no doubt that there would be those?

How come Liet Kynes’s vision became the Fremen’s vision? I cannot see that path clearly. In order to believe Liet, to support Liet, to help Liet, to push the world in the direction in which Liet wanted it to go… they would have to abandon themselves. And they would also have to take on theultimate repsonsibility of potentially destroying the only known source of melange. To which they themselves were addicted. And I am not saying that it was impossible for them to reach an impartial decision or a selfless one but they would be giving up a harsh world, to be sure, but also one which was arguably completely unique and they would be making a conscious decision to doom Shai Hulud… and to go cold turkey when the spice ran out.

The problem of Liet Kynes is that this is almost an impossible choice. For humans who eke out an existence that is gained by sheer bloody mindedness and graft and hard work and immense sacrifices and which allows for no margin of error and can kill without effort – it might be a pleasant dream, at that, to think about water in abundance, water everywhere, water flowing, water for the taking, instead of gleaning and selfishly gathering every drop for sheer survival value including the rendering of their dead into their ‘water’ with that being the final measure of their value to their tribe. It might not seem like they are giving up much and stood to gain such a great deal. But the price of what they stood to gain would have to be a complete transformation, a loss of their very identity, a conscious renunciation of everything that has made them into the ‘desert power’ that they are. The dream is huge. So is the price of it. WHat was it that one man, that Liet Kynes, said to the Fremen of Arrakis to make them willing to pay that price? They have certainly been portrayed as intelligent enough to understand it. There is a lot that goes on in the story of Dune, but I – who have read the book many times and have seen the adaptations into the visual media – have not yet seen an acceptable version of rendering that particular covenant acceptable. Or even visible. WHY do the Fremen revere Liet Kynes knowing that he brought water to wash them away with? Just how convincing would a silver tongue of passion have to be to get them across the line? And letus not forget that Kynes had a Fremen woman, a Fremen daughter; he was no longer the outsider, he was part of that people now, as addicted to the spice as they, his eyes just as blue on blue with melange addiction as any deep desert Fremen’s might have been. Given THAT, well , that cuts both ways. How come he could convert the Fremen – but was never subsumed into their own world as such? How far can you go when you “go native” – and how long can you serve two masters?

WHich does bring me to the Villeneuve version of Kynes. SOmewhat inexplicably and for no real apparent reason, this version is not a somewhat aging man with a Fremen wife and child. This might have worked chronologically speaking because if Liet Kynes is this caliber of a scientist and appointed to this kind of an Imperial post he had to have been a person of some importance, certainly the recipient of a boatload of education (which takes TIME), and the proud owner or a lot of life experience. An older man fit those parameters, and that was the person I saw in the books, that was the person I accepted in the Lynch version of the movie.

But Villeneuve makes the decision to make Liet Kynes into a (relatively) young woman.

I don’t understand this particular genderflip and age flip decision at all. Yes, perhaps there is a dearth of good female roles in Dune (other than the Bene Gesserit who DO get their fingers in a lot of pies…) but doing this to Kynes… this version of Kynes doesn’t look old enough for that depth of education and experience to have had a chance to set in. THis version of Kynes does not appear to be cast as Chani’s mother, and indeed doesn’t look old enough to be a mother to someone of Chani’s age. The Fremen – aside from venerating their Reverend Mothers and their Sayyadinas – are a patriarchal society. How does Kynes-as-woman, and particularly Kynes-as-YOUNG-woman, gain the kind of influence with the wild Fremen that would make them forsake everything and pursue the greening of Arrakis to the detriment of their SHai Hulud? And how do we take this Kynes’s line in Villeneuve’s movie, “I serve Shai Hulud”? Because she doesn’t. She is working to make Shai Hulud extinct. Does that make Liet Kynes a saviour or a Judas traitor? Where do Kynes’s true allegiances lie? Is it possible to get to the bottom of this – even in a massive novel, let alone a 3-hour movie which has to dedicate a good chunk of it to special effect battles in order to keep a certain demographic’s butts in their cinema seats?

Have you ever thought about the intrinsic head-on collisions that keep happening around the character of Liet Kynes? What were your conclusions? I have to confess I tend to get left floundering every time I try to pull on that thread.

The problem of Liet Kynes, indeed. The whole story of Dune – Houses Atreides, Harkonnen, Corrino – the political intrigues, the religious dogmas, ALL of that – is magnificently complex and layered – but there are ways of understanding it on the level of simple human dynamics. WHen it comes to Liet Kynes, though, it becomes so much bigger than that. In the space occupied by that single character is one of the greatest mysteries and conundrums of all time. Everything has a price. Knowing that – knowing that AND knowing what the price would be – how does Liet Kynes calculate the true value of what (s)he is gaining for what is being offered up to pay for it? And how in Shai Hulud’s name does he bring the Fremen with him?

Please. Discuss. I would be interested in your thoughts.


