November 25, 2020
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Heresies of “Dune”

By Cord Brooks SOME HISTORICAL PERIODS fade, others end abruptly. For the United States, the Technicolor-tinted era that began when the troops returned from World War II terminated in an instant: 12:30 pm on November 22, 1963. The gunshot that took John F. Kennedy’s life ended a seemingly innocent age, one that had restrained social and psychological conflicts. What the future would bring, once those repressed elements surged forth, was an open question.
An answer arrived in the next month’s issue of the science fiction magazine Analog. The issue featured “Dune World,” the start of a serialization of a long novel by the obscure author Frank Herbert. As the story tumbled out in Analog’s pages, it forecast many trends that would define the next decade: environmentalism, psychedelic drugs, mysticism, orgies, back-to-the-land survivalism, Indigenous ways, anticolonial rebellions, Arab nationalism, and political assassinations. The story started with a Kennedy-esque hero, Paul Atreides, a charismatic young leader from a venerable political family destined for a high position within the galactic Imperium. And it ended with him leading a jihad, backed by guerrillas and guided by drug-induced visions, against that empire.
One can only imagine publishers’ enthusiasm. After 23 editors rejected the ungainly manuscript, Chilton Books, best known for its auto-repair manuals, gave it a small print run. Reviewers were indifferent, but the book won sci-fi prizes — the Hugo and Nebula awards — and gradually secured an underground reputation. “Word is spreading on the West Coast grapevine about an epic science fiction novel titled Dune,” the Boston Globe’s youth column reported in 1969. Herbert, who’d been supporting himself as a journalist, started earning money as a campus speaker. “After his performances, students mobbed around him,” his biographer has written. “He received telephone calls from people who seemed to be on drugs, telling him they had been reading Dune aloud to acid-rock music.”
Understandably so. Science fiction had always been geeky, but Dune made it trippy. After 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes hit screens in 1968 (the same day, as it happens), young directors rushed to realize the countercultural possibilities of space. Dune was their unscalable Himalayan peak. The Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky tried, pulling together a formidable ensemble that included Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson, and Pink Floyd — he wanted the film to run more than 10 hours. Ridley Scott then stepped up before becoming overwhelmed and abandoning the project for Blade Runner. Eventually, David Lynch made Dune, though the film — four hours in the rough cut — suffered from the studio’s insistence on mercilessly reducing it to 137 minutes. Denis Villeneuve now hopes to try again, albeit via a more modest ascent. His Dune, in theaters next year, will tackle only half the novel.
Though Dune has thus far mocked filmmakers, it’s also fed straight into the period’s most successful cinematic franchise. Herbert’s story of a teenage boy from a peripheral desert planet who learns to control people with his voice, wields a blade, and brings down a galactic empire bears a suspiciously close resemblance to George Lucas’s Star Wars — down to the hero’s mystically adept sister (Alia in Dune, Leia in Star Wars) and the villain with a feudal title who turns out to be the hero’s grandfather or father (Baron Harkonnen in Dune, Lord Vader in Star Wars). On seeing Lucas’s film, Herbert became furious and listed 16 points of “absolute identity” between his novels and Star Wars, from its “spice mines” to its “dune sea.” 
Star Wars’s success gives a hint as to why Dune has been so hard to film. Lucas gave Herbert’s ideas a bright-lines morality perfectly suited for Hollywood. Dune, by contrast, possesses an ethical complexity that has thus far kept the franchise rooted in writing. Its tangled plot — Herbert called it an “Escher lithograph” — sprawls over 556 pages, plus another 2,000 pages of sequels stuffed with philosophical discourses. Fans seeking to navigate the Duniverse have taken to the message boards, where “Orthodox Herbertarians” fend off broad-church interpretations (“You can argue all you want, the facts are there. Even if it’s 80% sure that DandM are FDs, making them ‘prostitute robots from the future’ would only…”). [1] The debates rage on.
Meanwhile, sales have surged. Astonishingly, given that it was first published a half century ago, Dune has vaulted to the top of multiple mass-market best-seller lists this year. The pandemic helped, as did news of Villeneuve’s movie, but something about the novel resonates today across political lines. “I’m sort of at a fever pitch of my Dune enthusiasm right now,” Stephen Colbert has confessed. “I love Dune,” is how Jeff Bezos put it. Elon Musk has quoted the book like scripture, and his partner Grimes named her first album after it. Steve Mnuchin’s production company, back when he was producing films rather than inequality, was called Dune Entertainment. You can hear Dune discussed reverently on Chapo Trap House or, if you prefer, the Joe Rogan Experience. In advance of the presidential debates, Vox’s Matt Yglesias tweeted that the final one should be “exclusively focused on Dune and Dune-related issues.”
