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Collective Ignorance

Religion in Science Fiction (3): Dune

May contain spoilers for the Dune novels

Dune cover analog_dec63 Twenty thousand years into the future, and the known universe is controlled by aristocratic Houses who vie for political and economic supremacy under the command of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. Two factions which claim neutrality in the disputes of the ruling Houses scheme to consolidate their power in this interstellar society: the Bene Gesserit, and the Spacing Guild. The Bene Gesserit, an exclusive sisterhood which manipulates religions for its own benefit, is on the brink of completing a centuries-long breeding program to produce a super-being of unimaginable power. Meanwhile, the Spacing Guild – who have a monopoly on space travel – are concerned about developments that threaten the supply of the spice melange, a powerful psychoactive drug which the Guild Navigators ingest in order to fold space and make space travel possible. This spice can only be found on one planet: Arrakis, also known as Dune.

In 1957, after the publication of The Dragon in the Sea, science fiction novelist Frank Herbert moved to the edge of the Oregon Dunes, where a lengthy series of experiments were taking place which planted poverty grasses to stabilize the shifting sand dunes, slowing their movements. This work sparked Herbert's interest in ecology, and for the next five years he researched and eventually wrote two stories which were serialized in Analog magazine from 1963 to 1965: Dune World, and The Prophet of Dune (the cover of the first issue being pictured above). Reworked and expanded into a manuscript for a novel, Herbert vainly struggled to find a publisher, earning rejections from more than twenty before the book finally made it into print in 1966.

The story of Dune concerns a young man, Paul Atreides, the heir to a House who has been assigned control of the planet Arrakis, the only source of the invaluable spice melange. This appointment transpires to be a trap set by House Atreides enemy, House Harkonnen, who kill Paul's father, and leave him and his mother Jessica, a Bene Gesserit, to die in the desert. There they encounter the Fremen, a desert tribe who must fight for their survival against both the hostile sands of Arrakis, and the tyranny of House Harkonnen. Jessica presents Paul to the Fremen in a manner that suggests he could be their long-prophesied Messiah, setting in motion a series of events that will change the universe forever.

Thematically, Dune works on many different levels as a political drama, an adventure story, a future history of the downfall of empires and an ecological allegory. Herbert worked out the details of his world in incredible detail, causing Arthur C. Clarke do note that it was comparable in the achievement of its world-building solely to Lord of the Rings. The central ecological theme focuses upon the source of the spice – the sandworms, which dwell in the deep deserts of Arrakis, and cannot survive in contact with water. The Fremen share a dream of transforming Arrakis into a lush and verdant land, and collect water in vast underground stills to pursue this aim – yet as the sequels to Dune explore, every dream has its price, as the loss of the desert will also bring about the demise of the sandworms...

Spice, the commodity at the centre of all the political intrigue, is allegorical for oil in the twentieth century. Everyone wants it, because transportation depends upon it, yet it is only available from one desert planet, which mirrors the effect of the concentration of oil supplies in the Middle East. This allegorical element of the narrative is reinforced by the Fremen religion, Zensunni, which Herbert envisions as combining elements of Zen Buddhism and Islam. Thus the desert world of Arrakis is underpinned with an Islamic-themed desert culture, redolent of the of the souq markets of any Arab nation. That the story concerns the ultimate uprising of the Fremen against an Empire which oppresses them in its hunger for the most precious commodity, the spice melange, is a particularly prescient view of Middle Eastern politics. The Fremen, however, are presented in a manner much more likely to win the reader's sympathies than any Islamic terrorist group from the real world.

Dune doesn't merely include religion as part of its background, it is central to it. Herbert doesn't imagine a future world bereft of religion, but one that shows religious traditions as having been transformed over millennia. A pivotal event in the back story is the Butlerian Jihad, a religiously-rooted crusade against computers, thinking machines and conscious robots, which expunges these technologies from the universe. The computer has been cast down as blasphemy: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind”. This gives Dune a unique feel, combining advanced technologies such as force shields and interstellar travel on the one hand, yet a more feudal, quasi-medieval society on the other – a technique other settings have since copied.

Herbert himself was raised as a Catholic, but became a Zen Buddhist in adulthood, and in envisioning the transitions of religion in a post-Earth society, Herbert imagines the doctrinal effect of a synthesis between Buddhist and Abrahamic faiths. A fastidious note taker, details of the setting for Dune had been worked out in much greater detail than ever appears in the narrative, and it is possible – just from examining clues in the text – to unravel some of the religious changes Herbert imagines. Although he does not suggest a single unifying faith, religion in the 102nd century has one major holy book, known as the Orange Catholic Bible, which contains books from the Talmud, the Old and New Testaments, the Qur'an, the Upanishads, and the Vedas, as well as Zen koans and Taoist analects. This ‘religious omnibus edition’ emerges in the back story from the fusion of the various different religious traditions, under the teachings of Maometh Saari (“the third Muhammad”).

These fusing do not occur indiscriminately – as with everything Herbert contributes to Dune, the religious back story is scrupulously considered. The positioning of a future version of Islam as the basis for a syncretic religious heterodoxy may seem strange to people who have not studied the religion, yet Islam itself emerged from similar conditions, as Muhammad was exposed to the teachings of many different religions in Mecca and Medina before coming to the conclusion that there was only one God (he choose the name ‘Allah’ to represent this one God), and that all religions had captured only an aspect of divine truth.