5 thoughts on “The problem with Liet Kynes…”

  1. Herbert wrote that before it was as obvious that Saudi Arabia is remaking itself into something very different from what it used to be.

  2. I don’t remember much detail about Dune, from the one time I read it, decades ago.
    But it is very human to yearn for some kind of supposed utopia, and work really hard towards getting there, without thinking about the inevitable negative aspects and consequences, even locally.
    And how many people really understand and care for global consequences and something as abstruse as climate science?
    People probably find it easy to think “let our part of the planet become geen and well-watered, we can keep the other uninhabited half desert for the worms” – not thinking about airflow and rainfall patterns, heat transfer between latitudes though storms and cyclones, etcetera. Yes, there will be those who think about such things and have an inkling about the bad results – either they choose not to dwell on it, thinking that a future solution will be found to future problems when they arise; or they are ignored and maybe ridiculed by those who want to believe in the utopia, like those who understood the reality of climate change have been treated in the US in the last thirty years.

    Example of yearning for an utopia without thinking through the consequences: the US ambition of every household owning a car, and later, one for every adult. If every household could afford such a symbol of luxury, what freedom it would give them! Yes, freedom to sit in traffic for hours (induced demand has been known since the 1960s, though some planners still ignore it), go in debt to finance it and need to work a lot more hours to be able to afford it; live somewhere where ordinary human interaction outside of cars is diminished and people who cannot drive are severely limited in living their daily lives…
    The social, spatial and financial consequences, both in cities and in far-flung suburbs, are fairly obvious to anyone willing to do the math. There is not enough room in between the buildings in a city for all the people who live there, as well as those who come from outside to shop or work, to park their cars and freely drive as much as they want to. If you demolish half the city to create parking lots, it both loses lots of tax revenue and becomes unattractive to live or visit. There is not enough tax income from low-density suburbs to maintain the infrastructure needed for those suburbs.
    The consequences to human health, both by people killed or seriously injured directly, and indirectly though the pollution caused by them, are serious and have been well-known for decades.
    All these “negative externalities” have been known for a long, long time, and still the majority will work to support that vision of the future (maybe adapting it slightly, to flying taxis or cars in tunnels, disregarding the logical consequences of either), and strongly object to trying to enable alternatives.

    The way you desribe the Fremen’s relationship to the Shai Hulud reminds me a bit of the Dutch relationship to water and wind: both beloved and hated, for the pleisure and positive things it gives and the destruction it can cause; but mostly the everlasting struggle to harness its power while needing to respect it.
    Seeing an utopian future where that power is harnessed and contained, while not exactly looking at the detailed necessities and consequences, seems to be a key part of any visionary’s charisma.

  3. In the book, it was explicitly stated that Liet took over the position from his father, the previous planetologist. In taking over the family business, it’s entirely possible that he inherited his father’s equipment and learning materials and never even left Arrakis.

  4. Liet Kynes is meant to present these problems. One of Herbert’s earliest and most overarching themes in Dune is the need to remake things in our image, to control outcomes, to make places hospitable. No one in Dune is an actual savior, not even Paul. Everyone is singularly focused on pursuing their own ends, exploiting resources for their own gains, and claiming nature for themselves. That is the core critique by Herbert of man’s hubris in relation to nature. That Kynes presents this kind of problem for you shows you have at least begun to plumb the depths of Herbert’s main critique.

  5. A little late to the party….And yes, I have been using Dr. Kynes (or a variant) online for 26 years and well over 30 going back to AD&D characters.

    The thing that is being overlooked is that Dr. Kynes’ dream isn’t his dream. He isn’t the origin of it. The dream of the greening of Arakis is part of the Fremen religion (Zensunnism). It is part of its eschatological prophecies. Dr. Kynes views these prophecies in an ecological light and what he gives to the Fremen is the ability to actually bring about the eschatological state. It always was theirs, he just brought it into present achievability.

    What is fun with Herbert, is that he intertwines fate, prophecy, human ambition, Shai’Hulud’s own activity in the discussion of religion. To what extent does Dr. Kynes bring about prophecy, to what extent does he co-opt it/create it? To what extent is the prophecy true, to what extent is it a manipulation? Can one escape fate/prophecy? It is a difficult thing to be in the middle of the whirlwind – are you the instrument of god or is it your ego that drives the future towards its terrible conclusion?

    The prophecy of the greening of Arakis goes hand in hand with the prophecy of the Mhadi – the one who will lead the Fremen to paradise through an apocalypse; a necessary transformation and doing away with the old and all that suppressed the Fremen (this includes the desert conditions). There is an idea of transcendence here. The Fremen, anyone, will gladly trade Arakis for their eschatological fulfillment.

    Later books will take a crack at the question of whether a greened Arakas, a paradise of earthy delights, is what is cracked up to be.

    Dr. Kynes went native — their dream of a greened Arakis became his and he gave to them the ability to accomplish it.

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