2015 marked the half-centenary of Dune, Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction novel that is so vast in scope it almost defies categorization, although the combination of psychodrama, political thriller, eco-fable and space-opera-cum-Western begins to hint at its complexity. Much like The Lord of the Rings – perhaps the only title it can be compared to, in terms of the scale and credibility of an entirely invented world – its iconic images are familiar parts of popular culture even to people who have never read it; unlike Tolkien’s novel, Dune has achieved this without the aid of a wildly successful movie adaptation. (David Lynch’s film version, released in 1984, was critically panned as being so confusing as to be virtually unwatchable, and Lynch himself regarded it as a turkey, going as far as to have it credited to ‘Alan Smithee’ – the byname used by Hollywood directors when they wish to disown a film – in the TV releases.) Stillsuited Fremen warriors, the addictive and life-extending drug melange, or ‘spice’, the shaven-headed sisters of the Bene Gesserit and, above all, Paul Atreides with his blue-within-blue eyes riding a colossal sandworm across the endless Arrakeen desert are recognizable to many internet users as memes, often turned into animated .gifs or image macros, or referenced in comics and animations.
Given that Dune is widely considered the greatest sci-fi novel of all time, it’s notable just how many of the standard tropes of the genre – already well established by the 1960s – it studiously avoids. ‘Aliens’, as such – intelligent non-human species – are notably absent, and it’s hinted in the later novels that even the great sandworms are not indigenous to the planet, having perhaps been brought there by humans in the distant past and may even have been a product of genetic engineering. A vital back-story plot element in the ‘Duniverse’, a revolt against ‘thinking machines’ known as the Butlerian Jihad, explains the universal taboo against artificial intelligence and the absence of computers even of the sort available in the 1960s; all forms of calculation and logical reasoning are conducted by specially trained ‘human computers’ called mentats. And while lasers – still a brand-new technology in the ’60s – had quickly found a place in sci-fi as the best realistic candidate for death-ray weapons, another piece of Dune‘s fictional technology renders them effectively useless (the intersection of a high-power laser beam with a ‘shield’, or protective force-field, causes a runaway feedback reaction that destroys both the target and the aggressor in a nuclear explosion).
But before delving into the details, a very good question for the uninitiated, and perhaps also for many who’ve read the book two or three times, is: just what is Dune all about? It has become a bromide to describe novels, films and so on as ‘working on so many levels’, but in this case the cliché actually does ring true. The most obvious layer of the story is that of a bildungsroman following the adventures of Paul Atreides, an adolescent nobleman treacherously cast into a pit of vipers, suffering the murder of his father, his mother’s and his own narrowly averted assassination, and their journey into exile in an unimaginably inhospitable desert, with a dream of revenge that goes far beyond the fate of his own family and involves him in the millennial prophecies of a race of ferocious desert fanatics. On another level, it is a masterful exposition of the psychology of power-politics, pitting powerful ancient dynasties, quasi-religious societies and vast corporations against each other in the context of a drug war upon which rests the fate of the galactic empire. And delving yet further, it explores the origin, nature and function of religion, the untapped potential of the human mind and body and the intimate relationship between humans who live in extreme environments and the landscape, climate and ecosystem that just about affords them the necessities of life, and constantly threatens to snuff it out altogether. It comes as no surprise that one of Herbert’s favourite books was Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the landmark work of anthropology that traces the origins of the universal belief in magic, which subsequently evolved into the basis for all religions, to the same urge to connect cause with effect that ultimately gave rise to the scientific method and with it the modern world as we know it.
