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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Dune was one of the first science-fiction novels to address issues of religion. Many science-fiction authors considered religion an outdated institution that would eventually lose its direct control over society. Many writers assumed that the separation of church and state would only widen in the future. Frank Herbert had a different conception of the future. Dune’s universe employs a feudal government system that includes dukes and barons and in which religion has a very strong presence in everyday life and politics.
Religion’s most obvious presence in Dune is in the Bene Gesserit. The Bene Gesserit are familiar with numerous religious texts, from the Orange Catholic Bible to more cryptic texts such as the Great Mysteries. These texts play a significant role in defining the Bene Gesserit conception of the world. The Missionaria Protectiva reveals that the Bene Gesserit frequently exploit religion to protect their own members. The Bene Gesserit use the Missionaria Protectiva to spread contrived legends and prophecies to developing worlds. Bene Gesserit can exploit these legends to earn the respect of the native inhabitants, who believe in the contrived legends.
The other important presence of religion in Dune involves control of the Fremen. Kynes’s father is the first person to exploit religion as a method of rallying the Fremen to his cause—turning Arrakis from a desert planet to a lush, green world. Kynes and his father hope to bring paradise back to Arrakis through religion. Although Kynes wants to bring nature to Arrakis by making it a lush, green planet, his endeavor is contrary to nature because Arrakis is a naturally dry planet.
Religion represents a source of comfort and power throughout the novel. Paul pursues the same goals as Kynes, but he uses his religious power over the Fremen as their messiah to gain control of the entire Imperium. Paul possesses mystical abilities that go above and beyond a simple heightened awareness or intelligence, but his clever exploitation of religion is his most powerful advantage. Paul’s adept manipulation of religion and the calculated use of legends contrived by the Bene Gesserit allow him to rise to the position of Emperor.
To exist in the harsh desert climate of Arrakis, the Fremen must be keenly attune to ecological issues such as the availability of water, the proximity of giant sandworms, and unstable weather patters. The ecological issues in Dune extend beyond the mere necessities of daily life on Arrakis. Dr. Kynes, a prominent figure in the book, is an ecologist who hopes to transform the ecosystem of Arrakis from a desert to fertile, verdant splendor. The Fremen take up his cause, and Paul continues it after Kynes’ death.
Altering Arrakis into a lush garden planet is performing the work of a higher power, reshaping the land to conform to the preference and needs of the Fremen. Yet no character in Dune ever questions whether it is morally right to change the climate of Arrakis. Changing the planet might kill the sandworms, which have an integral role in creating melange, an addictive drug used throughout the universe. Such a change in the ecosystem may also obliterate the muad’dib, the planet’s beloved mice, and the source for Paul’s new Fremen name. The Fremen are strong and powerful soldiers because they have trained in a harsh desert climate. The Fremen would not have the power to fight the Emperor’s soldiers or change the climate of Arrakis if the environment were different.
Dune raises the question of whether humans should exercise their power to manipulate the environment, but lack of opposition from any character in the novel leaves no firm conclusion.
Herbert explores the moral question of manipulating nature with the issue of the gene pool in Dune as well. Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, and his duty is to diversify the genetic makeup of the universe. Disturbing the natural genetic makeup may lead to a deadly holy war, or jihad. If human beings fight the natural order of life, whether through the environment or genetic codes, Herbert suggests, the results can be dire, even if the repercussions are not felt until far off in the future.
Read about the related theme of the dangers of scientific advancement in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.