The main theme of Dune is the disastrous effect that messianic religious belief can have on human society. Herbert’s original inspiration was the messianic cult of personality that was attached to Adolf Hitler, who exploited the power it gave him to start World War II and the Holocaust. Herbert treats this through fiction in the messianic role Paul plays for the Fremen and the eugenics program of the Bene Gesserit, as well as in the anti-eugenic disaster unleashed across the galaxy by the Fremen.
Technology and Human Development
The fantastic advance of technology has always been a common theme of science fiction. There are certainly some instances of superscience in Dune, but Herbert’s treatment of such marvels stands far apart from most science fiction. Many of the technological ideas used in Dune in 1965 have already been surpassed by modern science. For instance, the ornithopters used as aircraft on Arrakis underperform modern helicopters and jets. In general, the level of technology in Dune is relatively primitive; the water reprocessing stillsuits used by the Fremen have a ‘‘green’’ rather than a high-tech feel. Even items such as the interstellar travel used by the Spacing Guild and the shields used as personal protection by soldiers function rather strangely in the book. They can hardly be said to be technological marvels since they have no conceivable basis in physics and so are more nearly devices of fantasy than of scientific extrapolation. In fact, Herbert uses the ships and navigators of the Spacing Guild to avoid having to deal realistically with the effect of space travel on society. The characters might as well be magically transported from Caladan to Arrakis so that they can get on with the action. The shields work similarly: they make firearms and energy weapons such as lasers practically useless, so soldiers have reverted to fighting with swords, whose relatively slow movements can penetrate the shields. Herbert purposefully ignores technological advancement to emphasize the development of purely human potential. The initial objection to the use of firearms in war at the end of the Middle Ages was that a knight who had trained at arms for ten years could be killed on the battlefield by a peasant with a musket who had trained for ten minutes. Herbert wanted to reverse that development and imagine to what heights and extremes the training of human abilities could reach. The exploration of technological advancement is rejected in favor of the exploration of human advancement. The abandonment of computers during the Butlerian Jihad ‘‘forced human minds to develop. Schools were started to train human talents.’’ This is manifested in the prophetic abilities of the Spacing Guild navigators, in the seemingly magical powers of perception and self-control perfected by the Bene Gesserit, and in the computing ability of the mentats. All of these qualities are combined in Paul, who as the Kwisatz Haderach of the Bene Gesserit and the messiah of the Fremen represents a new level of human evolution and potential.
Inasmuch as the historical phenomena of the rapid rise to power and striking initial success of Adolph Hitler were among Herbert’s inspirations, it is not surprising that eugenics is an important theme of Dune. Eugenics (literally ‘‘wellborn’’) is the effort to breed human beings like domestic animals to achieve some apparently desirable new trait or to shift the composition of a population. It involves controlling which human beings may breed with others or even the sterilization or culling (i.e., murder) of supposedly undesirable specimens. It is one of the most outrageous violations of human rights imaginable. There are nevertheless two important eugenics programs in the Dune universe.
The civilization depicted in Dune has endured for over ten thousand years; during that time, the imperial family has controlled Salusa Secundus, a planet whose environment is extremely hostile to human life. The planet was originally used as a prison, and the emperors relied on the environmental conditions there to select for ‘‘tough, strong, ferocious men’’ who were naturally suited for warfare. This eventually created the Sardaukar guard of the emperor, the greatest soldiers in the empire. Or rather, the second greatest, since the even more extreme conditions on Arrakis produced the Fremen, who were correspondingly better fighters, only in this case by an entirely natural evolution. ‘‘God created Arrakis to train the faithful’’ is a Fremen saying. The fact that human intentions to imitate or control nature are doomed to ultimate failure is an important point of the novel: artificial breeding cannot outdo evolution. Although Herbert intended the Sardaukar as a thought experiment to play out something like the Nazi eugenics program on a larger scale (it is clear that the Sardaukar are modeled after the Nazi SS), it is quite fantastic. In fact, the human cultures of the most extreme desert environments, the Bushmen of the Kalahari and the Australian Aborigines, depend for survival on cooperation and altruism, with the result that they are remarkably unwarlike.
The primary purpose of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood was to breed a man who could look into some part of the human consciousness that they, as women, were blind to (the part that takes and is inherently male, as Paul later describes it). This was the Kwisatz Haderach (Shortening of the Way), whom they hoped could see where the Reverend Mothers could not. To this end, the Bene Gesserit established a social position for themselves wherein most young aristocratic women joined the Bene Gesserit, and the Bene Gesserit supplied wives and concubines to the aristocrats of the empire. By keeping track of the often secret paternity of children born to these unions and carefully interbreeding the various families, they control the genetic destiny of the whole imperial aristocracy and manipulate the nobility for the purposes of their covert eugenics program. Their final plan is to produce the Kwisatz Haderach by breeding the daughter of Duke Leto and Jessica (secretly the daughter of Baron Harkonnen) with the baron’s nephew Feyd-Rautha. However, out of her love for Leto, Jessica instead bears a boy, Paul. He upsets all of the Bene Gesserit plans by becoming the Kwisatz Haderach (and much else besides) entirely outside of their control. Paul eventually realizes that his destiny, which the Bene Gesserit have been breeding for without realizing it, is to unleash a devastating war across the galaxy. This war, countering every effort at eugenics, will indiscriminately mix the genetic material of all human populations: ‘‘They were all caught up in the need for their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes.’’ Herbert views eugenics as a system that is ultimately self-defeating, aside from its moral repugnance, because it is contrary to a nature that will not be denied. Herbert told his biographer Timothy O’Reilly, ‘‘I can state it for you very straightly: human beings are not through evolving. And if we are going to survive as a species, we’re going to have to do things that allow us to keep on evolving.’’
In the 1960s, it was becoming increasingly apparent that modern industrial society was transforming, even damaging, the natural world, as population increased dramatically and industrial processes were carried out on ever larger scales, using irreplaceable resources and generating increasing amounts of dangerous waste. Dune was of great interest to the nascent environmental movement because, in the Fremen’s attempt to restore open water and green areas to Arrakis, it offered a model of ecological repair.
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.