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?