We Are All Harkonnens

Tomorrow, Kingsley Amis, Steampunk, Speculative Fiction, Sand Dunes on the Oregon Coast, Justus Von Leibig’s “Law of the Minimum,” Big Themes, Zensunni Wanderers, The Corruptability of Language, Blindness, Sayyid Qutb, Crossing the Euphrates

We Are All Harkonnens

John Giuffo
301 Snaps

The trance state of prophecy is like no other visionary experience… It is an infinite pragmatism in the midst of Infinity, a demanding consciousness where you come at last into the unbroken awareness that the universe moves of itself, that it changes, that its rules change, that nothing remains permanent or absolute throughout all such movement…The things you see in this trance are sobering, often shattering.

—“The Stolen Journals of Leto II”, God Emperor of Dune

Every good science fiction writer should be prescient. All our tomorrows1 lay out in front of us, there to see if you know how to look; each more or less probable, each more or less desirable. The skill lies in choosing the right paths and following them to their most logical conclusions. Where will our technological hubris, or our animal greed, or our susceptibility to diversion lead us? How bad can it get?

The answer usually is: pretty bad. Almost everyone slows down at the scene of a grisly accident, and the best sci-fi writers make the prettiest car wrecks of our futures. Our contented possible tomorrows[1] don’t interest us as much as our possible discontent. It’s worrying that our most popular visions of the future—from Brave New World (1932) to Neuromancer (1984)—are so dystopic. Are we just congenitally disposed to be negative—or do our nightmares just make for better stories?

To be clinical about it, one of the functions of science fiction is to warn us. Something about now troubles a writer, and wanting to sound the alarm about the folly of a particular course of action, he or she sits down and tracks it to the inevitable ashes. They’re like prophets that way.

What are Orwell’s 1984 warnings but prophecies? He has shown us the end result of the all-seeing eye, how useful the concept of endless war is, how easily a scared population of proles can be placated, yet we still inch closer to the dangers he warned lay in wait. Prescience is not a prophylactic, as Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) antihero Paul Muad’Dib learned the hard way, and it can feel like a prison. Some futures trap us.

Herbert sat down to write Dune not to prophesize about the future so much as to look at the forces that shape history and society. (That, and to tell a good story.) Set 8,000 years in the future, it tells of Paul Atreides, a Duke’s son who, through manipulation and a healthy dose of unforeseen chaos, is chased from the comforts of royalty into the wilds of the desert planet Arrakis, also called Dune, where he takes the name Muad ’Dib and fulfills his destiny as the messiah.As Muad’Dib, he leads the sturdy yet superstitious sanddwelling Fremen in rebellion against the Emperor Shaddam IV and his proxies, the Harkonnens. It was the first book to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards, science fiction’s top accolades.

His themes were religion, ecology, politics, power, genetics, and the ownership of history, and he removed his observations from the here and now to make his points about the here and now. But Herbert, like many of the sci-fi greats, also looked at the big picture. His canvas spanned millennia, and he wanted to examine the forces and undercurrents that shape the course of civilization over those thousands of years.

So it’s a bit jarring to see that Herbert’s vision of a futuristic theocracy has such resonance now. It’s not that we shouldn’t be used to the realization of science fiction’s predictions—in addition to the creeping fulfillment of Orwell’s expectations, we can see the collision of science fiction speculation and reality everywhere. It goes beyond Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 positing in 2001:A Space Odyssey of the gravity-assisted “slingshot maneuver”2 that would be first used by Voyager II on its 1979 trip around Jupiter and out of the solar system. Our near future is getting nearer by the minute, if William Gibson’s increasingly contemporaneous books are any guide, and we should get used to the sickening worry that comes with seeing our worst visions of the future come barreling into the present. Consider that an April New York Times report that cited Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game as inspiration for a virtual training program for soldiers. Card’s bleak picture of a future war fought entirely by children who think they are playing in a simulation is, among other things, a warning about the desensitizing dangers of remote-controlled war.

