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Dune by Frank Herbert

inasrullah, December 16, 2012

I read Dune for the first time in high school back in 1982, and it left an indelible and magical imprint on me. I gobbled the book up in three days and then proceeded through the entire series at the time. Now after thirty years, I have come back to re-read Dune, but with a completely different perspective - perhaps that is the point of age - and while the magic is gone, it is still a tremendous book. In fact the book is damn near prescient. The books asks me to consider some interesting and worrisome phenomenon. At the level of geopolitics, we root for Paul Muad'Dib as the youth born of privilege immersed into a desert culture of ascetism, and rails against an empire married to corporate rapaciousness, and then sets to conquer it through a Jihad. At the time the book was written, people claimed the book was loosely based on the life of Prophet Muhammed, which - as a Muslim made me feel proud - seems pretty obvious. Now 30 years later, we witnessed the emergence of Usama Bin Laden, his reign of terror, our War on Terror and his ultimate demise, and Dune means something different. It asks me to root for our protagonist Paul, who actually mirrors the life and times of UBL; recall UBL was the very rich son of a Yemeni Industrialist, eschews his life of privilege for one of asceticism and adopts an extreme anti-Imperial and anti-Western (corporate) ideology. He creates a following of extremists bent on over-throwing the US and its interests - much like Paul finally taking on Emperor Shaddam IV. Obviously, I believe UBL was an abomination and a scourge on humanity and I glad he got what he deserved. But the similarities to me are remarkable. In reality we root for our Emperor, CHOAM, and our Sardakaur troops as they fought in Iraq and Afganistan, hoping they would kill UBL, but was he Paul? What does Paul actually stand for in Dune? How is that different from now?

But Dune is also about humanity's evolutionary future, and what the human mind will become. In the Dune universe, the multi-generational selective breeding of the Bene Gesserit creates the Kwisatz Haderach - the male counterpart to a reverend mother - who can look into the past through humanity's germline to see the long view of history, and has the ability to see through time into the future. Paul represents the full potential of the human mind. Seeing physical reality as the past, present and future as one - like Einstein's block universe - Paul ties it all together. Humanity has achieved the omega point. Humanity has reached God-hood. Again, reading Dune 30 years later since I was a teenager, so much has happened that makes Dune seem prescient. At the time Dune was written, there was no real biotechnology (at least it was still embryonic) - PCR, cell line modelling, genetically engineered mammals, gene based therapy, anti-body therapy - and so we did not know that every human being can be traced back genetically through genes found in mitochondria of women only. We did not have in essence, Tleilaxu tanks to clone humans from genetic remnants (we are still not quite there yet for more ethical reasons than anything else, but the technology is there) and stem cell therapy was unknown. Yet Dune speaks to it through its story telling. Some of its ideas may seem antiquated now thirty years later, but so much more of it is truly prescient.
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