Why Genderswapping DUNE’s Liet-Kynes Is Actually Perfect

This post is adapted and expanded from a Twitter thread, and may look familiar to some of you.

I needed to blow off a little steam last night, and Facebook is great for that because – I may have mentioned this before – the internet and Facebook in particular are full of science fiction “fans” frothing at the mouth to spew their bad opinions at you. I found what I needed immediately:

Those – and a couple dozen other, similar comments – are in response to someone posting one of the Vanity Pair photos from the upcoming Dune adaptation, in particular this one:

“There is precedent for this: Liet serves two masters.” – Dune by Frank Herbert

“No man can serve two masters.” Matthew 6.24

photo by Chiabella James for Vanity Fair

I’ve read DUNE sixteen times since 1999, and I’m planning to re-read it again in a couple weeks. I consider the original to be one of the greatest literary achievements in human history. Were I a professor teaching a literature course, my syllabus would be Dune and nothing else. So if you want to come at me about Dune, you’d better be teaching a graduate level course on the Fall of the Padishah Emperors.

Let me tell you about the feminist message you absolutely missed in Dune, and why Sharon Duncan-Brewster is perfect to play Liet-Kynes.

The three screen-grabbed comments above are fairly bottom of the barrel (safe for work??? hur hur hur), but others laid out a detailed and plausible rationalization for their kneejerk reactionary misogyny: the imperium is a regressive, feudal society with rigid patriarchy built right in.

[edit: the more I look at that SFW??? comment, the more I wonder if the intended meaning was “so fucking what,” in which case I misjudged that guy]

“Don’t blame me, a (hypotehtical) WOMAN said it!”

First of all, the position of Imperial Planetologist on Arrakis is a fucking joke. The fact that the imperium at large gives exactly zero shits about planetology is one of the harder points to miss, I would have thought. It’s a pretty major plot point, without which the whole thing falls apart.

Disrespect toward Kynes’ field of study as well as his official position are explicit in the text. And the fact that Baron Harkonnen desperately avoids responsibility for his death has nothing to do with Kynes’ importance. Rather, for the same reasons pertaining to Paul and Jessica: because he’s just slaughtered an entire noble house and stolen a fucking planet. There will be scrutiny.

On top of this, it was Kynes’ position as Judge of the Change which made his disappearance/death a likely subject of inquiry – not his position as Imperial Planetologist.

As Judge of the Change, Kynes is charged with supervising the changeover in planetary stewardship. For the most important planet in the universe. Now that is an important imperial commission which certainly would have been assigned to a man (or at least a genetic eunuch such as Hasimir Fenring…)

Or perhaps it went to the only Imperial official on the planet not already aligned with one of the two noble houses. His position as planetologist is a joke, but it is a legitimate position. No one else on Arrakis holds an official position in the Imperium without also being a Harkonnen stooge or Atreides spy.

Importantly, Dr. Kynes was not appointed to be Imperial Planetologist in the truly proper way. His father, Pardot Kynes, was. But Liet-Kynes inherited the position. He inherited a position which was previously held by appointment. Weird, right, expecially in the universe that gave us “The Forms must be obeyed.”

Enter the Spacing Guild, those fucking mutants. The Guild are the only group in the universe who might actually know what’s going on in re Arrakis and the spice melange. But do they do anything to stave off the impending cataclysm, besides some vague and ominous mutterings about how the spice must flow? Not in the text. They don’t even show up til the climax, unlike in the two previous adaptations.

The Guild, in case you missed this, are selfish fucking assholes.

They don’t share their knowledge – knowledge which could have prevented Shaddam IV’s fall. More to the point, they have been milking their monopoly on interstellar travel for all it’s fucking worth. It is expensive getting to Arrakis.

And House Corrino is tight-fisted. You think the Emperor paid passage for those Harkonnen-disguised Sardaukar? Doubt it. So why would he have paid a Guild Heighliner to ferry a single individual – one considered irrelevant and useless – from Kaitain to Arrakis when the now-deceased incumbent has a child who’s already there?