In New Maps of Hell (1960), Kingsley Amis defended the form and offered this somewhat inadequate definition: “Science Fiction is that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology…” Of course, such situations can and do arise in the world we know. In fact, as some of society’s technological achievements— cloning, genetic engineering, etc.—move us ever closer to the dark futures of science fiction, an interesting thing has started happening to the genre: it is fracturing, and new variants join existing ones. Cyberpunk, cypherpunk, steampunk, space opera, “hard” sci-fi, etc.: each one describes a specific set of forms that distinguishes each sub-genre—the whirr-clang-hiss proto-tech background of steampunk, or the “given enough time, it can be replicated in a lab” assumptions of so-called hard science fiction— but as a whole, they’re a testament to the notion that sci-fi no longer must be based on some hypothesized impact of technology (if that was ever the case), to encompass analyses of forces like culture, religion, law and history. Neal Stephenson’s novels Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995) are fixed solidly within the cyberpunk tradition, but while his most recent book, Cryptonomicon (1999) is set simultaneously in the present and during World War II, and the upcoming Quicksilver dips back 300 years into the past, they all seem of a type. It’s not surprising that Stephenson would choose to take his fascination with information control and trace it back from his futuristic beginning point, to the past and beyond. The theme’s the thing, and genre forms are easily ignored or blurred beyond recognition. The inadequacy of the term science fiction itself has been discussed in circles that discuss such things, and some see a solution in the clunky and slightly redundant term “speculative fiction.”

The Dune series bears the proud title “The Bestselling Science Fiction Adventure of All Time,” yet the books don’t fit Amis’s definition exactly. Presciently enough, they describe situations we know all too well—from the power-shifting economics of finite resources to the planet-moving potential of fundamentalist religion— and the conclusions they come to aren’t upbeat. Frank Herbert wrestled with unwieldy themes and even more unwieldy settings, casting his net far into space, and wide through time. He wasn’t aiming to describe the visible and near future, but the forces that move beneath us and shape our world. But those forces, like the giant sandworms that roil beneath the sands of Arrakis, have a habit of popping up and starting trouble at the most unexpected times.

The thing the ecologically illiterate don’t understand about an ecosystem is that it’s a system. A system! A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche.A system has order, flowing from point to point. If something dams that flow, order collapses. The untrained might miss that collapse until it was too late.That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences. —Pardot Kynes, First Planetologist of Arrakis, Dune.


Like the Zensunni Wanderers, the interplanetary nomads who settled on Arrakis hundreds of years before the events of Dune, Herbert’s family too had a rich history of relocation, usually up and down the American and Mexican West Coasts. Supported by the staccato income gleaned from Herbert’s periodic sales of science-fiction stories and the money saved up from a string of jobs in newspapers, political speechwriting or oyster diving, the Herbert clan spent months at a time during the Fifties and early Sixties in towns like Tacoma, San Francisco, and Tlalpujahua, Mexico. A recurrent theme in the Dune Chronicles—Dune, Dune Messiah (1969), Children of Dune (1976), God Emperor of Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1984) and Chapterhouse: Dune (1985)—is the notion that prescience is both a crutch and a trap, and that knowing our future is neither desirable nor a safeguard against disaster. Herbert eschewed the safe course—“That path leads ever down into stagnation,” Muad’Dib said—and he chose, for himself and his family, a future of uncertainty and reinvention, dependent upon their faith that his talents would carry them through.

By 1960, Herbert had written a string of sci-fi short stories, and at least one well-liked novel, The Dragon in the Sea (1956), but he had yet to win the acclaim and attention he felt he deserved. According to son Brian Herbert’s new biography, Dreamer of Dune,3 (2003) Herbert’s ideas about the dramatic potential of ecological stories had their genesis in a 1957 visit to the Oregon coast, where, from a chartered single-engine Cessna, he conducted research for a possible magazine article on a dune stabilization project being run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The magazine article never materialized, but the sight of rolling sand dunes being transformed one blade of grass at a time stirred him, and the seeds for a much more ambitious effort were planted. The Herbert family’s wandering days were about to end.

Environmentalists were among Dune’s first fans,4 as the story made clear the dramatic impact that would result from humans failing to achieve ecological balance with their planet. In the case of Herbert’s planet, the key to wresting Imperial power from corrupt hands is the control of melange, a life-extending, mind-expanding, addictive spice found only on Dune that also allows for interstellar travel, and without which the Imperium would crumble. And the key to controlling the spice is to control the worms: giant sand-burrowing monsters that produce and guard the precious commodity. The worms are not only the key to spice production, but also the fulcrum on which the economy of the Imperium and the fragile ecology of Arrakis balances. Or as Muad’Dib and his father refer to it, “desert power,” meaning the understanding, the balancing, and, ultimately, the use of the planet’s natural ecology.

