I hate Frank Herbert’s Dune, as only a true fan could. I know the characters so well that I want them to be saved. But can they be?
In the late sixties, Herbert set out to write an epic science fiction story. It combined ecology, economics, religion, and politics with psychedelic drugs. His novel Dune told the story of a young aristocrat, Paul Atreides, moving to a new planet.
A worldwide desert covered the planet Arrakis, commonly known as Dune. It was a harsh land important only for producing the ‘spice mélange.’ The spice prolonged life and granted special powers. A few adept users could even ‘fold space’ allowing instantaneous travel between the stars. A galactic empire managed both economy and travel through feudal lords, economic guilds, and, above all, control of the spice.
As the story begins, Paul’s father has taken control of Arrakis. Rival houses plot to take it from him, led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and Emperor Shaddam IV Corrino. Meanwhile, the indigenous people, known as Fremen, have their own agenda.
Herbert wrote five books about Dune, starting with a novel of the same name. David Lynch directed a controversial movie adaptation in 1984, now a cult classic. Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 version was also very popular, grossing $400 million worldwide and collecting six academy awards.
Herbert had a genius for world building. Each planet in the Dune universe has its own backstory—Caladan, Geidi Prime, and Arrakis (Dune). Each great house has its own aspirations and struggles—Atreides, Harkonnen, and Corrino.
In the book, we meet characters whose strengths and weaknesses intertwine. Duke Leto is idealistic and charismatic, but also headstrong and autocratic. Lady Jessica balances commitments to family and the Bene Gesserit, a quasi-religious community. Each seems pulled in many directions.
Paul, their son, tries to navigate the complex web of expectations and alliances that led to his birth. Will he succeed as a leader? Will he take control of the planet? And should he? Dune raises difficult questions about freedom and power.
Herbert revealed how economic, political, and religious structures bind and loose his characters. Fantastical, seemingly magical gifts elevate them above day-to-day humanity. The spice gives long life and power while fostering addiction, to a drug and to an economic system.
Herbert was suspicious of all human institutions. Corrupted by need and greed, they can trap individuals in an unhealthy web of dependence. He critiqued family, faith, and tradition, showing how each one can undermine the very ideals it tries to express. In short, he described a fallen people, in need of grace.
Herbert…critiqued family, faith, and tradition, showing how each one can undermine the very ideals it tries to express…he described a fallen people, in need of grace.
Christianity and the people of Dune
The Dune galaxy has its own backstory: a crusade against thinking machines. Neither computers nor robots nor artificial intelligence appear in the story. Humans eliminated them centuries earlier in a great purge, the Butlerian Jihad. “Thou shall not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind.” (Dune, chapter 1) “Once, men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.” (Dune, chapter 1)
The name comes from an older science fiction story. Samuel Butler wrote about another anti-machine crusade in his 1872 utopian novel, Erewhon. Butler feared that machines would one day surpass humanity. They might come to dominate animals, just as animals now dominate plants, as seen in Genesis 1: 30. Butler, and Herbert after him, did not fear that machines would exterminate us. He feared a symbiosis, where humans and machines live together, but machines rule. Like cows on a farm (or humans in The Matrix), we would be reduced to livestock and chattel.
Freedom from machines allows the people of Dune to grow. They develop mental and physical skills far beyond our current abilities. The spice amplifies human minds to do the work once done by computers, and more. Mentats become human information processors, with vast memory and computational power. The Bene Gesserit learn to control their bodies and emotions in new and fantastic ways. Guild navigators use spice to fold the space between stars, providing faster-than-light travel.
Herbert glorifies these adepts, but he also questions them. Do their abilities make them more than human? Or, somehow, less? The spice and the world it builds may be as dysfunctional as the world it replaced, the world of machines.
So far, Dune stands side by side with Christianity. Christians question the role of machines in society. They question the state of humanity, made in the image of God and yet subject to sin. Despite our best intentions, both our intuition and our institutions often fail us. And yet, Christians differ from Herbert in our hope for salvation, where we turn for help and what we aspire to be.
(Christians) question the state of humanity, made in the image of God and yet subject to sin…(We) differ from Herbert in our hope for salvation, where we turn for help and what we aspire to be.
A society of scarcity, self-sufficiency and survival
Herbert thought we could grow as a species. He had his own ideas of how we grow and what we grow into. Those ideas came from nineteenth century ethics, economics, and evolution. They formed a story of bondage and freedom for humanity. We should be wary of that tale for two reasons. First, because it is an alternate view of salvation. And second, because ethics, economics, and evolutionary biology have themselves grown.
Two nineteenth century authors reveal the biases of the time. Thomas Carlyle called economics “the dismal science.” He defended slavery, arguing that laziness is our greatest enemy. If our neighbors will not work, we should force them. Thomas Malthus wrote that, “Evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity.” (An Essay on the Principle of Population: Illustrated, p. 167) God made resources scarce so that we would have to work. Both men believed that biology revealed something important about God and about ethics. We only flourish when fighting to survive.
