A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad'Dib, then, take care that you first place his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad'Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.
-from "Manual of Muad'Dib"
by the Princess Irulan
Dune is described as a work of science fiction. And so it is, just as Lord of the Rings is a fantasy novel, or 1984 is a political novel, or King Lear is a stage play about a king who had three daughters.
Dune is a work of prophesy, stunningly prescient on so many topics. Published in 1965, it foresaw the rise of OPEC and the use of a critical natural resource as a political weapon. The first time I ever encountered the term jihad was in Dune. When that term began to surface in the corporate media a few years ago, I had a powerful sense of deja vu. One of the strongest themes in Dune is ecology and ecological awareness, particularly on a planetary scale. When Al Gore's Earth In the Balance began to garner some attention in the media and ecology on a planetary scale became a serious topic of discussion, again the deja vu. Herbert dedicated the book to ecologists.
To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of "real materials"--to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.
The central character of the book is the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Dune is a desert planet. No, I mean a desert planet. Think of an entire planet on which water is as scarce as in the harshest regions of the Sahara. Every complex system is bounded by a minimum or a maximum. On Dune the bounding minimum is water. Every aspect of the ecology of the planet is bound by that one fact. Every species has evolved and adapted to that one fact.
The Ecology of Dune
To Pardot Kynes, the planet was merely an expression of energy, a machine being driven by its sun. What it needed was a reshaping to fit it to man's needs. His mind went directly to the free-moving human population, the Fremen. What a challenge! What a tool they could be! Fremen: an ecological and geological force of almost unlimited potential.
A direct and simple man in many ways, Pardot Kynes. One must evade Harkonnen restrictions? Excellent. Then one marries a Fremen woman. When she gives you a Fremen son, you begin with him, with Liet-Kynes, and the other children, teaching them ecological literacy, creating a new language with symbols that arm the mind to manipulate an entire landscape, its climate, seasonal limits, and finally to break through all ideas of force into the dazzling awareness of order.
"There's an internally recognized beauty of motion and balance on any man-healthy planet," Kynes said. "You see in this beauty a dynamic stabilizing effect essential to all life. Its aim is simple: to maintain and produce coordinated patterns of greater and greater diversity. Life improves the closed system's capacity to sustain life. Life - all life - is in the service of life. Necessary nutrients are made available to life by life in greater and greater richness as the diversity of life increases. The entire landscape comes alive, filled with relationships within relationships."
"The thing the ecologically illiterate don't realize about an ecosystem," Kynes said, "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, a 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."
From the charts emerged a figure. Kynes reported it. Three per cent. If they could get three per cent of the green plant element on Arrakis involved in forming carbon compounds, they'd have their self-sustaining cycle.
"But how long," the Fremen demanded.
"Oh, that: about three hundred and fifty years."
So it was true as this umma had said in the beginning: the thing would not come in the lifetime of any man now living, nor in the lifetime of their grandchildren eight times removed, but it would come.
The course had been set by this time, the Ecological-Fremen were aimed along their way. Liet-Kynes had only to watch and nudge and spy upon the Harkonnens . . . until the day his planet was afflicted by a Hero.
Among the native humans on the planet, the Fremen, every aspect of culture, religion, and mythology is arranged around a single harsh, inescapable reality. Their very language is woven around the necessity to preserve, conserve, and defend the single most precious commodity on the planet, water. If you have water you are wealthy. If you do not you are dead.
"Do you wish to go with the smugglers?" the Fremen asked.
"Is it possible?"
"The way is long."
"Fremen don't like to say no," Idaho had told him once.
Hawat said: "You haven't yet told me whether your people can help my wounded."
"They are wounded."
The same damned answer every time!
We know they're wounded!" Hawat snapped. "That's not the--"
Peace, friend," the Fremen cautioned. "What do your wounded say? Are there those among them who can see the water need of your tribe?"
We haven't talked about water," Hawat said. "We--"
I can understand your reluctance," the Fremen said. "They are your friends, your tribesmen. Do you have water?"
The Fremen gestured to Hawat's tunic, skin exposed beneath it. "You were caught in-sietch, without your suits. You must make a water decision, friend."
Can we hire your help?"
"The Fremen shrugged. "You have no water." He glanced at the group behind Hawat. "How many of your wounded would you spend?"
It was over before Hawat's tired men could gather their wits. The group with the body hanging like a sack in its enfolding robe was gone around a turn in the cliff.