Whereas the spice is the limited resource drives the rest of the universe, on Arrakis it’s the lack of water that dictates destiny. At the beginning of the book, Paul and his mother, the Lady Jessica—a sister of the Bene Gesserit, a sort of intergalactic order of genetics-obsessedJesuits (Herbert has a lot of fun with word morphology through the millennia, tracing terms from their Earthly origins through the years)—having just left their lush former homeworld of Caladan for their new ducal digs on Arrakis observe how all life on the planet is regulated by access to water. Like all oppressed people, the Fremen have a dream: that one day God (or Shaihulud, their name for the worms) will grant them power, and that their home planet will grow green and wet as a result.What they don’t know, however, is that the worms need the open, arid desert to survive, so that in the later books, when their wet planetary dreams come true, the worms begin dying off and spice production starts drying up. Herbert used color to signal emotional tones—yellow to illustrate impending danger, for example— and his use of green in both the Atreides uniforms and, later, in the slow greening of Arrakis, signals decay, or a moving away from a balanced state: a neat inversion of green’s usual emotional properties.

But moreover, it suggests a conscious choice by Herbert to make a distinction between the Luddite, if-it-ain’t-organic-it’s-evil, naturalist strain of environmentalism that permeates so much of that movement, and the more balanced, humanist variety that concerns itself with humans finding equilibriums and rejects the deification of nature. He’s just not a “thank Goddess!” type of guy.

His ecological themes were a natural hook for a readership just becoming aware of such issues. Events like the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) helped launch the environmental movement and softened the ground for Dune’s study of resource scarcity. By 1970, when counterculture guru Ira Einhorn invited Herbert to speak at the first Earth Day ceremonies in Philadelphia, Herbert’s green reputation was already cemented.

Add to that the focus on melange—which tastes slightly different every time it’s eaten, but always like cinnamon, and which produces effects akin to a big, fat hit of Jung-flavored DMT—and you have a book that seemed tailormade to be gobbled up by Sixties college kids and hippies. Had it been written a few years later, no doubt the stink of zeitgeist opportunism would still waft from its pages.

The spice, so necessary to Muad’Dib’s prescience, and later to that of his son, the tyrant emperor Leto II, is also a facet of Herbert’s prescience. Literally a symbolic mélange of oil, water, and, to a lesser degree, other limited and therefore expensive resources—like cocaine—that drive economies and histories, the spice is a plot device that allows Herbert to explore the interplay of interplanetary political and economic forces on a simplified scale. Drawing inspiration from the German chemist Justus von Liebig’s “Law of the Minimum,” which states that yield depends on the available amount of the most limiting nutrient, and expanding the idea to Imperium size, he posited a galactic economy that would be driven and permeated by the spice.Wars are fought over the stuff, and the attendant empires (eventually) crumble. Of course, he wrote Dune only a decade and a half before some of the most damaging effects of Liebeg’s law were to find such stark illustration in the energy crisis of the late Seventies. Again, Herbert didn’t aim to predict anything—he simply set a complex array of forces in opposition and let them have at each other for 5,000 years or so—but even he might have been surprised at how quickly our planet’s wars, and the jockeying for the limited resources that help fuel them, have come to resemble the wars and fuels of his imagined worlds.

Unceasing warfare gives rise to its own social conditions which have been similar in all epochs. People enter a permanent state of alertness to ward off attacks…Feudalism takes firm hold, sometimes disguised as a politbureau or similar structure, but always present. Hereditary succession follows the lines of power. The blood of the powerful dominates. The vice regents of heaven or their equivalent apportion the wealth. And they know they must control inheritance or slowly let the power melt away. —“ The Stolen Journals of Leto II”, God Emperor of Dune.


Few people read novels looking for a rollicking debate on the impact and efficacy of sand dune reclamation projects. Plot takes center stage in the Dune series, and by the last book, Chapterhouse: Dune, Herbert could have patented his wheels-within- wheels-within-wheels plot structure. Huge casts of fully realized characters scheme and execute all manner of palace intrigues, guerilla warfare campaigns, and millennia-long eugenics programs, and somehow Herbert manages to make each bit original and engaging, while not losing his place or the reader along the way. The plot flowcharts must have been dizzying.

He uses this style to greatest effect at the beginning of the fourth book in the series, God Emperor of Dune. By this point, more than 3,000 years have passed, Muad’Dib is long dead and now revered as the prophet of the Imperium’s enforced religion. His legacies are grim: teachings that warn against the uniformity of thought that occurs when religion and law mix, and a failed attempt to teach humanity an object lesson about hero worship and blind obedience, in an effort to lead it away from war. His attempt failed because he saw the endless carnage and misery that would be required, and he didn’t have the stomach to follow through.

