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The Sands of Time

The novel - movie and miniseries - Dune may have less of a following than Star Wars or Lords of the Rings, but in esoteric value, it is perhaps a masterpiece of a higher order.

Philip Coppens


“We are the secret of the Universe. We know of spice... the spice called melange... the greatest treasure in the Universe. It exists on only one planet – ours, Arrakis, Dune. We know of spice and the Bene Gesserit sisterhood’s selective breeding plan of ninety generations to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, the one the spice will awaken.”
These are the famous opening words of Dune, the novel of Frank Herbert. Though its film and mini-series are less known than Star Wars or Lord of the Rings – or at the very least have received less accolades – it is safe to say that it sits without any problem in this series. The original novel, first published in 1965, remains unsurpassed as a master work of science fiction and has a dedicated following.

The novel was originally serialised as two shorter stories, Dune World and The Prophet of Dune. They appeared in Analog, between 1963 and 1965. It was awarded the Nebula award in 1965 and tied for the Hugo award in 1966. It has since sold more than 20 million copies. David Lynch’s 1984 film “Dune” was the first complete attempt to capture Frank Herbert’s vision onto film. It would star Kyle MacLachlan, who would also work with Lynch on the hit series Twin Peaks.
The film had a long and torturous history: in order to give the illusion of a completely barren desert, film crews were sent out to pick the desert near the studio clean of any vegetation or hint of plant or animal life. The film also ended up at being more than three hours in length, which was cut down to just over two. This resulted in the film becoming nearly incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t read the book. Herbert died in 1986 and thus missed out on the continued success that both the film and mini-series, produced for the Sci Fi channel, has experienced.

The novel details the journey of a boy, Paul Atreides, son of a Duke, from the water world of Caladan to the arid wastes of Dune, where he meets his destiny. Rather than a “mere” inheritor of the throne, he will become a prophet. Dune is therefore the story of an ancient priesthood, the creation of a Messiah, and his “awakening” through the use of hallucinogenic substances. This archetypal shamanic experience has nevertheless been labelled “science fiction”, as it is set in an alien, extra-terrestrial civilisation.
Herbert described the origins of Dune as “a concept whose mostly unfleshed images took shape across about six years of research and one and a half years of writing. The story was all in my head until it appeared on paper as I typed it out.” The original novel was followed by “Dune Messiah”, where Paul Atreides is Emperor of the Known Universe, but all is not well: corruption is taking root in his Empire, and the forces he deposed are plotting their revenge. Another sequel, “Children of Dune” continues this story line, at a time when Paul is presumed dead; his sister Alia is Regent and is becoming increasingly tormented by the voices of the past. Herbert noted that the original trilogy was “about the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us.” Even if a messias was delivered, fallible mortals took over the power structure, weakening the hope the hero had brought with him. The series continued with “God Emperor of Dune”, “Heretics of Dune” and “Chapterhouse: Dune”.

Though Dune might seem to be the story about the search for a hero – the message of the first book – Herbert himself felt that what he really wanted to portray was the human fallibility to “give over every decision-making capacity to any leader who can wrap himself in the myth fabric of society. Hitler did it. Churchill did it. Franklin Roosevelt did it. Stalin did it. Mussolini did it.” But the list did not stop there. “My favourite examples are John F. Kennedy and George Patton. Both fitted themselves into the flamboyant Camelot pattern, consciously assuming bigger-than-life appearance. But the most casual observation reveals that neither was bigger than life. Each had our common human ailment-clay feet.”
Herbert pointed out that the scarcity of water on Dune was an exact analogue of the oil scarcity that existed in modern times. Dune came about from the possibility – the fear – that ecology might be the next banner for demagogues and would-be-heroes, for the power seekers and others ready to find an adrenaline high in the launching of a new crusade. Of course, this is what happened – with the Kyoto treaty one such example.

In the story of Dune, the role of “spin doctors” is admirably portrayed with the Bene Gesserit, whose missionary work has laid the groundwork for the people’s expectation of a Messiah, which Paul, through the stage management of his Bene Gesserit mother, will fulfil.
The Bene Gesserit, a female order of priests, are best described as awakened beings: they possess knowledge of their previous incarnations, though only their female ones. When a Bene Gesserit acolyte becomes a full Reverend Mother, she gains her ancestral memories — the complete memories of all of her female ancestors. She cannot recall the memories of her male ancestors, and is terrified by the psychic space within her that the masculine memories inhabit.
The Bene Gesserit are conducting a breeding program to develop a superhuman male who can recall both his male and female ancestral memories, as well as the ability to see (and thus control) the future. They refer to him as the Kwisatz Haderach. This recall is due to an ordeal known as Spice Agony and involves overdosing on melange, which men have hitherto failed to survive. The Kwisatz Haderach will lead the Fremen, the native population of the planet Arrakis. Their eyes are totally blue due to their exposure to the spice melange. They await their Messiah because of a legend planted intentionally across the Universe by the Missionaria Protectiva, a division of the Bene Gesserit dedicated to religious manipulation. The Messiah legend is intended to ease the path of the Kwisatz Haderach when they bring him into being.
Paul’s mother is one of them, but is asked to become fully initiated – a Reverend Mother – by taking “the Waters of Life”: water that is full of spice – in essence an overdose. Unbeknownst to those administering the rite, she is pregnant, which means that not only she, but also her foetus becomes enlightened. It means that Paul’s sister becomes awakened while still in the womb: she is born with the memory of all her previous incarnations and hence is seen by the other children as a freak. There is therefore a marked contrast between Paul, who is allowed to awaken, and his sister, who is born as such.

Frank Herbert placed Arrakis as a planet circling Canopus. Canopus is the second brightest star in the sky – though as a star, it is far brighter than Sirius; Sirius happens to be much closer to Earth. Canopus is known as the “ship of the desert”, but also as the star for navigation. It is therefore apt to feature in a movie titled “Dune”, in which Navigators play an important role. The melange was also used by a group of space navigators, who in essence have used so much of the spice that it has changed them. Hallucinogenic substances that change a species is similar to an idea promoted by Terence McKenna, who stated that homo sapiens sapiens possibly evolved through the use of hallucinogenic substances. In the case of the Spacing Guild, they are now able to bend space and time, open up a wormhole for themselves and the crafts they navigate, to travel throughout the universe.
The Spacing Guild could be seen as a group of male “priests”, specifically in the manner in which they are treated: they have a large group of servants, who make sure that the rituals are obeyed and the Navigators are not seen by any living being. In the “Spacing Guild Training Manual”, “Handbook for Steersmen (Classified)”, Herbert writes: “The Spacing Guild has worked for centuries to surround our elite Navigators with mystique. They are revered, from the lowest Pilot to the most talented Steersman. They live in tanks of spice gas, see all paths through space and time, guide ships to the far reaches of the Imperium. But no one knows the human cost of becoming a Navigator. We must keep this a secret, for if they really knew the truth, they would pity us.”
Throughout the series, there is a volume of philosophical doctrine, often penned down in such “manuals”. The Space Guild argues that “the most dangerous game in the universe is to govern from an oracular base. We do not consider ourselves wise enough or brave enough to play that game. The measures detailed here for regulation in lesser matters are as near as we dare venture to the brink of government. For our purposes, we borrow a definition from the Bene Gesserit and we consider the various worlds as gene pools, sources of teachings and teachers, sources of the possible. Our goal is not to rule, but to tap these gene pools, to learn, and to free ourselves from all restraints imposed by dependency and government.”
The Bene Gesserit obviously do rule from an oracular base. They train their bodies and minds over years of conditioning, giving them physical and mental powers on the verge of superhuman. Outsiders often refer to them as ‘witches’. The Bene Gesserit play a large, though secretive, role in the running of the empire.
The creation of the Kwisatz Haderach will be accomplished through gene manipulation, whereby Herbert foreshadowed another major trend of the late 20th century: the cloning debate. Within the framework of the Kwisatz Haderach, this would be a male shaman with psychic abilities that the female Bene Gesserits could never possess. This echoes a traditional distinction between the roles of male and female shaman, and translates it to a fundamental genetic issue – rather than any social factors that are often seen as the dividing agency between the role of male and female shamans.

