Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’

Dune is a science fiction novel by Frank Herbert, first published in 1985 and subsequently a winner of both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards.

Most of the novel is set on ‘Dune’, a desert planet named Arrakis. Its natives are people called Fremen, who are discernible by their all-blue eyes with no whites. The desert wildlife consists mostly of small mice, a few birds, oh, and giant killer sandworms. The planet is important namely because it is the only known source of ‘mélange-spice’, a substance that is used in everything from cooking to space travel.

The main character is Paul Atreides, heir to the Atreides Dukedom, and his mother Lady Jessica. Paul Atreides is part of a secret breeding programme conducted by a shadowy sisterhood known as the Bene Gesserit (of which his mother is a member) to create a superhuman. While on Arrakis, the Atreides are betrayed, Paul’s father Duke Leto is assassinated, and Jessica is framed. Mother and son find sanctuary in the desert. While everyone thinks they’re dead, they assimilate into Fremen society, and use legends seeded into the Fremen culture to their benefit. Eventually, Paul leads a devastating attack on his enemies to avenge his father and reclaim his title.

Wednesday: I first read Dune when I was, I think, twelve or thirteen, browsing in the school library. I only knew that it was a seminal SF work, and that I might as well read it, given the shoddiness of the fiction collection there. I wasn’t very impressed by the prose, I was genuinely creeped out by Alia, and I didn’t have much of an impression otherwise.

Revisiting Dune with five years of reading into social justice and feminist theory, however, I can but shake my head and tut at the orientalism, misogyny, and heterosexism of it all.

Thursday: Winning both the Nebula and Hugo Award is no mean feat, though it’s quite a hit and miss for me, considering that SF/F in particular has a long history of showing its privileged arse; however, these things don’t exist in a vacuum.

Dune was written in the 1960s, at the height of the West re-evaluating its relationship with the Middle East. The spice melange mirrors oil; the desert atmosphere is as close as one gets to that of the real world. Even much of the Fremen language is either lifted directly (Lisan al-Gaib) or bastardised (ayat, Sayyadina) from Arabic. Not to mention the Butlerian Jihad! The vocabulary appendix in the novel describes jihad as “religious crusade, fanatical crusade”. Although the event is not described in the book, it is outlined in sequels, and conjures up pictures of rampaging mobs and flaming hordes. No doubt that this adds an ominous weight to the original Arabic word, which simply means “struggle”.

Wednesday: One wonders what precisely was the intent of Herbert’s approach toward syncretic religion. The Atreides frequently quote the Orange Catholic Bible, a merger of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and (presumably) Orthodoxy. On the other hand, the Fremen pray salat and are angry because the Imperium forbade them to make the Haj. Herbert also attributes to them qualities of Zen Buddhism, and refers to them as ‘Zensunni’. Even if we left off the overtones of ‘look, these Arab Muslim savages’, he has still set up a very deliberate dichotomy between occident and orient, with Christianity on one side and Middle Eastern/Asian religions on the other. How could I not see the shades of colonialism in this?

Thursday: Speaking of colonialism! The Fremen culture is static, simplistic, and derivative (they have not changed at all despite 10,000 years of contact with the outside world, or if you prefer, 10,000 years of colonisation) and that they are either to be feared, ridiculed, or mastered. Herbert goes out of his way to describe them as alien at every possible point (by a third person narrator to boot): from the way they spoke, to the way they selected leaders, to their ‘superstitious’ nature, and their ‘perplexing obsession’ with water. Even when we first meet them, they are nothing more than objects of curiosity, and act only as enablers for Paul Atreides to achieve his “Terrible Purpose”. No different from Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, or *cough* The Director Who Shall Not Be Named’s Avatar. What is with this trope?

Wednesday: This extends to Chani, Paul’s Fremen concubine. She’s always positioned as lesser, but exotic, and therefore desirable. Oh, would that the ‘nubile savage’ trope were dead already! But no. In the language of conquest — and especially with the patriarchal aspect of colonialism — owning a land means owning its women, and that’s exactly what Paul does. Y’know intersectional oppression? Yeah, that’s what Chani gets, as coloured person and a woman. Because Dune? Is completely, utterly sexist.

Thursday: Our inscrutable friend Chani — inscrutable. Le sigh. Oh hey, one more about that intersectionality. A Fremen named Jamis challenges Paul to a fight to the death. When Paul kills Jamis (duh!) he’s supposed to ‘take’ the dead man’s widow either as a servant or a wife. He takes her as a servant. She gets angry because she thinks it’s an insult to her beauty *eyeroll* She protests. He tells her to shut up. She obeys.

*grumpy* Women in this book have no agency! Even the ones who pretend they do!

Wednesday: I know what you mean — the Bene Gesserit! A sisterhood sworn to changing the universe — by breeding the Kwisatz Haderach! Okay, so what’s their plan for bringing about galactic peace? — The Reverend Mother arranges for this woman to fuck that Rich Dude, ordering her to conceive a girl to be cross-bred with a certain other family… Notice a pattern here? Yeah, it’s that women have no agency, as Thursday said. Sure they are acting of their ‘own volition’ — but it’s still dependent on the men in their life, and the pen of the men who wrote them!

And Jessica? She’s screwed up their breeding plans because she had a son, not a daughter. It’s not an act of independent rebellion, though! It’s because her Duke wanted it.

Get me a cushion, I’ve beaten the imprint of my head into the table, ow.

But I’m not done yet. I want to talk about the importance of the Kwisatz Haderach — how he represents the male ‘genetic history’ that the Bene Gesserit crave to access but can’t. So. Thursday. Care to share about this particular mystic analogy to penis envy?

Thursday: *hands Wednesday a cushion* The most powerful sisterhood in the known universe, and they have to wait for a man? I’m not buying this, especially since Paul has ~defeated every other woman candidate for the gom jabbar, a test of endurance. But why don’t we see what the novel says:

“There is in each of us an ancient force that takes and an ancient force that gives. A man finds little difficulty facing that place within himself where the taking force dwells, but it’s almost impossible for him to see into the giving force without changing into something other than man. For a woman, the situation is reversed … The greatest peril to the Giver is the force that takes. The greatest peril to the Taker is the force that gives. It’s as easy to be overwhelmed by giving as by taking … I’m at the fulcrum … I cannot give without taking and I cannot take without ..”

Wouldja look at that! Mystical penis envy with a side of trans* erasure. Get it while it’s hot.

Wednesday: Giver, taker? If that’s not pseudo-psychic penetration imagery, I don’t know what is.

So the important women in the book are: Jessica (concubine and broodmare, not to mention utterly racist memsahib); Gaius Helen (crone); Chani (exotic native prize); Irulan (repressed and set to writing lionising defences of Paul because she loves him, don’t you know, a woman needs a man like fish and bicycles whatsit); and Alia (grotesque because… well, the Kwisatz Haderach has to be male, powerful female women are wicked). *throws up hands in disgust*

Also, there is immense queerphobia in the novels, for good measure. The main villain, Baron Harkonnen, is evil. He is queer. His evil manifests by his hitting on our poor dear hero. This is such a heterosexist projection I do not know where to begin. (Well, that, and he sexual assaults little boys. Because homosexuality is always conflated with paedophilia. This is how you make the villain a Complete Monster, Herbert? Nothing else? I call bullshit.)

And every time Harkonnen’s Mentat, Piter de Vries, appears, he is described as ‘effeminate’. So, a gender-transgressive character! Let’s see what happens to him! — Oh, he’s bumbling and inept, and gets himself killed.

Good God. Around Piter’s death scene I started wanting to put down the book already. Doesn’t help that Paul and his dad are such privileged douches.

Thursday: Oh, Paul. Mighty White Messiah. How could we have forgotten about you? *shakes head* We’ve already mentioned the horrific imperialism in Dune, but I don’t think it can be crystallised anywhere as perfectly as Paul. Herbert implies that Paul is descended from Agamemnon or Menelaus (the ‘Atreides’, or sons of Atreus, of Greek mythology). Throughout our history, the white man refers often to his glorious past, to his blood (for that is what Paul calls on) to his collective ownership of European history. This is heavily appropriative of Hellenic culture, considering that Greeks and Mediterranean people were often considered insufficiently white, just as the Irish were.

I am reminded here of the postcolonial poet Edwin Thumboo’s May 1954:

We do but merely ask
No more, no less, this much:
That you white man,
Boasting of many parts,
Some talk of Alexander, some of Hercules
Some broken not long ago
By little yellow soldiers
Out of the Rising Sun…
We ask you see
The bitter, curving tide of history,
See well enough, relinquish,
Restore this place, this sun
To us… and the waiting generations.

Anyway, Paul gets the idea that he’s the rightful ruler of Arrakis despite having no actual claim to it beyond the Emperor’s authority. Then, when he tries to join the Fremen, he starts claiming a Messianic role with “Lisan al-Ghaib”, because the poor sandpeople don’t know any better, but looks down on a character named Kynes (who is a geographer and is implied half-Fremen) because he has ‘gone native’. I have a mental image of Herbert sitting down with a BINGO card and cramming in every racist trope he could find. Because why the hell would a race that can ride giant killer sandworms at the age of ten have to sit around and wait for a white man to save them and/or lead them into ~glory?

From now on, anyone who tells me this is a science fiction epic will get the two-finger salute and be told to go have intimate relations with a VERY SHARP cactus.

Wednesday: And that concludes this week in Argh.


One response to “Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’

  1. Thank you for this! This pretty much sums up my view on the book (that on top of the fact that I think the writing is so unbelievably heavy and self-important, that it’s almost unreadable.) I read your whole piece going, “Right?! RIGHT?!” The only people I’ve really had to compare notes with on the book are dudes, and they were just like, “What are you talking about? It’s very pro-woman!” Ugh.

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