On Desert Planets, Meditations on “Dune”

14 January, 2021
Reading Time :7 minutes

 
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

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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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