Often when the protagonist of a speculative narrative must struggle against an unfeeling world, that world is represented by a faceless conglomerate, a near-governmental corporation which seems to control facets of society wherever the character looks. In Stock and Trade, our latest genre fiction feature series, we’re looking at fictional corporations. Today, we’re featuring Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles (CHOAM).
CHOAM is the monopolistic trade entity in the Dune franchise. It’s half corporation and half governmental branch, as the board, chair positions, and even stock ownership are all determined politically.
About 700 years before the opening of the first Dune novel, the galactic empire was in a dark age. A galactic revolt, sparked by religious fervor, had caused the destruction of all ‘thinking machines’, and creating computers which could think like humans was outlawed by governmental and religious decree.
This change led to many changes in the way people lived and worked, but the most drastic change was to interstellar travel. Without artificial intelligences to help guide the ships through the folds in space which allowed faster than light travel, only about 15% of all such voyages would arrive in-tact.
Luckily, the drug Melange, also called Spice could create a form of prescience in some people, which would allow them to guide the ships safely. The Spacing Guild formed around these "Navigators," and it’s in response to this guild that CHOAM was formed, as the government needed to be protected from a force that had the power to control the vast empire with its monopoly on trade and travel.
A five-year council convened to decide the best course of action, and their final decision was to create an equally powerful monopoly, which would work along-side the Spacing Guild, and compliment it.
This government-backed corporation would control trade, while the Guild would control travel and transport. CHOAM would be run by a board which consisted of the Emperor, and many of the more prominent families of the empire - which was a sort-of galactic feudal system.
CHOAM was originally intended to be run by the members of the most important families of the empire, but after hundreds of years, the families began to be governed more by CHOAM, as its policies and decisions had more impact on people’s lives than anything issued as an imperial decree, and placement within CHOAM began to dictate who the most prominent families were, rather than the other way around.
The Emperor of the galaxy was whichever person headed the family who owned the most stock, but since the Emperor never held more than 40% stock (by design), the organization serves as a way to force all of the families to work together and keep track of alliances. The emperor could assign and remove stock from any family, but he could not take other’s stock for himself.
This system worked for over 500 years before expansion of the system began to weigh heavily on it, and its power and progress began to slow. It was at a particular low point that Paul Atreides, an upstart from Arrakis, the planet on which Melange had to be mined, used his economic advantage to take over Chairmanship of CHOAM, and thusly take the seat of the emperor.
When other houses revolted against this sudden overturn, Atreides took them over, absorbing their shares, and giving himself more than 50% ownership in the corporation. This effectively ended CHOAM as an organization, as it was now simply a tool for the emperor. The loss of the structure resulted in a more despotic rule of the empire, and a great loss of wealth for many in the galaxy, and not just the great houses.
The use of CHOAM in relation to the protagonists of the Dune series changes drastically from book to book. In the beginning it is a distant goal for Paul, who must struggle to learn to be the great leader it is said he must be, and to eventually take control of the government through CHOAM, but later, after CHOAM is all but destroyed by Paul’s use of it, it becomes a sort-of lost idea: a banner that the enemies of House Atreides hang over their armies to justify their cause. Eventually, it disappears completely from the tale.
CHOAM ties tightly into the theme of declining empires which winds its way through the entire series, and its mythology, but which especially present in the first book.
CHOAM, and thusly the empire, was in a state of decline when Atreides took it over. It was failing in much the same way many empires through history fail. It was over extended, and its people were overly reliant on luxury goods and services. The people and their leaders were materially decadent and sexually deviant.
The influx of barbaristic ideals from newly absorbed territories caused the citizens to begin to favor their luxury more than power over their own lives, and thusly an apathy set in which creates an unstable citizenry. Atreides’ fremen were the opposite. They were a noble and driven people, and it was this that allowed them to conquer the empire from within.
Come back tomorrow, when we’ll be taking a look at MomCorp. If you have an idea for a corporation we could feature in this series, let us know in the comments.