4 Jan 2013

Some thoughts on Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

Last night I finished reading Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction classic Dune. Below are some of my thoughts on the book: 

In many ways, Dune is a book about resistance. Resistance against economic cartels, political coups, arranged relationships, cultural and religious traditions and planetary occupation - Paul-Muad’Dib, Lady Jessica, Stilgar and many others continually meet and push-back against these obstacles. I’m still on the fence about whether the influence of Paul and Kynes as outsiders to Fremen life operate as adopters of the desert culture who help the people with their long-sought goal of making Arrakis livable or whether their influence is a form of cultural and interplanetary imperialism. For the moment, I think I side with the former based on the results of these interactions - at the conclusion ofDune (I haven’t read the sequals) their actions further the explicit goals of the Fremen - to give control of Arrakis (and the invaluable spice it produces) to the people that live there.

Reading Dune today must be different than in 1965. Reading the book in 2012, its themes of insurgency, resistance and control of geographic resources strongly echo recent political and economic events in the Middle East. It’s impossible not to read the spice Melange as petroleum oil - a limited resource essential to the economic stability and power of larger, powerful and influential groups. The Fremen jihad against imperial (literally) outsiders evokes a cultural and historical cache including the mujaheddin resistance to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, as well as the more recent insurgencies U.S. troops continue to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Herbert had no way of knowing the political and economic future, but his book continues to offer an useful comment them through Paul’s conflicted views on the tenuous balance between emancipatory resistance and the uncontrolled mob.

 Why do so many sci-fi stories involved interplanetary interactions where each planet has it’s own government? In many cases (Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.) planets are governed by one planetary group or body and participate in one or many larger interstellar government structures (think the Federation, Old Republic, Empire.) In many ways Herbert exposes this trope with his portrayal of the Fremen resistance, but its hard to imagine any planet with a large population being effectively governed on the planetary level in a way that doesn’t reduce to harsh authoritarianism.