It is quite odd, re-reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, to see his ideas – written down in the early 1960’s and ahead of their time then – in relation to how we stand today in relation to Islam.
Dune, at one level, is a sweeping space opera, an adventure where two noble families battle for supremacy in an imperial setting – but set in a strange and far future. Imperial politics are what they usually are – but are also subtly controlled by a shadowy and all-powerful female priesthood, the Bene Gesserit. Interstellar space travel is controlled exclusively by the Guild of Navigators – and they accomplish it only by use of a difficult to obtain mind-altering drug. This drug is made from a strange spice available in one place only in all the universe – the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune. The novel is the story of two families fighting for control of the spice.
But at another level, Dune explores the culture of desert Arabs, and draws heavily on Islamic ideas such as jihad or holy war. I don’t think a publisher would touch it if it was written today. Indeed, even writing such a work would put you at risk from those who see Islam as completely beyond or above discussion – much less actual criticism.
Whilst is is broadly sympathetic to Islam and to desert culture, we see parallels drawn between the rise of the prophet, and the rise of Frank Herbert’s central character Paul Muad’Dib, and the holy war or Jihad that Paul Muad’Dib is so keen to prevent. He sees it in visions and dreams: war, suffering, warriors and fighting, spreading out unstoppable from Arrakis, across the known universe. And it is the last thing he wants.
As a writer though, two things to note: firstly, Dune as pure story seems much less sophisticated than later science fiction, and second, there is some wonderful mixing of metaphor and adjective, which I record here. The central character Paul – at this point just fifteen but the son of a Duke – and his mother are marooned in the desert after a plane crash, and “…he inhaled, sensed the softly contralto smell of sage climbing the night…it had brought a stillness to the basin so unuttered that the blue milk moonlight could almost be heard flowing across sentinel saguaro and spiked paint brush. There was a low humming of light…”
I was charmed by the idea that moonlight could be heard, or that the smell of sage could be contralto, or stillness, unuttered.