In Frank Herbert’s Dune, there exists a powerful drug cherished by the known universe for its psychotropic properties, its time-alerting abilities, and its extreme rarity. It’s called spice melange, or simply “spice,” and is the driving force of the first novel in the series. But what is spice, exactly? And why is it so coveted?
Ahead of the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune this December and in conjunction with Nerdist Book Club‘s Dune read-along this spring, we’ve put together an explainer of his all-important substance. Here is everything you need to know about Spice Melange.
Spice is the most important commodity in the Dune universe
In the opening sequence of David Lynch’s 1984 Dune adaptation, Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) explains the importance of the spice, and why it is the most precious substance in the universe.
“The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel.”
The first novel, Dune, begins when Duke Leto Atreides of the ocean planet Caladan is assigned by Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV—the ruler of the known universe—to relocate his family to the desert planet Arrakis and harvest spice melange. Mining and managing spice production is considered a prestigious task, but also a difficult one, which puts House Atreides in a tricky position. In addition to overseeing the harvest, they must also contend with the Fremen, or the Arrakis natives, who consider spice melange a holy substance.
Because spice is only found on Arrakis, it is considered one of the rarest commodities in the universe. It is a symbol of wealth and status outside of Arrakis, and has highly addictive properties. Spice plays a central role in all of the Dune novels and sets up much of the first novel’s conflict. We won’t get into plot spoilers, but here are some facts about the substance to know going in.
What does spice look like?
In the novels, the appearance of spice is only briefly alluded to. In its gas form, it is said to be an orange-ish color, however when it appears in bins in God Emperor of Dune it is said to glow a “ radiant blue.” When someone is addicted to spice, their eyes also glow blue, which the Fremen call the “Eyes of Ibad.” Spice makes their eyes blue-within-blue. Due to their constant exposure to spice—in the air they breathe and the food they eat—all Fremen have glowing blue eyes.
If there’s one real-world spice most associated with spice melange, it’s cinnamon. The substance is described to have a cinnamon-like smell and taste.
How is spice made?
Spice melange is formed deep beneath the sands of Arrakis, where the fungal excretions of sandworm larva mixes with water to form a mass that eventually explodes to the surface due to the planet’s extreme heat. Collecting the melange is extremely difficult; the explosions are deadly and the material hazardous. It’s collected by a vehicle called a Harvester, which must also avoid the giant sandworms. Aircrafts known as Carryalls lift Harvesters to safety.
The Fremen, however, co-exist with the sandworms in the desert and have learned how to harvest spice manually for their own consumption and use.
What does spice do?
What doesn’t spice do is almost the better question. Here’s a short list of some of the best-known properties of spice melange in Dune.
For those who consume spice, it may allow:
- Extended life
- Psychotropic abilities
- Prescience, or an ability to see into the past, present, and future
That prescience is also used to navigate space, allowing for safe interstellar travel. This is done through a process where melange is turned into gas that is then consumed by beings known as the Spacing Guild Navigators, who can see paths through time and space that avoid collision with other planets and heighliners.
Spice is used as an entheogen by the Bene Gesserit, a powerful order of women who oversee and influence humanity throughout the universe; the spice gifts them with clairvoyance and other heightened abilities that mimics witchcraft. The Fremen also have these abilities due to their massive exposure. They use spice to make materials like cloth, plastics, and paper. It can also be used to make explosives.
As the novel’s antagonist Baron Harkonnen explains:
“He who controls Spice, controls the universe!”
As you can see, spice melange is a hugely impactful and important substance that is integral to everything in the Dune universe. To see how it factors into the plot, you’ll have to check out Denis Villeneuve’s Dune—in theaters this December 18—or read the first novel with the Nerdist Book Club this spring!
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Editor’s Note: Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks.