Mark Wegierski considers Frank Herbert’s masterwork
In 1985, left-wing science fiction author Judith Merril complained that most science fiction was permeated by a typology of “feudal values plus high-technology”. In truth, however, this combination makes for one of the most creative and interesting paradigms of science fiction. Witness Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, published in 1965 then made into a film by David Lynch in 1984. Many alterations were made by Lynch to the original vision of the book — for example, in the book, Baron Harkonnen is a kind of “Mephistophelean” figure but in the film is portrayed as a hideous horror-flick “monster”. Lynch also introduced various elements of horror that are simply not found in the book. And the black rubber still-suits (desert gear) are laughably wrong. In December 2000, there was a new rendering of Frank Herbert’s Dune, as a six-hour television mini-series on the U.S. Sci-Fi Channel. This was a more faithful adaptation of the book. And this year, a new film of Dune (Part One), by Denis Villeneuve, is being released.
The noble vision of Frank Herbert, although set in the far future, is based on varied elements of the historical and religious past of humankind — for example, ideas of political messianism, the rise of Islam, the theme of healthy barbarians against a decadent empire, etc. The linkage of “feudal values” with “high technology” does not reduce the book’s vision to the category of a “fairy-tale.”
If one thinks about Herbert’s “world” in ideological terms, it represents an exclusively “right-wing” perspective on the world. The monopolistic space transport system of CHOAM and the Guild equal oligarchy. The Bene Gesserit Order exemplifies theocratic desires. The Star Empire under the rule of the Emperor and its aristocratic families represents so-called “reactionary” conservatism. The Harkonnen Clan, with its unusual level of violence and cruelty, could be characterized as Nazism or fascism, an obvious perversion of right-wing philosophy. The Atreides Clan could stand for an authentic or truly noble aristocracy, which, although suppressed at the beginning of the book, is slowly reborn with the Fremen, under the leadership of the son of the murdered Duke Leto, Paul. The Fremen are important because they live on the desert planet (called Dune or Arrakis) that is the only source of the “spice” that drives interstellar travel. The Fremen society on the planet Arrakis can be taken to represent the sort of right-wing outlook that seems the most accessible today, i.e., populism.
Some further explanation of the term “populism” – as used above — is called for. Like it or not, we are living in a world where, ostensibly at least, the main form of conferring authority and legitimacy of rule rests with gaining the support of the people through democratic methods. There is no place today for reactionaries. At the same time, government by the decisions of liberal judges, by state-bureaucracies, and by the special-interest groups, as well as through the interlocking systems of mass-media, mass education and consumerism, is an “elitist” and objectively anti-democratic form of governance. The main hope for the revival of Western societies would appear to be a populist insurgency through the ballot-boxes, led by the small number of persons who are intelligently right-wing. Can one hope that the will of the people will finally find a political expression? If some kind of populist revolution does not take place, and certain drastic changes are not enacted, we can probably wave “bye-bye” to Western civilization, consumed by its internal decadence, and summarily swallowed up by massive demographic shifts.
In Russia and Eastern Europe, the situation will probably unfold differently. All of these countries enjoy the advantage of not being targets for wide-scale immigration. (Note, however, the fact that they are still tied to their earlier history, creates the possibility for dire events like those in Bosnia and Chechnya). Indeed, the ideational basis for the recovery of the West may in fact be found in Eastern Europe or even Russia. In this context, the ideas of Alexander Solzhenitsyn — such as those articulated in his 1978 Address at Harvard — have been particularly insightful. [Editorial note: see also The Great Awakening vs the Great Reset, Alexander Dugin, Arktos, 2021]
Outside the European world, the greatest hope lies in East Asia. There are now being formulated there (for example, through the so-called Singapore School), ideas which challenge the corruption and corrosive results of Western liberalism and which express a desire for a model which combines conservative social values with advanced technics. An Oriental-dominated future has been empathetically explored in David Wingrove’s extravagant, though flawed, Chung-kuoseries, and in Maureen F. McHugh’s more understated, China Mountain Zhang.
One of the major templates for the Dune universe appears to be Islamic civilization, especially the Arab societies of the desert-regions, medieval Persia, and the Ottoman Empire – as well as Moghul India. Paul Atreides’ story is also reminiscent of the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, which have had an enormous impact on the Western imagination, from Rudolf Valentino’s The Sheik, to David Lean’s superb 1962 movie. Some years ago, an American volunteer and convert to Islam was found in the ranks of the Taliban. There were also numerous late-nineteenth century stories in which an exiled and disgraced European adventurer leads “the natives” in Asia or Africa in a victorious war against their oppressors (who were either even greater savages, or supported by a rival imperial power) and thus regained recognition in his home country.
Frank Herbert’s Dune arguably anticipates the OPEC crisis of the mid-1970s, when the leading OPEC countries decided to assert greater control over their own resources, and use oil-power to weaken the links between Israel and the U.S.A. Figures like Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden would may have seen themselves (however inappropriately) as Paul Atreides! The phrase from Dune – “the spice must flow” – can be transposed to – “the oil must flow” – a substance which is just as critical to America and the entire world as “spice” is in Frank Herbert’s imaginary far future. Just as oil is the basic fuel of virtually all modern transport, “spice” is the basis of the almost instantaneous travel between star systems in the Dune universe.
The Arab countries and Iran currently hold the world’s major supplies of oil – although fortunately they are not its exclusive source. The U.S., for example, extracts huge quantities of oil from its own territory, but its consumption of it is so high that it also requires foreign sources. The September 11 attacks may have created a constituency for “patriotic ecology”. Energy conservation and the development of practical, alternative energy sources, and alternatively powered modes of transport, could lessen America’s reliance on foreign oil reserves. But who ultimately knows what will emerge from the world-historical maelstrom.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based science fiction and film aficionado