Hard times make strong cliches
May 1, 2020 8:11 AM   Subscribe

The Fremen Mirage, Part I: War at the Dawn of Civilization - a term I’m creating to encompass a set of related pop-history theories which are flourish, evergreen despite not, perhaps, holding up so well under close examination.
Now, I know this will disappoint, but this is not a four-part look at Fremen culture (although, now that I say that, a deep dive into the real world analogues of the Fremen would be interesting…), though by the end of this series, you will have a good sense of how probable I find it that a low-density de-industrialized population of knife-wielding warriors would overrun a vast, dense industrialized interstellar civilization. Instead, I’m choosing the Fremen – and really the Dune series more generally – to stand in for a particular set of oft-repeated historical ideas and assumptions. It is not one idea, so much as a package set of ideas – often expressed so vaguely as to be beyond historical interrogation. So let’s begin by outlining it: what do I mean by the Fremen Mirage?
posted by the man of twists and turns (35 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
This guy's blog is amazing.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 8:43 AM on May 1 [5 favorites]


Yes it is. I thought I found out about it here? Guess not. His Sparta essays are so awesome and well worth the read.
posted by mark k at 8:51 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


this recently popped up in my Youtube sidebar:

Frank Herbert on the origins of Dune

From 1969, at which point Herbert had thus far made "about 15-thousand dollars" from Dune.
posted by philip-random at 8:53 AM on May 1 [7 favorites]


I dropped a link to that series in one of the threads about the upcoming Dune movie, but I'm glad to see it get a FPP, cuz it's really good and points to a very common trope not only in fiction, but which makes its way into general conversation and assumptions people make all the time, along with some of the associated concepts the essays touch upon, like moral purity accompanying poverty and the like.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:23 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I need to thank who ever first posted a link to the blog on this site, since that's where I first came across it and have been reading it steadily since. I can't for the moment recall what the earlier link was about unfortunately.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:25 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I hate it when someone whose done both a lot of thinking and a lot of homework makes a rookie mistake like substituting "tenants" for "tenets" in the first paragraph. This is what editors are for, people!

I get why he's using a fictional group to stand in for a historical trope, but I think it largely hurts his case. Because in fiction, OF COURSE moral virtue leads to battlefield success. Most people prefer stories where the "good guys" win. Of course that's super reductive and inaccurate when talking about history, but that's inherent in presenting history as a narrative moreso than picking around at the details.

Mainly what I like about this guy's work is that it asks people who see history as mainly military, male, and narrative to maybe question some of those assumptions. But he's still playing in that framework.
posted by rikschell at 9:38 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]


I am enjoying starting with the Neanderthals, but I feel Ibn Khaldun should have been mentioned in the intro.
posted by clew at 9:38 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


This is probably the previously people are thinking of.
posted by rikschell at 9:41 AM on May 1 [5 favorites]


All I have to say is: I just saw what Stilgar looked like in the 2000 Dune series and he looks mind bogglingly WRONG.
posted by Liquidwolf at 9:43 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


a low-density de-industrialized population of knife-wielding warriors would overrun a vast, dense industrialized interstellar civilization

In fairness to Dune, the Fremen had the advantage of (1) being led by a genetic messiah who could see the future, and (2) control of the sole source of "the spice" required for interstellar navigation and therefore control of all interstellar travel, instantly crippling the entire Empire.
posted by star gentle uterus at 9:57 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


I just saw what Stilgar looked like in the 2000 Dune series and he looks mind bogglingly WRONG.

I watched that 2000 series when it was fairly new and found it underwhelming. As I recall it got everything right in terms of getting the whole complex story from page to screen, but got everything wrong in terms of making it all feel like a sub-standard Star Trek spin-off. Second rate casting, design, costumes, music, fx -- EVERYTHING. It just wasn't that good.

Whereas David Lynch's movie version(s) accomplished the opposite. It failed utterly as an adaptation of a complex story, but man did it put you there*, that definitively alien desert planet.


* it's been a long time since I've seen it. I doubt the special effects will have stood the test of time, but they sure looked good in 1984.
posted by philip-random at 10:00 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]


* it's been a long time since I've seen it. I doubt the special effects will have stood the test of time, but they sure looked good in 1984.

Lynch's Dune holds up well visually ( except for a few scenes ) in my opinion. It's so unique and strange and has such a vibe. But yeah the story didn't work too well out for that film.
posted by Liquidwolf at 10:24 AM on May 1 [5 favorites]


“Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And weak men create hard times,” story is more a mythology about leaders, and the emotional justification for fascism than the mythology about the noble purity of nomadic tribes and the need to undo the division of labor imo. Bret Devereaux's counter-argument seems imprecise to me because they don't make this distinction, nor identify the contemporary political buttresses for this mythology.

