Thinly-Veiled Allegories About the Middle East in U.S. Science Fiction (IO9)

A few years ago IO9 has an interesting article about sci-fi in the US with themes and stand-ins for Middle Eastern Cultures. Here is the text of the article.


If science fiction is really about the present, then it’s no surprise that the longstanding tensions between the United States and Middle Eastern countries should make itself known in tales of “desert planets.” From Tattoine to Klendathu, planets full of barren dunes are usually not-so-subtle allegorical stand-ins for a stereotyped “Middle East.” Let’s take a closer look at five science fictional tales from the United States that deal more or less openly with the relationship between that country and the Arab world to find out more.

Thinly-Veiled Allegories About the Middle East in U.S. Science Fiction

Star Wars: A New Hope

Tattoine, the remote desert planet where Luke Skywalker is raised by his Aunt and Uncle, is full of nomads and farmers who scrabble out a life among rocks and dunes. The Jawas roam around in caravans, and the Tusken Raiders are dressed in strips of towel and called only by a name (Sand People) that is probably the space version of a well-known US epithet for Arabs. The only “nice” people on the planet appear to be the transplanted (white) humans like Skywalker and Obi Wan. As usual, George Lucas serves up racial stereotypes, likes white people, and doesn’t do much else.

Thinly-Veiled Allegories About the Middle East in U.S. Science Fiction


Arakis, the desert planet whose rolling dunes shelter sandworms and a tribe of polygamous insurrectionaries known as the Fremen, is clearly set up as a Middle Eastern country that has been colonized for centuries. Arakis is the only source of “the spice,” a substance that makes interplanetary space travel possible and is mined from the sands by giant spice rigs (that look a lot like oil rigs in the films). Not only is the culture in the Dune universe intended to refer to Muslim culture — for instance, a massive war is referred to as a “Jihad” — but the economy of Arakis is similar to the Saudi, Kuwaiti or Iraqi economies. The planet is full of many oppressed tribes, and ruled by a tiny elite class that trades a single natural energy source for wealth and power. What’s interesting is that the books side with the Fremen, who are essentially the insurgents bent on overthrowing the wealthy offworlders who want Arakis’ spice.

Stargate (the movie)

While the Stargate television series deal with many different worlds, the original film is focused on only one: Abydos, a land of space Egyptians, ruled by an alien named Ra. According to Stargate lore, Ra came to Earth during the Egyptian era to steal slaves for Abydos. So the culture of the desert planet is a direct descendant of early Middle Eastern culture on Earth. Weirdly, it hasn’t developed in the centuries since its transplantation, though of course modern Egypt on Earth is far more technologically advanced than ancient Egypt. It’s as if the people on Abydos have just been waiting for some white dude to come and rescue them.

Starship Troopers (the movie)

In the first Starship Troopers film, and the book, our Earth soldiers first attempt to mow down the alien bugs on their home planet of Klendathu. It’s a desert planet, much like Planet P where the bugs and humans do most of their fighting in the first movie. While there is no direct connection between the culture of the bugs and Middle Eastern cultures, the desert surroundings definitely suggest it. The bugs are the ultimate, dehumanized “enemy,” and therefore it’s tempting to say they stand in for Iraqis since the films were all made during a period in history when there was tension between Iraq and the United States. Still, it would be just as easy to say the bugs stand in for other “enemies” in desert regions. So the connection in this franchise between a desert planet and the Middle East is weaker than in the previous three, though it’s still there. Especially because so much wartime propaganda is about dehumanizing the enemy.

The Years of Rice and Salt

This novel by Kim Stanley Robinson is not set on another planet — instead, it’s set on a very different Earth from our own. It’s an Earth where the plagues of the middle ages wiped out nearly all of Christian Europe, and where Islam became the dominant religion in the West. So it’s not about the Middle East, but instead a brilliant thought-experiment in which what many people think of as “Middle Eastern culture” has been superimposed on what many think of as “Western culture.” The results? Muslim feminism, for one thing. And India colonizes Europe rather than the other way around.

1 Comment

  1. In the case of Dune, it is also interesting to note the antagonist is the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (hmmm, the name rings a bell), and the Imperial troops carry Persian or Arabic titles like Sardaukar, Bashar, Caid. People by AD 14,000 all follow the creed codified in the “Orange Catholic Bible” organized in kalimas:

    ORANGE CATHOLIC BIBLE: the “Accumulated Book,” the religious text produced by the Commission of Ecumenical Translators. It contains elements of most ancient religions, including the Maometh Saari, Mahayana Christianity, Zensunni Catholicism and Buddhislamic traditions. Its supreme commandment is considered to be: “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul.”

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