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What Dune gets right and wrong about social change
There's no Messiah. But a utopian vision is still crucial.
This post will have some mild spoilers.
Dune is a movie about social change. The characters in the fictional world are facing a decaying system, filled with corruption. A shortage of natural resources is driving conflict. And it takes a rag tag group of ordinary people, led by an elite-turned-revolutionary, to turn the tide and save the world.
Fiction is often just a re-telling of history (or, in some cases, a prediction into the future). And that is certainly the case for Dune. You can see the reverberations of history — from the struggle against colonialism to the fight for climate justice — in Frank Herbert’s epic space opera.
What makes Dune unique, however, and comparable only to the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, is how deeply it dives into the sociology and anthropology of change. The religions of the Dune universe are complex and real in a way that is not common for a science fiction universe. (One way in which this is true is that religious belief is changed — corrupted? — to fit the needs of a particular time and space; the ideology shifts to suit the needs of the believer, and of the moment.) The political struggles are never black and white; even the hero’s first challenge — take power over a planet ruled by oppression, or allow the current tyrants to continue their slaughter? — is one that is never obviously answered. This is why I enjoyed the novels. And why, for the first time, I enjoyed a film about Dune. This version is the first attempt to depict the Dune universe that captures its complexity and nuance. (That also makes it slow, which is why most of the people who joined me for the film did not enjoy it.)
Given that the novel and film takes a sophisticated look at the sociology of change and revolution, I thought it’d be interesting, after watching the film, to assess what Herbert got right and wrong about social change. Let’s start with what he got right.
Change happens from the margins, not from the center. In the Dune universe, it is not the privileged or the elite who drive change in a desperate universe. Instead, it is a colonized group of indigenous people — the Fremen — who push the revolution forward. In this regard, Dune mimics reality. The sociologist Damon Centola has pointed out most change that involves so-called complex contagion — i.e., change that comes at some cost to the individuals who carry the change — generally starts on the fringes of society, among people who are not well connected. There are two reasons for this: first, the fringe has a lower barrier to entry, as the dominant patterns of thought are less stable there; and second, the fringe is less subject to the power of countervailing influence. Centola has shown that in areas ranging from social media influence to healthy behaviors, big changes generally start in smaller networks. That is what happens in Dune.
Some elite support is crucial. The Fremen don’t do it alone, however. They rely on a member of the elite, Paul Atreides, to assist them. This is also a common story in social movements. After they take hold in the fringe, and build sufficient power to sustainably organize, activists require members of the elite to assist for two reasons. First, the elites generally have knowledge, resources, and relationships that allow activists to destabilize the status quo. Second, the elites, by acting as “turncoats” to the old system, demonstrate to other people in society that change has become acceptable.
Movements require myth making. While not every movement requires the quasi-spiritual element present in Dune, the mythology behind the movement is crucial to driving change. The Fremen are drawn to Paul because of a prophecy that helps them understand their struggle, and tie it to a deeper identity.
Movements require vision. Paul is a classic example of a leader with vision. He sees a world where the people of Arrakis — and the universe — are free from the violence and corruption of the Empire. That big vision, and not just incremental progress for the Fremen, is what inspires a revolution.
Now let’s talk about what Herbert got wrong.
Movements aren’t driven by charismatic leaders. Paul, by the end of the film, is coming into his own. His youthful doubts become charismatic fire and confidence in the final scenes. And from the film’s beginning, the notion that Paul is the Chosen One is part of the mythology of Dune. But most research now shows that the "influencer” hypothesis is false. Change happens because large numbers of ordinary people work in a coordinated way to push for progress, not because of great leaders.
Movements don’t succeed as often when they use violence. While the battles of the Dune series make for great science fiction fodder — and even better cinematography — the evidence from sociology shows that violent movements are much less likely to succeed. This is missing from Dun e.
Nature probably won’t help us; we have to this ourselves. The iconic sand worms of Dune are an independent force driving for change. And there’s a certain mythos around the power of nature, especially in environmental circles, that feels incredibly appealing. But the reality is that nature, whether it’s natural disasters or pandemics, probably is not going to be an independent force for change. Indeed, natural disasters can just as often be used to retrench a society, as to push it forward. The question is how we respond to the challenges nature poses. Nature, in short, has no ethical or political orientation.
There’s much more that could be said about the film, and the novels, and what they might tell us about social change. But I’m wondering what lessons you learned, from the film, or the books? Or what questions you have about the Dune universe that I could try to answer?