A much smaller quibble, Devereaux writes "borders of the Sahara, the Arabian Desert and most crucially the Eurasian Steppe, where this unfarmable zone stretches on and on, creating a vast zone that farmers – and consequently the state – could not penetrate." The Sahara wasn't always a desert.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:43 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


Also have some skepticism about Devereaux's account of the rise of states/state-systems, presumably coming from fragmented memories of reading James C. Scott's 2010 The Art of Not Being Governed and of course his 1999 book Seeing Like a State.

Anyhow, despite or rather because of all my quibbling, thank you for posting. Big ambitious arguments force me to think, even when I spend most of my time thinking about why I am so skeptical!
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:56 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


LOVE this blog.
posted by alasdair at 12:29 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Stoked about the start of his new collection about the Battle of Helm's Deep. Like the idea of Saruman as a crappy general with over-inflated ideas of his ability due to EngineerMagician's Syndrome.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:34 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]


I generally love the blog, it's informative and talks about stuff that I find really fascinating. I will say though, he's quoted Lindybeige a few times and I'm always a bit surprised. Politics aside, Lindybeige had some pretty bad and uniformed takes that definitely hit Llyod's credibility in my eyes
posted by Carillon at 1:54 PM on May 1


a low-density de-industrialized population of knife-wielding warriors would overrun a vast, dense industrialized interstellar civilization

In fairness to Dune, the Fremen had the advantage of (1) being led by a genetic messiah who could see the future, and (2) control of the sole source of "the spice" required for interstellar navigation and therefore control of all interstellar travel, instantly crippling the entire Empire.

But between Dune and Dune Messiah came the Jihad, which killed 61 billion people and sterilized 90 planets. That's a pretty impressive tally for a bunch of drug addicts who are really good at knife fighting.
posted by The Tensor at 2:13 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


But between Dune and Dune Messiah came the Jihad, which killed 61 billion people and sterilized 90 planets. That's a pretty impressive tally for a bunch of drug addicts who are really good at knife fighting.

But projectile weapons didn't work because of the shields people wore so you had to kill people with knives. Killing 61 billion people using only knives sure seems like a lot of work though.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:20 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]


They also had nukes ("atomics"), or alternatively, could have shot someone with a shield which would produce the same effect. Given that they "sterilized" 90 planets I'd suspect the Fremen were fine with either of those methods.
posted by LionIndex at 3:31 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I appreciate Bret's blog (picked up around the original LOTR battle essays, I believe) but missed the Lindybeige connection. Youtube recommended me a few of his things a few years ago, and some of the content is relevant to my interests, but I got such a strong aura of "M'lady" that I noped out. And now that I'm googling I guess he's a right-wing-ish climate denier? Figures. I really hope Bret isn't a Milkshake Duck; while I agree with the skeptical take, I also appreciate that he writes thought-provoking things in military history..
posted by Alterscape at 11:50 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


more a mythology about leaders, and the emotional justification for fascism than the mythology about the noble purity of nomadic tribes and the need to undo the division of labor imo.

He lays out exactly what he's talking about and it is indeed a real and common trope. And it often explicitly plays out in fictionalized (or historical but sensationalized) narratives as a tragic story, in which leaders who are plenty competent being unable to move a populace that has become weak and soft. I read a *lot* of both history and SF that took this line in my younger days.

What you're talking about also exists, but that would be a different essay. Obviously.
posted by mark k at 7:34 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]


They also had nukes ("atomics"), or alternatively, could have shot someone with a shield which would produce the same effect. Given that they "sterilized" 90 planets I'd suspect the Fremen were fine with either of those methods.

Sure, but if the Jihad was a full interstellar nuclear exchange, why would it make any difference that each Fremen was individually a (very smelly) hand-to-hand badass? If the Jihad had consisted of small strike teams of (habitually dehydrated) ninjas dropping in and deposing the ruling houses of dozens of planets, sure, OK. But why how does being a spiced-out desert weirdo help in a ship-to-ship engagement or orbital atomic bombardment?
posted by The Tensor at 12:57 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


You control the spice, you're the only one with ships that can do anything?
posted by LionIndex at 1:06 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


I get the trope in general, but the other problem with using the Dune universe is that almost anything you say about the Fremen and what they did would also apply to the previous emperor and the Sardaukar, an exceptionally hardcore fighting force that got that way by living on a "prison planet".
posted by LionIndex at 1:11 PM on May 2


You control the spice, you're the only one with ships that can do anything?

