In the 1930s, the Polish American engineer Alfred Korzybski developed the discipline of general semantics (not to be confused with ordinary semantics, the study of the meaning of words) and founded a school for instruction in his system. General semantics holds that language is a metaphorical abstraction that actually separates the human mind from objects of thought. He wished to use mathematics as a model for a new way of thinking that would suspend ordinary semantic categories (words) and allow the mind to deal directly with reality. For instance, a rose is not the word rose. Korzybski believed that a tremendous advance in understanding could be achieved through comprehending the thing itself rather than by using the symbolic value of its name as an intermediary. Herbert was deeply influenced by Korzybski’s thought. In fact he ghostwrote a syndicated newspaper column on the subject for U.S. Senator S. I. Hayakawa. Herbert’s biographer Timothy O’Reilly finds that ‘‘much of the Bene Gesserit technology of consciousness is based on the insights of general semantics.’’ The same is true of mentat training. Whereas mentat identify themselves with the flow of the process of any phenomenon that comes under study, Bene Gesserit focus on controlling perception. They use conscious intent to control what is otherwise determined unconsciously, to truly perceive what is before them instead of filtering it through memory and other mental processes that normally suppress most possible perceptions (and of which language is only the most superficial, in Herbert’s exaggeration of general semantics). By extending this practice they can control autonomic functions, such as heat rhythm and the ability to metabolize chemical substances in the body, and achieve a subtlety of perception that makes them human lie detectors (an idea that fascinated Herbert) through their perception of changes in expression and biological function of the speaker. One of the most interesting things for Herbert, though, is when a system fails to operate correctly. An example of this is Jessica not realizing that she and Paul are descended from Baron Harkonnen. Despite the telltale physical similarities, she never suspects her ancestry until Paul reveals it to her. It is not that she cannot see the resemblance—indeed, she obviously can—but she refuses to do so because it is contrary to her preconceived ideas.
Systematics, or system thinking, is an approach to problem solving derived from mathematics and engineering. It treats any problem as part of a larger system and considers the possible effects throughout the system from changing one element of it, as well as the possibility of effecting systemwide change by making small changes in one or a few system components. In the course of his work as a journalist, Herbert became fascinated with an example of what he considered a systematic approach to problem solving, namely the stabilization of sand dunes that constantly threatened to engulf the town of Florence, Oregon. Rather than a massive public works project involving hauling away millions of tons of sand (which would not have solved the problem of the natural forces that formed the dunes to begin with), the dunes were stabilized by a very small-scale planting of specific plant species. This was one of the most important sources for his conception of Dune, which essentially scales the process up to transforming a whole planet, as Herbert explains in detail in the first appendix to the novel. Another influence of systematics in Dune is seen in the epigraphs from Irulan’s scholarly works at the beginning of each chapter. By revealing the ‘‘future,’’ that is, key points of the plot, they act like the connective arrows on a flow chart, showing how the various parts of the plot are to be connected. Understanding, rather than surprise, is Herbert’s aim. The same applies to Paul’s visions of the future. He does not see specific unalterable events that must come to pass. Rather, he sees ‘‘a spectrum of possibilities . . . from the most probable to the most improbable.’’ That much is actually no different than anyone else trying to estimate probable outcomes, but there is more to Paul’s vision: ‘‘I have another kind of sight. I see another kind of terrain: the available paths.’’ In other words, Paul sees the future as a system and can see the (possibly large) outcome of small changes that occur based on his decisions. In other words, he does not so much see the future as how to shape the future he wants through systems analysis.
The characters in Dune are for the most part clearly defined stereotypes. This is not a result of lack of skill on the author’s part but rather of Herbert’s interest in systematics. If the characters are in the familiar cookie-cutter shapes of the ‘good nobleman,’ the ‘decadent monster,’ the ‘gruff but loveable loyal old soldier,’ the ‘peasant girl who becomes a princess,’ and even the ‘messiah,’ then Herbert can build his story in the same fashion as assembling the pieces of a jigsaw into an organized pattern, all interconnected with each other like the boxes on a flow chart, rather than developing the chaotic plot that might arise from more fully developed characters.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Frank Herbert, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.