It’s fitting that the novel should reemerge today. In the 1960s and ’70s, Dune fed off of liberalism’s crisis. Liberal ideals are under fire again, and once more the sandworms burrow and crysknives glisten.
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Frank Herbert grew up on the political fringe. His grandparents were members of the Social Democracy of America — an ancestor of today’s Democratic Socialists of America — and helped found a socialist commune in Washington State, north of Tacoma. That’s where his father was raised, and it’s where Herbert spent many of his young years. Though the formal experiment in socialism died a few years before his birth in 1920, Herbert recalled inheriting some “rock-ribbed ideas about the ways people should live together.” Mainly, these concerned autonomy and mutual aid. The Depression ravaged the country but left his family, which grew its own food, intact. Herbert remembered those dark years as “marvelous times.”
Young Herbert hunted and fished, and it was while out fishing that he met a man he called “Indian Henry” (almost certainly Henry Martin of the Hoh Tribe), who “semi-adopted” the boy, as Herbert told his son. For two years, Henry taught him how to live off the land. It was the start of a lifelong engagement with Native affairs. Herbert’s closest friend in adulthood was Howard Hansen, who grew up on the nearby Quileute reservation and had been trained by elders there as a repository for spiritual knowledge. Herbert would later draft two novels about Indigenous life in Western Washington.
It’s easy to imagine that this socialist-raised, Native American–sympathizing young man would become a leftist. But for Herbert, commune living and Indian Henry’s backwoods lessons firmed up a hostility to the federal government. He came to oppose “any kind of public charity system,” he explained, because he “learned early on that our society’s institutions often weaken people’s self-reliance.” So, rather than following the trail of cooperative socialism to New Deal liberalism, he tacked in the opposite direction. Herbert became a Republican.
Not just a Republican voter, a Republican operative. While in his 30s, Herbert worked for four Republican candidates. His most important employer was the US senator from Oregon, Guy Cordon, a bastion of hardline conservatism in a state that was tilting left. Cordon was pro-logging, pro-business, pro-military, anti-labor, anti-regulation, and a supporter of Joseph McCarthy. Herbert came to regret McCarthy’s tactics, but Cordon was a “strong influence” on him, Herbert’s son has written. A novel Herbert drafted in the 1950s deals with the insidious influence of Soviet agents, one of whom he describes as “the sinister embodiment of everything evil.”
By the political conventions of the East Coast, Frank Herbert was all over the map. But in the more experimental environment of the West, he thrived. He took peyote and communed with the waters of Puget Sound. He read Jungian psychology. Convinced that the seabed represented “our new empire,” he wrote a thriller about offshore oil drilling. In 1960, Herbert moved to San Francisco, where he went through a period of fascination with Asia, studying Zen Buddhism, learning Japanese brush calligraphy, and eating tofu.
For many leaders of the West Coast’s counterculture, Native Americans offered an escape from the stifling aspects of the midcentury United States. Stewart Brand first glimpsed “a different America” when he visited the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. A shared appreciation for Indigenous ways brought Brand to Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which features a Native narrator) and the pied piper of the counterculture. “America Needs Indians” was the title of the show that Brand put on to open the legendary San Francisco Trips Festival that he and Kesey organized, the first large-scale release of LSD into the population. The Grateful Dead performed, as did Allen Ginsberg. “The Haight-Ashbury era began that weekend,” wrote Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
For Herbert, too, Native ideas loomed large, especially those inherited from his friend Howard Hansen. Hansen passed Herbert readings on ecology, and in 1958, he began writing an account of what logging had done to his home, the Quileute reservation. He showed the manuscript to Herbert, who read it and offered editorial advice. “White men are eating the earth,” Hansen told Herbert. “They’re gonna turn this whole planet into a wasteland, just like North Africa.”
Herbert, already gaming out his next novel, agreed. The world, he responded, could become a “big dune.”
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“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” George Lucas’s infamous text scroll announces his franchise’s most counterintuitive move: setting a science fiction epic not the gleaming future but in a medieval past, where knights still rescued princesses. Dune, however, got there first. Its outer-space setting lacks robots, but it is stuffed with counts, dukes, lords, and princesses. Prevented by mutually assured destruction from using atomic bombs, the leaders of great houses vie for power by poisoning each other or dueling with blades.
For Lucas, the lords-and-ladies theme gave his space saga a romantic air — Camelot with spaceships. Dune’s medievalism was darker, with loveless political marriages, blood feuds, oppressive tax farming, and a “rigidly guarded” class system. Rather than polishing off the rough edges as Lucas did, Herbert appeared to delight in the abrasive qualities of this stratified society. “Planetary feudalism,” one of the Dune series’s heroes explains, is the “best social form” for an interstellar civilization. Its success stems, another continues, from the “ancient human demand” for hierarchy, for a world “where every person knows his place.”