Quite apart from any theoretical musings, the novel has a resonance with very concrete events that have effectively come to define the 21st century so far. It would be easy to dismiss as trite a comparison between the giant sandworms ridden by Paul Muad’Dib and his Fremen warriors crashing through a nuke-blasted gap in the great rock wall protecting the Harkonnens’ capital and the passenger jets piloted by jihadi hijackers that crashed into the World Trade Center, were it not for the curious hypothesis that Osama bin Laden may have been a fan of another classic of the sci-fi canon, Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ series. These novels, known to have been a big influence on Herbert, among many other writers, feature a vast and seemingly all-powerful galactic empire; apparently destined to last forever, just as all empires see themselves in their heyday, one man – a sort of mathematician-cum-historian-cum-sociologist – formulates an equation describing long-term cultural trends that predicts the decline and, eventually, the total collapse of human civilization. In order to shortcut what would otherwise be a dark age of many thousands of years until the rise of the next great civilization to an interlude of mere centuries, he brings about the establishment of the titular Foundation: a storehouse of all human knowledge and culture, securely located on an obscure planet thousands of light-years distant from the galactic capital. The first novel in the series, titled simply Foundation, was published in serial form during WWII and again as a single volume in 1951. Its success caused it to be translated into a wide range of languages, including Arabic, for which version the title was chosen simply as the common Arabic word for ‘foundation’ or ‘base’, in the physical sense, also meaning ‘basis’ or ‘framework’: al-Qaeda.
The theme of a sect of purists who keep the flame of ‘true’ culture alive while an enfeebled civilization disintegrates around them, eventually emerging triumphant to establish their own order among the ashes of the old, makes sense as a story that may have appealed to the young bin Laden, perhaps around the same time he began to take on the influences of Salafism and Qutbism. But it is intriguing to imagine the influence that Dune may have had on the young future terrorist: consider the elementary plotline of a privileged young nobleman turned rebel guerilla hero who leads a race of fanatical desert warriors in an unstoppable jihad which eventually overthrows a vast and powerful, but decadent and declining, empire…while we will of course never have a full knowledge of bin Laden’s reading habits, the notion is suggestive, to say the least. It may further be noted that the name given to Paul after he is accepted into Fremen society is ‘Usul’, said by the Fremen to mean ‘the base of the pillar’; in reality, another Arabic word meaning ‘basis’ or ‘principles’, as in Uṣūl al-fiqh, the principles of Islamic jurisprudence.
But rather than look to the USA and the site of the culmination of bin Laden’s terrorist career, the parts of the world where real events have darkly mirrored those of Dune, both prior to its publication and afterwards, are surely the Middle East itself, and nearby regions of North Africa and Central Asia. Adam Curtis’s 2015 feature-length documentary, Bitter Lake, focusses mainly on the fortunes (or rather, misfortunes, for the most part) of Afghanistan from the 1950s to the present and the role of Saudi Arabia in propagating an intolerant and literalist form of Islam around the world. The Afghan thread of the story begins soon after the end of WWII, when the country’s king invited American engineers to his still overwhelmingly tribal and pastoral country to modernize it using state-of-the-art geological and hydrological engineering techniques. Specifically, a series of dams were build along the mighty Helmand River for the dual purpose of generating electricity and creating lakes, allowing previously barren land to be irrigated and therefore cultivated. The reader familiar with Dune should need no prompting to think of the backstory involving the Fremen’s long-term plan to terraform Arrakis using carefully hoarded water supplies, the musings of the ‘Imperial planetologist’ turned native Liet Kynes, and even the direct authorial quote before the start of the narrative: the famous dedication to “the dry-land ecologists”. It’s certainly not hard to see in the Mujahideen and their successors the Taliban, raised in the unforgiving conditions of an arid, mountainous country, something of the indomitable Fremen, the mystically-inclined warrior people whose culture has been shaped almost in its entirety by the climate and geography of Arrakis, the planet said to have been “created by God to train the faithful”.
