Dune tells the story of two competing colonial powers warring over a resource-rich planet, one with clear parallels to Soviet Russia, and the other with clear influences of 1950s and ’60s America.
After being reluctantly published in 1965 by a company best known for auto-repair manuals, Frank Herbert’s Dune slowly rose to unexpected mass success through the 1960s and ’70s.1 Today, the novel has sold millions of copies and has been made into two films. And yet controversy about the novel’s stance is unending. Some have described in depth the problematic colonialist narrative of Dune, while others celebrate the progressive and much-needed criticism of colonial history. The vast majority of scholarly writing on Dune, however, focuses on its environmental themes and Herbert’s interest in ecology, with some addressing his portrayal of women. Scholars have all but ignored the role of imperialism in Dune, even in the context of connections between ecology, gender, and Cold War era colonialism.
How is it possible for a single novel to be simultaneously read as both a prescient critique and harmful advocate of the same thing? Like everything about Dune, it’s complicated, but I argue that this seeming contradiction is due to Herbert’s specific portrayal of colonialism. Rather than depicting a battle between colonizers and freedom fighters, Herbert reflects the picture of colonialism in Cold War America: a battle between the beneficent colonialism of America and the malevolent colonialism of Russia. His ecological standpoint and treatment of gender are inherently entwined with this portrayal of colonialism, and it has been the mistake of many to separate them.
Dune is set in a very distant future, in which humanity has spread across the universe in an interplanetary empire. The novel follows Paul Atreides, the son of a duke whose family has been sent to control the planet of Arrakis, which is completely covered by desert, but rich with an extremely profitable drug called spice. A rival family, the Harkonens, battle the Atreides for control over Arrakis, forcing Paul and his mother Jessica to hide among the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis. They both learn their ways, and eventually rise to power among them.
To understand the novel and its imperialist themes, however, it is essential to first understand the author and his own relationship with American empire. Frank Herbert was born in 1920 in Tacoma Washington,2 and was, in many ways, as confusing and contradictory a person as Dune is a book. In his essay “The Quileute Dune: Frank Herbert, Indigeneity, and Empire,” Daniel Immerwahr describes Herbert’s long and complicated relationship with imperialism. Throughout the 1950s––before Herbert’s published writing career––he worked for Republican senator Guy Cordon. Herbert traveled with Corden to many of America’s overseas territories and was a witness of atomic tests in Bikini Atoll, as well as an overseer of American mining for resources such as oil, natural gas, and minerals under the sea in Hawaii and American Samoa.3
And yet, even as Herbert worked for a man who supported imperial power, he was deeply impacted by his experiences with Indigenous people. As a child, Herbert lived near a Quileute reservation. In Brian Herbert’s biography of his father, he wrote about two Quileute men who he was close friends with––a man named Henry Martin who apparently befriended Herbert when he was young, and taught him “the ways of his people”;4 and Howard Hansen, author of Twilight on the Thunderbird, a book that described the destructive changes he witnessed in Quileute land throughout his life. In fact, Herbert’s only non-science fiction book, entitled Soul Catcher, tells the story of a Quileute man named Katsuk who kidnaps a young white boy and teaches him how to survive in the wilderness. In the novel, Katsuk’s rage towards white people and American society is immense––he describes how his sister was brutally raped, and how his land was taken from him. Although Herbert’s portrayal of and relationship with Indigenous people was far from perfect, he had genuine interest in the perspective and struggles of the Quileute. The understanding of Katsuk’s pain in Soul Catcher, and the open depiction of anger, was not at all mainstream for the time.
Herbert’s personal life and philosophical contradictions also have an uncanny parallel to the political context of the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s. Dune was published in 1965, and Herbert worked on it for many years before. In his essay “Dune, the Middle Class, and Post-1960 U.S. Foreign Policy,” Andrew Hoberek discusses the significance of the political context in which the novel was written. Although some people have drawn parallels between the novel and the Vietnam War, it was published years before the conflict, and was in fact extremely influenced by a pre-Vietnam American sense of imperialism. Before the extremely public disasters of the Vietnam War, there was a generally positive view of America’s foreign policy. Much of it followed the script of the good colonizer versus the bad colonizer, an idea central to Herbert’s politics and to Dune. Russia was painted as the villainous power––the tyrants and oppressors. The United States was the charitable power––traveling around the world protecting helpless people from tyranny and offering them freedom.