One of Wawat's men shouted: "Where are they going with Arkie? He was--"
They're taking him to...bury him," Hawat said.
"Fremen don't bury their dead!" the man barked. "Don't you try any tricks on us, Thufir. We know what they do. Arkie was one of--"
"Stop right where you are!" Hawat barked. He fought down the sick fatigue that gripped his muscles. "These people respect our dead. Customs differ, but the meaning's the same."
"They're going to render Arkie down for his water," the man with the lasgun snarled.
"Is it that your men wish to attend the ceremony?" the Fremem asked.
He doesn't even see the problem, Hawat thought. The naivete of the Fremen was frightening.
"They're concerned for a respected comrade," Hawat said.
"We will treat your comrade with the same reverence we treat our own," the Fremen said. "This is the bond of water. We know the rites. A man's flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe."
The naivete of outsiders, from a water-rich world, ignorant and uninterested in the customs and values of a desert people they think to dominate.
"Will you now help our wounded?"
"One does not question the bond," the Fremen said. "We will do for you what a tribe does for its own. First, we must get all of you suited and see to the necessities."
Hawat's aide said: "Are we buying help with Arkie's...water?"
"Not buying," Hawat said. "We've joined these people."
"Customs differ," one of his men muttered.
"And they'll help us get to Arrakeen?"
"We will kill Harkonnens," the Fremen said. He grinned. "And Sardaukar."
The villains of the story are the Harkonnens, one of the Great Houses in the feudal political structure of an interstellar empire. The novel plays out against the backdrop of a squabble between two Great Houses vying for power and influence in the Imperial Court. The object of the squabble is control of the Planet Arrakis and its mineral wealth. The only thing of value on Arrakis of interest to outsiders is the spice drug melange. The story unfolds as the strategic and political implications of controlling the spice, with its critical importance to the interstellar transportation network, begins to dawn on all the players. Sound familiar?
When I first read the book in about 1971, I assumed the Harkonnens represented the Soviets. Like any good American, they were the presumed villains in any global political struggle. With the benefit of thirty odd years of hindsight, I have reconsidered that early facile assumption. The Harkonnens are brutal and repressive, interested only in extracting as much mineral wealth, in the form of the spice, from the planet Arrakis, as quickly as possible, without regard to the effects their actions might have on the ecology or the native population of the planet. And the central element of their crest, their logo, is the letter H. Hmmm, who might that represent?
One of the major forces in the story is the Spacing Guild, a race of spacefarers who call no planet home. The Guild maintains an effective monopoly on interstellar travel. The navigators of their FTL starships called heighliners use the spice drug melange to enhance their precognitive abilities, to allow them to foresee possible collisions or other dangers before they happen, to see a safe path to their destination. A hallucinogenic drug? Key to higher forms of awareness? Precognition through chemistry? To a child of the psychedelic sixties, it was irresistible. The spice is key to everything that happens in the novel. It is the one indispensable resource upon which almost everything else depends. And it is only found on Arrakis. Let's see, a scarce resource, absolutely critical to the most important transportation system of the Empire, only found in certain desert regions in a particular part of the Empire. Remind you of anything?
Another is the Bene Gesserit, a mysterious organization, part political, part religious order, part secret society, eerily reminiscent of the Catholic Church, but entirely matriarchal, composed only of women. It is a strange yet fascinating mirror to look into, where up is down and left is right and it's best to look at things askance, from the corner of one's eye.
Report on Bene Gesserit Motives and Purposes
Because the Bene Gesserit operated for centuries behind the blind of a semi-mystic school while carrying on their selective breeding program among humans, we tend to award them with more status than they appear to deserve. Analysis of their "trial of fact" on the Arrakis Affair betrays the school's profound ignorance of its own role.
It may be argued that the Bene Gesserit could examine only such facts as were available to them and had no direct access to the person of the Prophet Muad'Dib. But the school had surmounted greater obstacles and its error here goes deeper.
The Bene Gesserit program had as its target the breeding of a person they labeled "Kwisatz Haderach," a term signifying "one who can be many places at once." In simpler terms, what they sought was a human with mental powers permitting him to understand and use higher order dimensions.
They were breeding for a super-Mentat, a human computer with some of the prescient abilities found in Guild navigators. Now, attend these facts carefully:
Muad'Dib, born Paul Atreides, was the son of the Duke Leto, a man whose bloodline had been watched carefully for more than a thousand years. The Prophet's mother, Lady Jessica, was a natural daughter of the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and carried gene-markers whose supreme importance to the breeding program was known for almost two thousand years. She was a Bene Gesserit bred and trained, and should have been a willing tool of the project.