The other main thread of Curtis’s film is the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the USA, begun in the dying days of WWII aboard an American warship on the titular Great Bitter Lake, connected to the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean by the Suez Canal. The ailing Franklin Roosevelt met with King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, and the two men cemented a deal that would ensure America’s access to Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth in return for a promise of American non-intervention in the internal politics of Saudi Arabia. In particular, Roosevelt had to provide a guarantee that the USA would not oppose the Saudi state religion, Wahhabism, founded in the 18th century as an ultra-conservative reform movement within Sunni Islam at a time when the dominant polity in the Muslim world was the Ottoman Empire. A desert land (or planet) with an economy based on the exploitation of a single natural resource which the rest of the world (or galaxy) depends on, and eventually goes to war over – Herbert didn’t have to invent this from scratch for use in his novel, of course. But back in Afghanistan, an unintended consequence of all the hydro-engineering was a general raising of the water table, which brought with it a great deal of rock salt. In many areas, fields that had briefly had good, fertile soil for growing wheat, fruit trees and vegetables gradually become too saline for most crops, with one notable exception: Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. So here is an arid region which is – very nearly – the sole source of an extremely valuable and addictive drug (Afghanistan is estimated to account for more than 90% of the world’s illicit opium and heroin production).
And this is all before we consider the role of religion in Dune, which is given an exceptionally thorough treatment, especially by the standards of science fiction. Most notably, the Fremen follow one of the Duniverse’s widespread popular religions, the intriguingly named syncretic faith Zensunni – as its name suggests, an amalgam of Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam – in a particularly fanatical form, as befits their survivalist culture in the harsh environment of the Arrakeen desert. (A common Fremen proverb is “Speed comes from Shaitan” – an apt saying, warning the desert traveller of the perils of excessive moisture loss from sweating and breathing hard.) The origin of all three Abrahamic faiths in the arid and semi-arid regions of the Near and Middle East come through very strongly in the Fremen’s cultural background, in which the overwhelming totality of the planet’s harsh sun forms a natural basis for monotheism, with an utter absence of oceans, rivers, grasslands and forests that form the home of the nature spirits of polytheistic and animistic belief systems. But the influence of landscape and climate on religion is only half the story, as another vital plot element is the Missionaria Protectiva, a specialized arm of the Bene Gesserit charged with undertaking a millennia-long programme called the Panoplia Protectiva, a system of myths, prophecies and superstitions implanted by the sisterhood on inhabited worlds throughout the galaxy to further their own mysterious ends and to ensure the cooperation of locals should a BG sister ever find herself there in need of assistance or rescue. It is ultimately for this reason, as well as Jessica’s ‘weirding’ abilities, that the Fremen who come upon the mother and son take them in rather than killing them; an act of prophetically-inspired mercy upon which the fate of the galaxy hangs.
Quite apart from the complex and subtle themes explored by Herbert, his novel is remarkable for the vivid mental images he conjures up. Dune is full of visual contrasts; between the pomp and decadence of Shaddam IV’s imperial court and the ascetic, spartan lifestyle of the Fremen, between city-sized Guild spacecraft that travel between distant star systems in mere moments and the low-tech physicality of a knife fight to the death, between the simple elegance of the Bene Gesserit-trained Lady Jessica and the extreme corporeal grossness of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (who – spoiler alert – turns out to be Jessica’s biological father). There was plenty of inspiration for David Lynch when he came to direct his movie adaptation, certainly, and it’s perhaps in the costumes, sets and props that the film can be considered an unqualified success. The tight-fitting military uniforms worn by Duke Leto, his son Paul and their various advisors and retainers suggest the 19th or early 20th century, while Lady Jessica’s dress and intricately coiffed hair are inspired by the European high middle ages – as befits the Duniverse’s galactic feudalism. The interiors of the royal residences on Caladan and Arrakis are marvelously future-gothic, while Geidi Prime, the homeworld of Harkonnens, is a nightmarish vision of techno-Hades, complete with an enslaved populace fitted with all sorts of sadistic surgical modifications. The acme of physical ugliness mirroring moral degradation is found in the loathsome Baron himself, so grotesquely fat that he requires a personal antigravity generator just to move around. The Baron, portrayed with great gusto and evident glee by Kenneth McMillan, has a capricious camp about him, like a great despotic toddler; Lynch’s decision to play up the Baron’s homosexuality, along with giving him a hideous skin disease – bearing in mind the prominence of the Aids epidemic in the public consciousness at the time – led one reviewer to call Lynch’s Dune the most homophobic film he had ever seen.