Sandworm (Dune)

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(Redirected from Shai-hulud)

Sandworms are fictional creatures from Frank Herbert's science-fiction novel Dune. According to the Encyclopedia of Dune their scientific name is Geonemotodium arraknis (also Shaihuludata gigantica), though this point is debateable, as will be covered below. Among the Fremen of Arrakis (Dune) they are known as Shai-Hulud. The Fremen believe that the actions of the sandworms are directly the actions of God, and so the worms have been given numerous titles such as the Great Maker, the Worm who is God, Old Man of the Desert, Old Father Eternity, and Grandfather of the Desert. Shai' hulud is Arabic for "a thing of eternity".

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Sandworms as envisioned by David Lynch for his Dune film.

Sandworms are presumed to be animals, most likely related to Terran annelids, though most likely only through convergent evolution. The Encyclopedia of Dune's identification of their genus as "Geonemotodium" is most likely invalid, as the segmentation is like that of the terrestrial annelids, rather than simple round-worm nematodes. Like terrestrial annelids each segment has its own autonomous nervous control and, thus, a worm can only be killed by electrocution of every segment, or else by exposure to water, which is poisonous to the adult sandworm.

Sandworms grow up to hundreds of meters in length. The largest worms officially observed reach 400 metres in length and 40 in diameter but larger ones can be inferred to exist. As the worms seem to retain an aspect ratio of 10:1 of body length to diameter, thus, a worm encountered in the deep desert by Muad'Dib that had an oral diameter of 80 meters could have been as long as 800. These gigantic worms burrow deep in the ground and their constant motion around Arrakis is presumed to be the cause for the sand covering the globe.


The Sandworm Life Cycle

Sandworms begin their life as simple creatures known as sandtrout, or "Little Makers" to the Fremen. These creatures are similar to the trocophore larvae of terrestrial annelids and molluscs: simple haploid ciliated creatures. Sandtrout are drawn to water in the open desert and together multiple sandtrout will gather to encapsulate water, creating deserts safe for the adult worms. Once they have done so, they begin to make chemical alterations to the water to produce pre-spice mass, a potential water-safe nourishment for adult worms. Eventually, this process creates a build up of gasses that cause an eruption of the pre-spice mass, blasting out Carbon Dioxide gas, water and the unique product of sandworms: the spice melange out into the open desert. The water evaporates leaving behind dried spice in the characteristic spice blow sought after by human harvesters.

Most of the sandtrout die off in this eruption, but the few survivers band together and bind themselves into cysts. Inside of these cysts they undergo a metamorphosis, emerging a few years later as a miniature sandworm.

The sandworm begins the adult stage of its life at only about a meter long, rarely surfacing before reaching two meters, but their final size, as indicated above, can be several hundered meters. They seem to have a near indefinite life-span, living for thousands of years. The adult sandworm seems to be immune to all sources of heat (quite good for a species living under the yellow giant star Canopus), but are vulnerable to electrocution and water.

A joke among imperial ecologists goes:

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The crystalline teeth of the sandworm
Question: What do the sandworms of Dune eat?
Answer: Humans.

While sandworms are capable of eating humans, they do contain a level of water beyond the preferred tolerances of the worms. The main diet of the worm seems to consist primarily of inorganic compounds of the Arrakeen soil, pre-spice mass and "sandplankton"—tiny organisms that may even be immature sandtrout. The sandworm is equipped with a fearsome array of crystalline teeth (something not unheard of even in the worms of Earth), used primarily for rasping rocks and sand.

Sandworms and the Spice Melange

As metabolic byproducts, sandworms produce three notable substances: oxygen, which is expelled from their trailing body, replacing the need for photosynthesizing plants on Arrakis; sand from the constant consumption and excretion of rock; and the extremely valuable spice melange, which is released along with water as a waste product of sandtrout. It is from the production of melange that sandworms receive their title of "Maker," but it is unclear whether or not sandworms actually generate the melange or if the process is limited to sandtrout. There are implications, especially in the latter books, that sandworms may leave behind some melange, and all attempts to create melange-systems on other planets have been highly sandworm-oriented. Sandworms poisoned by water will also generate a melange-concentrate known as Spice Essence or the Water of Life.

Unfortunately, the exact process by which spice is generated is unknown. However, around the 15000's AG (Anno Guild) the Bene Tleilax did develop an effective means of melange-synthesis using their Axlotl tanks.

Allegedly, Herbert left it ambiguous as to whether or not the spice was the sperm of sandworms, used to incite the reproduction of sandtrout. There is no evidence within the books that the adult worms sexually reproduce, though it is suggested the species is propagated by asexual sandtrout reproduction. The Encyclopedia of Dune hypothesizes an interesting and very elaborate ritual of adult sandworm copulation, but due to the non-canonical nature of the book it is questionable.

