Deserts & oceans in environmental disaster fiction

Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel, Dune, fictionalised the moral and environmental issues we’re grappling with sixty years later. Professor Bronwen Neil FAHA explores why Dune‘s dystopian vision of planetary death is resonating with so many people.

an image of a red sand dune against a blue sky

The blockbuster films Dune: Part one (2021) and Dune: Part two (2024) started life as an epic serial novel by American science-fiction author Frank Herbert. Originally published as the novels Dune World and Prophet of Dune in 1963-64 and 1965, Herbert’s work was firmly grounded in the nuclear and environmental politics of the Cold War. The most recent film adaptations, directed by Denis Villeneuve, echo Herbert’s interest in ecology and resistance to invasive sand-mining by big corporations at the expense of local people.

Politics, religion & control in the world of Dune

A cover of the book, Dune, which depicts a man standing in front of a large moon.
One of the current covers of Dune (1965). Imaged sourced via Penguin Random House.

The Dune Chronicles are set in a mythical, dystopian future, and have been called the ‘first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale’. The politics of power, and religious and corporate battles for control over natural and human resources, are central themes. Their relevance today accounts in part for the film franchise’s massive appeal to a younger demographic unfamiliar with the original books or the 1984 cult classic film adaptation. The release of a graphic novel version of the original trilogy, supplemented by prequels and sequels, has also helped draw in a new cohort of young readers.

Dune is a cultural pastiche of Jewish, Islamic and Christian apocalyptic mythology. In the Dune cosmology, the most valuable commodity is the narcotic ‘spice’. Essential for space travel, the drug also expands the mind so one can see into the future. It is only obtained by mining the sands of the desert planet, Arrakis. For the indigenous people, the Fremen, the sand-mining prompted decades of guerrilla resistance fighting as they seek to protect their land and its desperately scarce water resources. Arrakis sounds a lot like Iraq and the Fremen look a lot like Bedouin.

Representing religion & language fictitiously

From a religious studies point-of-view the most interesting aspects of the recent Dune revival are its combination of inverted white saviour tropes and Arabic apocalyptic lore. As Jeffrey Zhang comments, the Dune films’ attempt to ‘de-Islamise its Fremen people’ strikes an off note.

Rather than make use of Arabic, which Herbert had freely employed in the books, Villeneuve chose to invent a new language for the Fremen. Two Arabic terms the filmmakers have not encoded are titles given to the unwilling saviour figure, Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet): Lisan al-G[h]aib (lit. ‘Tongue of the Unseen’) and Mahdi, the Messiah long awaited around the world by both Sunni and Shiite Muslims—even though each has their different expectations of the eschatological timeline.

The films investigate how the apocalyptic can be co-opted by authoritarian regimes and particularly through hopes of a messiah.

Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen resistance fighter, observes in Dune: Part two: ‘This prophecy is how they enslave us.’

Paul responds: ‘It’s not a prophecy, it’s a story.’

He often refers to the ‘fundamentalists’ in the south who believe this story and also regard him as the Lisan al-Gaib or ‘Voice from the Outer World’. He dreads unleashing a Holy War that cannot be contained and that threatens to engulf the world in flames.

The sleeper must awaken

Why is Dune’s dystopian vision of planetary death appealing to so many people now? Part of its appeal lies in the escapism it offers. Here is a whole other world which is bleak and driven to the brink of extinction by the environmental impacts of human activity, much like our own, in a desert setting where even tears and spit are precious enough to be recycled. It also contains moments of outstanding courage and inspiring endurance.

The grim flip-side of Dune’s appeal is its narration of the challenges of ecological sustainability. A chronic shortage of potable water is a realistic threat to our own planet and particularly for people facing the salinisation of their water tables and rising sea levels.

The ecological cost of mining rare minerals is also a hot button issue. In the last four decades, manganese, nickel, copper, and cobalt have been discovered in our sea floors. These precious minerals, some of them necessary for emergent and evolving technologies — such as mobile phone batteries and electric cars — accreted over centuries as nodules on the floor of the Pacific and other oceans.

Some marine scientists warn that extracting them poses a great risk to the marine ecosystems of the island nations, such as the Cook Islands, dependent on these waters for their livelihoods. Others argue that the ocean floor is a biological desert and they co-opt religious language for this debate — the wise steward exploits the resources at his disposal or will be punished by God for being lazy and wicked.

An unexpected alliance of international corporations and Pacific nations including Fiji, Vanuatu, Palau, and Papua New Guinea have committed to a temporary global ban on deep sea extraction exploration, while more scientific data is gathered. Pasifika government bodies, traditional leaders, and other citizens have joined the debate over what responsible stewardship of the precious resources necessary for plant, animal and human life should look like. The United Kingdom has recently joined the moratorium and reversed its earlier support of deep-sea mining; meanwhile, the debates continue.

Many film viewers will be keen to see how Paul Atreides’ journey to power ends in the next instalment of the series, Dune Messiah. The real prophet of Dune is perhaps Frank Herbert, who predicted in the 1960s the ecological disasters we are courting in 2024.

About the author

Bronwen Neil FAHA is Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University, with a research focus on the earliest written traditions of the Abrahamic religions. She is now working on the use of religious rhetoric and questions of environmental custodianship in Europe and the Pacific. After being awarded a von Humboldt Fellowship for Established Scholars in Bonn (2008-2009), she was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship on “Dreams, Prophecy and Violence from Early Christianity to the Rise of Islam”, resulting in the monograph, Dreams and Divination from Byzantium to Baghdad, 400-1000 CE (Oxford 2021). She is currently completing a semester fellowship in the Käte Hamburger Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies, Heidelberg University. She was elected to the Australian Academy of Humanities in 2014, has served on its council, and is the current head of the Religion section.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.