He also gave to the universe his only begotten son, Leto II, who was gifted with both the prescience that lured and ultimately bested his father, and the courage to follow his father’s program to its most logical extent. Since his father failed in his attempts to “close down the cycle of all wars” by spreading his religion and enforcing a strong-armed peace (in Messiah, Muad’Dib says of the impact of his jihad: “at a conservative estimate, I’ve killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others. I’ve wiped out the followers of forty religions…”), Leto takes it upon himself to become, as his twin sister Ghanima explains, “the first truly long-range planner in human history”—a tyrant to end all tyrants. By merging with Arrakis’s sandtrout, he becomes a human/worm hybrid and begins a slow transformation into a full sandworm that, thanks to his ability to see the future, he knows will take thousands of years. God Emperor opens with a series of chapters that describe events, or books published about those events, over a wide swath of time. Jumping back and forth between imagined chapters of future history books, to scenes of genetically engineered wolves hunting down present-day (3,000 years after Muad’Dib’s death) book thieves, to a flashback to the childhood of one of the hunted book thieves, the reader is soon adrift in time, able to get a fix on who and what, but drunk on when. Herbert slowly lets us find a foothold, but not before giving us a taste of the sort of temporal synesthesia Emperor Leto, damned with both future sense and a total, photographic memory of every link in his maternal Bene Gesserit chain of ancestors (ninety generations long and counting, comprising the full lifetimes and experiences of millions of souls), must feel every day.

And that’s what sells his books. Herbert, among a short list of the most accomplished fantasists—only J.R.R. Tolkien exceeds him in depth and texture—is able to immerse the reader totally in his otherworlds. He goes beyond just creating believable characters, gripping plots, and evocative settings, to putting them all out to play in a field overgrown with back-story. Throughout the Dune books there are: passing references to the major houses of the Landsraad, the bickering aristocracy of the feudal Imperial system; nods to the economic influence of CHOAM, the über-corporation at the end of FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s goldbrick road; fearful mentions of the capricious power-flexing of the Spacing Guild, the spice-fueled mutants and their servants who control all space travel; taboos against computers burned into human memory by the carnage of the long-ago Butlerian Jihad, humanity’s inevitable war with the machines;5 and at the top of each chapter, excerpts from the imagined histories and testaments of the times.

Of all these subterranean plot details, perhaps the most compelling are the volumes in Herbert’s would-be library of future history. Skimming the tops of the chapters, each with citations from nonexistent books, feels like rifling though Herbert’s private library, with all the best quotes already underlined.

No mere formulaic flourishes, these books hint at meaty wisdoms and histories that the events charted in the Dune novels only begin to explore. There are the Biblethrough- a-time-warp quotations from the Revised Orange Catholic Bible, instructions on how to be a human computer (needed since mechanical computers are banned) from The Mentat Handbook, and even a passage in Children from something called The Pedant Heresy, addressed to an unidentified debate opponent named Georad, which sounds vaguely Chomskyite in its willingness to go against common wisdom and criticize the collateral damage resulting from the brutality of Muad’Dib’s power structure:

It is commonly reported, my dear Georad, that there exists great natural virtue in the melange experience. Perhaps this is true. There remain within me, however, profound doubts that every use of mélange always brings virtue.… To be truly at one with the virtue of the spice, uncorrupted in all ways, full of goodly honor, a man must permit his deeds and his words to agree. When your actions describe a system of evil consequences, you should be judged by those consequences, and not by your explanations. It is thus that we should judge Muad’Dib.

Herbert used these make-believe books to not only enrich his worlds, but also as a forum for him to debate himself, his characters, and friends like Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Frederik Pohl, with whom he was known to spend hours at a clip jawing away about religion, politics, or history. But you can only fit so much didacticism within a chunk of dialogue without it sounding like an Afterschool Special. In fact, the characters do sometimes get bogged down in extraneous conversations that become more transparent the longer Herbert stretches them out, but he’s usually skillful about it, and it never descends to lecturing.

Then again, he did set out to explore Big Themes, and it’s hard to do that while developing a large cast of characters and examining their complex, interwoven relationships without it sounding a little forced now and again. The ghost books are necessary, then; they’re needed to reveal some of the more baroque back stories to the plot, and a genuinely inventive way for Herbert to work out his own thoughts and politics. The excerpts are rarely contradictory, and taken as a whole they can be seen to fairly represent Herbert’s views. Some common themes emerge: distrust of power, be it religious, governmental or corporate; an aversion to the unquestioning nature of fundamentalism; the need to understand an environment in order to live in equilibrium with it; and all things die and are forgotten—people, religions, empires, and even history’s lessons—dooming us to repetition and tribalism.

