Burning Man’s Secret Sci-Fi Origins

It happened a night, between 2000 and 2005. She swears it happened, but she couldn’t be more precise about the time than that.

What Summer Burkes remembers is what she saw. She was deep in the desert with a few friends, wandering deeper – no life in sight. Then, at some point, at a dark and unspecified hour, she stumbled upon an abandoned camp. There were cargo tents. And a watchtower, which she climbed. At the top was a small platform; on top of a TV, problems and dusty old communications equipment. Burkes listened to a loop transmission. He was telling her where she was: the planet Arrakis. It also told him why no one was there: they had all been eaten by a sandworm. “That one made my hair stand on end,” said Burkes. She ran back down, scanning the area frantically for signs of the worm.

The danger was not, strictly speaking, real. Burkes was at Burning Man, the conflagration annual conference in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. And the ghost camp, she now believes, sitting in the current comfort of her home in Northern California, was an art installation designed to transport nerdy Gen Xers like her to Arrakis, the setting of Frank Herbert. Dune. It is a planet covered with a scorching desert sea, its tidal sands rippling with the subterranean eddies of giant and blind worms. Walk on its surface in a sound that is too regular and too realistic and the creatures will hear you, soar to the sky and strike.

Is this the goal of Burning Man? Role-playing scenes from your favorite fantasies, with a spooky twist of Herbertian horror? You would be forgiven for thinking not. Over the years, the event – which is set to return to the desert in 2022 after a two-year hiatus from Covid – has grown into something of a counter-cultural town on a hill, founded on drugged woozeries from the west coast and the principles of loving life, a radical one-week social experiment supported by an economy of giving. “A bunch of crap,” says John Law, one of its founders. He’s a little irritated, because the older Burning Man grows, the more his more ardent followers seem to distort his geeky beginnings. “In fact,” he says, “pop culture has had a much bigger influence. Although hardly anyone talks about it, the origin of Burning Man was not Mad Max. It was Laurence of Arabia. And it was, very crucially and in a way that has never been properly recognized, Dune.

But Burning Man started on a beach, you say. Very good: In 1986, Larry Harvey and co. set fire to an 8ft tall wooden doll on Baker’s Beach in San Francisco and made a mirth so memorable that they were forced to do it again the following year. Then the next year, and the next, until the party got so loud that the police shut them down. So Harvey called Law, whose punk and sci-fi obsessed prankster buddies at the Cacophony Society had an idea: let’s take him to the wilderness. The year was 1990, the start of Burning Man proper. “We drew a line in the earth and crossed it, and it was completely transformational,” Law says in Spark, one of many Burning Man documentaries.

From this first year “on the playa” – Burner-speaks for Black Rock – the Dune crew obsessives suggested everyone make mock suits, a reference to the tight fitting body clothing that recycles precious fluids and keeps the Fremen of Arrakis alive in the wilderness as they venture beyond from the safety of their mountain villages, called sietches. “They ended up with a compromise that required less costumed labor and covered their entire bodies in playa mud,” Law says. Years later, participants would bring their own Duneries to the proceedings. “I want to bring together a group that would be interested in building a sietch Fremen on the playa,” one of them announced on the ePlaya bulletin board in 2007. Another Burner, in 2005, called the disused ambulance that he was driving in “the worm”. For years, Burkes and an artist ex-boyfriend have fantasized about building a giant worm emerging from the sand of the playa.


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