Monday, July 28, 2008


In terms of novels that influenced me, and how I see the world, there is none more foundational to me than Frank Herbert's Dune. The first copy I ever read was ten cents from the downtown branch's annual sale. It was nearly destroyed it was so old and used, but for some reason I liked it more because of that. The cover entranced me, so I asked mom for a dime and bought it. We moved to Arizona just a bit before I started school. My first coherent memories are of the desert. As I grew older, that shift Paul experiences, from verdant green world to desert world is the same one I was experiencing; I identified with that part of his existence.

There are so many things I want to say about the novel, and the Lynch film which I still love, even with all its faults. Instead, though, what I want to talk about is a trend I've noticed in my conversations with my advisor's son about science fiction. We wind up talking about the Messiah figure an awful lot, and how SF authors tend to deal with that issue.

At it's core, Dune deals with the messiah reflex in general: the Bene Gesserit believe in it so thoroughly that it is their goal in their not-so-secret secret breeding program, meaning even these characters who make it their business to manufacture religion (far back in Arrakis' past, in fact, Jessica is certain it was visited by a branch of the BG called Missionara Protectiva--a set of sisters who are trained to go out to other worlds and worm their way into the local religions, then place a prophecy in them that one day, a woman will come [possibly with child] and that child will be a messiah--this way, should a BG ever have to flee for her life, as soon as she arrives on a planet, she will find safe harbor if she can pick up on the local religious symbology and insert herself as the mother of the coming messiah) that they believe in a coming messiah, too. Paul's journey is the journey of the messiah, complete with all the pitfalls and traps that are laid for such a one.

Herbert is asking us the vital question: what is it that makes us want a messiah?

What is this Jeremiad reflex we have to say we have moved away from something essential and that someday someone will come to move us back to it? Why do we feel that is necessary (and how much of it stems from our essential misunderstanding of time as linear simply because we have overlaid linear demarcation onto it for convenience sake)?

So, at the very core of the novel (and the rest of the series) is the question "what is a messiah?" and more importantly--how will we recognize one when he or she comes? To a society more obsessed with end-times prophecy than ever, I'd say that this is not just an important question, but an essential question. What's more, is instead of just asking the question (which other SF writers have done), Herbert answers it, by showing that the only way we will accept a prophet as our messiah is if he or she can see the future and produce astounding feats of magic. In other words, we want to be saved by someone who is essentially alien--who is not us.

This is the same point Heinlein makes in Stranger in a Strange Land (which is an amazing novel, don't get me wrong), but here Herbert makes not only that point, but the others I've listed above, making Dune in some ways more complex than Stranger..., at least to me (though I love both books). He asks us the important question: who is more equipped to be the messiah? The mystical insider? Or the wise outsider?


Supernetuser said...

I've had the distinction of reading the entire Dune Series, though it took me from 1999-2005. I managed to read it start to finish when I found a Border's gift card on the floor with $15 left, enough to buy the last two books. I managed though to forget that in the movies, they made Lady Jessica a blond while the book said she had red hair, a trait of all Bene Gesserit or the majority of them anyway. Frank Herbert was writing about the dependence of the human race in that galaxy on the spice as our dependency is to oil. The spice can give people all-blue eyes or power their hyperdrives. I think he captured the situation we're facing with the oil crisis very well though he wrote his books in the 70s during another period of crisis that our parents faced.

J. Campbell said...

I absolutely agree--they also changed the entire tenor of the story by making Paul an adult in both adaptations. The story is quite different when one remembers he's a 15 year old boy, and small for his age (as Mohaim says).

Karma said...

You have reminded me that I need to re-read these sometime soon. I was just writing about these the other day in my non-lj-blog, when I was thinking about William Gibson.

I find it fascinating how resistant I am to reducing this series to a comparison about contemporary oil crises, or to a question of dependence on spice or anything else. No, I want to protest, that's part of the universe of the novels, part of the texture, but their importance pales in comparison to that of the role of religion in historiography, the role of politics in religion and vice versa, the sheer audacity, when you think about, that Herbert displays as he invents a future that is so far removed from our Earth and yet so damned familiar...

I say none of this to offer some sweeping statement on the books, just to remark on how striking it is the very different things that different readers take away, and how the time/space that we read them in likely influences what we take away. A re-reading years later will certainly change our appreciation and understanding, but as I was saying to a friend last night, my expectations of _Spook Country_ were certainly influenced by the sheer power of the affect that I experienced reading Gibson for the first time as a teenager in the mid-80s. The layers of appreciation and response... it's really interesting...

J. Campbell said...

I think that's what makes this novel in particular one of the best the genre has to offer: that there are all of these things and more to take away from a reading.