DUNEThe GALACTIC PADISHAH Empire relies on ethnography to subjugate the people of Arrakis. Without this, the arrival and assimilation of the Atreides on Arrakis would be impossible. Collected by Imperial agents, ethnographic knowledge is captured in objects such as films and supplemented with extraterrestrial knowledge of certain Fremen technologies.

Paul, for example, watches films, technologies that imprint their content through mnemonic impulses, to prepare for his stay on Arrakis. One of those, Arrakis: His Imperial Majesty’s Desert Botanical Testing Station, provides him with information about the unique flora and fauna of the planet while shedding light on the ways and customs of the inhabitants of Arrakis, calling them – the sandworms and the Fremen – threats to life and production. of spices. Techniques such as sand walking are touted as Fremen innovations to emulate if one is to survive in the deep desert. Material Inventions such as Stillsuits and Fremkits require study or collaborating informants to ensure proper use and, again, survival. The instruction manuals that come with the Fremkits remind that outsiders can only endure the harsh conditions of Arrakis through assimilation.

The Atreides use cultural brokers and ambassadors to facilitate this assimilation. The faithful swordsman of the Atreides, Duncan Idaho, is the quintessential military man turned colonial anthropologist in the service of the empire. Idaho led the second wave of Atreides troops to Arrakis to locate and negotiate with the Fremen desert commandos. After spending time with the Fremen, Idaho is made an ambassador by Duke Leto. When Stilgar, a Fremen leader (naib), spits on the table in front of the Duke, only Idaho’s knowledge of Fremen custom prevents a fight from breaking out. The men in the room draw their swords, but Idaho stops them, thanking Stilgar for “the gift of his body’s moisture”. He then spits on the table in return and explains to the duke that the act was not an insult but a sign of respect: “Remember how precious water is here.”

While the House of Atreides requires knowledge of Fremen society to maintain its rule, getting too close is frowned upon – much like it is in ethnographic fieldwork. When Idaho reflects on the ingenuity of Fremen technology, Gurney Halleck exclaims, “My God, man, you’ve become a native!” The expression evokes the settlers and anthropologists living with (or to like) local inhabitants, adopting their dress and customs, sometimes even marrying them and having children. If they get too involved, they risk, according to critics, losing their scientific objectivity.

On Arrakis, “going native” takes on a more embodied meaning due to the chemical properties of the spice mix. Wearing Fremen gear and relying on Fremen technology is necessary to survive. But prolonged exposure to the spice causes the characteristic blue eyes of the Fremen people. Blue eyes eventually become caste markers, with some colonists paying handsomely to keep their eyes “the spice brush touch”.

Herbert’s ability to create a complex planetary empire was not just a figment of his imagination. The author was well acquainted with the colonial empire of the settlers and the importance of ethnography in its service. In the 1940s and 1950s, Herbert worked as an aide to Republican Senator Guy Cordon. Under Cordon, Herbert championed offshore drilling, the destruction of forests for timber in the Pacific Northwest, and even coveted a colonial post in American Samoa. Herbert’s collection of information for the benefit of pro-empire conservatives became the material for his writing. His first novels, like the dragon in the sea (1956), were directly influenced by this work. Dunes, published nearly a decade later, reflects Herbert’s eventual disillusionment with politics in Washington. It also demonstrates, according to historian Daniel Immerwahr, a maturing of his environmentalism and a growing interest in indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest, both influenced by his friendship with novelist and conservationist Quileute Howard Hansen.

Dunes is itself a work of ethnography – a gateway to a new world. But new for whom? The art of world-building is as essential to science fiction as it is to anthropology. Science fiction writers have “looked over the shoulders of anthropologists” since the emergence of the discipline in the 19th century. From HP Lovecraft’s “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1921) to Midsommar (2019), anthropologists and their ethnographic encounters are a source of inspiration for speculative fiction. Sometimes, as in the work of NK Jemisin and Ursula K. Le Guin (daughter of cultural anthropologist Alfred Kroeber), these encounters lead to race-conscious and feminist interpretations of emancipatory worlds that challenge our notions of human society and its possibilities. . Author and historian Haris Durrani has recently argued that the reality of Herbert’s fiction (and his conservative politics) lies somewhere in between. He drew on ethnographic studies to treat non-Western “primitive” societies not as “objects of political criticism”, but as positive influences on American culture.

Although there have been many readings of Herbert Dunes, Arrakis’ fate — particularly in the 2021 film adaptation — isn’t so much emancipatory as an echo of that ancient mode of exogenous salvation. Many have seen in Herbert’s work a real ambivalence towards such narratives. Others have highlighted the Orientalist interpretations of the Fremen that take center stage in recent film. Anthropology now reckon with the horrors of its own fictions. University of Chicago professor Ryan Cecil Jobson called for “letting[ting] burnt anthropology” by “refusal[ing] the fictitious separation” between an apolitical anthropology in its ivory tower and the “real world”, thereby acknowledging the violence of colonialism, imperialism and racism in anthropology’s past and present.


Art by Kenneth Mills.


Taylor M. Moore is a Fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies and an incoming Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


Comments are closed.