I almost screamed when I saw the trailer for the upcoming film, Dune, based on Frank Herbert’s science fiction series that was just released. Not just because of Timothee Chalamet, who plays protagonist Paul Atreides—sure, he’s cool—but guys, it’s Dune.
Look, I’m aware that my enthusiasm for science fiction is typically faced with cricket chirps, but this is worth it. The film adaptation of Herbert’s book series was initially planned to be released this December. But like many film releases, it too has been postponed for next year. After months of waiting, it is finally set to be released on both HBO and in theaters on October 22, 2021. So while we wait, there is a lot to catch up on before then.
Let’s start at the beginning. In 1965, Herbert was inspired by an article that he was working on about the beach grass used in Oregon to halt the sand from shifting. The article, titled “They Stopped the Moving Sands,” was never published. Instead, Herbert went on to write the six-book series, Dune.
Since then, Dune has had a wide-reaching influence on a lot of the science-fiction and fantasy stories that have risen to popularity today, including Star Wars and Game of Thrones. Herbert, himself, pointed out the similarities forming a tongue-in-cheek group with other authors, called “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society.”
The first few books center around Paul, a boy who inherits special powers and his family’s political turmoil, on a planet known for its trade of spice—an addictive psychedelic, that the galaxy has become dependent on. The later books cover the adventures of Paul’s children, including his son’s mission of preserving humanity’s survival through inhumane methods.
The series draws heavily from religious themes and Middle Eastern culture. The nomadic Fremen characters, who play a central role in the series, are not only dark-skinned, but they also use a language that has close similarities to Arabic. Herbert not only uses thinly-veiled references to the Arabic language, but also Sufism mysticism and history of the Arab world, including the Berbers of North Africa and Sunni Muslims. He drew from many sources, such as 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun and Lesley Blanch‘s travel biographies of the Middle East.
Herbert also alludes to Hebrew, Christianity, and Ancient Greek tradition. Paul’s surname, Atreides, is a reference to the Greek family of Agamemnon and Menelaus in the Iliad. The Bene Gesserits, a powerful but often antagonistic force in the series, are heavily drawn from Herbert’s experience with Catholic nuns. There are questions about whether Herbert, who identified as a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, was appropriating religions. However, the mix that Herbert draws from suggests that, rather than targeting a single religion, it could be read as a critique of messianic faiths.
Despite not yet being released, the film series already faces its own problems, failing to cast actors that represent the Middle Eastern culture that so deeply influenced Herbert’s series. Especially in science fiction, a genre that typically has been more inclusive of diverse casts, it is embarrassing to see such a lack of Middle Eastern representation in the trailer. Still, this dynamic highlights an important part of the science fiction genre, which Dune epitomizes.
Dune established itself as a classic in science fiction for its extensive worldbuilding, while still drawing from real-life cultural influences. We’ve even seen echoes of the series in the decades after the book was written, in our own reality: the fight for oil in the Middle East; the increasing value of water amid the climate change threat; the rise of charismatic dictators; and so on.
I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen the appeal of worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. My admiration for Lord of the Rings is rooted in J.R.R. Tolkein’s understanding of linguistics and how his legendarium world is designed for language-creation. I enjoy Suzanne Collin’s creation of the dystopian Panem in the Hunger Games because of its commentary on labor and class divisions. And, in a similar manner, I love Frank Hubert’s Dune series because of the way it draws in environmental and political themes.
Herbert’s series looks openly at authoritarianism and not only the burdens placed on those who are subjected to dictatorships, but also the inhumanity it demands of those in power. It remains critical of the forces that seek out charismatic powerful figures to solve all our problems. It demonstrates the dangers found in the “big man” syndrome of politics or messianic ideals of religion.
It also looks at the environmental damages and dangers. The production of spice is comparative to the production of oil. Where oil-drilling has continued to create environmental damages in the Middle East, the production of spice on the fictional Dune creates a desert where the Freman long for a return to their lush planet. More recently, the control of spice can be compared to the increasing limitations on water resources and suggests we all look more critically at who has control over valuable resources.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there are a lot of questionable areas in the book series, including the prioritization of male characters and a white savior complex. But the layers of Herbert’s storytelling actually asks us to challenge and question where the narrative’s judgemental actually falls. And, like in the cultures and issues faced in our own world, there is no simple answer.
When we can look past the red skies and alien powers, we realize that while Herbert’s Dune might take place in faraway galaxies, it has always been about our own home on Earth—from the shiftings sands in Oregon to the different cultural and ethnic makeup of the Middle East.
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