“He who controls the spice, controls the Universe”: It’s one of the most famous lines from David Lynch’s oft-maligned 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and even though it doesn’t appear in the original novel, it’s the perfect summation of how Spice Melange factors into the epic sci-fi story. Here, everything you need to know about the spice in Dune, before diving into Denis Villeneuve’s much anticipated film. Major spoilers for Dune follow.
First serialized across eight issues of Analog magazine in the 1960s, Dune failed to find a publisher until, according to The New Yorker, “an editor at Chilton, known for its line of car-repair manuals, offered to publish it after reading the serialized chapters.” Herbert’s novel finally appeared in book format in 1965, and it’s never been out of print since.
Dune centers on Paul Atreides: The only son and heir of Duke Leto I, who must flee all he has ever known when the Duke is assassinated. Accompanied by his mother, the Lady Jessica, Paul makes his way across a treacherous, nearly unending desert to take refuge among the Fremen — the indigenous people of the planet Arrakis. There, Paul begins to realize his destiny as a prophesied messianic figure: the Kwisatz Haderach.
Here’s everything you need to know about the spice in Dune.
What Is The Spice Melange & Where Does It Come From?
The Spice Melange is a powerful and mildly addictive drug that can only be harvested on the desert planet, Arrakis. The spice germinates in the small and sparse pockets of groundwater, deep beneath the sands. Sandtrout — the larval versions of the planet’s giant sandworms — converge at those wells, where their secretions mix with the water to form pre-spice masses.
Over time, the pre-spice masses release natural gasses and become highly pressurized. They explode toward the surface of the desert, killing most of the surrounding sandtrout in the process. When a pre-spice mass reaches the light and air, chemical reactions transform it into the Spice Melange.
This is why the Fremen refer to the sandworms as Makers — they literally make the spice.
What Is The Spice Used For?
For most who can afford to consume it, the spice does little more than increase longevity and fortitude. Some see improvements in perception, and those who consume it for long enough will have their eyes turned blue. (More on that later.)
Other people, however, see radical changes brought on by the spice. To understand why, we need to back up a few millennia, to the time of the Butlerian Jihad.
Dune is set more than 10,000 years after a catastrophic war in which humanity overthrew the sentient machines that had come to rule over them. Ever since the war ended, all “thinking machines,” from robots to calculators, have been outlawed. Without computers to help them, humanity had no choice but to dig into its previously untapped mental and physical potential.
And so they established the Great Schools, training centers that teach students to gain mastery over various physical and mental functions. From these schools come Bene Gesserit Sisters, like Lady Jessica and the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam; Mentats, like Thufir Hawat and Piter de Vries; Ginaz Swordmasters, like Duncan Idaho; Suk Doctors, like Dr. Wellington Yueh; and Guild Navigator,s like Edric. Although some Mentats use the Spice Melange to enhance their deductive reasoning abilities, the Bene Gesserit Sisters and Guild Navigators are the Great School graduates who rely most heavily on the spice.
The drug makes it possible for Navigators to guide ships through the deep regions of space without the use of computers. This requires consistent, heavy consumption of the spice, as well as the immersion of the Navigator in a tank of spice gas, as shown in the clip from David Lynch’s Dune below.
Thanks to its ability to unlock the potential of the human mind, the Spice Melange also aids and enables the Bene Gesserit’s espionage tactics and psychic predictions. A spice-adjacent substance known as the Water of Life — a liquid released from a small sandworm’s body when it is drowned — is used to transform Bene Gesserit Sisters into Reverend Mothers. The Reverend Mothers are ascended members of the order who can access the Other Memory, a shared pool of genetic consciousness that stretches back tens of thousands of years.
In Arrakis’ deserts, the Fremen are exposed to the spice on a daily basis. Not only do the Fremen consume the spice in food and beverages, such as spice coffee, but they also make paper, textiles, weapons, and other useful items from it.
Why Is It So Valuable?
The spice isn’t cheap — you could buy a house with a handful of spice, or an entire planet with a briefcase full. But if the spice is so abundant on Arrakis, where it’s plentiful enough to use for things as mundane as coffee and paper, why does it cost so much? The answer has a lot to do with how it is mined.
As mentioned earlier, the spice can only be found on Arrakis. The planet’s harsh, arid conditions make living there dangerous enough — and that’s before you factor in the giant, deadly sandworms. Settling on the planet is expensive for non-Fremen, and mining operations require teams of workers, both on and off the mining rigs.
The sandworms are drawn to rhythmic vibrations, and that’s exactly what spice harvesters create when they collect the Spice Melange. To save machinery and crews from attacking sandworms — who can eat a mining vehicle in one bite — mining operations must be able to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice.
Why Does The Spice Turn People’s Eyes Blue?
Regular consumption of the spice changes the user’s eyes until they are “totally blue, [with] no whites in them,” a striking quality sometimes referred to as “blue-within-blue.” All Fremen have this feature, which they refer to as the Eyes of Ibad, and so do the Guild Navigators and many Bene Gesserit. But why?
The simplest explanation is that the Spice Melange has mutagenic effects when it is used consistently for long periods of time, or in high enough concentrations. It tints certain parts of the user’s eyeball, and as a result, tint’s the users vision. Herbert described this change in Paul in Dune, writing about a “spice-blue overcast on his eyes” that “made the sky appear dark, a richly filtered azure.”
Of course, that isn’t the only way the Spice Melange can change someone’s body. While the average spice consumer might see their eyes turn blue, the Guild Navigators’ entire bodies morph as the result of their long-term, concentrated exposure to spice gas.
So there you have it, folks — all the properties of the Spice Melange in Dune, explained. Now go forth and enjoy Villeneuve’s film (and maybe Lynch’s, too!).