By Timothy O’Reilly
Copyright © 1981 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc. (Out of print.)
Chapter 5: Rogue Gods
In Herbert's terms, religion and its attendant, hero worship, are human adaptations to uncertainty. In Under Pressure, the submarine crew makes their peace with an overwhelmingly hostile world by means of religious faith. They treat their captain as a visible embodiment of God's protection, thereby transferring their faith from the undefined to a near-at-hand father figure. Dune showed the same generating causes for religion on a much larger scale. Both faith and charismatic leadership spring from a deep hunger for security and meaning in a universe which, as Paul notes, "is always one step beyond logic."
In Dune, Herbert used heroic myth elements from the Western tradition in an effort to awaken in his readers a sensitivity to the needs that prompt a messianic religion. But even so, it is too easy to see messianism as something that happens only to desert peoples like the Fremen. Less immediately apparent is the fact that to Herbert the neurotic use of science in modern Western civilization betrays the same pattern as messianic religion.
Herbert's feelings about science are most clearly presented in Dune and in three short novels that followed its publication, The Green Brain, Destination: Void, and The Eyes of Heisenberg. Each of these works reveals the two faces of science: it may he used to help man come to terms with the unknown, or to help him hide from it. In the latter case, it is a kind of religion, whose false god inevitably turns on his worshippers.
In Dune, two sciences appear in double guise as religions—ecology and the Bene Gesserit psychology. Recall Herbert's concern that "ecology could become the excuse for a witch hunt or Worse in our society; the Fremen religion is based not on concepts of God but on the science of ecology. As for the Bene Gesserit, their belief system is a kind of millenial religion. While they ruthlessly manipulate the religious psychology of the Imperium, the Bene Gesserit themselves seek solace from uncertainty by trying to establish a future that they control.
The weaknesses of ecology as a religion are made clear in Dune's sequels. By contrast, Herbert's most telling criticism of the mentality demonstrated by the Bene Gesserit is found in a study of their literary antecedents. The Bene Gesserit are based in part on the scientific wizards of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. Herbert's judgment on them is implicit in the way he has reversed the roles played by such scientists in Dune.
Asimov's trilogy is set in a crumbling galactic empire, in which a "psychohistorian" named Han Seldon has analyzed with mathematical precision the forces acting upon masses of people and can predict nearly exactly what will happen hundreds and even thousands of years in the future. Seldon has set up a foundation to act in accordance with the statistical laws of psychohistory and take the necessary steps to bring about a new order from the ruins of the old. In Seldon's vision, the Foundation will enable the rebuilding of galactic civilization in 1,000 years instead of the 10,000 years of turmoil that would otherwise be required.
The trilogy chronicles the successes of the Foundation and the complete accuracy of the long-dead Seldon's scientific predictions, until a freak mutant is born. An empathetic superman, called "the Mule" because he is sterile, he was completely unexpected by Seldon, whose science could predict only mass dynamics and not the truly exceptional individual. The Mule shatters the Foundation's precious new civilization in his own hungry grab for power, and is stopped only by a mysterious "second foundation" established by Seldon to study the science of the mind and to prepare for such unforeseen emergencies as the material science of the first foundation could not handle.
Herbert questioned the assumptions about science that he saw at work in Asimov's trilogy. In a recent essay, he wrote:
History… is manipulated for larger ends and for the greater good as determined by a scientific aristocracy. It is assumed, then, that the scientist-shamans know best which course humankind should take… While surprises may appear in these stories (e.g., the Mule mutant), it is assumed that no surprise will be too great or too unexpected to overcome the firm grasp of science upon human destiny. This is essentially the assumption that science can produce a surprise-free future for humankind.
Dune is clearly a commentary on the Foundation trilogy. Herbert has taken a look at the same imaginative situation that provoked Asimov's classic—the decay of a galactic empire—and restated it in a way that draws on different assumptions and suggests radically different conclusions. The twist he has introduced into Dune is that the Mule, not the Foundation, is his hero.
