The strange prescience of Frank Herbert’s Dune

Dune Cover

As William Gibson always reminds us the real role of science-fiction isn’t so much to predict the future as to astound us with the future’s possible weirdness. It almost never happens that science-fiction writers get core or essential features of this future weirdness right, and when they do, according to Gibson, it’s almost entirely by accident. Nevertheless, someone writing about the future can sometimes, and even deliberately, play the role of Old Testament prophet, seeing some danger to which the rest of us are oblivious and guess at traps and dangers into which we later fall. (Though let’s not forget about the predictions of opportunity.)

Frank Herbert’s Dune certainly wasn’t intended to predict the future, but he was certainly trying to give us a warning. Unlike others who would spend the 1960’s and 1970’s warning us of dangers that we ended up avoiding almost by sheer luck- such as nuclear war- Herbert focused his warnings on very ancient dangers, the greed of mercantile corporations, the conflicts of feudalism, and the danger that arises from a too tight coupling between politics and religion. This Herbert imagined at a time well before capitalism’s comeback, when the state and its authority seemed ascendant, and secularism seemed inseparable from modernity to the extent it that it appeared we had left religion in history’s dry dust.

To these ancient dangers Herbert added a new one – ecological fragility- a relatively newly discovered danger to humanity at the time Dune was published (1965). In a very strange way these things added together capture, I think, something essential about our 21st century world.

The world the novel depicts is a future some 21,000 years, which if we were taking the date seriously means that it is almost certain that everything Herbert “predicted” would be wrong. The usefulness in placing his novel so far ahead in the future, I think, lies in the fact that he could essentially ignore all the major stories of his day, like the Cold War, or the threat of nuclear destruction, Vietnam, or even social movements such as those fighting for civil rights.

By depicting such a far removed future Herbert had no obligation to establishing continuity with our own time. The only pressing assumption or question that a reader would face when considering the plausibility of this future world was “where are the computers and robots?” for surely human civilization in the future will have robots!  Dune’s answer is that they had been destroyed in something known as the Butlerian Jihad. This is brilliant because it liberated Herbert from the fool’s errand of having to make technological predictions about the future, and allowed him to build a far future with recognizable human beings still in it.

Herbert essentially ransacks the past for artifacts, including ideas and social systems and uses it to build a world that will allow him to flesh out his warnings including new question of ecological fragility mentioned above .

Most of the novel takes place on the desert planet of Arrakis a planet that would be without importance for anyone but the Fremen who inhabit it were it not for the fact that it is also the only source of “the spice” (melange) a sort of psychotropic drug and elixir that is the most valuable commodity in the universe not only because once ingested its absence will lead to death, but because it is the source of the prescience humans need in a world without even the most rudimentary form of artificial intelligence as a consequence of the Butlerian Jihad, about which the novel contains only whispers.

Given our current concerns about the rise of artificial intelligence, when reading Dune now, the Butlerian Jihad jumps out at you. Could this be where it ends, not with superintelligence but with a version of Samuel Butler’s revolt against the machines depicted in his novel Erewhon,  only this revolt on religious and humanists grounds?

Yet rather than present a world that returned to a pre-technological state because it denied itself the use of even “thinking” machines at the level of a calculator, those roles become filled by human/biological computers the “mentats”. Who like our computers today are used to see into a future we believe to be determined.

It is the navigational computation of the mentats that allow space travel and thus exchange between the planets. The spice trade is controlled by two monopolistic corporate entities The Spacing Guild and the CHOAM that effectively control all trade in the interstellar empire.

It is in reference to our looming fears about artificial intelligence and trepidation at growing inequality where the kind of mercantilism and feudalism depicted in Dune  make the novel feel prescient even if accidentally so. There is an Empire in Dune, much as there is a global empire today in the form of the United States, but, just as in our case, it is a very weak empire riddled by divisions between corporate entities that control trade and rival families that compete to take center stage.

Then there is the predominance of religion. Many have been very surprised by la revanche de Dieu in the late 20th and early 21st century- the predominance of religious questions and conflicts at a time when many had predicted God’s death. Dune reminds us of our current time because it is seeping with religion. Religious terms – most tellingly jihad- are used throughout the novel. Characters understand themselves and are understood by others in religious terms. Paul (Muad’Dib), the protagonist of the novel, is understood in messianic terms. He is a figure prophesized to save the desert Fremen people of Arrakis and convert their world to a paradise.

Yet, however much he was interested in and sympathetic to world religions, Herbert was also trying to warn us against their potential for violence and abuse. Though he tries to escape it, Paul feels fated to conquer the universe in a global jihad. This despite the fact that he knows the messianic myth is a mere role he is playing created by others- the Bene Gesserit mentat order- to which he and his mother belong. In Dune religious longings are manipulated in plots and counter-plots over the control over resources, a phenomenon with which we are all too familiar.

It not just that in Dune we find much of the same, sometimes alien, religious language we’ve heard on the news since the start of the “Long War”, even the effectiveness of the Fremen insurgents of the deserts against crack imperial troops the Sardaukar feels too damned familiar. Though perhaps what Herbert had done was gave us a glimpse of what would be the future of the Middle East by looking at its past including figures such as Lawrence of Arabia off of whom the character of Paul Atreides appears to be based.

All this and we haven’t even gotten to the one danger that Herbert identifies in Dune that was relatively new, that is ecological  fragility.  As is well known Dune, was inspired by Herbert’s experience of the Oregon Dunes and the US Department of Agriculture’s attempt to control the spread of its sands created by millions of years of coastal erosion by using natural methods such as the planting of grasses.

Here I think Herbert found what he thought was the correct model for our relationship with nature. We would neither be able to rule over nature like gods, but nor would we surrender our efforts to control her destructiveness or to make deserts bloom. Instead of pummeling her with mechanical power (a form of exploitation that will eventually kill a living planet) , we should use the softer and more intelligent methods of nature herself to steer her in a slow dance where we would not always be in the lead.

The interstellar civilization in Dune is addicted to the spice in the same way we are addicted to our fossil fuels and that addiction has turned the world of Arrakis into a desert- for the worms that produce the spice also make the world dry  in the same way the carbon we are emitting is turning much of the North American continent into a desert.

As I was reading Dune the story of California’s historic drought was all over the news- especially the pictures. Our own Arrakis. As Kynes the ecologist imagines his dead father saying (how many other novels have an ecologist as a main character?):

“The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.” (272)

If Herbert was in a sense prescient about the themes of the first decades of the 21st century it was largely by accident, and his novel provides a metaphysical theory as to why true prescience will prove ultimately impossible even for the most powerful superintelligence should we chose to build (or biologically engineer) them.

Paul experiences the height of his ability to peer into the future this way:

The prescience, he realized, was an illumination that incorporated the limits of what it revealed- at once a source of accuracy and meaningful error. A kind of Heisenberg indeterminacy intervened: the expenditure of energy that revealed what he saw, changed what he saw.

… the most minute action- the wink of an eye, a careless word, a misplaced grain of sand- moved a gigantic lever across the known universe. He saw violence with the outcome subject to so many variables that his slightest movement created vast shiftings in the patterns.

The vision made him want to freeze into immobility, but this, too was action with its consequences. (296)

In other words, if reality is truly deterministic it remains unpredictable because the smallest action(or inaction) can have the consequence of opening up another set of possible possibilities – a whole new multiverse that will have its own future. Either that, or perhaps all Paul ever sees are just imagined possibilities and we remain undetermined and free.