Melange and sandworm exploitation by humans

Following its discovery, the cinnamon-scented melange became a commodity of central importance to the universe due to its rarity and numerous remarkable properties. The most common of these properties is that it serves as a geriatric narcotic — a drug capable of extening human life well beyond its natural limits. This comes at the cost of great addiction and the denial of spice to an addict can only result in death. Spice addicts are easy to spot by their blue-in-blue eyes and are common among the aristocracy, Bene Gesserit, Spacing Guild and Fremen.

A second, and more remarkable property of melange is that it allows for users to experience prescience: to be able to see the future before it happens. This capability was taken advantage of by the Spacing Guild who saturated their navigators in melange gas, allowing them to see safe flight paths for heighliners and safely fold space using the Holzmann effect. Not everyone has the ability to obtain this prescience, as it requires a very high tolerance for melange. Paul-Muad'Dib and his son Leto Atreides II took their special role in history partly because they had especially high melange tolerances which allowed them to see the future. This ability appears to have become one carried down dominantly in all their descendant Atreides.

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A dead dwarf worm being drained of spice essence

A third property of melange pertains to the spice essence. Spice essence is a bile-like extract from a worm poisoned by water. This blue fluid is then ingested by Bene Gesserit acolytes as the last stage of their training. The fluid is highly poisonous and the object of the trial is to use the power of their minds over their metabolic systems to transmute the fluid into something non-toxic. This ritual is known as the Spice Agony and it awakens the genetic "Other Memory" of Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers. Independently of the Bene Gesserit, the Fremen practiced it, drowning captive 9 meter "dwarf" worms of the Minor Erg to produce the fluid. They then have their "wild" Reverend Mothers transmute a large quantity of the fluid to produce a liquor used to incite celebratory orgies in the Fremen sietch dwellings. Paul-Muad'Dib and Leto II are notable as the only men in history to undergo the spice agony, making them the male equals of Reverend Mothers, something the Bene Gesserit call the Kwisatz Haderach. Their experiences will be discussed below.

Due to these properties spice is, perhaps, the most valuable commodity in the entire universe, made especially so by the fact that it is produced on only one planet. Humans desperately seek it out across the planet to sell on the market. It is a very dangerous activity, as sandworms are territorial creatures and eagerly defend spice-blows. Harvesting is carried out by a gigantic machine called a Harvester. The Harvester is carried to and from a spice blow by an enlarged version of the ornithopter known as a Carry-All. The Harvester on the ground will have three scouting ornithopters patrolling around it watching for wormsign — the motions of sand indicating that a worm is headed towards the Harvester. The activity is made especially dangerous because sandworms are attracted to rhythmic vibrations on the ground — such as those generated by the Harvester as it extracts melange from the sand. The Fremen, who base their entire industry around the sale of spice and the manufacture of materials out of spice, have their own means for harvesting, as do smugglers. Both engage in these activities outside of the safe polar regions of Arrakis.

The Fremen managed to develop a unique relationship with the sandworms. For one, they learned to avoid most worm attacks by mimicking the motions of desert animals and moving with the natural sounds of the desert, rather than the rhythmic vibration patterns that attract worms. However, they also developed a device known as thumper with the express purpose of generating a rhythmic vibration to attract a sandworm. This can be used either as a diversion, or to summon a worm for the Fremen to ride.

The Fremen secretly mastered a way to ride sandworms for transportation across the open desert. First a worm is summoned with a thumper, the worm-rider then runs along side it and catches one of the ring-segments with a special maker-hook. The hook is used to pry up the front of the segment, exposing the soft inner-tissue to abrasive sand. To avoid irritation, the worm will rotate this to the top of its body, carrying the rider with it. The worm will then safely remain above the surface until the hook is released. Other Fremen may then plant additional hooks for steering, or act as "beaters", hitting the worm's tail to make it increase speed. A worm can be ridden for several hundred miles and for about half of a day, at which point it will become exhausted and sit on the open desert until the hooks are released, when they will burrow back down to rest. The worm-riding ritual is used as a coming-of-age ritual among the Fremen. Worm-riding was then used by Paul-Muad'Dib for troop transport into the city of Arrakeen after using atomic weapons to blow a hole in the shield wall during the Battle of Arrakeen.

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Sheeana stands before the mighty sandworm.

After the reign of Leto II sandworms became unrideable, for reason elaborated on below. There was one remarkable exception, however, a young girl named Sheeana, an Atreides-descendent possessed a unique ability to control the worms and safely move around them.

