Besides the Bible and a select number of the Church Fathers, there are very few books that I actually bother to read more than once. Ironically, one of those is Frank Herbert’s Dune.
I use that word ironic because I disagree almost completely with the way Herbert represents religion in his universe:
- Christianity is nowhere to be found except as part of a synchronistic pseudo-religion concocted by those in power to control the masses. Christ explicitly declares that He will be with us always and that not even the gates Hades will be able to overcome His Church. So, any science fiction or speculative fiction that eradicates Christianity usually falls outside my ability to suspend my disbelief.
- All religions are enough alike that in the face of billions of lives lost they could suddenly find a means to unite under one watered-down version of themselves. Christ specifically says: And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent (John 17:3). There is no way to water that down.
- “Men looked at their gods and their rituals and saw both were filled with that most terrible of all equations: fear over ambition.” Herbert makes an assumption I see a lot of moderns make: that Christianity keeps its faithful in line through fear. I won’t discount that possibility in certain communities or denominations, but it runs completely counter to the Gospel which declares that there is no more need for fear because death itself has been defeated. Over and over again in Scripture when people encounter the Angel of the Lord (the pre-incarnate Christ) he tells them “Do not be afraid.”
I find myself drawn to Dune for three reasons:
- It is well written and entertaining.
- The world-building Herbert pulls off is breathtaking.
- For an author that (at least within the pages of his book) denies the divine, he is brutally honest about what a world looks like without God.
It is this last point that I find most interesting about Dune and was what really lept off the page when I most recently read the book again. Unlike all of the various adaptations of Dune (there are three that I am aware of), the books end with Paul failing.
To put this in context, let me focus on a theme that is so deep in the world-building of Herbert that no adaptation has ever bothered to explore: the Butlerian Jihad. It is only mentioned in passing in Dune in Appendix II:
Then came the Butlerian Jihad — two generations of chaos. The god of machine-logic was overthrown among the masses and a new concept was raised: “Man cannot be replaced.”This conflict is hinted at early in Dune by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam:
Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.and the Baron Harkonnen:
A most efficient Mental, Piter, wouldn’t you say, Feyd?…But he consumes too much spice, eats it like candy. Look at his eyes! He might’ve come directly from the Arrakeen labor pool. Efficient Piter, but he still can err…This is a Mental, Feyd. It has been trained and conditioned to perform certain duties. The fact that it’s encased in a human body, however, must not be overlooked. A serious drawback, that I sometimes think the ancients with their thinking machines had the right idea.The society in Dune abandoned “thinking machines” in favor of honing the human form to the best of its ability through genetic breeding programs (Bene Gesserit), the use of Spice (Space Guild and Mentats) and training (Sarkurkar and Fremen). The stated goal of all of this was power.
Baron Harkonnen, though a despicable human being, was absolutely correct: no matter how much human beings try to control themselves and their environment, they are still human beings and will err. There are things that will always be out of our control.
This is wonderfully expressed by Paul’s angry warning to the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, “Here I stand…but…I…will…never…do…[your]…bidding!” He is referring to the fact the he is the culmination of the Bene Gesserit breeding program, the Kwisatz Haderach, which they sought to control.
When Paul first discovers the truth about Himself, when the Spice of Arrakis begins to change him, he begins to see how various choices affected possible timelines. This prescience allowed him to see a future he desperately wanted to avoid: a jihad by the Fremen in his name that would embroil the entire universe. He spends the rest of the book trying to figure out a way to avoid this jihad.
At the very end of the book, he acquiesces to Feyd-Rautha’s challenge despite the fact that a) he could very well die at the hands of his arch-rival, and b) as Muad’Dib he had no reason to abide by the rules of kanly. The real reason he went forth to his potential death was because he was resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do to halt the jihad. It would go on whether or not he died, whether or not he fought. So, he chose to fatalistically step into the fighter’s ring to try and kill his cousin:
Paul saw how futile were any efforts of his to change any smallest bit of this. He had thought to oppose the jihad within himself, but the jihad would be. His legions would rage out from Arrakis even without him.When God is removed from the equation, all that is left is the biological imperative:
The race of humans had felt its own dormancy, sensed itself grown stale and knew now only the need to experience turmoil in which the genes would mingle and the strong new mixtures survive.The vanguard of this strength would be the Fremen, a people dominated by the Darwinian code of the survival of the fittest. Tempered in the harsh, water-starved planet of Arrakis and shaped by the Spice they would take that strength, mingle it with humanity across the universe in a bloodbath that would cull the weak.
As I said, brutally honest. Without God all we have is death. By the billions.
This all re-enforces my own Christian faith. The same race-consciousness that Herbert hints at in the pages of Dune is embraced in toto by Christ when He becomes incarnate. The transformative power that the Bene Gesserit, Space Guild and the Jihad grasp at is freely given in Christ. The mechanism for transformative change is wrested from the hands of death by the resurrected Christ and becomes not just life but eternal life.