Most of all, the hinted-at books are a way for him to examine history, how it’s told and who tells it, and its impact on the shape and course of society. Despite making his living off them, Herbert distrusted words and the distorted picture they paint of any given reality. Words are elastic things whose meanings change with the user, over time, and according to context. For example, there are the Zensunni Wanderers, Herbert’s space-faring Buddhist-Muslims whose thousands of years of pre-Dune history has made their belief system a mere shadow of its root  religions, so that neither “Zen” nor “Sunni” mean what they once did. The Bene Gesserit are feared for their use of the Voice,6 a supernatural skill the sisters develop that allows them to command the weak-willed with a word, properly inflected.There’s also the dead language “Franzh,” which the twins Leto and Ghanima speak to each other when they want to keep their conversations secret. Herbert plays all kinds of games with names and words in an effort to illustrate their unreliable elasticity.Words lie, and their old meanings die, so history’s words can and do distort, mislead, give glory to the powerful and obscurity to the powerless. They can make people commit the most unutterable (literally) atrocities, then help salve the guilt with elaborate explanations of those actions.

Paul Berman, in his illuminating defense of “liberal American interventionism” Terror and Liberalism (2003), makes a similar point about the history-shaping power of words—in this case,Western philosophy and Islamist theosophy.There is a sturdy thread, Berman says, running through Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Albert Camus and Sayyid Qutb, tying them all together in their willingness to glorify murder and suicide in the pursuit of a utopian ideal. Herbert, using his most well-realized character, the tyrannical God Emperor Leto II, explored similar ideas, projected to galactic scale. Through Leto’s genocidal Golden Path, his millennia-long program to cleanse humanity of the war habit, we can catch glimpses of all his predecessors that thought death and murder were necessary paths to a better world. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that Herbert was familiar with Qutb’s work, as the Egyptian Islamist’s influence was just beginning to be felt among his sympathizers (and none of it had yet been translated into English) when he began the series, but if we hear an echo of Qutb’s special blending of murder, religion, and law in Leto’s defense of his Golden Path, chalk it up to Herbert’s prescience.

It’s a subtle and powerful thing, prescience. The future becomes now.To be sighted in the land of the blind carries its own perils. If you try to interpret what you see for the blind, you tend to forget that the blind possess an inherent movement conditioned by their blindness. They are like a monstrous machine moving along its own path.They have their own momentum, their own fixations. I fear the blind, Stil. I fear them.They can so easily crush anything in their path. —Leto II to Stilgar, Children of Dune


The ability to see the future, as Herbert explains through the foresight that Muad’Dib and Leto experience, does not ensure that the best path will be followed. Prescience for them is fractured, like light through a prism, and each decision is a turning point, sprouting its own array of dependent futures, until their entire vista is choked with possible events, some more visible than others.The Princess Irulan, Muad’Dib’s political wife and a prolific historian in her own right (excerpts from her histories run at the head of almost every chapter in the first book) makes this comparison: “If you are on the floor of a valley, you cannot see beyond your valley. Just so, Muad’Dib could not always choose to look across the mysterious terrain.” In interviews, Herbert usually referred to “a” future, or possible futures, and not “the” future.

It’s important not to make too much of this prescience business. Frank Herbert’s descriptions of the religious and Imperial forces that govern his worlds draw power and relevance from their real-life counterparts here on Earth, and many of the similarities are intentional—but there have been certain geopolitical developments in the last forty years that even the most sensitive of prognosticators would have had trouble predicting, and many of them eerily echo aspects of the books.The crumbling of the Soviet Union and the resulting elevation of the United States to Imperial status, the inexorable march of corporate conglomeration toward monopolism, the profound and increasing fragility of ecological balance (the southern Chilean who goes outside without 50-proof sunblock is as wise as the Fremen who enters the desert without a life-sustaining stillsuit), the increasingly volatile role played by finite  resources in the world’s conflicts, and the power of religion to organize an otherwise powerless people in lopsided conflicts are all developments whose scope Herbert could not have predicted. The most that can be said is that he identified existing trends and extrapolated them to centuries hence. The future becomes now.

