The Genius of Frank Herbert, author of the Dune series of “science fiction” novels

The Genius of Frank Herbert, author of the Dune series of “science fiction” novels

Rudolf Steiner, in a lecture to the workmen, described the America soul as heading in the direction of a kind of natural or instinctive anthroposophy. Not the anthroposophy of Europe, but something unique and different, yet also the “similar”.

My experience of Anthroposophy in America, especially as expressed via the A. Society, is that European culture is superior to American culture in some fashion. This really doesn’t come from Americans so much, as it is a natural result of those soul forces of the Center, than came to America, and tried to teach us how to be like them.

European culture is the high cultural accomplishment of Western Civilization. Yet, the genius of language somehow came up with the idea of there being an Old World and a New World.

A New World means new culture, yet in the A. Society I find little real celebration of the American cultural genius. I will over the course of the next weeks write of certain particular masters of certain arts, new wine in new skins.

In 2003, it is claimed that the highest selling science fiction book in the world was the original Dune. That novel first appeared around in 1965. It was followed by five more novels. Silent Spring was published in 1962. Both books are deep examinations of the idea of “ecology”.

Dune, however, was illuminating in the vastness of its conceptions, the huge scale of the future time, stories of gods and mystics, kings and queens, coupled with a messiah, who rides in on the horse of an extremely powerful psychoactive drug called: Spice.

For some, under the influence of Spice, it means to be able to see vividly the whole history of all manner of the memories of no longer living spirits. The messiah can not only do that, he can see the future as crossroads, and sometimes exactly which choice takes us to what future.

The Spice is only found on one planet in the galaxy, Dune, a planet of very little water, large open spaces full of sands and rocks, and a unique form of life, … the “sandworm”, which rides the sands, dives beneath the sanddunes as if they were just so much water, and grow to over 200 meters in length. There is a whole religion built around the sandworm, a religion of the tribal people original to Dune, the Fremen. When other races discovered Dune, and the Spice which is produced by mysterious processes in the sand, these races found that the Spice had geriatric powers, and gave a long live. In a galaxy of billions, on thousands of planets, wars are fought over something far less valuable.

At the beginning the situation is stable. There is an empire and an emperor. There are star-ships that fold space to move instantly from one planet to another. Under the emperor are aristocratic families holding traditional fiefs.

The mother of the future messiah is a Bene Gesserit, a women’s priesthood, taught special exercises to promote unusual physical and psychic abilities. The folding of space is done by the spacing guild, an act of mind over matter, aided by Spice addiction. There is another discipline, call the “mentat”. This individual trains to think in certain specifically skilled ways. There are warriors, and fighting hand to hand, sword and knife play, and a lot of moments of teaching.

Oh, … and a girl for the messiah. And spiritual trials. Long moments of vision. Learning to ride sandworms. Still …

.. the essence is the “place”, Dune, a planet in which water is so precious that when the Fremen walk in the desert they have to wear a special suit that covers them from head to foot. This wearable chemical transformer reclaims water when we sweat, and water from urine and feces. The suit then processes these, and the suit wearer has a little straw like nipple to take water from the catch pockets in the suit.

The system uses a kind of pump, in the heels of the boots, so that walking makes everything circulate.

I only point to this to give some flavor. The novel is rich in such details. The characters are very intelligent, and speaks of such ways of thought as plans within plans within plans.

Water as a sacrament. Around the same time – 1961 – one of the masters of science fiction, Robert Heinlein, publishes “Stranger in a Strange Land. In this novel water also plays a crucial role as a sacrament, even though it is not rare.

In that novel the rite concerns becoming a “water brother”. In Silent Spring we find out how polluted are our waters. In Dune, we build a whole culture and religion rooted in extreme water scarcity. In Stranger in a Strange land we get water as the core of a ritual of community.

What is harder to put in words, about Dune and its five sequels, is the overall examination of the act and arts of thinking.

The mind is a center of great study, by all of the various guilds. When the mind is aided by the Spice, even more potential (and danger) is evoked. Groups, such as the Bene Gesserit, train their acolytes from youth into the mysteries of the mind&body, that come from disciplining not only their activity, but the whole related process of perception as well.

One could read these six novels for pleasure, for the artistic and enlightened genius of the author, and also for some very sound ideas about how to use and develop our own minds.

The most famous quote from Dune, which many will know of even if they haven’t read Dune, is called “the Litany of Fear”:

“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.”

The books are full of observations about science, religion, culture, … here is one of my favorites:

When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement becomes headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thought of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until its too late.

As a writer, I am familiar with an aspect of writing wherein when you don’t know what the character is next going to say or do. Yes, one gets lay out elaborate plots, but still there is in the process of writing moments where we pose a question, and leaving the own mind (and imagination) to be free, unexpected thought arises. If you add to that, the setting up of elaborate cultures, peoples, systems of thought, when your wisest characters speak you are surprised such ideas existed.

Frank Herbert was a genius in understanding how large societies grow and change. How religion and commerce effect those changes. About how courage can be found in the smallest places, and wonder is just around the corner of the next page.

Read Dune.

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