Revisiting Dune & Its Saviors: On the Thoughts to Come

Last year, I tweeted about Frank Herbert’s Dune and its apparent white savior problem. Unexpectedly, the Twitter thread went viral, and, following the numerous responses, I collated and developed the thread into a long-form essay (here on Medium). The tweet was intended as a discursive intervention: I’d felt that many were reading Dune as a simple white savior narrative, when that did not align with how I had read the book, particularly through my experiences as a Muslim person of color (Dominican and Pakistani) with a passion for the history and theory of post/colonialism, law, and technology. Previously, when I tried to engage respectable debate on social media about the issue, I was usually met with silence or cursory responses. Thus, I opened my thread with the hard claim: “Do you think Dune is a white savior narrative? Well, you’re wrong.” Clearly, that initiated a response — but, while I am happy with the discussions and connections it generated (including this wonderful conversation with Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders at Our Opinions Are Correct), I’m cautious that Twitter is only amenable to strong claims, and, obviously, is not suitable for substantive and open discussion. There is Paul’s warning: “disengage… disengage!”

In the coming months, I would like to use this space to move beyond that initial essay and toward a more open, critical, and interactive discourse. Ahem, dunescourse. I will post a series of essays about Dune via Medium, each for one of two purposes:

(1) Generating a catalogue of thought pieces, putting into words my long-gestating ruminations on particular aspects or themes of the Dune books.

(2) A reading journal. I am currently re/reading the series (when I first read it, I stopped somewhere around God Emperor of Dune). At the moment, I am about to revisit Children of Dune. As I read, I will post brief, scattershot journal entries of my thoughts as I pick through portions of the books. At some point, some of these thoughts might work their way into future thought pieces, or I may go back and add to prior thought pieces. I imagine, and hope, my views on some issues will change as I go along.

(Table of Contents for the essay series.)

I have many (too many) thoughts on Herbert, the books, and their adaptations — in particular, observations that speak to how Dune relates to Muslim and postcolonial experiences and scholarship, as well as legal theory and history, and the history and sociology of science and technology. I’m surprised to find that there are extremely few publications detailing the depth of Herbert’s engagement with these themes, especially but not only with respect to Islam. On that subject, at the most, I have encountered websites, Twitter threads, Reddit forums, and the occasional academic article dedicated to Herbert’s use of the Arabic language (these sources are linked in my initial essay).

But the engagement with Islam, colonialism, law, technology, and much else, is far deeper, in my view, and has never been put to paper or to any virtual space.

I’d like to use this space as a window into that way of seeing Dune, at least as this reader experiences it.

Now, my experiences and ideas are not significantly unique or “authentic,” and the perspectives of any community are never monolithic. Accordingly, I welcome others to respond to me with dissenting or concurring opinions. These essays are meant neither as scholarship nor to relate “the Muslim experience” or “the POC experience” of Dune. But I am a Muslim academic of color, and those parts of who I am will inevitably shape my subjective readings. Hopefully that will make things interesting.

I don’t imagine these essays will go viral. My intent is more prosaic: I would merely like for some of my observations to exist out in the world, whether anyone reads them or not — beyond my head, beyond the conversations I have with any particular community, and beyond the Dune book club I share with a few friends (which mainly consists of Dune memes). Perhaps, when the next reader like me comes along looking for a source or a series of thoughts to think with, they can have it at their fingertips. I did not have those resources. I hope that my writings will encourage others to contribute their own perspectives, too.

Another way I’d like to use this space: In my “white savior” piece, I initially wrote, “This essay is not an apologetic.” However, because I oriented the thread/essay against the predominant view that Dune is a white savior narrative, I dedicated few words to actually describe the many “problems” to which I alluded. I’d like to use this space to explore these problems in all their complexities (e.g. the precise nature of Dune’s orientalism; Herbert’s right-wing politics; the uncomfortable intersections, as well as deviations, between Herbert’s romanticism of the Fremen and his politics; the jihad and “the masses”; and much more). As I elaborated:

To just call it a white savior narrative misses a lot. It’s a lost opportunity to engage with some intriguing ideas — and to think more carefully about, and interrogate with greater force, deeper forms of orientalism and othering.

I would like to make good on that promise here.

I encourage anyone to reply, critically or positively, to any of the essays that will come. I’m not sure Medium is the optimal place for these discussions, but hopefully it is more optimal than Twitter.

That said, I will continue to use Twitter (Haris Durrani @hdernity), particularly for unorganized thoughts as I re/read the books. But hopefully the comments section on these Medium posts can provide a healthier space for discussion.

I am most excited to share with you an essay on a topic I’ve sat on for a long time: the role of bi-la kaifa in Dune. It blows my mind every time I think about it. Hopefully that will be soon.

As the Fremen (and *not* the Mandaloreans) say, “It’s the way!”

For the first post in the reading journal, see Entry 1: Reading Children of Dune, Entry 1: Qur’anic Passages; Race & Fremen Customs; Tradition & Change (pp. 1–29)