Of all the above feats of precognition, Herbert’s thoughts on the power and uses of belief and the life cycle of Empires and civilizations provoke the most reflection and comparison. His conception of religion as a tool, a weapon, and a glue of the powerless, especially, bears striking resemblance to the present. Remember, the defining conflict of his times was the struggle between godless Communism and Judeo-Christian capitalist democracy. To postulate a world ruled by an overweening hegemon whose greatest challenge comes from a scrappy group of desert-dwelling jihadis was an act of, well, science fiction.

But Herbert knew the threat posed by blind belief. Harkonnen lasguns and MOABs are useful for killing people and blowing up stuff, but they’re useless against ideas.And the right ideas—that is to say, the wrong ideas—in crafty hands, could prove to be devastating. The Lady Jessica, an adept of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, realizes as much when she considers the long-held Fremen dream to transform Arrakis into a green planet, a dream that needs help from the hand of God (or his prophet, as Muad’Dib would soon come to be known) to be realized:

This was a dream to capture men’s souls… This was a dream for which men would die willingly. It was another of the essential ingredients that she felt her son needed: people with a goal. Such people would be easy to imbue with fervor and fanaticism. They could be wielded like a sword…”

Later, in Children, after Muad’Dib has beaten the Harkonnens, taken the Imperial throne, and spread his jihad to planets far and wide, the Fremen leader Stilgar reflects on the self-aggrandizing religion Muad’Dib has “loosed upon the universe,” and he recoils in horror: “Government and religion united, and breaking a law became sin. A smell of blasphemy arose like smoke around any questioning of governmental edicts.”

And so we return to Berman, whose Terror and Liberalism would still rank among the best of the post-9/11 “so what does it all mean?” books for his chapters on Sayyid Qutb alone. Qutb, as Berman points out, is not widely known or understood in the West—a dangerous state of affairs, given that he’s “the single most influential writer in the Islamist tradition” (The Harkonnens were similarly uninformed and incurious about the nature of the Fremen threat, an ignorance which contributed to their being taken by surprise and overthrown). Born in Egypt in 1906, Qutb obtained a “proper religious education,” memorized the Koran by age ten, and even attended college in the U.S. before returning to Egypt in 1951, where he spent his last fifteen  years—many of them in prison— studying and writing about the Koran and advocating for the spread across the globe of “true Islam” under the fist (Qutb would say “in the shade”) of shariah law, the Muslim code derived from the Surahs of the Koran. His vision would be realized thirty years later, when the mullahs of Afghanistan would adopt shariah law as the governing authority for their emergent Islamist empire. Government and religion unite,  and breaking a law becomes sin.

Despite, or because of, his execution by Egyptian authorities in 1966—who justifiably saw him as a dangerous threat to their oppressive regime—Qutb’s writings found purchase among Islamists far and wide. Qutb’s brother, Muhammad, fled to Saudi Arabia and became a professor of Islamic (and Islamist) Studies, teaching the Koran, along with his brother’s interpretations, to thousands of students, among them a young Osama bin Laden. It’s not at all surprising then that the man who inspired and probably engineered the mass murder of more than 3,000 people drew his inspiration from the man who wrote the following commentary on the Koran’s Surah 2 (from his multivolume explication, In the Shade of the Qur’an):

…in the fight to uphold God’s universal truth, lives will have to be sacrificed… Life is chiefly characterized by activity, growth, and persistence, while death is a state of total loss of function, of complete inertia and lifelessness. But the death of those who are  killed for the cause of God gives more impetus to the cause, which continues to thrive on their blood. Their influence on those they leave behind also grows and spreads. Thus after death they remain an active force in shaping the life of their community and giving it direction.

Compare that to this song Leto sings to his sister in Children, a variation on an old “Zensunni theme” that comes bubbling up through his inherited memories from some forgotten past:

Nature’s beauteous form

Contains a lovely essence

Called by some—decay. By this lovely presence

New life finds its way.

Tears shed silently

Are but water of the soul:

They bring new life

To the pain of being—

A separation from that seeing

Which makes death whole.

The cult of death, it seems, has long life indeed, and can flourish in places where no MOAB can reach.

Qutb, as Berman explains, was equally concerned with alerting Muslims to the dangers of Western-style modern theology. He believed the chief cause of friction between Islam and the West was a result of what he called the West’s “hideous schizophrenia,” or the Judeo-Christian tradition that said render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Politics and religion to Qutb were one and the same, and both drew their authority from God. To consider a separation between church and state was, he felt, a blow against True Islam.Western- style rationalism and self-criticism had no place in the legal system laid down by God. Or, as the ancient Fremen saying has it, “Truth suffers from too much analysis.” The blue-in-blue of the Fremen eyes, a side effect of a spice-rich diet, is a handy way for Herbert to communicate the notion that his desert fanatics saw their world exclusively through spice-tinted glasses.

