Beyond an epic fantasy of intergalactic travel, deadly feuds between houses and a giant worm lies an obscured reading of Frank Herbert’s Dune. At a virtual event at the Evanston Public Library, Associate Professor of History Daniel Immerwahr explained Monday night that Dune is actually a novel about empire, indigeneity and power.
In a lecture hosted by the Center for International and Area Studies, Immerwahr explored how influences in Herbert’s real life inspired Dune. As he drew parallels between the Quileute, an Indigenous tribe in La Push, Washington, and the Fremen, the fictional characters that inhabit the desert planet Arrakis in Dune, Immerwahr noted Herbert’s close personal ties to the tribe. According to Immerwahr, Herbert’s best friend grew up on the Quileute Reservation and his concern for the environment deeply influenced Herbert’s ideas.
Nearly 80 people attended the virtual event, according to Danny Postel, the assistant director of the center, an increase from events held prior to the library’s shift to virtual events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We now have people zooming in from well beyond Evanston/Chicago . . . people who pre-COVID would never have been able to attend our events on campus or at the Evanston Public Library are now able to participate with the click of a few buttons,” Postel said.
Postel also noted that “there are people who are typing questions for our speakers and posting them in the chat box who pre-COVID might not have asked a question at our events — whether due to shyness, introversion, or just general disinclination to put oneself ‘out there’ in public.”
And for a talk as engaging as Immerwahr's, ease of access to the event was crucial; Immerwahr's discussion engaged the often under-discussed importance of Indigenous people's issues — in both fiction and reality.
For instance, according to Immerwahr, the ecological collapse and resource scarcity faced on Arrakis was inspired by real-world issues in Western Washington. He notes that the lives of the Quileutes parallel the Fremen; “La Push is the wettest place in the country drying” while “Arrakis is the driest planet getting wetter.” Both the Quileutes and Fremen are Indigenous people living on land undergoing rapid climate change, showing how Herbert “really cared about indigenous politics in Western Washington.”
At the same time, Immerwahr counters that narrative, explaining that although Herbert is sympathetic to the Quileute cause, the story of Dune is still “one that centers around the white man.” Herbert portrays both the Fremen and Quileute as inferior, showing the Fremen sympathy when they’re weak and persecuted, but destroying Arrakis and forcing them to restart the cycle once they come close to success.
Although there’s a “long Quileute shadow over Dune,” there’s little interest in the Quileutes in their own right. Thus, according to Immerwahr, the power differentials that seep from Herbert’s real life into the distant galaxy of Dune, make it ultimately a story about empire.