By: Jay Dyer
Dune is an amazing novel: There is a reason it’s the best-selling science fiction series of all time. Prescient for his time (1965), author Frank Herbert was able to foresee a future in which geo-engineering, rampant technocracy, geo-political intrigue and subterfuge, ecology, elite bloodlines, the occult and religious perennialism all coalesce into a story of unparalleled scope and imagination. In that regard, it functions as both a fictional account of a far distant galactic future, as well as a predictive presentation of today’s headlines and scientific advancements. Truly there is no novel to liken it to, especially in the genre of science fiction, relative to its time. While any top ten sci-fi novels will undoubtedly include Dune among its ranks, I argue it is utterly unique in its inclusion of themes and characters that run completely contrary to Asimov or Orwell.
Most science fiction envisions a future of advanced technocratic control where religion has all but been abolished or taken on odd, irrelevant forms. Not so here: For Hebert, religion takes a central role in the novel. As for technocracy, the novel is decidedly in opposition. We do see humans engaged in the usual court intrigues and conspiratorial machinations that echo Machiavelli’s Discourses and in particular, “Of Conspiracy.” Yet with Dune, we do not see a utopianism predicated on technological advance and subjugation, but rather a future in which the good guys are those in harmony with nature, seeking to be a symbiotic organism in the larger cycle of ecological and cosmic forces. Indeed, it is the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, working with the CHOAM trading guild and the Bene Gesserit bloodline coven of witches that seek to subjugate Arrakis (Dune), the desert planet of unmanageable wasteland home to the spice mélange, the consciousness-expanding drug that has a hold on the entire known universe.
Rather than being presented with a simplistic, Manichaean plot of goody-goodies and nasty villains that vie for control, the reader is shown a vast web of interlocking power blocs and alliances of espionage, all seeking to control the very thing that gives one control of the known galaxy – the control of resources, and in particular, the drug trade (the spice). The parallels to modern geo-politics here are unmistakable. Geo-political power has always centered around the control of resources and the land and sea power.
The novel’s usage of Islamic mystic symbolism and imagery immediately brings to mind ancient Afghani Sufism, where the opium trade has long been a center of global chess moves, particularly with the British Empire’s control and use of opium and its Great Game espionage maneuvers with Russia. Herbert is clearly aware of this global alignment and includes these very human drives in his futuristic, anti-imperial novel. The novel immediately made me think of Gould and Fitzgerald’s famous Invisible History, which details the importance of Afghanistan in middle eastern power moves, not just due to its centrality for the drug trade, but also due to its crucial “mystical” significance. Gould and Fitzgerald explain of this tradition:
“As the ancient home of Zoroaster and the mystical Avesta as well as Gandhara Buddhism, the Illuminati Roshaniya cult and the Order of Bektashi Dervishes, 19th century Afghanistan and its surroundings provided a mystical underpinning to what today is dryly regarded by many as mere geopolitics. With every advance of the industrial era, the quest for meaning and spiritual enlightenment among Western intellectuals grew while hypnotism, spiritualism and occultism found great popularity in European “parlor” society.
With the expansion of empire interwoven with the expectations of end-time prophecies about to come due, a spiritual movement linking biblical prophecy and Britain began to grow. Guided by religious zeal and a great deal of imagination, a British-Israel movement emerged from the shadows in 1794 with the publication of Richard Brothers’ A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times. Sharon Turner’s 1827 On the Asiatic Origin of the Anglo-Saxons sought to establish greater Persia as the ancestral home of “the progenitors of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors.” Some in the movement proclaimed British army officer Sir Henry Rawlinson’s successful 1835 translation of the Persian “Behistun inscription” as positive proof of a link between Britain and the northern migrations of 10 lost tribes of Israel while the 1840 publication of the Rev. John Wilson’s Our Israelitish Origin tapped biblical scripture to draw a direct connection between ancient Israel and Britain’s Anglo-Saxon empire.
But while providing an acceptable Judeo/Christianized veneer for justifying Britain’s imperial destiny, the practical foreign policy aspects of solidifying the empire took a more secret if not magical turn. Grounded in British Freemasonry, but organized around the exotic rights and practices of the Near and Middle East a kind of mystical, esoteric foreign policy gained favor within London’s elite during the 19th century. Drawing on Anglo and Franco-Egyptian Masonic societies for inspiration, this “mystical imperialism” sought to create a syncretistic cult-like religion with the over-arching goal of uniting the various factions and cultures within the empire.
According to author Robert Dreyfus in his book, Devil’s Game, during this time, “Many British intellectuals, and not a few imperialists, were seized with a desire to find a sort of holy grail, a unified field theory of religious belief.”
This is the mileu in which Herbert is working, as well as Buddhist and Heidegerrian ideas which are the key to understanding Dune. Herbert presents Paul Atreides, the novel’s would-be ruler and apotheosized prophet as the figurehead of revolution against the corrupt imperial power. The imperial power is primarily concerned with the maintenance of power and its guild-run profits, with a conspicuously secular and pragmatic view of politics. The Fremen, the desert-dwelling superstitious religious of Arrakis that secretly maintain caches of water (also a key commodity on Arrakis) interpret Paul as the fulfillment of their coming deliverer/prophet warrior, the Kwisatz Haderach, the universe’s super being. An interesting insight is presented here with the kwisatz haderach – the coming universal super being is the production of 40 generations of genetic bloodline manipulation by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, who represent the occult/espionage power of the ruling power structure.
