Dune, 50 years on: how a science fiction novel changed the world
What makes Dune more palatable than, say, the gruesome spectacle of a blonde-wigged Emilia Clarke carried aloft by ethnically indeterminate brown slaves in Game of Thrones, is the sincerity of Herbert’s identification with the Fremen. They are the moral centre of the book, not an ignorant mass to be civilised. Paul does not transform them in his image, but participates in their culture and is himself transformed into the prophet Muad’Dib. If Paul is one-part Lawrence of Arabia, leading his men on to Aqaba, he is also the Mahdi. Dune glosses this word as “in the Fremen messianic legend, The One Who Will Lead Us into Paradise”. In Islamic eschatology, the honorific Mahdi has a long and complex history. Various leaders have claimed or been given it. Most Shia identify the Mahdi with the 12th or Hidden Imam, who will imminently reveal himself and redeem the world. To the British, it will always be the name of the warrior prophet who swept through the Sudan in the 1880s, killing General Gordon on the steps of the palace in Khartoum and inspiring a thousand patriotic newspaper etchings. As Paul’s destiny becomes clear to him, he begins to have visions “of fanatic legions following the green and black banner of the Atreides, pillaging and burning across the universe in the name of their prophet Muad’Dib”. If Paul accepts this future, he will be responsible for “the jihad’s bloody swords”, unleashing a nomad war machine that will up-end the corrupt and oppressive rule of the emperor Shaddam IV (good) but will kill untold billions (not so good) in the process. In 2015, the story of a white prophet leading a blue-eyed brown-skinned horde of jihadis against a ruler called Shaddam produces a weird funhouse mirror effect, as if someone has jumbled up recent history and stuck the pieces back together in a different order.
When did I first read this? Must have been in the later 1970s when I went through my big SF phase. I admit I’ve read nearly all of the sequels including the finale (sort of) and all of the backstory novels. There are still a couple out there that I haven’t read yet, recent ones about Paul’s years out in the desert, etc.
I have mixed feelings about the theatrical treatments. The David Lynch movie I thought captured the spirit of the book, but it was so full of distracting weird stuff that didn’t even come close to anything in the book. But I liked the casting. People make immense fun of the scene where Sting, as Feyd-Rautha, emerges from the stream bath looking totally gay. . . .which was brilliant and perfect because that’s exactly how he would have tried to look for his gay uncle the Baron. And I liked the whole vibe of it, which was familiar but still foreign. The Atlantic captures my feelings: “a deeply flawed work that failed as a commercial enterprise, but still managed to capture and distill essential portions of one of science fiction’s densest works.”
Sci-Fi also did a miniseries of it in 2000 which was more faithful to the book (also a 2003 followup, which was the better of the two IMO). I think they did a far better job translating the book to the screen and the whole thing looks better than the other one, but I mostly hated the casting; just none of them really worked.
Its the Guardian so the article full of SJW “colonialism” junk, but it’s got some interesting angles, namely:
Actually, the great Dune film did get made. Its name is Star Wars. In early drafts, this story of a desert planet, an evil emperor, and a boy with a galactic destiny also included warring noble houses and a princess guarding a shipment of something called “aura spice”. All manner of borrowings from Dune litter the Star Wars universe, from the Bene Gesserit-like mental powers of the Jedi to the mining and “moisture farming” on Tattooine. Herbert knew he’d been ripped off, and thought he saw the ideas of other SF writers in Lucas’s money-spinning franchise. He and a number of colleagues formed a joke organisation called the We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society.
That never occurred to me but now that they mention it. . . .
There was also a National Lampoon spoof of it, Doon, most of which was forgettable, but I think of whenever I pour something out of a tap and tip the glass to keep the foam down. If you’ve read it, you’ll remember that bit. Still gives me the giggles.
*sigh* I suppose I shall have to read the other books at some point. I don’t read much fiction and then only science fiction (mostly, except for classical literature), so I’m probably missing out a lot of good stuff by only reading these things.