Paul Atreides is this Kwisatz Haderach, but he arrives on the scene a generation earlier than expected, and he has powers beyond what the Bene Gesserit expected. Throughout the story, it is left unclear whether Paul is the real Messiah, or whether he is merely a carefully engineered project of his mother and some of her fellow priests. When the prophecy seems to indicate that the true Messiah will be born on Dune – a qualification that does not meet Paul – it is overlooked as an insignificant detail; Paul’s mission to become the Messiah, they claim, began on Dune, and nowhere else. In a Christian context, the question would be whether he is the Messiah, or the Antichrist.
That he may be the genuine product is revealed when the Fremen give him a challenge that the Bene Gesserit did not know he would face. In order to be truly accepted by the Fremen, he must become a sandrider. The Fremen have a great secret: they have learned to control the Giant Worms, the producers of the melange, through the use of ‘maker hooks’ they have learned to climb aboard the worms, and then take control of their course, which enables them to quickly move around the desert. Obviously this is not the safest of tasks, but Paul attempts it and succeeds; he is a sandrider at last – and recognised as the Messiah.

Paul Atreides is thus the “Muad’Dib” – the Fremen name for the Kwisatz Haderach; in him, we are confronted with the initiate, on his path. As could be expected, he must face himself, and the fear that blocks him from his true purpose. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Apart from the traditional (and to be expected) quotes, the role of fate is also underlined in the “manuals” and other literature inserted into the writings: “It is said of Muad’Dib that once when he saw a weed trying to grow between two rocks, he moved one of the rocks. Later, when the weed was seen to be flourishing, he covered it with the remaining rock. ‘That was its fate’, he explained.” (The Commentaries, Children of Dune)
Some sections of Herbert’s philosophy are straight from the Hermetica, the age-old “manual” for the initiate on his path to enlightenment or awakening: “If every human had the power of prescience, it would be meaningless. For where could it then be applied?” (attributed to Norma Cenva, The Calculus of Philosophy, ancient Guild records, private Rossak collection, in “Dune: House Corrino”.) The quote is on par with the Hermetic doctrine that if all humans were all-knowing about their previous incarnations, there would be no distinction between humans and the gods. It underlines the excellent research that went into this book. The word “bene”, as in “Bene Gesserit”, is actually Hebrew for “Sons of” or “Daughters of”.

The Bene Gesserit have the ability of persuasion. They can control anyone’s mind so long as they can use the “Voice” on the person. They are also able to learn and comprehend new languages at a superhuman rate, by listening to snatches of conversation. It underlines that once awakened, the mind is capable of superhuman features – on par with the awakened people that hack into the Matrix, in the Matrix trilogy.
Herbert’s attention to linguistic detail in his use of fictional languages with real-world roots – as well as others that are purely fictional – has invited comparisons to other famous fictional works using created languages, especially J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One example is when Jessica Atreides and the Fremen Shadout Mapes discuss Jessica’s knowledge of the “Bhotani Jib,” a “hunting language,” suggesting a world in which languages have evolved for specific purposes. In a similar episode, Jessica’s exposure to what she describes as the “violence” of the Fremen Chakobsa tongue causes her to infer that the Fremen culture is even more fiercely violent than is commonly suspected.

Science fiction novels are normally filled with technological references. Dune has little or no technology and there is a reason for this: advanced computers have long been forbidden due to the Butlerian Jihad, which states “Thou shalt not make a machine in the image of Man’s mind”, and as a replacement human skills have been developed to an astonishing degree – after Mankind as a whole has experienced the dangers of over-reliance on technology. Dune, if anything, is a message for our time, whereby the mind is not appreciated for its true potentials and drugs are seen as having no educational value – instead, we offer a computer-generated world as a virtual reality, neglecting the superhuman abilities that we could perform within our own realm. Dune may thus be a messianic vision of our own future – and a return to core human values… which may explain why it has maintained its freshness since it was written forty years ago.