I have been lolling the Dune trailer around in my mouth. I was a huge fan of the novel when I read it in high school. I even wrote a term paper on it (much to the intense confusion of my sophomore English teacher). But the trailer that has everyone so excited, has instead left me cold.
Why? The film looks smart, and seems to offer a visually stunning, compelling take on a dense source material that has proven difficult for even some of the best filmmakers around to adapt. Denis Villeneuve is at the helm. If Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are any indicator, he just might be the person to pull off Dune.
My problem isn’t so much with the film (obviously, since you can’t judge from a trailer). It’s with the source material. There are two core elements of the book’s plot that are troubling. They are a “white savior” narrative and a promotion of eugenics.
Considering the ongoing crisis of police brutality that spurred the uprising for Black lives, and the recent damning accusations that the United States may be practicing eugenics by forcing sterilizations on migrant women, maybe, just maybe, this is not the fucking time.
Fascism and Sci-fi (or, if you will, Fash Gordon)
The sci-fi and fantasy genres inherently promote and celebrate big ideas and imagine new worlds. But despite how forward-looking it can be, some of the creators of classic science fiction and fantasy literature have been vile reactionaries. H.P. Lovecraft, father of the Cthulhu mythos that is a bedrock of the “cosmic horror” genre, was horrifyingly racist, sexist, and classist. He seemed to hate everyone not like him– white, straight, male, well-to-do. That is one reason why the recent HBO series Lovecraft Country is so celebrated; not just because it is a stellar bit of horror TV, but because it (and the book it is based on) takes a mythology steeped in racism and makes anti-racist stories from it.
Robert E. Howard, creator of the Conan the Barbarian stories (and a friend of Lovecraft’s) was also deeply racist. Though his Wikipedia page repeatedly tries to excuse this as being “a product of his time,” (as if telling racist stories is some kind of temporal inevitability) the fact remains. And as I wrote over on The Public Medievalist, the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and subsequent fantasy authors is laden with racism. And those three were hardly alone; “classic” sci-fi and fantasy is littered with white male heroes battling aliens or monsters that have been coded as people of color.
The community is in the midst of a reckoning. Last year, Jeannette Ng won the prestigious John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer for her first book Under the Pendulum Sun. The award was named after John W. Campbell. Campbell was editor of the Astounding Science-Fiction magazine (which he renamed Analog Science Fact/Science Fiction in 1960) from 1937 until 1971. He has been argued to be perhaps the most influential person in science fiction—at least during that era.
John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fucking fascist.
She was not wrong.
Her speech ignited a firestorm in the community. But for many, this was old news. Campbell notoriously used his position of power to keep writers of color, Jewish people, and women from opportunities in sci-fi. Or, when he did publish them, he required these authors to “whiten” their writing (i.e., replace characters of color with white people, and erasing Jewish-sounding names) in order to be published. Ng’s speech may have kicked up controversy, but it seems only because she was one of the first brave enough to so publically address the white-supremacist elephant in sci-fi’s room. She was quickly, and thoroughly vindicated: the award was renamed “the Astounding award.” Her 2019 acceptance speech itself won a Hugo award in 2020.
But Campbell’s editorial perspective has had a long legacy in the genre. As Ng said in her award-winning speech:
he [Campbell] is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists.
Dune, White Saviors, and Space-anticolonialism
Frank Herbert’s ambitious novel Dune was originally published in serialized format from 1963 to 1965. It originally appeared in Analog Science Fact/Science Fiction under the editorship of, you guessed it, John W. Campbell. As with most editorial relationships, it is difficult to know how much influence Campbell had on Dune. But it is clear that the themes in the book passed muster with its white-supremacist editor.
For those of you who have not read the book [spoilers from here on out], Dune is a sprawling epic set tens of thousands of years in the future. Much like in Star Wars (and a lot of the “science fantasy” sub-genre), the universe Herbert creates is a mashup of high-technology (space travel, cloning, laser guns) and medieval culture (a crumbling empire, feudal relationships, monastic orders). The story follows Paul Atreides, the heir to the Atreides dynasty, as his family takes colonial ownership over a desert planet. This planet, Arrakis, is the only known source of a drug which is the key to interstellar travel.
