On Desert Planets, Meditations on “Dune”

14 January, 2021

One of the original Dune editions in the UK.

One of the orig­i­nal Dune edi­tions in the UK.

A sleep­er of a nov­el, in the end Frank Her­bert’s Dune would sell mil­lions of copies and become a cult clas­sic that inspired the cre­ation of Star Wars. It is among the great­est in the sci-fi genre.

Dune is set in a far future, where war­ring noble hous­es are kept in line by a ruth­less galac­tic emper­or. As part of a Byzan­tine polit­i­cal intrigue, the noble duke Leto, head of the Home­r­i­cal­ly named House Atrei­des, is forced to move his house­hold from their par­a­disi­a­cal home plan­et of Cal­adan to the desert plan­et Arrakis, col­lo­qui­al­ly known as Dune. The cli­mate on Dune is fright­en­ing­ly hos­tile. Water is so scarce that when­ev­er its inhab­i­tants go out­side, they must wear still­suits, close-fit­ting gar­ments that cap­ture body mois­ture and recy­cle it for drink­ing.” —Hari Kun­zru in The Guardian

كثبان رملية

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the lit­tle-death that brings total oblit­er­a­tion. I will face my fear. I will per­mit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be noth­ing. Only I will remain.’

Litany Against Fear of the Bene Gesser­it Order—from Dune by Frank Herbert


Franciso Letelier


The places I found free­dom when I was a kid were most often between the pages of books. My escape into imag­i­nary worlds began before our search for a bet­ter future was bru­tal­ly extin­guished by dic­ta­tor Gen­er­al Augus­to Pinochet in Chile. In 2020 in Los Ange­les, under lock­down and forced home detain­ment, life turned into one of the far-off places I often read about.

I became a fan of fan­ta­sy dur­ing 1st grade read­ings for the first Holy Com­mu­nion. Patron Saints and a brand-new bike made me a believ­er, but soon, I exchanged guardian angels for the pur­suit of Greek and Roman mythol­o­gy, sto­ries of hero­ic Incan war­riors, Mapuche chiefs, Mid­dle Earth hob­bits and San­dokan, the Tiger of Malaysia (the infa­mous Mus­lim pirate cre­at­ed by Ital­ian writer Emilio Sal­gari, once known through­out the world, includ­ing the US, but now seem­ing­ly for­got­ten). In Wash­ing­ton DC, where I lived at the time, if not for Ray Brad­bury and com­ic books I might have nev­er fin­ished Catholic school. My final seri­ous bout with the Bible occurred as I pre­pared for my Con­fir­ma­tion in the 8th grade and then we moved back to Chile.

I don’t remem­ber how I came across Dune by Frank Her­bert, prob­a­bly from a stall close to the slow pol­lut­ed trick­le of the Rio Mapoc­ho in San­ti­a­go. The stalls and ven­dors would soon dis­ap­pear and I would wit­ness corpses in the river’s waters flow­ing from the eter­nal­ly snow capped Andes.

It would be many years before I met some­one who had actu­al­ly read the novel.

Its vivid worlds, full of Islam­ic and Ara­bic themes, inhab­it­ed by Fre­men tribes rid­ing sand worms and ingest­ing spice mélange for visions, were exact­ly what I need­ed as the Chilean mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship took over my school and sent my father to a con­cen­tra­tion camp. On a water-starved plan­et, the tribes devel­op the tech­nolo­gies and rela­tion­ships nec­es­sary for them to flour­ish and to over­throw an empire.

The original poster for David Lynch's 1984 Dune .

The orig­i­nal poster for David Lynch’s 1984 Dune.

The Mua’Dib, mes­si­ah of Dune, becomes a God-emper­or, and through prophet­ic dreams, takes bil­lions of lives in exchange for long last­ing peace. They call him Mah­di; a com­pli­cat­ed term. Shias know Mah­di as a hid­den leader who will reveal him­self and redeem the world. A war­rior prophet who called him­self Mah­di killed the revered Eng­lish Gen­er­al Charles George Gor­don and defeat­ed his forces in Khar­toum in the 1880s, and it is easy to see how some reg­is­tered Dune as a call for rebel­lion against empire. The nov­el con­tains many inept bor­row­ings, includ­ing a light-skinned blue-eyed redeemer of the noble House Atrei­des.  By the end of the Dune tril­o­gy, the pro­tag­o­nist has trag­i­cal­ly achieved his ends.  Sub­se­quent nov­els, in an endeav­or con­tin­ued by his son after Her­bert’s death, describe an unfold­ing result that would give an admon­ish­ing sig­nal to any utopi­an cause, right or left.

Dune devel­oped a cult fol­low­ing and became a huge best­seller after a dif­fi­cult begin­ning. Vision­ary Chilean film­mak­er Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky attempt­ed to bring it to the screen with a who’s who of empire celebri­ties. With visu­als by Moe­bius and oth­er lumi­nar­ies and roles assigned to Sal­vador Dali and Orson Welles, Pink Floyd was secured to cre­ate the sound­track. Jodor­owsky’s project floun­dered but David Lynch brought it to the screen in an often-maligned 1984 ver­sion. Sting is in it and so is Patrick Stew­art and Lynch’s Dune will have to suf­fice until the long-await­ed reboot arrives in 2021: an inter­na­tion­al co-pro­duc­tion of Cana­da, Hun­gary, the Unit­ed King­dom, and the Unit­ed States, direct­ed by Denis Vil­leneuve.