The Fremen also harvest the teeth of sandworms to make crysknives. These knives come in both the fixed and unfixed varieties. Unfixed knives require the electromagentic field of a living being to avoid disippating and cannot leave the planet Arrakis, while fixed knives do not have this issue.

Due to the value of melange, attempts have been made to replicate it on countless planets, always meeting with failure. In many experiments an adult worm was transplaneted (often smuggled with funds going to the Fremen), which prevented the complete cycle from existing; while in others sandtrout were transplanted into an existing desert, denying them the necessary water to begin the cycle. A solution to this was realized by Leto II, as it had perhaps been before by ecologists Liet-Kynes and Pardot Kynes. The large salt-flats of Arrakis indicate that it was not alwyas a desert, but once had oceans that were dried up by the sandtrout (this may even stand as evidence that the sandtrout are not even native to Arrakis), thus, placing sandtrout on a water-rich planet will allow them to start the complete spice cycle at the cost of turning the planet into a desert, another Dune.

The Honored Matres destroyed Arrakis and the Tleilaxu (who held the secret to axolotl tank spice production) in the hopes of eliminating the substance to damage the "Old Empire" but were thwarted when the Bene Gesserit escaped with a single sandworm. Using a process discovered by Leto II, they submerged the worm in spice-rich water, causing it to separate into sandtrout, rather than simply die. With that they transformed their own Chapterhouse planet into another Dune and sent countless sandworm out into space.

Paul-Muad'Dib, Leto II and the Sandworms

Paul-Muad'Dib and Leto II had a unique experience with melange in their high tolerances and experiences of the spice agony. In Muad'Dib even a slight exposure to melange triggered prescience in him, but he built up an ever increasing resistance to it. When he went through the spice agony he was given complete prescience, a complete map of the future, as well as a complete awakening as the Kwisatz Haderach.

Leto II, wishing to avoid complete prescience avoided high concentrations of melange, but was eventually kidnapped and forced to consume large amounts of it and the spice essence by Gurney Halleck. He went through the same experience as Muad'Dib, but became so super-satured with spice that he was able to interact with sandworms and sandtrout in a different way. So saturated with spice, he was able to coax sandtrout onto his body, where they, convinced it was water, encapsulated him and buried their cillia in fusing them into one being. The sandtrout skin gave him super-strength, super-speed and made sandworms wary of him, as the presence of sandtrout indicated he was a mass of water. However, with the increased strength he was able to summon worms using only his foot as a thumper and ride them using his hands as maker-hooks.

This was not all good though, fused into the sandtrout skin Leto's physical development ended as a pre-pubescent child, but the concentrations of spice allowed his santrout-body to develop. Over 3,500 years it gradually transformed itself into a worm-body, absorbing Leto into itself. It granted him near immortality, and a special role as a half-human, half-worm monster which he used to elevate himself to the role of the pharonic God-Emperor of the universe. However, now forced to the sensitivities of the worm he could not eat, nor drink, nor have any contact to water without extreme physical pain, as well as occaisionally being reflexively taken over by the worm-body in stressful situations and generating spice essence directly in his body. He retained the notable features of highly dextrous hands, but useless, undeveloped flipper-feet as well as a brain expanded into large neural-ganglia throughout the worm-body. During his reign he terraformed Arrakis, killing off all sandworms except himself.

Ultimately, Leto was assassinated by a ghola of Duncan Idaho and Siona, an Atreides descendant, by being thrown into the Idaho River. Due to his high spice expose his worm body decomposed into sandtrout, that immediately began to undo the terraforming of Dune. Each one, according to Leto, carries in it a tiny pearl of his consciousness, trapped forever in an unending prescient dream. With the increased amount of neural-ganglia and human-like adaptiveness the worms would become too irritable to ride, but would also be able to finally be transplanted to a variety of worlds across the universe. Over the next 1500 years Arrakis, now Rakis, would be returned to a desert and the worms would thrive once more.

However, Darwi Odrade became aware that humanity was being limited by the prescient dream of Leto, that he was still controlling humanity through his worm revenants, and thus she welcomed the destruction of Rakis by the Honored Matres as it freed humanity, and the one remaining worm and its descendents were not enough to restore Leto's control--perhaps the ultimate intent of his Golden Path all along. The remaining worm she took back to Chapterhouse, submerged in a spice bath to generate sandtrout which then turned Chapterhouse, and other planets, into new Dunes, with new worms and infinite potential for gathering spice.

Derivative works

This concept of sandworms has been used for other fictional works, for example the film


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