Herbert imagines a future history that has been influenced by many different schools, including Mahayana Christianity (a fusion of the numinous, worship-focussed religions Christianity and Mahayana Buddhism) and Zensunni Catholicism (a fusion of Zen Buddism, Sunni Islam and the Catholic church). Other Buddislamic sects are mentioned, including Zensufism – a merging of Zen Buddhism and Sufism, the Islamic mystical religion (these two religions are not hard to interrelate, as each deals with quite similar themes but from wildly different perspectives). Zensunni gets the closest treatment, however, since the Fremen are descended from a sect known as the Zensunni Wanderers, who cleave to more a traditional form of Buddislam. Fremen society is suffused with Arabic words and Islamic themes, but also has elements from more primitive tribal cultures, reflecting the incredibly inhospitable desert environment they live in, and the frugal life it necessitates.

The Bene Gesserit form the nexus of religion's intersection with the plot of Dune: the order has manipulated belief systems on all the planets of the Imperium to ensure that they hold an effective monopoly on religion, one that parallels the Spacing Guild's monopoly on transportation, and thus trade. Transformed by a ritual involving the spice melange, the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers possess many near-supernatural powers, of which the most prominent is the Voice – Herbert's prefiguring of the Jedi mind trick, which Bene Gesserit use to compel obedience. Paul represents the penultimate step of the Bene Gesserit's meticulous breeding program, and the novel begins with the Emperor's Truthsayer, the ruthless yet politically savvy Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim, arriving to test Paul to see if he might be the kwisatch haderach, the super-being the Bene Gesserit have been searching for.

Herbert's inspiration for the Bene Gesserit were his ten maternal aunts, devout Irish Catholics who attempted to force Catholicism upon him in his youth (and ironically thus resulted in him taking up Zen Buddhism instead). All either Jesuits or members the Society of Jesus, the name ‘Bene Gesserit’ was corrupted from ‘Jesuit’, as Herbert imagined what an all-female Jesuit order would be like. There is thus something of a satire of the Catholic church embedded in the Bene Gesserit, especially in their Missionaria Protectiva, in which prophesies and myths of various kinds have been spread throughout the Empire to allow any Bene Gesserit to insinuate herself into that society as a religious leader, which arguably mirrors the early Catholic's church absorption of local beliefs into their ‘Universal’ church. Yet it would be wrong to assume that Herbert uses the Bene Gesserit as a simple dig at the Papacy – far from it.

All the Bene Gesserit are extremely well developed characters, and while Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim is every bit the scheming manipulator, Paul's mother Jessica is a far more sympathatic character, loyal to her order, but letting her love of Paul's father, Duke Leto Atreides, win out over her allegiance to the sisterhood. Jessica, who was patterned upon Frank Herbert's wife, Beverly, can actually be seen from a certain perspective as the protagonist of Dune: she appears at the very beginning, is involved in all the major events at Paul's side, and even provides the closing line of the novel. Thus the Bene Gesserit as individuals are shown to be deeply human, while it is the political machinations of the order that effectively unleashes the crisis at the centre of the story. In the later novel, Chapterhouse Dune, the Bene Gesserit are the heroes of the story, albeit the order at this time has moved far beyond its original goals of political domination.

Chapterhouse Dune also reveals another surprising element of Herbert's vision of future religion: a side plot in the book concerns a small group of Jews who have been driven underground in order to escape the ever-recurring pogroms against their people. Practising in secret, Judaism is shown at this time (many millennia after the events of Dune) as having survived for twenty six millennia, maintaining an unbroken chain of connection to their forebears while conventional histories had long since recorded all Jews annihilated. This remarkable portrayal of both Jewish persecution and tenacity, projected into a future history, lies radically outside the scope of science fiction's usual encounters with the domain of the sacred.

Part of Herbert's motives for including religions in Dune is to make a point about the dangerous interface between politics and faith. This Bene Gesserit proverb quoted in the novel emphasises the warning Herbert wishes to make:

When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement becomes headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it's too late.

It is the danger which occurs in the interface between politics and religion that Herbert seeks to warn of, and this hazard cannot be blamed simply upon traditional religious beliefs – after all, messianic nonreligious ideologies such as Marxism engender the same kinds of problems. The amazing thing about Dune, and the Dune series in general, is that it manages to present this concern without taking away a sense of what religion can contribute to society. The Fremen come across as a deeply sympathetic people; their plight is unjust and their goals worthy of aspiration. The reader sympathises with them, and ultimately roots for them. It takes a talented writer to highlight concerns in the intersection of religion with politics, without demonising either religion in general or its practitioners.

Dune was the first novel to win both the Hugo and the Nebula award, the latter being awarded for the first time to Herbert's magnum opus. It is without a doubt Frank Herbert's finest work, and is recommended reading even for those who do not wish to tackle the entire series (which although ultimately rewarding drags badly in places, particularly the ambitious yet over-long God Emperor of Dune). It represents a high point in the interface between traditional beliefs and science fiction – more thoughtful, studious and even-handed than any fantasy work tackling religion written before or since.

Next week: Stargate

Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.


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Can't wait for next week :-D
Stargate <3
I am assuming the Ancients and Ori will be a big part of the topic ;-)

Man cannot deny that he is a spiritual being. Religion is an inseparable part of human history and will continue to be so in the future. An element of the fascination I have with science fiction is how religion fits into the future worlds imagined by science fiction writers. Is the evolutionary movement of religion towards a syncretised one size fits all faith, or the preservation of pure and distinct belief systems?


Kim: you are of course correct - Ascension in general, and the Ori in particular, are very much the focus of this Thursday's serial post. :) Hope you enjoy it!

David: thanks for commenting, although this is less a response to this piece than it is an advert for your myspace page. :)

None of the science fiction settings we're looking at in this serial postulate a unitary faith - one of the few books that does to my knowledge is Gregory Benford's "In the Ocean of Night" (1977).

Anyone know of any others?

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