Dune: Redefining the Role of Scientific Fiction in American Society


Timothée Chalamet playing the protagonist, Paul Atreides

With the release of Dune in American theatres fast approaching, many are beginning to reconsider the true purpose of science fiction. Or, more explicitly, what even is it?

Science fiction has commonly been viewed as a manifestation of the possible technological and scientific advances that humanity may achieve in the future. And it’s true, exemplified by pop-culture hits: Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Terminator. However, new perspectives argue that, in substance, this is only part of a bigger picture. Accordingly, the modern view of science fiction’s role in American society appears to be shifting — led by the newest picks, like Dune.

The full-length adaptation of Dune, by novelist Frank Herbert, casts Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, a protagonist who must bring about amends and balance in a society in which an entheogen, known as ‘melange’ or ‘spice’ in the novel, is valued over the basic human necessities of life. At the center of the storyline is Arrakis, a planet populated by a people known as the Fremen. The group possesses near infinite amounts of spice, yet very little water— barely enough to sustain the planet’s population. Despite this certitude, spice is continuously fought over by external groups, resulting in a never-ending cycle of conflict.

Dune’s implications, however, appear to diverge from general sci-fi norms. In spite of several references to futuristic technological advancements, these elements appear unrelated to the true message of the novel. 

“It began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human societies,” Herbert stated in an interview with Tim O’Reilly when discussing the origins of Dune. 

Like several other misunderstood sci-fi narratives, Dune contains not only allusions to modern American conflicts, but admonitions and insights about the imminent future.  One of these conflicts is ‘Spice’,often characterized as vital and prestigious in the fictional society. The parallels between Spice and the modern-day oil conflict are unmistakable, particularly in the allusion to Middle Eastern oil excavation. 

The premonition is simple: Human necessity is overlooked in the scramble for a single substance, which controls political power. For instance, Saudi Arabia is familiarized to most as having an oil based economy, the foundation of its political sphere. Yet, dependence on oil results in little concern for the environment; the lives taken in its excavation and subsequent conflict are lives forever lost.

“There have been between 184,382 and 207,156 Iraqi civilians killed by direct violence since the U.S. invasion,” a study concerning the effects of the war on oil conducted by Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public affairs concluded.

Notwithstanding such military conflict, several of these civilians have been affected by the repercussions of excessive oil excavation. Including more predominant concerns, like severe dehydration, chronic malnourishment and overwork can heavily impact individuals.The hydraulic despotism featured in Dune may have been inspired by similar events in 20th century post-colonial Sudan, the time period Herbert originally authored the novel. 

But, what do these parallels between the circumstances of Dune and real life conflicts even represent? Similar to any type of fictional literature, science fiction enables authors to combat literary censorship by creating an environment in which writers can implicitly reflect on the human experience especially important, considering the conservative society (1950s America) that Dune was written in. 

The release of Dune in theaters this year, if accurately portrayed, may draw attention to several crises (such as the impacts of oil excavation in Iraq), personalizing issues to American audiences. This is especially likely considering the appeal of the film, as a result of the casting of  Zendaya, Timothée Chalamet, and Oscar Isaac, which may contribute to spreading its unique stance.

“The stories that are remembered,” says Herbert, “are the ones that strike sparks from your mind one way or another.” Dune and its parallels to modern day circumstances is certainly a story that will be remembered for generations to come.