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.