Sietchposting: A Short Guide to Recent Work on “Dune”

By Haris A. DurraniMarch 27, 2022

Sietchposting: A Short Guide to Recent Work on “Dune”
THE “DUNESCOURSE” — or “sietchposting,” as it is affectionately called — is vast. But it may be worth introducing readers to a few of its central preoccupations. Chief among these is the issue of Herbert’s engagement with non-Western peoples and sources, which were limited and Orientalist — but also more thoughtful than one might expect. It is well known that Herbert was inspired by the history and contemporary politics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), not only in the languages of Dune (Karin Christina Ryding, Kara Kennedy, Khalid Baheyeldin, Mohamed Salama Al-Masry), but also in its use of Islamic thought and Muslim histories (Haris A. Durrani, Carl Ernst, Ali Karjoo-Ravary) more generally. Of course, Herbert looked to the stories of T. E. Lawrence (Kennedy) and accounts of Imam Shamyl’s struggle with the Russian Empire (Will Collins) in building his social and religious landscape. But Herbert did not do so uncritically. Thus, while he drew on Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he also read Suleiman Mousa’s critique, T. E. Lawrence: An Arab View (Durrani). Was his translation of such accounts into the world of Dune perfect? No, of course not. But it was interesting.

And it wasn’t just Islam. Herbert adapted a variety of traditions. These included diverse aspects of Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, an admixture of which can be detected in many of the peoples and practices he conjures (Durrani). But his influences went further still, encompassing the Mura and Arawak (Pascoal Naib), Indonesian and Malay, Navajo, and Kalahari peoples. Significantly, Herbert’s views were shaped by his lifelong interactions with the Quileute Tribe in La Push, Washington (Daniel Immerwahr), including in his descriptions of life among the dunes of Arrakis. The novels also engage in crucial ways with Black life in and beyond North Africa (Peter Herman, Margari Hill), so much so that one might accuse the 2021 film of “race-switching” Josh Brolin’s character from a Black to a white man (Durrani). All of this is to say, Herbert’s sources were wide-ranging and his use of them signals both an authorial instrumentalism and an abiding fascination.

Perhaps the most controversial issue among Dune readers is whether the novels (and, more recently, the film adaptations) constitute a white savior narrative. Some scholars have argued that the saga does fall into this trope (David M. Higgins), while others have suggested Herbert’s intent and the text of the novel aimed, perhaps unsuccessfully, to critique such a story (Donald Palumbo). Much of this debate has centered on Herbert’s politics, including his Republican and pro-imperialist activities and possible disillusionment with them. Scholars see Dune as an anti-fascist critique of saviors (Jordan Carroll, Juan Cole), a complex but ultimately conservative tome (Immerwahr), and even an anti-liberal engagement with non-Western thought which overlapped with left critiques but failed to grasp the extent of structural power (Durrani, R. J. Ellis). Of course, this debate also hinges on the masculinity of its savior, a purported superman bred by an order of superpowered women. While some commentators see the gender relations of the novels as normative politics (Joshua Pearson), others suggest that the portrayal of the Bene Gesserit is subversive (Kennedy). The status of Dune as a white savior narrative comes down to how readers (and now, viewers) break on these issues — and, of course, on how they define such narratives in the first place, a fuller discussion of which can be found elsewhere (Durrani).

Inevitably, the dunescourse has bled into film commentary. Reviewers have critiqued the 2021 adaptation as savior narrative (Karjoo-Ravary) and for its lack of Muslim or MENA cast members (Roxana Hadadi, Hanna Flint). Other reviews have applauded the film’s emphasis on the novels’ critique of saviors, instead taking issue with its noble savage stereotypes, its dilution of Herbert’s critique of liberal colonizers, and its shallow exploration of Muslim or MENA themes (The Middle Geeks, Durrani, Karjoo-Ravary, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw). All in all, the 2021 film — which is the jumping-off point for the essays in “Sciences of Dune” — did not solve the problems some identify in Herbert’s text and seems to have introduced some new ones of its own. The resulting conversations about the politics of representation and the history of Islam as it has been portrayed on film have been welcome, and some hope remains that Villeneuve’s second installment will improve upon the flaws of the first.

Despite the breadth of scholarship on Dune, much work remains. How did Herbert obtain his extensive knowledge of Arabic and Islamic thought, particularly theology (Durrani)? Who were the people he called his “Arab” and “Semitic” “friends” (Karjoo-Ravary)? Likewise, while the Bene Gesserit are often analogized to Jesuit missionaries and eugenicists, they were also inspired by the Fatimid Caliphate, an aspect of the novels’ understudied references to Ismailism (James Morris). Scholars will also dig into the later novels’ references to the Afghanistan/Pakistan North-West Frontier Province (Durrani), deeper dives into Buddhism (Jim Clarke), inspirations from South and Southeast Asia, perhaps blunt depiction of Judaism (Michael Weingrad), and befuddling gender politics.

Finally, future work might emphasize that Herbert’s use of history was not only analogical but speculative. While his protagonist is an analogy for Lawrence, Imam Shamyl, the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus, and perhaps the anticolonial Sudanese leader Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah (Hill), he is also an attempt to imagine (among much else) the future appearance of the Mahdi, a key eschatological figure in Islam. Herbert seems to have drawn on Shiʿi understandings of the Mahdi, and his engagements with Shiʿism (particularly the relationship between Twelvers and Ismailis) (Durrani), Baha’ism, and the Druze are some of the more understudied elements of his oeuvre. The same goes for his appropriations of ideas from ecology, anthropology, economics, and the law. Some of these last topics are taken up in the essays that comprise “Sciences of Dune,” though they — and so many other topics — await fuller treatment down the road. Like so much of the work reviewed in this short guide, it is our hope that these essays are read as invitations, not conclusions, and that they spark reflections on both the overlaps between science and science fiction and the degree to which both areas mirror back the societies within and through which they are forged.


Art by Kenneth Mills.


Haris A. Durrani is a PhD candidate in history at Princeton University, where he studies law, technology, and US empire. His essays have appeared in The Washington PostThe NationNew Lines, and The New Inquiry. He is the author of Technologies of the Self, and his most recent short fiction can be found in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, Vol. II.

LARB Contributor

Haris A. Durrani is a PhD candidate in history at Princeton University, where he studies law, technology, and US empire. His essays have appeared in The Washington PostThe NationNew Lines, and The New Inquiry. He is the author of Technologies of the Self, and his most recent short fiction can be found in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, Vol. II.


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