Text: Leo Valkama
The movie Dune, by director Denis Villeneuve, came out in Finland on the 17th of September 2021. It is a story of imperialism, of our relationship with nature, and of larger than life leaders. What may be surprising to some, is that the movie is based on a book of the same name, which came out in 1965; yet Dune’s political themes fit our current political climate better than ever. This article will contain some spoilers on Dune’s world and it’s characters, but will spoil only a few of the plot points from the first half of the book.
Dune is a sci-fi story that focuses on the many players fighting over the planet Arrakis. Arrakis is a desert planet, and the only place to find the most coveted resource in the universe called “melange” or, in layman’s terms, “spice”. Spice allows one to live longer and makes interstellar travel possible.
Most planets known in the Dune universe live under an empire. The empire’s main goal on Arrakis is to produce large amounts of spice and ship it off the planet. The natives of Arrakis, called the Fremen, use spice as a part of their diet, and it is an important part of both their religious and cultural life.
Many parallels can be found between the Dune universe’s imperialism on Arrakis and imperialism in Africa and the Middle East. The image of Fremen culture is very clearly influenced by cultures from the Middle East and many Fremen words are from Arabic.
Spice is a natural resource that imperialists want so they can get rich. This is achieved through massacring and exploiting the locals. One need only replace spice with many of the local natural resources of our world, and the same story can be found in many places. The exploitation is historical and continuous throughout centuries. This is encapsulated by the beginning of the movie, where a young Fremen girl, Chani, tells the viewers that she has only ever known cruelty of the previous leaders, but when the system changes, the question isn’t how things will get better, it is: “Who will our next oppressors be?”.
One could very well analyze Arrakis from a marxist perspective and note how much the value-transfer from the global south to the global north resembles that from Arrakis to the central planets of the empire. On Arrakis, imperialism is enforced especially through violence, while in our world today it is mostly enforced by neoliberal institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO with multinational corporations. Nevertheless, it must be said that, in Dune, political and economic power is also institutionalized in the CHOAM company, which truly controls the flow of spice in the empire’s economy. Likewise, in our world violent intervention is still a key tool for imperialists to guarantee economic interests.
Another central theme of the book is the intertwining of religious and political power. The main character, Paul Atreides, can see visions of the future, and thus the Fremen see him as a messiah who will lead them to paradise. As Paul tries to survive by using the Fremen belief to his advantage, he sees visions of the future of a jihad (or a holy war in the movie) that will spread throughout the universe, fought in his name. Paul sees all the death and destruction this will bring and thus wants to avoid it, but sees it as nigh on impossible.
A cult of personality is created around Paul, but it is shown that he cannot really control the messianic cult himself; whatever he does will lead to immeasurable destruction. The writer of the original book, Frank Herbert, himself has written that Dune is largely about critiquing cults of personality around political leaders.
Leaders are humans just like everyone else and make mistakes, but when the leader is seen as something more, many problems arise. At the same time, this person who is at the center, does not necessarily have real control of the cult around them. In some places authoritarian leaders cannot step down as they are often the peace that’s keeping a society from breaking out into civil war. Just like with Paul, a cult of personality is created around them, but they are not free to do as they will, for they must perform their part.
Finally, ecology is a central theme in the book. The planetary ecologist, Liet-Kynes, dreams of an Arrakis that is not a desert, but a planet full of living plants and animals. Dune is also a book about our relationship with the planet around us. The Fremen live with Arrakis and have learned to survive and harness it’s many specialities, such as the giant sandworms. At the same time, those who come from the outside wish only to become wealthy and leave.
What Dune reminds us of, is that the way we interact with the world around us is a central political question. It is always in the interests of some to destroy nature, to not allow life to bloom, even when it is clearly not in the interests of the majority. In Dune, the people in power say it would be too expensive to turn Arrakis into a green planet, while they make great financial gains from the spice in the desert. People with those same financial interests say it is too expensive to stop climate change, while certain groups get rich off of the destruction of our planet. In Dune, the powerful conceal information and fight in the political arenas to preserve the status quo, using their wealth and influence. This is not too far from our reality today.
On top of these questions, Dune also tackles the themes of feudalism, morality and the human experience. The themes of ecology, imperialism and cults of personality in particular are quite remarkable, though, as these are very central questions of the 2020s. Dune is a story from the past that shows us a future from which we could learn many lessons for today.