“You Must Think Like a Patch of Sand”: Neurodiversity in Dune (1965)

Conference: The Kyoto Conference on Arts, Media & Culture (KAMC2022)
Title: “You Must Think Like a Patch of Sand”: Neurodiversity in Dune (1965)
Stream: Difference/Identity/Ethnicity
Presentation Type: Live-Stream Presentation
Jui-an Chou, National Kaohsiung University, Taiwan


Frank Herbert’s groundbreaking science fiction novel Dune (1965) has long inspired discussions about ecology, empires, Middle Eastern politics, and translation. Renewed interest in the book and its ensuing franchise has surged since 2021’s film adaptation by Denis Villeneuve, as the film brings in new controversies about race, gender, and Islamophobia. In this paper, however, I propose to return to the science fiction setting of the novel and to examine it from a new perspective: neurodiversity. As a concept that describes cognitive differences, the term neurodiversity was coined in the late 1990s, and has become increasingly visible through autism rights movements in the 2000s. On the other hand, using neurodiversity (or alternatively, neurodivergence) as an approach to reread literary and cultural texts, has been a relatively recent development. Scholars such as Sonya Freeman Loftis (2015), Melanie (Remi) Yergeau (2018), and Julia Miele Rodas (2018) have generated a new paradigm of analyzing not only neurodiverse characters but also a “poetics” of non-neurotypical narratives. As one of the latest developments in disability studies and medical humanities, neurodiversity studies focuses on how literary and cultural texts embody diverse ways of experiencing the world and how they challenge neurotypical norms. In this paper, I will analyze the neurological transformation of Paul, the protagonist of Dune, who obtains superhuman cognitive abilities that allow him to be both the messiah and a "freak". I will argue that the novel’s neurodiverse bildungsroman opens up possibilities of communication across communities and species, and even between human and non-human existences.

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