What Science Fiction Tried To Teach Us About Jihad, and Why No One Listened
How Alejandro Jodorowsky muddled sci-fi by turning Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ into a New Age manifesto
Born in 1920 in Washington state’s Burley Colony, a self-sufficient socialist commune on the lip of Henderson Bay, just north of Tacoma, Herbert had a childhood, to trust the slim biography written by his son, that was shaped by twin forces. The first was nature, which, when the boy was a toddler, dispatched a Malamute dog with mauling on his mind. The beast’s leash, thankfully, was too short, and Herbert escaped intact, but not before gaining an admiration for the uneasy relations between man and his environment.
The second force that shaped Herbert was just as mighty, and just as difficult to control: Everywhere he looked, the young boy saw communal ideologies in full bloom, demanding of their followers more or less everything. “Make way for brotherhood, make way for man” was the motto of the Burley commune, where folks spoke of “we” and “ours” rather than “I” and “mine.” These middle-American socialist ideas bled into the devout Catholicism of Herbert’s maternal aunts, who were just as communal-minded if considerably more stern, and further impressed on the young writer the notion that life was governed by belief systems that demanded total obedience but that offered in return protection from the predatory world outside.
It’s not hard to imagine in these beginnings the seeds of Dune, a novel preoccupied primarily with ecology and religion. Hebert, then a middle-aged newspaperman, spent six years on research before putting pen to paper; every bit of it shows. The Fremen are not only utterly familiar to anyone acquainted with desert tribesmen, but their language is a playful and largely faithful spin on Arabic, often grounded in Islamic and Arab culture. The Fremen, for example, rely on their Fedaykin, or death commandos, to perpetrate their most daring raids against the oppressive imperial forces, raids that often take the form of suicide attacks. Herbert likely had in mind the Egyptian Fedayeen, Arabic for redeemers, who attacked Brits around the Suez Canal in the 1940s, or their Palestinian namesakes, who targeted Israelis a decade later. In the Middle East, Herbert must have found the dystopian version of his boyhood landscape, ripe for intellectual and literary exploration.
After being rejected by 20 publishers, Dune was finally released to immediate acclaim, instantly making Herbert a wealthy and admired writer—but Herbert had missed his moment. By 1965, layered meditations on war and peace and the clash of civilizations were old-fashioned, too jagged and grim for the generation busy turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Herbert’s success was, quite literally, singular: There were no popular Dune clones emerging in his wake, no sweeping sci-fi works of political and economic depth. Even as something resembling Herbert’s world began to rise from the real-world sand dunes of the Middle East, with real-world jihadists struggling for real-world resources and afflicting real violence on innocents at home and abroad, Dune was not the example anyone sought to follow. It was far more tempting to ask, to paraphrase the title of Philip K. Dick’s iconic short story and the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner, whether androids dream of electric sheep, and what it meant to be human, and what, really, was real.
It was this capacity for introspection that made Jodorowsky’s proposed film so daring, an epic that unfolded inward, a space opera interested primarily in the space between its hero’s ears. The Dune that finally got filmed, helmed by a reluctant and increasingly miserable David Lynch, lacked that spirit and failed miserably. But many other works of science fiction did not.
And it is the works of Jodorowsky’s heirs, for the most part, that you’ll find in college syllabi, a random sampling of which at Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere shows a superabundance of brooding techno-noirists like William Gibson and almost no trace of Frank Herbert. Which is no wonder: To read Dune seriously is to entertain the thought that maybe we haven’t progressed all that much; that maybe, for all our infinite terabytes of digital doodads we’re still struggling to seize just a little bit more of exhausted resources like water or oil; that maybe some cultures, some belief systems, hold within them the coiled threat of violent calamities; that maybe we’re doomed not to design another app but to fight another war, as crushing and senseless as all other wars have ever been; and that maybe what we thought was a genteel meadow of progressive ideas was really just an arid dune from which terrifying predators might emerge. These are not ideas one could seriously explore anymore, particularly not on college campuses.
The good news is that we may finally be ready. After years of marching in Jodorowsky’s crazy light, after so many playfully post-modern explorations of identity and cyberspace and virtual realities, we seem primed to get back down to our own reality and own space, to look past our own identities into larger, more complicated structures. With two TV series based on Herbert’s original Dune novels produced in the last decade, we may finally be taking this monumental work of fiction seriously. We definitely should.
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