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 it’s too late.
–Frank Herbert, Dune
It was a Tuesday, and I was in British Literature I. We were discussing an early text, either Beowulf or Canterbury Tales. Our professor was teaching via teleconference from a campus two hours away. As she was listening on our class discussion through the television, an off-camera student leaned in and whispered something in her ear. Her expression changed immediately.
“Thank you,” she said, as one of my classmates finished speaking. “Uh, we’re going to end a little early today.”
We filed out of the classroom. I wandered to my next class, Acting I. A few students gathered on the patio outside the college theater. One was talking frantically on her cellphone, talking frantically. I missed the first part of her conversation, so I had no idea what she was upset about.
“The Pentagon’s been hit.” The woman snapped her cellphone shut. “I’m being deployed.”
Soon our professor met us outside. “Class’s cancelled, guys. Go home. Be with your families.”
Something had happened, but I was afraid to ask, like meeting a grieving family outside of a hospital. I headed to the cafeteria, where a large TV had been rolled out of storage. On NBC, footage of the collapse of the World Trade Center played: first one enormous tower, then the other. I had wanted to visit the towers ever since seeing Home Alone 2 as a youngling. I thought, please don’t let it be both. Don’t let it be both towers.
They cut to footage of the burning Pentagon, then a field of wreckage in rural Pennsylvania.
The talking heads kept saying “God bless America,” and “this terrible tragedy,” and “we are now at war with Al Qaeda.” I drove home, but my favorite radio station had switched to a news bulletin. I wondered if this was how the world of 1984 would happen. One tragedy, and the villains take over.
When I got home I emailed everyone I knew. It didn’t matter if they were nowhere near New York City or Washington, D.C. I asked anyway.
A month later, I read Dune for the first time.
I was already familiar with it, although I didn’t know that. I had seen the board game for the 1984 David Lynch film years ago. The sandworms on the package found their way into a novella I wrote in middle school called the Whirlpool. The SciFi miniseries came out a year before, and I had seen snippets of it. I was tired of Tolkien and Asimov and Clarke and wanted something more to my political leanings. But Dune remained largely off my radar until the word “jihad” entered the national vocabulary.
What I read blew my mind.
Dune was the first genre book that didn’t info-dump on me every few pages. Clarke set apart his descriptions of interplanetary travel and future technology into their own scenes; thankfully, his prose was elegant enough for it to work. Asimov and Tolkien worked backstory into dialogue; both were hit-or-miss in that regard. But Herbert? He just threw any unusual terms in a glossary (only at the behest of his publisher, I discovered later), letting the reader figure out anything unusual by context. It made the first page difficult to read, but it rewards repeat readings.
It was a science fiction story without most of the usual trappings, such as artificial intelligence and aliens. It was Lawrence of Arabia in space, a sweeping historical epic for a history far into the future.
Yet that word, “jihad,” struck me. 9/11 was only a month behind us, a fresh memory. The news turned to religious terminology to describe the clash of civilizations taking place: the jihad of al Qaeda, the US crusade against terrorists, one nation under God. And here were sympathetic characters using that term, fully justified in its use. I found that I had to perceive the protagonist Paul Muad’Dib Atreides through the lens of Islamic terrorism.
The book, like its protagonist, was prescient.
When I finished Dune I craved more. I knew there were sequels, but the community college library was missing most of them. I made a note to return to the series when I could.
It wasn’t until 2004 that I read the rest. Dune began as a collection of short stories by Herbert that grew into a trilogy, then a quadrilogy, and another three books yet. Herbert died before finishing the last. His son Brian Herbert and writer Kevin J. Anderson took his notes and finished it, to mixed reviews. I can’t bring myself to read it. Herbert’s style was so distinctive; I can’t read about Arrakis and Bene Gesserit and Tleilaxu and poor, poor Duncan Idaho in someone else’s voice.
However, Herbert’s voice wasn’t suited to mainstream stories. The White Plague is almost unreadable; Destination: Void is bland. He found his best success in Dune, and went back to that well often until his death in 1985. His storytelling had its flaws, including some rather unfortunate homophobic tendencies. Sometimes very little occurs in page after page except characters moving pawns about their galactic chessboard.
But he wrote something both timeless and immediately relevant. Like our time, Dune is about the danger of fundamentalism, the destruction of ruthless politicking, the enslavement and liberation of peoples, the change in the land, the control of energy, the need for water, the small solace of love. A boy is caught up in the machine of his times, unable to stop it from careening over the oncoming cliff. A mother sees almost everything she holds dear torn away, relying on her skills to survive. A young girl loses her father to war. A scientist dies before his vision can be realized. The most powerful man in the universe loses everything.
Dune is prophecy.