The latest film adaptation of the Sixties novel helps us understand the contemporary Middle East and its ecology.
The latest Hollywood blockbuster “Dune” is a space opera based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel of the same name. While written in the Sixties, its current release is salient as the film reengages audiences with several core themes of the novel.
The novel is replete with Arabic and Islamic references, which raises the question of whether the novel is orientalist, in addition to the film, given the resurgence of cinematic orientalist tropes post-9/11.
Also, while the novel “Dune” won a slew of science fiction (sci-fi) awards, it could also be considered one of the first cli-fi novels, or climate fiction novels. Herbert’s work was prescient given its examination of the ecology of a desert planet that essentially stands in for the Middle East.
Finally, the novel is relevant due to its trope of resistance and empire. “Dune” is essentially a political thought experiment, examining how charismatic leadership can lead to the defeat of stronger states and empires, salient to US foreign policy, whether it is the Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh or the Afghan Taliban.
In a previous article for this publication, I used Edward Said to examine “Slavery, the “robot,” and Orientalism in science fiction.” I categorise Orientalism as a system of communication that essentialises the East with a series of ‘E’s. The West sees the ‘East’ as Exotic, Erotic, and the Enemy.
For example, in the “Star Wars” franchise, there are Middle East-inspired elements with the Sufi orders reflected in Obi Wan and the Jedi. Orientalist flourishes include the Enemy, the barbaric Sand People and the Erotic, the indolent Jabba the Hut, who smokes a nargile and maintains a harem, which includes princes Leia.
“Dune”, like “Star Wars”, is about a band of rebels who bring down an empire. The protagonists of Lucas’ space opera consist of a rebel alliance brought together from far ranging planets and galactic groups, like Admiral Ackbar, the squid-like commander from the Mon Calamari, to the Ewoks. In Herbert’s work, the rebels are the Fremen, who practice a futuristic form of Islam, seeking to free their desert planet Arrakis and bring down a down an intergalactic empire led by the Padishah Shaddam.
The references to the Middle East are not flourishes to exoticise the narrative. The Arrakis depicted in the novel and latest film are not exotic, but enigmatic. There is little that is erotic in “Dune”. The Fremen are not the enemy; you root for them as the protagonists.
The Fremen are led by a messianic figure, Paul Atreides, who engages in a “jihad” against the empire, but Herbert used this term in the sixties w
ell before the notion become associated with terrorism post-9/11.
It is unusual to have the Muslims as good guys. The only other science fiction franchise that does the same is the “Pitch Black” franchise beginning in the mid-Nineties, also examining a futuristic, intergalactic Islam. The protagonist Riddick, played by Vin Diesel, seeks to save another character, simply referred to as “al-Imam” on his way to complete the hajj in New Mecca on the planet Tangiers-3.
I would argue that the prevalence of a futuristic Islam in both sci-fi stories makes neither orientalist. In both cases Islam is not exotic but banal, interwoven in interplanetary daily life.
Finally, all orientalist films essentialise the Middle East as a desert landscape replete with camels and minarets. The desert in “Dune” does not serve as a mere exotic background but makes an ecological argument. The dunes symbolise the vulnerability and precariousness of human life. The heat and sand, Mother Nature if you will, overwhelms this future civilisation and its technology. The theme of insecurity and the quest for water pervade the narrative. In the face of this powerlessness, the Fremen represent a fight for agency by learning to adapt to the desert, not exploit it.
Science fiction and empire
The revolt in Arrakis seeks to bring down an intergalactic empire, led by the Padishah Shaddam. While Shaddam does sound like Saddam, the future Iraqi president was relatively obscure when Herbert wrote the novel. However, the title Padishah refers to the highest rank in the Ottoman or Persian empires.
Sci-fi has had a long history of dealing with empire and resistance. One of the first sci-fi pioneers, HG Wells published “War of the Worlds” in 1898 as a commentary on the British extermination of the local population of Tasmania, Australia.
Arrakis could very well be a reference to Iraq. The Spacing Guild in “Dune”, a cartel that controls the production of the Spice that is necessary for space travel is certainly influenced by petroleum and OPEC, which was founded in Baghdad in 1960 (albeit the brainchild of a Venezuelan oil minister).
In this case “Dune” would fit other sci-fi and cli-fi narratives where Iraq emerges as an imaginative space challenging the 2003 invasion. The film “Avatar” critiqued the rise of mercenary companies, where the planet Pandora stands in for Iraq and Unobtainium, like the Spice, is a reference to oil.
The 2004 reboot of “Battlestar Galactica” portrayed the villains, the robotic Cylons as Americans, and the humans resisting them as the insurgents, forcing TV audiences, particularly in the US, to see the conflict from an Iraqi perspective.
While sci-fi as a genre is escapist in nature, it simultaneously brings our current reality into greater focus. It reveals our current technophobias and anxieties over the convergence between scientific advance and what it means to be human.
Close to 50 years separate the novel “Dune” and the film. The themes of ecological precariousness, rapacious resource extraction, and resistance to occupation are as relevant now as they were when the novel was first published. In this case “Dune”, a work of science fiction, is also a political fact.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an associate professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of The Modern History of Iraq, 4th edition.
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