The further you read, the more disorienting Dune gets. The middle of the novel introduces the Fremen, the desert-dwelling natives of Arrakis. At a time when Islam in the United States was mainly the domain of Black nationalists, Herbert told of how the Fremen worshiped the Mahdi (a Muslim redeemer), went on jihads, and used Arabic-sounding language. Just at the time when the boxer Cassius Clay and poet LeRoi Jones were changing their names to Muhammad Ali and Amiri Baraka, Frank Herbert was writing of the offworlder Paul Atreides joining the Fremen and restyling himself Muad’Dib.
Herbert read widely about desert cultures and worked deep-cut references to Islamic history into his portrait of the Fremen. Yet, beneath the Arabic facade, you can also glimpse the Indians of Washington, whom Herbert knew much better. The Fremen, living in the dangerous desert and harpooning enormous sandworms there, are not so far off from the Quileute and Hoh people who thrived in the forests of Western Washington and harpooned whales off the Pacific Coast.
Whatever their basis, it was via the Fremen that the most subversive aspects of Dune appeared: the psychedelic drugs used in religious rites, the orgies, the mystical prophecies. Most importantly, the Fremen offer ecological wisdom. Just as “Indian Henry” taught a teenage Frank Herbert how to live in the forest, the native Stilgar shows a 15-year-old Paul Atreides how to make his way in the desert.
In his drafts, Herbert spotlit another hero, Dr. Bryce Haynes, an offworld ecologist who sought to use the Fremen to terraform Arrakis. Herbert had seen ecologists trying something similar with the sand dunes of Oregon, and he imagined it happening on the scale of a planet. Initially, Herbert conceived of Haynes as a “man of science,” bringing cutting-edge research to a tradition-bound planet. Yet by publication Herbert came to see Dr. Haynes as the problem more than the solution. He shrank the character’s role, made him half-Fremen, and, even still, felt that Haynes was an imperfect hero. In Dune, the character Haynes becomes, renamed Kynes, dies in the desert, cursing science as he does. This was the “turning point of the whole book,” Herbert explained, the moment when “Western man,” living “out of rhythm with nature,” got what he deserved.
Brand loved the book and used his influential Whole Earth Catalog to promote Dune as a revolutionary work of ecology. For the college students who made Dune a hit, it was more than that. Herbert had murdered “Western man,” and, through Paul, had shown readers how to become something different. It was the story of a teenager leaving home, learning new ways, and returning triumphant. Dune ends with Paul and his young sister leading a Fremen attack on the Imperium. They depose the emperor and kill their grandfather. To young readers dissatisfied with the world they’d received from their parents, Dune was a brightly marked exit.
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Where did that exit lead? It was hard to say. Dune shook things up more than it nailed them down. This was a quality it had in common with the budding counterculture. Brand and his Whole Earth Catalog, in particular, seemed to point in all directions at once: drugs, Indians, environmentalism, rural life, space colonization, rock music, video games, entrepreneurship, and cybernetics.
Herbert shared nearly all of Brand’s enthusiasms, including the technological ones. He spoke at the first Earth Day and turned his farm into an “Ecological Demonstration Project” to showcase solar heating and wind power. He also, at the height of his Dune popularity, made the odd decision to write an “essential guide to home computers,” half manual and half manifesto. “Get your own computer,” Herbert advised. “If you don’t do this, the Bill of Rights is dead and your individual liberties will go the way of the dodo.”
Concern for individual liberties was no small thing for Herbert, and it kept his politics rooted in the right. So while Brand worked in the 1970s with California’s Democratic governor Jerry Brown to implement environmental regulations and incentive schemes, Herbert spent his later career teasing out the libertarian, martial, and conservative strands of the counterculture.
The Dune franchise rests on the wide popularity of the first novel, ending with Paul Atreides’s victory. Readers who press on are often surprised by the second. Dune was written, Herbert explained, as a trap: he’d presented Paul as a charismatic hero in the first book only to undermine him in the next. There, Herbert tells how Paul’s anti-imperial jihad soured, turning into a “religious butchery” killing 61,000,000,000 people. At its end, Paul compares himself to Hitler and then laughs, realizing how far he has outstripped the Führer’s genocidal legacy.
The point, as Herbert saw it, was to discipline readers, to punish their love of Paul as a way of warning them “against big government and especially against charismatic leaders.” Here, he had in mind mainly Kennedy, whom he regarded as “one of the most dangerous presidents this country ever had.” Kennedy’s type of popularity, he warned, could lead to “unreined power.” And thus, in the era of the Great Society, when the federal government made headlines defending civil rights, establishing Medicare and Medicaid, launching public television, and funding K-12 schooling, Herbert’s main concern was state overreach.