Direct parallels aren’t possible or desirable.7 The characters of Muad’Dib and Leto seem vastly more complex and interesting than either Qutb or bin Laden, if only due to their capacity for self-criticism. But in a very limited sense, Muad’Dib can be seen as analogous to Qutb—the brains behind what both claim is a campaign to save mankind from extinction, but lacking the wherewithal to directly further the cause.We know that when Muad’Dib dreams, as he does in Dune Messiah, he dreams of Lebanon, Damascus, and Baghdad, and the sights and smells of a million desert oases and the voices of their inhabitants come flooding from his inherited memories and are pressed into his senses. Is Qutb in there somewhere, still selling nihilism to him in the guise of a utopian future?

In a similarly limited fashion, Leto and Osama share some traits— first and foremost among them the ability to take his predecessor’s ideas and make a bloody success out of them. Arrakis itself can be seen as a reflection of pre-war Afghanistan— a hard, unforgiving place where the true believers go to live among the rocks and caves, hone their battle skills and prepare for jihad. God may have created Arrakis to train the faithful, as the Fremen say, but Osama altered Afghanistan to train the madrassa-fed faithful.

One of the plots in Children follows Muad’Dib, after he realizes the folly of his failed efforts to enforce peace, as he retreats from his throne in the capital city of Arrakeen into the desert and becomes the Preacher, a sightless husk of his former self, and sets about the task of re-interpreting his own religious tenets in at attempt to make the galactic jihad an interior, spiritual jihad. He becomes his own Martin Luther, nailing his criticisms to the door of the Arrakeen temple he created in an effort to end the utopian carnage. And this is the main area where Muad’Dib’s and Qutb’s philosophies part ways. Reformist impulses, liberal impulses in the most classical sense of the word, are anathema to Qutb, who, in Islam: The Religion of the Future (how’s that for a title that makes a point?) argued that was the precise impulse that threatened  Islam, calling it “an effort to confine Islam to the emotional and ritual circles, and to bar it from participating in the activity of life.”

But perhaps the most worrying comparisons to draw between Herbert’s books and our world are those attempts by the Harkonnens to use the flourishing fundamentalism for cynical political ends (usually diversion), or, failing that, to squelch it under the jackboot of oppression, and similar efforts by Terran governments, whether it’s the Soviet Union, Egypt, or the United States. Herbert’s Harkonnens are a distillation of all the worst aspects of Western civilization: they’re armed to the teeth and willing to throw down at a moment’s notice; they conspire to control the supply of the universe’s most precious commodity; they don’t know how to live in equilibrium with their environment, nor do they care to learn; they consume excessively; and they’re willing to exploit indigenous peoples for profit. The Harkonnens try these time-tested methods, first by looking at Muad’Dib’s new religion as a useful way to channel the frustration and anger resulting from the oppressive push to increase spice production on Arrakis, then by going after the fundamentalist Fremen in every cave they can. They can always run, and they can always hide.You’d think the Harkonnens would learn from history.

But they don’t, and in the end it’s their hubris, along with the demon they’ve created (Muad’Dib has the hated Harkonnen blood in his veins) that brings them and their civilization crashing to the sands. “I’m a seed,” Muad’Dib realizes early on in  the series, before the rotten fruit of a corrupt empire drops and grows in Arrakis’ surprisingly fertile soil. Such are the ways, Herbert assures us, that empires are destroyed.

If only they had a student of history available to advise them, to show them the self-destructiveness of their ways. Someone like Bill Moyers,who, at the outset of the war in Iraq ended an episode of his PBS show Now with this:

This headline I saw on the Web—MARINES CROSS EUPHRATES—got me to thinking. Do they know? Do they know, these young Marines, this elite American fighting force? Do they know Alexander the Great crossed the Euphrates, too, on his way to battle—and empire?…

The mighty Darius also crossed the Euphrates, and on these plains met Alexander in battle. Xenophon… Xerxes and Sennacherib… they crossed it, too. The Sumerians crossed this river… the Akkadians, Hittites and Amorites. The Semites, as well.…

For five thousand years the story repeats itself, the victory of one, the defeat of the other. Tribes and gods turn on each other. Omens fill the literature: “A powerful man will ascend the throne in a foreign city,” it is written.“They will lock the gates and there will be calamity in the city,” it is written.

