Frank Herbert’s Dune and current-day reality
By Mark Wegierski
Mark Wegierski examines the sociopolitical implications of Frank Herbert’s masterwork.
In 1985, left-wing science fiction author Judith Merril complained that most science fiction was permeated by a typology of “feudal values plus high-technology”. Actually, however, this is one of the most creative and interesting paradigms of science fiction.
One should look at another, rather more serious example than George Lucas’ Star Wars films of a world of the type "feudal values plus high-technology" -- Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) (film by David Lynch in 1984). The film, it should be well noted, was not the best, and indeed introduced many deviations in regard to the original vision of the book -- for example, in the book, Baron Harkonnen is a kind of "Mephistophelean" figure -- rendered as a hideous horror-flick "monster" in the film. Lynch also introduced various ugly elements of horror in no way based on the book. And the black rubber still-suits (desert gear) are laughably wrong. In December 2000, there appeared a new rendering of Frank Herbert’s Dune, as a six-hour television mini-series on the U.S. Sci-Fi Channel. This seemed like a more graceful adaptation of the book, and the various East European actors playing in the movie (alongside mostly British actors) gave it a nice touch. In 2021, a new film of Dune (Part One) by Denis Villeneuve, has appeared.
The noble vision of Frank Herbert, although it takes place in the far future, is strongly based on varied elements of the historical and religious past of humankind -- for example, ideas of political messianism, the rise of Islam, the theme of healthy barbarians against a rotting empire, etc. The very fact that the linkage of "feudal values" with "high technology" is so well thought-out, does not automatically reduce the vision of the work to the category of a "fairy-tale." If one could think about Herbert's "world" in political categories, it would represent an exclusively "right-wing" world. The spectrum of Herbert's world may be divided into a number of discernible ideologies, today generally considered as “right-wing.” Such a division may indeed have a certain clarifying value for current-day political realities. The monopolistic space transport system of CHOAM and the Guild could easily be seen as an oligarchy. The Bene Gesserit Order may be seen as exemplifying theocratic desires. The Star Empire under the rule of the Emperor and its aristocratic families may be seen as so-called "reactionary" conservatism. The Harkonnen Clan, with its unusual level of violence and cruelty, could be characterized as Nazism or fascism, an obvious perversion of right-wing philosophy. The Atreides Clan could represent authentic or truly noble aristocratism, which, although suppressed at the beginning of the book, is slowly reborn with the Fremen, under the leadership of the son of the murdered Duke Leto, Paul. The Fremen are important because they live on the desert planet (called Dune or Arrakis) that is the only source of the “spice” that drives interstellar travel. The Fremen society on the planet Arrakis can be taken to represent the sort of right-wing outlook that seems the most accessible today, i.e., populism.
Some further explanation of the term “populism” – as used above -- is called for. Whether we like it or not, we are living today in a world where, ostensibly at least, the main form of conferring authority and legitimacy of rule rests with gaining the support of the people through democratic methods. There is no place today for reactionaries. At the same time, it is easily noted that government by the decisions of liberal judges, by state-bureaucracies, and by the special-interest groups, as well as through the interlocking systems of mass-media, mass education, and consumptionism, is an "elitist" and objectively anti-democratic form of governance. The main hope for the revival of Western societies would appear to be a populist insurgency through the ballot-boxes, led by the small number of persons who have remained intelligently right-wing. Can one hope that the will of the people will finally find a political expression? Insofar as some kind of populist revolution does not take place, and certain drastic changes are not enacted, we can probably shortly say “bye-bye” to Western civilization, which will probably be consumed by its internal decadence, and is likely to be summarily swallowed up by massive demographic shifts.
In Russia and Eastern Europe, the situation will probably unfold differently. All these countries enjoy the advantage of not being targets for wide-scale immigration. However, the fact they are to some extent still tied to earlier history, creates the possibility for dire events like those in Bosnia and Chechnya. On the other hand, it may be suggested that the ideational basis for the recovery of the West may in fact be found in Eastern Europe or even Russia. (In some sense, the already-articulated ideas of Solzhenitsyn -- such as those at his 1978 Address at Harvard -- have been particularly insightful.)
Outside the European world, probably the greatest hope can be seen in East Asia. There are now being formulated there (for example, through the so-called Singapore School), ideas which clearly see the corruption and corrosive results of the excesses of Western liberalism. There is expressed a desire for a model which would to a certain extent be able to combine conservative social values with advanced technicization. An Oriental-dominated future has been empathetically explored in David Wingrove's extravagant, though flawed, Chung-kuo series, and in Maureen F. McHugh's more understated, China Mountain Zhang.
It could also be argued that another obvious analogy for Dune is the attempts of various Arab and Islamic countries to leverage their control of most of the world’s oil to obtain greater power for themselves and achieve various political objectives. In that sense, Frank Herbert’s Dune could be seen as a prediction of the OPEC crisis of the mid-1970s, when the leading OPEC countries decided to assert greater control over their own resources, and use the oil-power to weaken the links between Israel and the U.S.A. Figures like Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden would probably have sometimes liked to see themselves (inappropriately) as Paul Atreides! One of the major templates for the Dune universe appears to be Islamic civilization, especially the Arab societies of the desert-regions, medieval Persia, and the Ottoman Empire – as well as Moghul India. Paul Atreides’ story is also somewhat similar to the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, which have had an enormous impact on the Western imagination, from Rudolf Valentino’s The Sheik, to the superb early 1960s movie. Some years ago, an American volunteer and convert to Islam was found in the ranks of the Taliban. There were also numerous late-nineteenth century stories where an exiled and disgraced European adventurer led “the natives” in Asia or Africa in a victorious war against their oppressors (who were either even greater savages, or supported by a rival imperial power) and thus regained recognition in his home country.
The phrase from Dune – “the spice must flow” – can easily be imaginatively transposed to – “the oil must flow” – a substance which is just as critical to America and the entire world, as “spice” is in Frank Herbert’s far future. Indeed, oil is the basic fuel of virtually all modern transport, just as “spice” is the basis of almost instantaneous travel between star systems in the Dune universe. And the Arab countries and Iran currently hold the world’s major supplies of oil – although fortunately they are not its exclusive source. The U.S., for example, extracts huge quantities of oil from its own territory, but its consumption of it is so high that it also requires foreign sources.
One of the many effects of the savage September 11 attacks may have been to create a possible constituency for “patriotic ecology”. Energy conservation and the development of practical, alternative energy sources, and alternatively powered modes of transport, may be seen as ways of asserting America’s independence by lessening its reliance on foreign oil reserves.
Of course, it is difficult to say what will emerge out of the current world-historical maelstrom.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.