Herbert echoed these thoughts on life and labor. He warns against laziness. The power and nobility of the Fremen comes from their struggle for existence. Ease of life makes us weak, dependent, and less than fully human. “And the price we paid for achieving paradise in this life—we went soft, we lost our edge.” (Dune, chapter 28) Humanity will never escape laziness and corruption. Only scarcity and strife can save us. And only temporarily.
Our only hope comes from self-sufficiency. We must free ourselves from the technology of social institutions. Family, faith, and tradition are necessary for survival, but they limit our autonomy. Herbert feared this loss of self. He praised his characters most when they broke away from community: Jessica choosing family over faith, Paul choosing Fremen over family, and, eventually, Paul’s son abandoning humanity. Leto II will favor his own will above all other goods. (Children of Dune, chapter 54) The Fremen and great worms of the desert epitomize Herbert’s faith in self. They live alone in the desert, purified by an empty wasteland.
Herbert respected ecology and economics and, in their place, social institutions. Despite his fears, he thought they were necessary for life. “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.” (Dune, chapter 1)
The hope for something more
I think of growth differently. Christianity and modern biology both make me hope for something more.
Many biologists in the nineteenth century had a “progressive” view of evolution. Herbert Spencer described it as “survival of the fittest.” Charles Darwin approved of the phrase, meaning by it “those well fit to their environment to survive.” It can be taken normatively, however, to mean “the morally fit survive” (or “moral fitness = survival”). This latter view—endorsed by Malthus and Spencer—was ultimately rejected by biologists in the twentieth century. They found it both unscientific (exceeding the bounds of natural science) and misleading. Biological adaptations can be morally disturbing. Viruses and parasitic wasps are good examples of evolutionary fitness. If God directs evolution, we often fail to appreciate the results.
Another nineteenth century notion depicts life as a war of all against all, a constant selfish struggle: “nature, red in tooth and claw.” Tennyson wrote the line before Darwin published his theory of natural selection. Still, many proponents (even biologists) began to associate it with evolution. They came to associate nature with scarcity, struggle, and selfishness.
There is no salvation in Dune, only a struggle to escape the web of life…The gospel presents an alternative. It, too, recognizes a constant struggle, but it begins and ends in Christ…We live in the desert, but we look for living water.
Modern biologists speak more opportunistically. Competition can be adaptive, but so can cooperation. Species adapt in response to their environment. They learn to cooperate and innovate to make new forms of life. Biology describes an ambivalent world and prescribes neither selfishness nor altruism. Instead, it rewards awareness and experimentation.
Science can inform ethics, but science moves. New data and better theories lead to better models of the world. Biology no longer favors the dismal philosophy. Biologists no longer speak of animals as “higher” life-forms descended from plants. Multicellular animals (like humans) and multicellular plants (like trees) evolved from one-celled precursors. They are symbioses, new ways of living together. But one-celled organisms evolved in other ways, as well. They form the modern bacteria, archaea, and protists. Each group has its own gifts. In many ways, one-celled organisms still dominate. They live on and in us. They thrive everywhere on Earth from the deep subsurface to the upper atmosphere. Even the deserts are full of life. Our humanity does not diminish their dignity. Nor are we natural enemies, but rather neighbors and even siblings in creation.
Herbert’s philosophy encourages us to take selfishness for granted, while questioning community. He trusts himself and doubts his neighbor. But he knew that absolute freedom is impossible. Biology tells us we cannot survive on our own. Thus, there is no salvation in Dune, only a struggle to escape the web of life.
We put our hope in the Lord
The gospel presents an alternative. It, too, recognizes a constant struggle, but it begins and ends in Christ. John 1: 3-4 says, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life.” We are, most fundamentally, alive in Christ. We are moved by his spirit, branches of his vine, members of his body. And, though alienated by sin, our sin cannot overcome his life. And so, we place our trust in him.
We recognize the ambivalence of life. We question our intuition and our institutions. But we do so with hope. We place our trust in a shared life. We live in the desert, but we look for living water.
I return to Dune because it captures the struggle of humanity. It reminds me not to place my trust in human institutions and human technology. I return to Dune so that I may, for a while, abide in the desert. There, scarcity and struggle bring me face to face with mortality and dependence.
The characters of Dune are stranded in that wilderness. Trusting in themselves, they remain stuck within the systems they rage against. They cannot be saved because salvation comes from without.
The characters of Dune are stranded but we are not. Science and faith can both aid us. Ecology and evolution reveal a world of complex interactions. No one is truly alone and the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Science cannot provide salvation, but it can bring us out of ourselves and into a larger world. New things are always occurring, if only we have eyes to see.
I return now and then to the desert, to the wilderness, to Lent. But when Easter comes, I will leave the desert and lose myself in something greater.
We are right to fear death and the loss of self. We are right to question our motives, our neighbors and our communities. But fear is not the final word. Herbert got that right. “I must not fear.” And yet, when the fear passes, it is not I who will remain, but God. And so I put my trust in family, faith, and tradition. I return now and then to the desert, to the wilderness, to Lent. But when Easter comes, I will leave the desert and lose myself in something greater.
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