Director Denis Villeneuve’s visually stunning and surprisingly faithful film adaptation Dune has brought renewed interest to the classic science fiction novel penned by Frank Herbert in the early 1960s.
Herbert’s epic has been enormously influential, offering an early rendition of the Hero’s Journey narrative central to Star Wars a decade later, and inspiring the neu-feudalist aesthetics informing popular science fiction franchises like Warhammer 40,000.
But arguably Dune has proven a particularly useful, and in some cases prescient, vehicle by which to explore political, economic, and ecological issues in the real world. In other words, come for the sandworms, psychic witches, and nobles sword fighting with crackling energy shields—stay for the discussion on energy resource cartels, guerilla warfare, and messianic dictatorships.
Conflict over Resources
Dune concerns itself with the struggle to control an all-important natural resource: a mind-enhancing “spice” navigators need for reliable interstellar travel which, inconveniently, is only excreted by gigantic sandworms on the desertified planet Arrakis. That intentionally serves as an analogy for the fossil-fuel-generated oil resources needed to make cars, ships, and airplanes—and by extension modern civilization to date—work.
And to be sure, both in Dune and the real world those huge stakes motivate powerful states to ruthlessly topple inconvenient local governments and war with rival powers. For example, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was spurred by a U.S. oil embargo which made long-term maintenance of Tokyo’s maritime empire impossible. And oil-rich Iran remained neutral in World War II, but in 1941 the U.K. and Soviet Union jointly invaded it anyway. And most of the U.S.’s military footprint in the Middle East was built during the Cold War to stem Soviet influence over the region and its oil supply.
In fact, many countries blessed with lucrative natural resources are considered to be afflicted by a resource curse, becoming overly reliant on those exportable commodities at the expense of developing diversified economic activities. That dependency makes the country dangerously vulnerable to externally-generated price shocks affecting that commodity. Valuable resources also make it easier for factions within a country to purchase weapons and attract foreign military assistance, increasing the likelihood and duration of both interstate and civil wars.
Another prominent aspect of Dune is its portrayal of Arrakis’s indigenous Fremen who, in a manner reminiscent of nomadic Bedouin tribes of the Middle East and North Africa, have uniquely evolved their culture to cope with their deadly environment. The Fremen can resist foreign powers seeking to plunder their home planet due to their superior understanding of their native environment and their adoption of the guerilla warfare tactics, strikingly swiftly with surprise before melting back into the landscape.
The concept of indigenous insurgents vexing better-armed foreign occupiers is of course familiar to Americans following bruising wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam. But arguably this narrative dates even further back to European imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly in the wake of setbacks dealt to the British Empire by indigenous armies in Sudan and Afghanistan, embodying a colonialist concept of the “noble savage”: that less technologically advanced indigenous societies are morally purer and more physically robust, and honorable than ostensibly soft, decadent foreign imperialists reliant on technology.
But this is a romanticized narrative, what military historian Bret Devereaux calls the “Fremen Mirage.” Insurgencies and uprisings are defeated at least as often as they succeed; and even those that do prevail suffer massive casualties. But stripped of exotified mythology, Herbert still conveyed a real phenomenon: outgunned insurgencies sometimes defeat great powers in part due to their superior grasp of local physical and social terrain.
Paul Atreides, White Savior?
Despite their cunning, the Fremen only prevail thanks to the leadership of an outsider, Paul Atreidis. This has drawn criticism as an example of the “White Saviour” trope, in which a European-descended foreigner must intervene to save virtuous indigenous people lacking the sophistication to emancipate themselves.
Arguably, this critique is deserved, but overlooks that Paul’s White Savior-dom is meant to be disastrous. Admittedly, that is only prophetically hinted at in Dune, but in sequel novels, Paul’s messianic manipulation has genocidal consequences.
Paul’s character was inspired by the real-life figure T.E. Lawrence, ie. Lawrence of Arabia, a British officer assigned during World War I to liaise with Arab nationalists under Prince Feisal fighting against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence ‘went native’ to a degree, and became a leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. But Lawrence also made promises that he couldn’t keep, and London and Paris carved up the Ottoman territories Feisal’s Arahelped capture for themselves.
Herbert himself intended the Dune novels to demonstrate the dangers of entrusting political leadership to a messianic figure, even one as sympathetic and well-intentioned as Paul. Admittedly, the Fremen come across as too easily manipulated by Paul. The real-world Prince Feisal twice tried to bargain with the Ottomans when it grew evident the British wouldn’t follow through with their promises.
Jihad and Religious Passion
Dune’s religious themes are reflected references to Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) and words borrowed or modified from Arabic, Persian and Turkish. The sandworms are called Shai Hulud translating to “Eternal Thing” in Arabic; Fremen women wear abas, like the real-world abaya; Paul’s elite ‘death commandos’ are named fedaykin, evoking the Arabic fedayeen (“self-sacrificing” warriors). The film uses the term ‘holy war’ instead of Jihad, a shift in nomenclature criticized by some in the Muslim world.
Herbert explained he wanted to evoke the continuity of Earth’s religions and cultures in his far-future setting. Broadly, he saw religion as a tool used by the ruling elite to manipulate the populace. But unlike Asimov’s similar treatment of religion in Foundation, in Dune weaponized religion proves uncontrollable and highly destructive.
Intriguingly, Herbert’s work predates contemporary-style religiously motivated terrorism, but he could certainly refer to earlier movements carried aloft by religious passions to military victory, such as the capture of Jerusalem by Christian crusaders in 1099 and the slaughter of its Jewish and Muslim civilian population, or the defeat of British forces in Sudan by the holy warriors of the messianic ‘Mad Mahdi’ Muhammad Ahmad.
However, at the time of Dune’s writing, Islam was seemingly at a nadir n its political influence due to the prevalence of modernist secular nationalist governments in the Middle East and Asia and Western culture-oriented ruling elites.
But Herbert’s theme proved prescient: rather than being swept away by modernist forces, in the 1970s political Islam grew into a powerful force across the globe, as manifest in the Iranian revolution, the siege of the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia, and the leveraging of Islamist movements by Pakistan and the CIA to destabilize the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Thus, movements fueled by religious passion continue to indelibly shape our hi-tech world today.
Dune was also one of the first science fiction works to seriously incorporate ecological ideas such as the notions that established ecosystems could change due to human activity to the benefit or detriment of inhabitants.
Inspired by a non-fiction article he began writing on sand dune stabilization measures undertaken in Oregon, Herbert focused on how Fremen culture is shaped around coping with water scarcity, from stillsuits that reclaim body moisture to use water as currency. Ecologist character Liet Kynes is acutely conscious that Arrakis’s delicate ecological balance could be destroyed by overexploitation, while the Fremen are secretly banking on terraforming projects designed to make Arrakis green!
Unfortunately, some of Arrakis’s ecological challenges are becoming a reality on Earth. Desertification is relentlessly expanding the Saharan desert, the resulting scarcity fostering intensified armed conflict in the region. Global warming has led to hurricanes and forest fires of unprecedented size and destructiveness in arid regions. U.S. military studies have concluded that global warming-caused flooding could “compromise or eliminate freshwater supplies in many parts of the world,” and cause U.S. energy infrastructure to collapse.
While not all aspects of the classic have aged well, Dune still abounds with a wealth of ambitious ideas that helped change the way we think about complex systems affecting ecology, society, and politics.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.