This picture is perfectly encapsulated by President Truman describing Russian presence in Greece and Turkey and the apparent role of the United States in the conflict. In his famous Truman Doctrine speech of 1947, he said that “the seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died”.5 It was America’s job, however, to “keep that hope alive,” and “the free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms’”.6
There could not be a better example of good colonizer/bad colonizer than the depiction of House Atreides and House Harkonnen. In the novel, the Harkonnens are the original colonial power on Arrakis who are usurped by House Atreides, when the emperor makes a decision to change the leadership. However, soon after Atreides takes the planet, they are attacked and crushed by the Harkonens, landing Arrakis back beneath their power. Everything about the Harkonnens is pure evil. The very first introduction of the Baron Harkonnen is of him balancing a globe in “a fat hand that glittered with rings”.7 He is sadistic, calculating, and lustful, willing to “kill off the natives” of Arrakis in order to easily access spice,8 and works to “drive [the Fremen] into utter submission,” and “show no mercy.”9
On the other hand, the Atreides are portrayed as kind and intelligent rulers. Duke Leto––Paul’s father––seeks to ally with the Fremen, who he thinks will be valuable fighters, and can help him better mine spice. When Leto first arrives on Arrakis, and travels out to oversee the spice production, he is seen saving a handful of workers from an attack of monstrous Arakeen worms when their rescue ship malfunctions. This gains the respect of Liet Keynes, an offworlder who had “gone native,” and wants to change Arrakis from a desert planet into a lush land running with water and thick with plants. Keynes observes that Leto “passed off the loss of a spice crawler with a gesture. The threat to men’s lives had him in a rage…I like this Duke.”10 It is also important to note that Leto is given Arrakis by the emperor and is reluctant to take it over. Even so, he rises to the task of making his profits and allying with the Fremen. This is reminiscent of the idea that good colonizers such as the United States are “stumbling” accidently into war, tied to “the idea that the United States operates in ‘good faith’” and “war is always…something that happens to the U.S., not something it seeks out.”11
However, Duke Leto is killed by the Harkoennens early in the novel. He is succeeded by Paul Atreides, the novel’s protagonist. Whereas Leto and Keynes wished to utilize Arrakis though political and scientific paths, Paul goes down a spiritual path. His mother Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a cult of women with psychic powers that manipulate politics, culture, and religion in order to complete their goals. Their ultimate goal is the creation of the Kwisatz Haderach, a Messiah who is an all-powerful man with Bene Gesserit powers. In order to do this, they’ve implanted religious prophecies on multiple planets, including Arrakis, that speak of an offworld messiah and his Bene Gesserit mother. It becomes clear in the novel that Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, and he uses his status to win the trust of the Fremen, integrating into their culture and fulfilling the role of their Messiah. By the novel’s end, he has developed blue-within-blue eyes that the Fremen all have due to their spice-rich diet, and “speaks of himself as one of them.”12
Reminiscent of Cold War dynamics, the Harkonnens have Russian names such as Vladmir and Piter, whereas the Atridies have western names such as Paul and Jessica. The Fremen, on the other hand, were clearly influenced by Middle Eastern culture. Much of their language is inspired by Arabic, and the very name of their planet––Arrakis––comes from Iraq. The Middle East was a center of colonial struggle during the Cold War, as England and France left the region, the United States and Soviet Union were both desperate to gain footing in the subsequent power vacuum. Furthermore, Baron Vladmir Harkonnen is shown to have sexual attraction to young boys. Although this connection might not be obvious, during the 1940s and 50s, the “triad of Communism, disease, and sexual perversion was often joined in popular security discourse”13. Communists, with their atheism and ideals of equality between men and women, were often seen as threats to the good white Protestant American family. And so were gays and lesbians. As foreign policy cracked down on communism, the justice department, military, and law enforcement imposed increasing censures in gays and lesbians as “sexual ‘perverts’ and ‘psychopaths’” (Smith 314, 1992). In contrast, the family unit of Duke Leto, Paul, and Jessica is idolized and valued immensely by all three characters.
Another aspect of the imperial theme, however, revolves specifically around John F. Kennedy’s ideals of foreign policy. During his campaign and presidency, Kennedy suggested that “the United States take a leadership role in the decolonizing world ‘by accelerating the natural process through which ‘traditional’ societies would move toward the enlightened ‘modernity’ most clearly represented by America itself’.”14 He gave examples of this in the Middle East, such as “the development of arable land and irrigation projects…and a Middle Eastern Nuclear Center…which could bring untold benefits in energy utilization to former deserts and wastelands.”15 Despite his seemingly philanthropic motivations, the use of words such as “wastelands” and the very idea of the “traditional” societies of the Middle East having to aspire to the “enlightened” societies of the West are steeped in colonialism and racism.