Imagine the following exchange:

Count Fenring: “Pardot Kynes is dead, your majesty.”
Shadam IV: “Who the fuck is Pardot Kynes?”
“Imperial Planetologist on Arrakis.”
“The imperial what?”
“Another word for it is ecologist.”
Shaddam, still not getting it: “And?”
“You must appoint a successor.”
“What does this imperial Planetologist do, exactly?”

“Fuck all, your majesty.”
“You mean this person has no impact on the continued flow of the spice melange?”
“None at all.”*
“Then I don’t care. Find someone. Preferably someone already on Arrakis. Handle it for me, I’m busy with the Landsraad and CHOAM and the Guild is making those vague, ominous threats again.”

*they had no idea where spice came from, remember?

So Fenring thinks to himself, Hey! Kynes had a son (daughter) who is already on the planet! And it’s such a bullshit posting anyway!

Fenring has no idea Arrakis even has an ecology to study. It’s just a few rocks, endless sand, and terrifyingly humongous monsters that eat anything that moves. Right?

This is why I said earlier the point was hard to miss: large swaths of the text are dedicated to teaching you about the biome of Arrakis, from sandtrout to Shai-Hulud, from melange to the Water of Life.

The Fremen we spend two thirds of the book with understand this already. As does their not-exactly-leader, the at-first mysterious Liet who inspires them in their efforts to make Arrakis wet and green.

The Fremen are not like the imperium. They are not a rigid patriarchal society teetering on an untenable political tripod and an even more untenable civilization-wide addiction to something they don’t begin to understand. They are not a Consumer culture, willing to wage war to maintain the supply of spice. They are a culture that understands their world and their place in it and work to make a better world – one which will, consequently, have less spice and fewer sandworms confined to a far smaller area of desert.

Fremen culture seems harsh and rigid to an outsider, just as firmly bound by ritualized traditions. Which is where Chani comes in…

Chani provides incredibly stark contrast to the Princess Irulan. Unlike the princess, Chani is not chained by the rigid traditions of the Padishah court. Chani is Liet’s daughter, Irulan is Shaddam’s. Chani and Irulan are catastrophically important to understanding parts of Dune, as evidenced by the final lines of the novel.

The Fremen will accept an independent woman. The Fremen will accept a woman in authority. They treat their Sayyadina far differently than how the universe at large treats the Bene Gesserit “witches.” The respect given to Chani illustrates this, as does Jessica’s arc in the sietch up to Alia’s birth. The mere fact the Fremen don’t give Alia to the desert immediately is also telling. Note the reaction when Reverand Mother Mohiam first realizes what Alia is.

Dune is chock-full of points like these which highlight the attitude toward women which prevails in these two opposing cultures.

Liet serves two masters. Only one of those masters would care if Kynes had a dick, and the Emperor wouldn’t care enough to send someone else when Kynes was already on Arrakis.

Liet-Kynes can be a woman without damaging the source material or internal logic in the slightest. In fact, updates such as this are stupendously appropriate. Progressive thought (and feminist theory) have evolved a long way since 1965.

Still don’t believe Herbert drew from feminism (as it existed at the time) in crafting this masterpiece? Then consider the final lines of the novel, which I’ve alluded to already:

“See that princess standing there, so haughty and confident. They say she has pretensions of a literary nature. Let us hope she finds solace in such things; she’ll have little else.” A bitter laugh escaped Jessica. “Think on it, Chani: that princess will have the name, yet she’ll live as less than a concubine–never to know a moment of tenderness from the man to whom she’s bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine–history will call us wives.”

Jessica’s speech closes out the novel by comparing the fates of Chani and Irulan, whose fathers were both succeeded by Paul Muad’dib as leader of their respective cultures. This can also be read allegorically, as a comparison of those two cultures.

It is, in effect, Frank Herbert telling you straight out that the patriarchal empire which defines Irulan’s place is not on the side of history.

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