Readers are thus shown a significant secret about realpolitik not evident in similar novels – the attempt to manipulate bloodlines by the elite to produce a genetically superior ruling class. In Herbert’s version, the manipulation is done to control the kwisatz haderach by a female witch coven that intends on being the power behind the throne. If a super being could be controlled, the Sisterhood could control the known universe through their adept skills at sorcery and word-magic. The Sisterhood are trained in all manner of religious and espionage skills and function something like occultic CIA operatives, arranged hierarchically under the Reverend Mother, Gaius. Gaius brings to mind Gaia, or mother earth, so we have a clear use of feminine symbology where we already get the impression the Sisterhood seeks to institute a galactic femin-ocracy, ousting the mediocre, secular Emperor Shaddam IV. In fact, the Sisterhood’s Missionaria Protectiva had even implanted the myth of the kwisatz haderach in all known religious sects for this purpose.
The Sisterhood, however, did not count on a man born out of the planned generational structure to Duke Leto through Jessica Atreides, a rebellious Bene Gesserit. The irony here is that contrary to the secular pragmatic imperial power and cunning feminine power, the masculine patriarchal power returns to the top of the pyramid. Herbert therefore casts a starkly traditionalist/perennialist version of future events in which the masculine power puts an end to the feminist power of the crafty Bene Gesserit. Religion is not displaced by scientistic utopianism, but rather vindicated as the real power in the universe, toppling the cynical and depraved Harkonnen bloodline. In fact, Herbert was even accurate in portraying the degenerate noble fixation with pedophile child rape, as Baron Harkonnen is shown loving young boys. In fact, in the appendices, we learn that the galaxy had already outlawed AI robot rule due to humans being enslaved by robots. As Paul ascends to power, he even takes a second wife, Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor. Dune is, I argue, a decidedly anti-modern novel, and astoundingly so. Most science fiction presents science as the key to “progress” with glistening spaceships and fantastical egalitarian otherworldly planets where religion is banished. Dune is the precise opposite: religion is the key, men are destined to rule, and the domination of humans and nature for gain is an unnatural aberration.
Herbert’s interest in ecology, geo-engineering and terraforming is manifest too, showing further prescience in regard to now public weather control and environmental engineering plans that are very real. Time Magazine has even reported on weather control and environmental engineering, to the dismay of ignorant deniers. Weather modification is now decades old, originating in World War II strategic flight missions. Modern weather technology has developed tremendously, involving VLF, ELF and lightning control, as DARPA’s own budget demonstrates. It reads on page 37:
“This thrust will obtain insights into physical aspects of natural phenomena such as magnetospheric sub-storms, fire, lightning, and geo-physical phenomena. New fundamental understandings of these phenomena will enable the ability to predict and exploit these physical processes. A major emphasis of this thrust is to provide predictive models for the interactions between plasmas and electromagnetic waves across a range of energy and length scales, and into new regimes. Specific efforts that fall under this heading are foundational studies on the initiation, propagation, and attachment of lightning, and their associated emissions; the critical factors affecting magnetospheric sub-storms; the generation and amplification of extremely low frequency (ELF)/ultra low frequency (ULF)/very low frequency (VLF) radiation in the ionosphere utilizing the High Frequency Active Aural Research Program (HAARP) transmitter; and understanding and quantifying the interaction of electromagnetic and acoustic waves with the plasma in flames.”
Herbert foresaw what would be coming in the near future, encoding it in a novel of science fiction, not just a fantastical prediction of events millennia from now. Dune is subject to the terraforming plans of the empire, but Paul Muad’dib realizes that in order to outsmart the CHOAM trade guild (the money power), the emperor (the polis) and the Bene Gesserit (the occult/espionage power), he must bring spice production to a halt, forcing all eyes to Arrakis. By so doing with his Fremen wildmen religious followers, he is able to bring the Jihad against the wicked ruling establishment powers.
The novel’s focus on ecology is also a rebuke to modern scientism which presumptuously assumes the rape of nature and mankind with no concern for an ecosystem that is part of a natural process. All natural hierarchies are restored by Paul Muad’dib and only under this hieratic order is true freedom restored. Paul and the “free-men” represent the masculine order placed back in power under which health and a blossomed, terraformed Dune emerge from a wasteland. This is also why Paul undergoes the Shai-Hulud (Old Father Eternity) worm bile ritual, wherein he experiences a crossing of the abyss to enter that place where the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood “cannot go.” When Muad’dib returns from this death/resurrection ritual, he is apotheosized to bring and end to the rule of the female power and the unrighteous. It is also worth noting that the imperial power sees mankind as a “disease” that must be eradicated through population control. the Sisterhood evidences this, too, with their attempt to engineer the kwisatz haderach. The Harkonnen follow suit with young boy sex slaves, as well as the imperial power brainwashing noble house servants and assassins for programmed missions. Here Herbert hints at programs like MKULTRA and human trafficking that are very real evils in modernity, though they are given little mainstream press attention.
From the standpoint of the occult, it factors prominently in the Bene Gesserit and Fremen rituals. The religion of Dune is a distant syncretistic blend of something called the Orange Catholic Bible, the occult, and Sufi Islamic religious concepts which most of the nobility sees as fables. This also confirms my thesis of Herbert’s influence from religious traditionalism/perennialism. The Bene Gesserit are a caste of skilled sorcerers that are able to use “the voice,” where thought and sound are connected to give one power over physical events, known as the “weirding way.” Paul is taught this power by his mother and eventually teaches the Fremen to use this quasi-kabbalistic magical power to destroy with a word. With bloodlines, esoteric symbolism, hallucinogenic drugs, ecology, terraforming, espionage and the occult, control of natural resources, Herbert’s Dune is undeniably a masterpiece of literary fiction, not just science fiction.