But, the Atreides family is betrayed and attacked by the dastardly House Harkonnen who (with the Emperor’s blessing), hunt down and kill most of the Atreides. Paul and his mother escape only by fleeing into the desert, where they meet and join the indigenous Fremen people (who are deeply coded as Arab and Bedouin). After taking the raw form of the space drug and participating in Fremen rituals, it is revealed that Paul is a prophesied Messiah with the ability to see the future. He arms the Fremen with high-tech weapons and leads them to overthrow their Harkonnen and Imperial colonial masters, ultimately setting himself up as the new Emperor.
Oh, and there are giant space worms.
This summary leaves quite a lot out; the book is complex, with deep meditations on religion, society, and environmentalism. But hopefully even from this summary you can see some of the thematic contours. It can easily be read as a commentary on Middle Eastern oil and the (then rising) power of the OPEC nations. It is an ecological book, allegorically addressing the destruction of important ecosystems in pursuit of transportation fuel. It is a parable about the rise of religious fundamentalism and the folly of clinging to power at all costs.
It’s also a book about colonialism, with obvious parallels to the anti-colonial struggles across the Middle East that were occurring in the years surrounding the writing of this book. But that is where one of its core problem lies: in its “white savior.”
You are likely familiar with the trope of the white savior in fiction: a white person swoops into a community of color and manages to heroically lift them up, to, in effect, “save them from themselves.” It is deeply racist and paternalistic. And it can be found in countless films, TV shows, and even ad campaigns for foreign-aid efforts. And more, it is intrinsically linked to the racist idea of the “white man’s burden,” the odious notion that white men had a responsibility to “civilize” the world, which was itself used as a justification for colonialism.
Paul is the white savior of Dune. The novel’s closest cousin is probably its near-contemporary, the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. In both, the hero is a white representative of a foreign power at war in a desert land. In both, they integrate themselves with the local Arab/Arab-coded powers, and in both, they lead a daring guerrilla war against imperial power, and win. But that is where the stories diverge; in Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence ultimately fails in his quest to help the locals achieve self-governance because, as the film tells it, those locals are too invested in old grudges and jockeying for power to keep the lights on. This is a deeply racist idea that has been recapitulated in the media coverage of the governments of post-American invasion Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Dune, the ending is arguably even worse. Paul, with his Fremen armies at his back, overthrow the Emperor and set themselves up as the new center of power, with the white messiah/superman at its apex. But Paul also fails, but in a different direction.
For a moment, in the climactic fight at the end of the book, Paul takes stock of the future and does not like what he sees. As he peers into the future, he sees an inevitable galactic total war, and that starting that war was his real destiny:
Even the faint gaps were closed now. Here was the unborn jihad, he knew. Here was the race consciousness that he had known once as his own terrible purpose […] The race of humans had felt its own dormancy, sensed itself grown stale and knew now only the need to experience turmoil in which the genes would mingle and the strong new mixtures survive. All humans were alive as an unconscious single organism in this moment, experiencing a kind of sexual heat that could override any barrier.
And Paul saw how futile were any efforts of his to change any smallest bit of this. He had thought to oppose the jihad within himself, but the jihad would be. His legions would rage out from Arrakis even without him. They needed only the legend he already had become. […]
A sense of failure pervaded him.”
Paul’s vision is correct. In the Dune sequels, he and his family rules tyrannically. The war that he began costs the universe 61 billion lives.
This complicates the “white savior”; critics of this reading of Dune, like Harris Durran in an essay for Medium, have argued that this (and an interview given by the author) makes Dune a critique of the white savior rather than a recapitulation of it.
But where this misses the mark is the very inevitability of it all. The idea that the crypto-Arab Fremen are destined only either to be colonized or to undertake a mega-jihad—and that being “uplifted” by a white superman is the fulcrum on which that rests—removes their agency completely. That the idea of a messianic figure was embedded in their culture by their colonial masters does not particularly change that. A lack of agency on the part of the people of color is the core of the “white savior.” Whatever “it” is, they couldn’t have done it without the white savior.
In the story, Paul cannot see any way out of the coming jihad. But this is making the way that white saviors see themselves into a deterministic inevitability. The author can have his cake and eat it too; the hero of his story can cause the deaths of millions and remain sympathetic. Despite all his agency through the book to that point, oh well, genocidal war was “inevitable.”
He is not the white savior critiqued, he is the white savior transcended to a shrugging Calvinistic godhood.
And ultimately, “the Arabs are destined to kill everyone in a religious war” is not a good look, no matter what complicating factors are in play.