Sure, but how does being a desert nomad help with that strategy?

And don't get me started on spice. It's like every different drug-trope all at once: anti-aging drug, 100% addicting drug, interstellar navigation drug, indigenous shaman drug, telepathic memory-transfer drug, psychic-power-unlocking drug.... Oh, and also people use it to spice their food and make beer and paper (?).
posted by The Tensor at 1:33 PM on May 2


I hate it when someone whose done both a lot of thinking and a lot of homework makes a rookie mistake like substituting "tenants" for "tenets" in the first paragraph. This is what editors are for, people!

That's what editors are for in situations calling for editors. On the flipside, being able to write at length about an interest without needing to worry about professional copy editing standards is exactly what bigs are for, especially for academics.

I get why he's using a fictional group to stand in for a historical trope, but I think it largely hurts his case. Because in fiction, OF COURSE moral virtue leads to battlefield success. Most people prefer stories where the "good guys" win. Of course that's super reductive and inaccurate when talking about history, but that's inherent in presenting history as a narrative moreso than picking around at the details.

He talks at length, drawing from primary sources, about the prevalence of this trope in Roman culture and the way the Romans employed it. He's using the fictional group as a jumping-off point, not the whole of the argument.
posted by COBRA! at 2:14 PM on May 2 [4 favorites]


I get the trope in general, but the other problem with using the Dune universe is that almost anything you say about the Fremen and what they did would also apply to the previous emperor and the Sardaukar, an exceptionally hardcore fighting force that got that way by living on a "prison planet".

The fact that Frank Herbert didn't just embrace the trope, he gave it a fargin' bear hug by having the Padishah Emperor use it purposely for the Sardaukar only to be outdone by the true-tough-guy Fremen is not actually a problem for his choice.

being able to write at length about an interest without needing to worry about professional copy editing standards is exactly what bigs (sic) are for

The fact that I don't think this typo is intentional makes me wish I had several more favorites to give your comment.
posted by mark k at 2:27 PM on May 2 [4 favorites]


goddammit, I can't even blame that on autocorrect
posted by COBRA! at 2:31 PM on May 2


the other problem with using the Dune universe is that almost anything you say about the Fremen and what they did would also apply to the previous emperor and the Sardaukar, an exceptionally hardcore fighting force that got that way by living on a "prison planet"

Actually addressed in the posts!
posted by praemunire at 2:59 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


I spend a good chunk of yesterday reading these posts and the ones on Sparta. Great stuff, though long.

What he doesn't quite say is how basic this mirage is to the right. Some political scientist noted that Americans think (or at least vote) like temporarily distressed millionaires. I'd add that right-wingers think of themselves as temporarily comfortable Spartans. Keeping the mirage in mind explains a lot about why the right wants the world to be shitty (for everyone else).

Devereaux's articles are great on not only showing that the received image of the Spartans and other "noble warrior races" is wrong, but it was never really about them at all. It's always been an elite panic about an imagined threat to national manliness.

On balance, BTW, I think calling it the "Fremen Mirage" is clever. It does lead him into long digressions on the book. But it helps make the point that the idealized warriors are fictional. And naming it after any real group would make it seem way narrower than it is. Part of the point is that it's a moving target, being deployed e.g. in favor of the Greeks or against the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, etc., according to the users' whim rather than any rational standards.
posted by zompist at 4:01 PM on May 2 [6 favorites]


I think he's also quite sensibly wanting to avoid even potentially applying any sort of 'barbarian warrior' tag to nonwhite peoples.
posted by praemunire at 8:27 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


This is a great line, from the first Sparta piece: "No one is more convinced of the fairness of a game than the man who won."
posted by tavella at 9:10 PM on May 2


You control the spice, you're the only one with ships that can do anything?

Which honestly doesn't make much sense either. If they need spice for interstellar travel, how did they get to Arakkis in the first place? "After we manage to travel to Hawaii, we will learn the secret of oceanic travel!"
posted by happyroach at 8:28 AM on May 3


the first trip (or few trips) to Arakkis took a long, long time. But then the discovery of the spice and how it might be utilized accelerated things. It used to take days/weeks to travel from mainland North America to Hawaii -- now you can do it via airplane in a few hours.
posted by philip-random at 9:36 AM on May 3


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