Though Herbert found little to love in Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, he was more amenable to Richard Nixon, an ally from his time in politics in the 1950s. The disgraced president “did us all a favor,” Herbert contended after Watergate. “Nixon taught us one hell of a lesson, and I thank him for it. He made us distrust government leaders.” The central Dune books chronicle the regime of Paul Atreides’s son, Leto II, a Nixonian figure who tyrannizes the galaxy for millennia in order to teach people a “lesson their bones would remember.” Having taught it, Leto advises his subjects, “I expect you to be exceedingly careful about the powers you delegate to any government.”
Herbert’s last Dune novels are not for the weak. Written quickly while the IRS hounded the author for unpaid taxes, their plots tend toward the baroque, with major characters respawned ceaselessly, often as clones. Impatient with the subtle parables of his first book, Herbert let his caustic views bleed onto the page. In Book 5, the word liberal, used in a context entirely unrelated to politics, is enough to set the novel’s hero off. She lives 25,000 years in the future, yet just hearing someone say “liberal” puts her in mind of the 20th century and “how much viciousness lay concealed in that word” — “how much secret ego demanding to feel superior.” “Liberal bigots are the ones to trouble me the most,” another character opines. “Liberal governments always develop into aristocracies.”
At the end of the series, the heroes fight off “ravening hordes” from the galaxy’s edge: “terrorists” who, in a disturbing twist, have become “bureaucrats.” These implacable foes operate, Herbert explains, by using “the lie that taxes solve all problems” and by deploying “a social security system to quiet the masses.” They prey on the “middle class.”
Relentlessly hostile to the welfare state, Herbert came to favor a government-shredding system of “great juries.” To check leaders and stymie bureaucrats, computers would randomly select jurors and give them the power to “fire anybody in government for cause — anybody, without recourse” — from the president on down. Democracy, a Dune character explains, is not ultimately a system of voting but one “of organized distrust,” in which citizens regard anyone in power with suspicion. Perhaps predictably, Herbert was a member of the National Rifle Association and a Ronald Reagan supporter. “His foreign policy scares the shit out of me,” Herbert said of Reagan, “but as long as he’s paranoid of the bureaucracy I’ll stand aside and applaud.”
Herbert reserved a few cheers for eugenics, too. The Dune saga is full of planned breeding schemes. At first, Paul Atreides, who is the culmination of one of them, rejects genetic meddling. Yet in the later novels, various heroes take up a long-term eugenics program to refine the Atreides bloodline. “I now know,” wrote Herbert, that “all humans are not created equal” and that any attempt to equalize them “rebounds.” In Dune, the Atreides become a Nietzschean super-race, uniquely able to shape the forces of history. “I must rule with eye and claw — as the hawk among lesser birds,” is a family motto.
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With its first magazine appearance in 1963, Dune seemed like a book out of time. The Eisenhower administration was barely over, yet here was a celebration of ecology, psychedelics, Indian ways, and the death of “Western man.” It was only once readers caught up with Herbert that he came to seem less bizarre and more prescient.
He seems so now, too, just in a more discomfiting way. Though the counterculture’s most visible immediate impact was on the left, the 21st century has witnessed the growth of its right-wing forms. Technolibertarians like Elon Musk reach for space; the incels of 8kun promulgate antigovernment paranoia; and heavily armed Odin-worshipers storm state capitols to protest mask regulations. The right no longer sports a crew cut, goes to church, venerates the family, and plays it straight. Instead, it spurns the establishment and makes war on the state.
On cue, Dune is back. The first book is a novel, not a manifesto, and has admirers across the political spectrum. Yet the one itch it doesn’t scratch is the longing for liberal democracy. Dune is, in that sense, a measure of our discontent. As liberal norms lose their hold — as our world lurches from Parks and Recreation to Game of Thrones — Arrakis feels more real. We look up from the wreckage of 2020 and there is Frank Herbert, beckoning from the desert.
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Daniel Immerwahr is a professor of history at Northwestern University and the author, most recently, of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.
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Banner image: “Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area” by Theo Crazzolara is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
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[1] Since you asked, this is a battle in the great war between the Orthodox Herbertarians of Jacurutu.com, who accept only the Frank Herbert–written works as canon, and the denizens of Dunenovels.com, who are willing to allow the Herbert-plotted books written by Brian Herbert, Frank’s son, and Kevin J. Anderson. Much hangs, as you might imagine, on the disputed veracity of the computer disks conveniently “found” by Brian Herbert, containing his late father’s outline for the end of the Dune saga. The disks, whose contents haven’t been released, allowed Herbert and Anderson to connect their fan-fic prequels to the now-authorized sequels, which they also wrote. “DandM” are Daniel and Marty, the preposterous pair of gardeners who appear in the final pages of Chapterhouse: Dune and seem to somehow be controlling the Duncan Idaho ghola through their “net”; “FD” are Face Dancers, a subordinate class of the Tleilaxu. I provisionally side with the Orthodox Herbertarians but acknowledge that future conjunctures may require flexibility.
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