Airport chocolate, ReBooks, and Dune

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Orson Scott Card reviews Airport chocolate, ReBooks, and Dune — but I’ll skip to the part where he takes another look at Dune and its uncanny prescience:

There was considerable irony in Dune‘s use of Arabic culture and language as the explicit basis of the “Fremen,” the desert dwellers who become the source of Paul Atreides power and, when he unleashes them, the scourge of the universe.

Herbert traces the roots of Fremen culture from world to world, and makes it clear that, while the specifics of Islamic belief are never laid out, the customs and culture of these people have been Muslim all along. (One of the great sources of their seething anger against the empire is that they have been denied the right to the Haj — the pilgrimage that Muslims make to Mecca.)

The emotional core of the novel, then, comes from a T.E. Lawrence-like character, Paul Atreides, coming to dwell with and learning to live as an Arab Muslim, until he is able to lead them to victorious battle.

Paul, being a non-Muslim, treats the idea of jihad as an abhorrent one; he long tries to resist the blood and horror of such a thing, though by the end of the book he has given up and realizes that the jihad will happen and cannot be prevented or even controlled.

So here’s the thought that occurred to me during such passages of Dune: What if Osama bin Laden somehow read Dune during his formative years? Or, if he did not read it himself, certainly there were Arab Muslim students in America who did read it, and the book might well have been part of the reason they became receptive to Osama’s ideas.

Because a Muslim would not read this book the same way I did. To an Arab Muslim, the Arabic words and names would leap off the page; the Fremen characters would be the ones an Arab reader would most identify with.

Such a reader would not feel any of Paul Atreides’ reluctance for jihad — on the contrary, he would be hoping Paul would fail to stop the jihad.

And when, at the end of the book, the Arab jihad is triumphant, this reader — Osama or another of his ideology — would not only feel great emotional satisfaction, he would have the blueprint for his own future.

Because the Fremen in Dune triumph, not just because of the force of their arms or their courage in battle, but because they control the only source of the “Spice,” a substance only created in the complex desert ecology of Arrakis, the planet they control. Without Spice the starships cannot navigate, and interstellar trade would grind to a halt.

The whole economy of the interstellar empire is dependent on and therefore under the ultimate control of the Fremen. Anything the offworlders do to them will hurt the offworlders far more than it hurts the Fremen. The parallel with oil is obvious.

I can just see such a reader thinking, This isn’t fiction. This is the future. This is why jihad not only can work but must work; we lack only a leader to show us the way. The novel made it a European (in culture) who comes to the poor Fremen and leads them, but this is nonsense.

To such a reader, the true founder of the victory of the Fremen is Liet Kynes, the native-born Fremen who studied offworld science and then came home and, under the noses of their colonial rulers, prepared the Fremen for jihad and victory.

Remember that Herbert wrote Dune in the 1960s, before the first oil embargo, before any Islamist government was ever formed.

Whether Dune had any causal influence on the rise of Al Qaeda, Herbert certainly did a superb job of predicting the rise and the power of such an ideology. I would be surprised if there were not, among the followers of Osama bin Laden, at least a few readers of Dune for whom this book feels like their future, their identity, their dream.

In other words, Herbert got it horribly right.

Meanwhile, it’s one of the seminal novels of science fiction, and one of the most important novels in the English language in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s a shame that it is only taught and discussed in classes on science fiction instead of taking its rightful place in literary studies.

It is laughable to think of some of the trivial books from the same period that are taught — by professors who sneer at all science fiction. They still celebrate literature about the adolescent “counterculture” of the 1960s, while the fiction that was capturing the imagination of the best and brightest of that generation, and which still bears a significant relationship to the real world, is ignored.

I guess that’s what the ivory tower is all about.

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