Dune and the big picture

 
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It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The book is to science fiction what the Lord of the Rings was to fantasy. Its arrival in novel form ushered in a new age of world-building creations. Its arrival as a film this month is certain to usher us back into the cinemas—government lockdown restrictions permitting. It’s been described as Star Wars for adults. Embedded in Dune’s alien cultures and epic landscapes are some surprisingly earthy things to say about religion’s cosy relationship with power, and scientific endeavour as a new form of religion.

This is not the first time that Dune has leapt off the page and into the televisual world. In 1984, David Lynch made a version of the storyline that starred contemporary luminaries like Sting, Max von Sydow and Patrick Stewart. In 2000, John Harrison adapted the novel as a television series titled Frank Herbert’s Dune that became one of the three highest-rated programs on the Sci-Fi Channel. But neither of these predecessors has achieved a great deal of critical success. In contrast the latest film, helmed by director Denis Villeneuve—has received a solid critical reception, even as the pandemic has caused its commercial prospects to be uncertain. Villeneuve is one of Hollywood’s most exciting directors as the genius behind science fiction triumphs like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. He fell in love with Herbert’s 1965 novel when he first read it as a 12-year-old and has been aching to produce it for the big screen but instead decided to wait until he had more science fiction experience. Now the wait is over with Villeneuve’s Dune hitting theatres worldwide (and Warner Bros.’ HBO Max streaming service in America) in just a few short weeks. The movie has an all star cast with actors such as Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista and Javier Bardem all playing roles.

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Dune is as much political thriller as space saga, set in a galactic empire tens of thousands of years into the future. Amongst the leading imperial families is House Atreides, a potential threat to the current emperor in the storyline. Consequently, Duke Leto Atreides (played in this new adaptation by Oscar Isaac) and his partner, the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), are “invited” to exchange his ocean planet Caladan for the desert planet Arrakis. It appears to be a promotion because Arrakis is the only known source of the spice melange, an extremely expensive substance that dramatically increases lifespan as well as mental acuity. It’s that last ability that allows the navigators of imperial starships to fold space, thus making interstellar transport possible. But the exchange is actually a trap. Almost as soon as House Atreides sets foot on Arrakis, it is fighting for its life against the machinations of House Harkonnen and it’s conniving leader Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård).

At the centre of the drama is Duke Leto’s heir, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). A gifted young man, he must overcome every natural urge to become the saviour the Atreides need. And so he recites:

“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 . . . Only I will remain.”

But his calm under pressure doesn’t stop him from becoming a fugitive in the desert, nor the prey of gigantic sand worms. If he does not manage to unite the tribesman of this deadly wasteland then any hope his family have of surviving the grand struggle of Dune will be short lived.

The world of Dune has a complex relationship with religion. The most powerful factions are a strange melding of science and faith. But rather than this resulting in an ultimate harmony, Frank Herbert’s novel contains a warning for Paul:

“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong—faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.”

As fantastical as the futuristic faiths of Dune are, the separation of religious groups and political parties is something modern believers might do well to dwell on. Since the days of Justinian, the first Christian emperor of Rome, religious organizations like the church have had to be careful of developing an overly comfortable relationship with political power.

Dr John Dickson, author of Bullies and saints: An honest look at the good and evil of Christian history, says that the conversion of Emperor Justinian, the most powerful person in the world, represented an incredible challenge to the humility and self-control of the Christian church:

“A people used to mockery and social exclusion (and worse) were now invited into the very centre of power. And, perhaps most bizarrely, the Christian sign of humble self-sacrifice, [the cross] was now a formal part of the Roman war machine.”

The same challenge has arisen in modern times in the political movements of the United States. The way in which various key evangelical figures became promoters for the Trump administration is a cautionary tale. The public discourse from the administration that promised laws which would bring about a return to conservative family values led to extraordinary support from white American Christians. Election exit polls reported by the BBC in 2016 and 2020 suggested that around 80 per cent of white evangelicals backed the Republican president. The unhappy result, though, was that Christians found themselves aligned with an administration which encouraged riots on Capitol Hill. Historically speaking, the closer religious institutions and the faithful have come to power, the more fraught the relationship has become.

Another facet of Dune with theological significance is the manner in which science and religion are freely mingled. The secrets of space travel are the closely guarded secrets of the Guild of Navigators, a cult-like organisation whose use of the spice is as much ceremony as it is scientific. Likewise, the group known as the Bene Gesserit combine the science of advanced human perception while zealously rejecting anything of mechanical origin:

“Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind.”

Watching these sciences grasp for sacred status is another eerily familiar picture. Since the Age of Enlightenment humans have been promising an all-embracing understanding that will sweep away the need for religion. Yet science rests on its own version of faith. The literary theorist Stanley Fish countered atheist Richard Dawkins by pointing out that, “Science requires faith too before it can have reasons.” The scientific approach requires that a scientist believe that something is true, then test to see if it actually is. But that hasn’t stopped the rise of “Scientism”—the dogmatic certainty that all knowledge can be reduced to that which can be measured. The question, though, is can science carry such a burden?

In Dune, a sudden change in understanding towards the end of the story transforms the way people see both Paul and what is possible in the film’s universe. Science, by its nature, is vulnerable to just such a dramatic alteration of perspective. In 1572 the observation of a star “going nova”– in the night sky dramatically altered the science of the day because it showed that the heavens were not immutable. Writing in the 1950s, CS Lewis cautioned those who look to our current scientific understanding as their saviour:

“It is not impossible that our own model will die a violent death, ruthlessly smashed by an unprovoked assault of new facts,” he said, according to Science and Christian Beliefs.

Indeed, science is much less secure a religion than many of us think. It is always at the mercy of information it cannot predict. In Dune, no-one realises that Paul is anything more than a 15-year-old boy until his true abilities manifest. Likewise, in our world, science can have nothing to say about the second coming of Jesus Christ until it happens. Then scientists could, I suppose, rearrange their theories of time and space to accommodate the Bible’s claims that at that moment that the skies will be rolled up like a scroll. But by then every knee would be busy bowing to a new way of seeing the world.

Mark Hadley is a media and cultural critic who lives with his family in Sydney. Please note that discussion of a media product in Signs of the Times does not imply an endorsement or recommendation