Even Genghis Khan met his match trying to get here. The last word has always been written in the sand. Cities and states lie buried beneath it…

Five thousand years from now, who will be crossing the Euphrates? What will remain from our time? And what will be remembered?

Actually, the Harkonnens did have someone familiar with history, someone who suspected the Fremen were more of a threat than they appeared, and who knew that heavy-handed tactics would be useless against such an opponent. The human computer Thufir Hawat, a mentat stolen from House Atreides after the Harkonnens launch a surprise attack, realizes “that repression makes a religion flourish,” but his warning never makes it up the chain of command to his new leader, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. There’s a touch of prescience in Hawat’s realization, and had he followed that train of thought he might have realized just how dangerous the jihadis were. But even if he did, there’s no guarantee that anything could have been done about the gathering Fremen sand storm. By that point, the threat was the idea of Muad’Dib, and unless the Harkonnens offered the Fremen a better idea, it’s doubtful anything could have been done to prevent what was coming. Some futures trap us, some we rush to, and some we slouch towards—not wanting to get there, but not doing anything to avoid them.

1.  Okay, Star Trek is pretty optimistic. But while Sixties idealism had its impact, observe the changes in storylines since Gene Roddenberry’s death. The Borg? The Dominion? Clearly, even Star Trek’s writers have come to realize that the world’s problems won’t be solved by keeping phasers on “stun.”
2.  Clarke also wrote an article for Wireless World in October 1945 that laid out his conception of wireless communication with satellites in geostationary orbit.Although not a work of science fiction, Clarke’s paper was the beginning of a communications revolution that began 25 years later.
3.  Much of the biographical information here comes from this life-with-Dad tell-too-much (just published by Tor): Not quite a tell-all, it skirts pure biography by dint of the amount of time Brian spends lamenting the distance between father and son, or reminding us, again and again, of the fearful, angry side Frank showed all too often, or regretting the amount of drugs and alcohol taken to forget the pain of living in such a man’s shadow.They later reconciled. Brian has also collaborated with pulp writer Kevin J. Anderson—who has been known to pump out four Star Wars novels a year—on a series of Dune prequels, based  on notes his father left when he died in 1986.
4.  Dune was serialized in Analog starting in December 1963.According to Dreamer of Dune, the novel was originally intended for publication as a trilogy, titled, in order, Dune World, Muad’Dib and The Prophet. The books were rejected by more than twenty publishers before finally being picked up in 1965 by Chilton, a company that specialized in publishing  repair manuals.Ace Books picked up the paperback rights soon afterward, and it slowly climbed its way onto the best-seller lists.
5.  The coming war with sentient machines is such a prevalent science fiction trope that the question no longer seems to be whether computers ever will vie with humanity for control of the planet’s resources, but whether the conflict will have a Matrix/Terminator “we’re doomed” feel to it, or the slightly more optimistic “Whew, that was close! We’d better ban machines that can think” feel of Herbert’s Butlerian Jihad.
6.  For those of us of a certain age, our first exposure to Herbert’s worlds was through David Lynch’s deeply flawed, though entertaining, 1984 movie. It’s hard not to imagine the book’s events through Lynch’s prism as a result. Lynch made the film distinctly his, and added plot points and details that are not in the books—for example, the concept of a “killing word,” which Kyle MacLachlan’s Muad’Dib teaches the Fremen to help them defeat the Harkonnens—a simplification of the Bene Gessirit’s use of the Voice. If you haven’t seen the movie or read the books yet, read the series first, if only to avoid imprinting Toto as the default music in your head. And trust me, you want to avoid that.
7.  It was a trippy experience (not to mention distracting) to re-read the Dune series with yet another desert war beginning on television. Despite having the mute button on (I rarely turned off the coverage entirely, even while simultaneously reading about the war and its historical context—some crazy notion I had about the responsibility to bear embedded witness), my attention flitted back and forth between novel, news and history with such frequency that I soon found myself in a Leto-like state of temporal disorientation, unable at times to remember just who was fighting whom, why, and when. I thought: Didn’t this all happen before? The most exciting part of the war for me was when coalition forces, aided by Sargon of Akkad and some hired Assyrians, toppled the statue of Leto II and marched triumphant through the streets of Arrakeen. Awesome!

More Reads

Weather Reports: Voices from Xinjiang

Ben Mauk

Asylum under Siege

Ana Puente Flores and Valeria Luiselli

Beating the Bounds

Susana Ferreira