Dune and Eugenics
Even more worrying than its white-savior and anti-anticolonial themes are the way that the novel embraces eugenics. Eugenics is, in short, a debunked scientific theory that humans can (and should) be “improved” via selective breeding. This would be accomplished by encouraging the “strong” (however defined) to have many children, and preventing “undesirables” from having them.
Eugenics was most famously promoted by the Nazis in their pursuit of a fictional “pure Aryan master race” and led to the mass-murder of millions of Jewish people, people with disabilities, Romani, homosexuals, and others. But it is important to remember that eugenics was enthusiastically embraced by white supremacists the world over, especially in the UK and USA. And this should be of little surprise, since Eugenics is at its heart a deeply racist and ableist endeavor. What makes a person “superior” or “inferior” is always in the eyes of the eugenicist who, in their pursuit of what they believe to be “superiority,” seeks to stamp out difference.
Eugenics led to forced sterilization and forced abortions for thousands of women, particularly women of color and women with disabilities, around the world. And with the simultaneous rise of cheap home genetic testing kits and a lurch towards the extreme right around the world, a new eugenics movement has taken hold. Under the coded language of “human biodiversity,” the current extreme right advocates for pseudo-scientific genetic explanations, and solutions, for their racist ideas. But even on the more-mainstream right, the white supremacist conspiracy theory of “the great replacement”– that people of color are having more children and having mixed-race children thus leading to the end of the white race– has been gaining cache for decades. When, in 2006, pundit John Gibson told his white Fox News audience to “make more babies” because the USA was becoming more Hispanic, that is the theory of eugenics at work. When Donald Trump praised the “good bloodlines” of people like Henry Ford and his own allegedly “good genes,” that is the language of eugenics. When women are sterilized in ICE custody, that is eugenics in horrific action.
But this “new” eugenics is just the old eugenics in a clean suit. It still uses discredited and debunked science to argue that “superiority” is in the blood.
This line of thinking has been present in quite a lot of genre fiction as well. Any time a hero’s special abilities are explained as being in their “blood,” or that certain “bloodlines” are particularly important, that is eugenics-lite. The Star Wars franchise is maybe the most popular example; the Skywalkers and Palpatines are powerful Jedi because of intrinsic ability carried from parent to child. The Last Jedi was thrilling because it seemed, in the revelation that Rey’s parents were “nobodies,” to break from this tradition. But J.J. Abrams, seeming to bow to pressure from some of the worst in the fan community, reversed course in the sequel and re-made Rey back into yet another blood-Jedi, yet another genetic Ubermensch.
But if Star Wars is eugenics-lite, Dune is eugenics straight up, no chaser. In the novel, it is revealed that Paul has his supernatural abilities because he is the product of a human breeding program conducted in secret by a shadowy, Illuminati-esque cabal of women called the “Bene Gesserit.” The Bene Gesserit had been selectively breeding their members with the leaders of the imperial houses in order to create a “Kwisatz Haderach”—a super being who would rule the universe under their control. But alas, where Paul’s mother was supposed to have a girl (who would then give birth to the Kwisatz Haderach), she instead followed her husband’s wishes for a boy. And so Paul, the Kwisatz Haderach, is born a generation early and beyond Gesserit control.
Yes, it’s a lot.
Science fiction though it may be, the “science” this narrative it is based on is not just bunk, but deeply destructive. It doesn’t matter whether the Bene Gesserit are shown to be evil, the very idea that they could be successful is, itself, an evil one. No amount of “selective breeding” would bring about the superman that either the Gesserit or the Nazis are after. And more, the strength of humanity is in its collective diversity, not its “purity.” The very idea that a selective breeding program like this could even theoretically work, might even have the chance to bring about a superhero, might as well be an ad for the alt-right.
What do we do?
Despite having enjoyed the original novel when I was a teenager, and respecting the prior work of everyone involved in the film, I don’t think I will be seeing Dune. I am not calling for a boycott (as if that would make any difference at all). But for those who want to see it despite understanding why it is deeply problematic, I would ask why they are engaging in a “willing suspension of disapproval” over a film with such clear odious themes.
I look forward to genre fiction in big-budget films that embraces better visions of our possible pasts and futures. I look forward to adaptations of work, like Ng’s, that have shaken off the legacy of fascist editors and racist writers. I want to see Denis Villeneuve adapt the next great work of speculative fiction for screen, not rehash the last one.