I shrugged it off when I recent­ly learned that fas­cist rightwing groups have tak­en up Dune as a prophet­ic text. Her­bert was a com­pli­cat­ed fig­ure who became more con­ser­v­a­tive and hard­er to com­pre­hend as he got old­er. It did­n’t stop Dune from devel­op­ing a huge cult fol­low­ing that pri­mar­i­ly remem­bers Her­bert for his eco-con­scious under­stand­ings and reli­gious mélange.  Her­bert was always quick to con­demn author­i­tar­i­an­ism and described the series as a cri­tique of those who imag­ine a utopi­an future achieved through exter­mi­na­tions and racial purity.

Her­bert’s prod­ding of ‘lib­er­als’ and ‘lib­er­al­ism’ cou­pled to his appar­ent glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of far future feu­dal­ism (a com­mon fea­ture of many futur­is­tic space operas and epic fan­tasies, from Star Wars to GOT) and weav­ing of prob­lem­at­ic top­ics such as eugen­ics and genet­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, cre­ate a fer­tile place for the gath­er­ing of talk­ing points by the alt-right.

At this point some may need to be remind­ed that polit­i­cal agen­das often super­sede triv­ial details about a writer’s intent or mean­ing. The alt-right seeks to sub­vert cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion towards cre­at­ing a mass rightwing coun­ter­cul­ture; as they embrace details from pop­u­lar cul­ture those on the oth­er end of the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum are quick­er than ever to renounce or can­cel the actu­al sources.

It’s not a new dynam­ic, for pow­er­ful forces of co-opta­tion lead some rar­i­fied fas­cists to love Orwell’s 1984 even though the author went to war against fas­cism. These same forces push for renewed inter­pre­ta­tions of Dune. As Jor­dan S. Car­roll recent­ly not­ed in the Los Ange­les Review of Books, “The alt-right fights so hard over these gen­res because they want to lay claim to imag­i­na­tion’s poten­tial to tran­scend the here and now.” Car­roll also point­ed out that “Denis Vil­leneu­ve’s film adap­ta­tion [of Dune] was high­ly antic­i­pat­ed on white nation­al­ist sites such as Counter-Cur­rents and the Dai­ly Stormer.”

At times, despite appalling ide­o­log­i­cal view­points and objec­tion­able per­son­al behav­ior, artists cre­ate arte­facts that tran­scend the lim­its of their mak­ers. With its addic­tions to pow­er, mon­ey and cults of per­son­al­i­ty, pop­u­lar cul­ture fur­ther mud­dies the waters.

Some of us devel­op a mul­ti­tiered approach.  In the Unit­ed States, we put Michael Jack­son in one place, Woody Allen in anoth­er and Bill Cos­by in his own dis­ap­point­ing exile, yet lis­ten with more ease to 50 cent or DJ Khaled despite the artist’s polit­i­cal or moral views as we claim a blow for representation.

In Chile I was forced to take part in book burn­ings, becom­ing acquaint­ed with fas­cism and the cen­sor­ship of music, art and lit­er­a­ture. I know how vital it is to cre­ate cul­tur­al modes of resis­tance. Sci­ence fic­tion and its broad gen­res are my places of ide­o­log­i­cal spec­u­la­tion won­der and hope, and I am not giv­ing up those spaces of free­dom and imag­i­na­tion for any­one. Through sub­terfuge and code we build resis­tance to empire, and you can have my Dune when you pry it from my cold dead spirit.

The Afar peo­ple of the Danal­ki Depres­sion in Ethiopia who inspired Frank Her­bert in his cre­ation of the desert plan­et Dune, have lived for gen­er­a­tions with lit­tle water in the hottest place on earth. I pay close atten­tion to those who imag­ine pos­si­ble futures and re-enchant our pasts, now in par­tic­u­lar, at the con­junc­tion where our past as a species will deter­mine our future. Those who wit­ness, sur­vive and endure water scarci­ty and the degra­da­tion of envi­ron­ments are the key to imag­in­ing solu­tions and new viewpoints.

It is help­ful to remem­ber that those who live in per­pet­u­al drought or who escape into exile, famil­iar with the inside of pris­ons, wars and bomb­ings, are more than the tragedies they have tra­versed. The large num­ber of women writ­ers involved in sci-fi and spec­u­la­tive fic­tion in the MENA region and the fact that many address issues of water and envi­ron­ment, sig­nals that phys­i­cal and cul­tur­al real­i­ties and their asso­ci­at­ed mem­o­ries hold much more than tales of woe.

Along the way, peo­ple and cul­tures tap into knowl­edge and insight and these expe­ri­ences accrue un-estimable val­ue. Sur­vivors know the signs, maps are imprint­ed on their skin, they teach us about life and its pos­si­bil­i­ties. Our minds will always break free from nation, gen­der and place, as they are designed to do, in order to find a next place of arrival.

Even at the most dif­fi­cult moments, we trav­el to the stars on clum­sy arks and dis­put­ed tracks.  As out­siders, we often learn in a fer­al way to val­ue springs and places of safe­ty.  Those who now await the inevitable dust storms and Anthro­pocene crum­blings of iden­ti­ty, envi­ron­ment and nation­al bound­aries might look again to those they per­ceive sole­ly as vic­tims and imag­ine them as those most pre­pared to lead us to the next oasis.

As all our tribes have done for mil­len­nia, cours­es will be set by not­ing the ancient light of stars trav­el­ling towards our eyes and instru­ments through time and space. As always, we will look into the past while in the present and chart a course towards the future.



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