Starting with Liet Keynes, and continuing on to Paul, there is a goal in Dune of transforming Arrakis from a desert into a land of “flowing water…open to the sky and green oases rich with good things.”16 Paul and Keynes are both from planets more similar to our own, mostly covered in oceans, rich with lakes and rivers and rainfall. Although they both appear to love and respect Arrakis, they still aspire to make it into a land like their own, rather than truly appreciating the importance of the desert and desert life to the Fremen and their culture. Furthermore, even as Paul dreams of turning Arrakis into his vision of paradise, he is still thinking of imperial profit. He goes on to say, “But we have the spice to think of, too. Thus, there will always be desert on Arrakis.”17.
And that leads into the fact that no matter how benevolent the Atrides may seem, they are still colonizers. Although Paul adapts to Fremen culture, he sees himself as their superior. The very role of a messiah is a quintessential white savior. Herbert makes it very clear that the Fremen are an extremely capable and self-sufficient people. One would think they don’t need an offworlder to lead them––especially not one who’s family invaded their planet and fought a devastating proxy war over its control––and yet, apparently, they do. And Paul ends up using the Fremen to complete his own goals: he rallies them into a fighting force that eventually places him on the Imperial Throne, never allowing the Fremen to govern Arrakis as they wish to. As he rallies them, he declares: “I rule here! I rule every square inch of Arrakis!…I claim those Imperial rights which are mine.”18.
One essential scene that demonstrates the colonial violence of Paul and House Atrides is his duel with a Fremen named Jamis. When Paul and Jessica first find the Fremen after fleeing the Harkonens, they attempt to convince everyone that they are those who the prophecy speaks of. Whereas some of the Fremen are convinced by Jessica’s display of her Bene Gesserit powers, Jamis questions them, and believes them to be frauds. In order to prove Jessica’s claims, he challenges Paul to a duel to “test [their] part in the legend.”19 Like the good colonist he is, Paul is reluctant to kill Jamis, and after initially pinning him, asks if Jamis yields.20 When Jamis refuses, Paul kills him. Immediately afterwards, Paul is rewarded, and given an official place in Jamis’s clan, or Sietch. The Sietch’s leader Stilgar declares that he is no longer a lad, and names him Usul, meaning “the base of the pillar.”21
The fact that Paul’s initiation into the Fremen is through killing one of their own is a glorification of colonial violence. The implication of a white-coded character from a colonial power killing a brown-coded character from a colonized nation without consequence––and with reward, in fact––is deeply problematic.
The writing itself shows Herbert’s preference towards the white-coded characters over the Fremen. The novel is third person omniscient, switching between the point of view of Paul, Jessica, Leto, Baron Harkonnen, Keynes, and others. However, essential Fremen characters such as Stilgar and Chani have very little narration despite being present for far more of the novel than minor offworld characters such as Keynes, Gurney Halleck, and Thufir Hawat––all of whom have multiple chapters of narration. A lack of Fremen perspective ends up leaving the Fremen characters one dimensional, often feeling like side characters or simply as part of the setting. This perpetuates an orientalist narrative, portraying characters from a society clearly influenced by the Middle East through a stereotypical and colonialist lens.
Another element of Dune that has rarely been discussed by scholars is the connection between the novel’s imperialist themes and the role of gender in the novel. For a book written by a man in the 1960s, there are some very positive portrayals of female characters. However, the intertwinement between gender and colonialism is a very old one, and it can be seen clearly in Dune. As pointed out by Ulrike Schaper and Magdelena Beljan in their article “Sexotic: The interplay between sexualization and exoticization,” there is “a long tradition of western men that used sexual encounters with women…of foreign countries in order to conquer foreign lands.”22 In Dune, Paul has a relationship with two Fremen women: Harrah, who he ‘wins’ in a battle in which he kills her husband Jamis, and Chani, whose role in the novel is to be Paul’s devoted and loyal lover.