The Lady Jessica was ordered to produce an Atreides daughter. The plan was to inbreed this daughter with Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, a nephew of the Baron Vladimir, with the high probability of a Kwisatz Haderach from that union. Instead, for reasons she confesses have never been completely clear to her, the concubine Lady Jessica defied her orders and bore a son.
This alone should have alerted the Bene Gesserit to the possibility that a wild variable had entered their scheme. But there were other far more important indications that they virtually ignored:
(It may be argued here that the Bene Gesserit sent their Missionaria Protectiva onto Arrakis centuries earlier to implant something like this legend as safeguard should any members of the school be trapped there and require sanctuary, and that this legend of "the voice from the outer world" was properly to be ignored because it appeared to be the standard Bene Gesserit ruse. But this would be true only if you granted that the Bene Gesserit were correct in ignoring the other clues about Paul-Muad'Dib.)
- As a youth, Paul Atreides showed ability to predict the future. He was known to have had prescient visions that were accurate, penetrating, and defied four-dimensional explanation.
- The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, Bene Gesserit Proctor who tested Paul's humanity when he was fifteen, deposes that he surmounted more agony in the test than any other human of record. Yet she failed to make special note of this in her report!
- When Family Atreides moved to the planet Arrakis, the Fremen population there hailed the young Paul as a prophet, "the voice from the outer world." The Bene Gesserit were well aware that the rigors of such a planet as Arrakis with its totality of desert landscape, its absolute lack of open water, its emphasis on the most primitive necessities for survival, inevitably produces a high proportion of sensitives. Yet this Fremen reaction and the obvious element of the Arrakeen diet high in spice were glossed over by Bene Gesserit observers.
- When the Harkonnens and the soldier-fanatics of the Padishah Emperor reoccupied Arrakis, killing Paul's father and most of the Atreides troops, Paul and his mother disappeared. But almost immediately there were reports of a new religious leader among the Fremen, a man called Muad'Dib, who again was hailed as "the voice from the outer world." The reports stated clearly that he was accompanied by a new Reverend Mother of the Sayyadina Rite "who is the woman who bore him." Records available to the Bene Gesserit stated in plain terms that the Fremen legends of the Prophet contained these words: "He shall be born of a Bene Gesserit witch."
When the Arrakis Affair boiled up, the Spacing Guild made overtures to the Bene Gesserit. The Guild hinted that its navigators, who use the spice drug of Arrakis to produce the limited prescience necessary for guiding spaceships through the void, were "bothered about the future" or saw "problems on the horizon." This could only mean they saw a nexus, a meeting place of countless delicate decisions, beyond which the path was hidden from the prescient eye. This was a clear indication some agency was interfering with higher-order dimensions!
(A few of the Bene Gesserit had long been aware that the Guild could not interfere directly with the vital spice source because Guild navigators already were dealing in their own inept way with higher order dimensions, at least to the point where they recognized that the slightest misstep they made on Arrakis would be catastrophic. It was a known fact that Guild navigators could predict no way to take control of the spice without producing just such a nexus. The obvious conclusion was that someone of higher order powers was taking control of the spice source, yet the Bene Gesserit missed this point entirely!)
a nexus, a meeting place of countless delicate decisions, beyond which the path was hidden from the prescient eye
I am convinced that we are rapidly approaching just such a nexus in the Middle East. Not just Iraq, not just the age-old Sunni/Shia conflict, not just the Iraeli/Palestinian conflict. These are just the most obvious strands of a great, tangled ball of yarn which no one--no one--outside the region fully understands. As I watch events unfold in Iraq, I am struck again and again by a sense of deja vu. It is like watching a poorly made, under budgeted remake of Dune. Life imitating art, poorly. I am convinced that anyone who still seriously believes they can accurately predict or control what is now unfolding there is simply delusional.
And I have wondered more than once whether Osama bin Laden has read Dune. So much of what al Qaeda has done seems strangely familiar. And I understand the name al Qaeda means The Base, as in the base of a pillar.
A voice from the troop called out: "Needs a naming, Stil."
Stilgar nodded, tugging at his beard. "I see strength in you...like the strength beneath a pillar. You shall be known as Usul, the base of the pillar. This is your secrete name, your troop name. We of Sietch Tabr may use it, but none other may so presume...Usul"
Coincidence? Probably. But I can't help but wonder.