When Paul returns to the Fremen village, Stilgar tells him that after defeating Jamis, his children, quarters, and wife are now Paul’s responsibility.23 Again, the good colonizer Paul is reluctant to accept, but eventually does. Harrah’s character is not portrayed in a negative light, and Paul does not have any sexual encounters with her, but the symbolism of Paul killing a man and taking his wife evokes a long and brutal history of colonizers abusing women in lands they take over. His relationship with Chani, on the other hand, is organic and genuinely one of love. She is a capable and strong fighter; she is not a fainting, weak-hearted woman in need of saving. However, she has no role in the story outside of Paul. And even though they clearly love one another, Paul is portrayed as the messiah of her people––a clear power difference and a reminder that Chani’s people are unable to defeat the Harkonnens without an offworlder leading them. In an article discussing the Muslim influence in the 2021 film Dune, particularly surrounding Chani’s character, Zeinab Fahik wrote that “in the grand scheme of things, this film is not the worst piece of representation,” however American media still needs to understand that “Muslim women are not here to be saved by those who try to eradicate us.”24
Before passing judgment, however, it is crucial to acknowledge that Herbert did not condone many of the actions in his novels. Although Atreides politics and goals seem very similar to those of John F. Kennedy, Herbert openly despised Kennedy, believing him to be “one of the most dangerous presidents this country ever had” because “people didn’t question him.” 25. In fact, he said that the lesson in Dune is “don’t trust leaders to always be right,”26 and explained that he wrote Paul as a leader who was really “attractive and charismatic, for all the good reasons”, but when “power comes to him” he makes decisions that “don’t work out too well.”27 And yet, the true consequences of Paul’s leadership are only apparent in later novels, many of which extend to the Fremen. Some scholars, such as Immerwahr, emphasize the importance of Herbert’s changing beliefs and opinions throughout his writing career. It is possible that Herbert originally wrote Paul as a true hero, but later changed his mind after becoming disillusioned by the United States’s imperial politics.
There is no easy answer when asking what Herbert’s intentions or true beliefs were in writing Dune. However, the novel was clearly impacted by the culture in which it was written. Dune tells the story of two competing colonial powers warring over a resource-rich planet, one with clear parallels to Soviet Russia, and the other with clear influences of 1950s and ’60s America. Their conflict falls into the quintessential good colonizer/bad colonizer trope, and is heavily inspired by John Kennedy’s foreign policy surrounding the so-called development of “traditional societies.” It is important to uphold Herbert’s work for exploring the brutality and corruption of empire, and for telling a story that sympathizes with the struggles of colonized people. However, it is equally important to criticize the racism, orientalism, and white savior narrative that supports colonialism even as it is denounced.
- Hari Kunzru,“Dune, 50 Years on: How a Science Fiction Novel Changed the World,” The Guardian, February 22, 2018.
- “Frank Herbert,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed February 7, 2022.
- Daniel Immerwahr, “The Quileute Dune: Frank Herbert, Indigeneity, and Empire.” Journal of American Studies 56, no. 2, (2021): 191–216,.
- Frank Herbert, as quoted in Immerwahr, “The Quileute Dune.”
- Harry S. Truman, “Special Message to the Congress on Greece and Turkey (The Truman Doctrine),” presidential message, March 12, 1947, Teaching American History
- Truman, “Special Message.”
- Frank Herbert, Dune (Dune Chronicles, Book 1), Ace Special 25th Anniversary Edition (1990), (Penguin Publishing, 1965), 13.
- Herbert, Dune, 375.
- Herbert, Dune, 240.
- Herbert, Duke, 126.
- N. Shirazi & A. Johnson, “The Always Stumbling US Empire,” Citations Needed, Oct 25, 2017
- Herbert, Dune, 415.
- Smith, Geoffrey S. “National Security and Personal Isolation: Sex, Gender, and Disease in the Cold-War United States.” The International History Review, vol. 14, no. 2, 1992, pp. 307–37. JSTOR.
- John F. Kennedy, 1960, quoted in Andrew Hoberek, “American Literature and Culture in an Age of Cold War: A Critical Reassessment,” Journal of American History 100, no. 1, (2013): 85–107.
- Kennedy in Hoberek, “American Literature and Culture in an Age of Cold War: A Critical Reassessment.”
- Herbert, Dune, 488.
- Herbert, Dune, 488.
- Herbert, Dune, 428.
- Herbert, Dune, 298.
- Herbert, Dune, 303
- Herbert, Dune, 306.
- Ulrike Schaper, et al. “Sexotic: The Interplay between Sexualization and Exoticization,” Sexualities 23, no. 1–2, (2018): 114–26.
- Herbert, Dune, 342.
- Zeinab Fakih, “‘DUNE’: Will We Ever Get The Representation We Deserve In Film?” Muslim Girl, October 13, 2021.
- Frank Herbert, interview with Bryant Gumbel, Today, NBC, 1982.
- Frank Herbert, interview with Bryant Gumbel, Today, NBC, 1982,.
- Frank Herbert, interview with Bryant Gumbel, Today, NBC, 1982.