The Bene Gesserit are clearly parallel to the "scientist-shamans" of the Foundation. Their science of prediction and control is biological rather than statistical, but their intentions are similar to those of Asimov's psychohistorians. In a crumbling empire, they seek to grasp the reins of change. The Sisterhood sees the need for genetic redistribution—which ultimately motivates the jihad—and has tried to control that redistribution by means of their breeding program. The Kwisatz Haderach, the capstone of their plan, is not its only goal. Their overall intention is to manage the future of the race. Paul, like the Mule, is the unexpected betrayal of their planned future.
The irony is that Paul is not a freak but an inevitable product of the Bene Gesserit's own schemes. Although he has come a generation early in the plan due to Jessica's willfulness in bearing a son instead of a daughter, the real surprise is not his early birth but the paradox of the Sisterhood's achievement: the planned instrument of perfect control, the Kwisatz Haderach, was designed to see further than his creators, He could not help but know the emptiness of their dreams. The universe cannot be managed; the vitality of the human race lies in its random generation of new possibilities. The only real surety is that surprises will occur. In contrast to the Foundation trilogy's exaltation of rationality's march to predicted victory, Dune proclaims the power and primacy of the unconscious and the unexpected in human affairs. Paul's wild ride on the jihad, not the careful Bene Gesserit gene manipulation, provides the answer to the Empire's needs.
Even though Dune so clearly undercuts the assumptions about science applauded in the Foundation trilogy, such antirationalism was the culmination of a long struggle. Early on, Herbert saw that the same assumptions pervaded much of science fiction, including his own. In order to embody his visions of the future, he needed to untangle himself from their hold. Ramsey's voyage to humility in Under Pressure was the first step, reflecting Herbert's own disillusionment with the mystique of the all-powerful psychologist. The development of the Bene Gesserit as an analogue to the Foundation, and the rejection of their methods in favor of Paul's, resulted from a continued clarification of his attitudes and ideas. In a series of stories published in science-fiction magazines between 1958 and 1960, Herbert developed a number of transitional concepts. These stories, which were later expanded into the novel The Godmakers, provide a far more revealing history of Herbert's developing sensibilities in their original form.
Lewis Orne, the chief character in the stories, is an operative of the I-A (Investigation and Adjustment Agency) of a galactic government, which is rebuilding civilization after a disastrous war in which all contact between planets has been lost. His job is to watch for the embers of war on rediscovered planets and, if necessary, call in force to stamp them out. In the course of his work, Orne has to rely heavily on intuition and on heightened perception of the nonverbal indicators of a warlike mentality. In one story, "Operation Haystack," he ferrets out a secret society of women, the remnants of a once-proud race who lost power in the Rim Wars. These Nathians landed on the planets of their enemies, and, using special techniques to breed only women, embarked on a devious, 500-year plan to gain ascendancy by masterminding the political careers of their husbands. Orne discovers that he himself is one of the Nathians, the rare male child they have allowed, intending him to play a special role in their plan. Like Paul, however, he has escaped from their control, the random factor that becomes the ruin of their schemes.
This story is a bridge between Foundation and Dune. The I-A, like the Foundation, is devoted to picking up the pieces of a shattered galactic civilization, convinced that the organization has the appointed mission—and the necessary insight—to rebuild a better world. And like the Bene Gesserit, its operatives are adepts in the study of nonverbal communication (although for the I-A it is an observational aid rather than a tool for manipulation). Herbert seems to have a great deal of respect for the I-A and its abilities, and perhaps even for its aim. Orne resembles Paul in some respects, as the I-A resembles the Bene Gesserit; but Orne sees no flaws in the Agency's plans and remains loyal to it.
He does turn against the Nathians. They too anticipate the Bene Gesserit; not trained in esoteric skills, they seek rather to rule than to secretly guide the course of history. However, they do have the matriarchal structure, the breeding program, and the political aims that distinguish the Sisterhood. A likely source for the Nathians is Herbert's childhood. His mother had ten sisters, who were extremely close and shared in his upbringing. Orne's escape from the Nathian influence might be construed—and this is purely conjectural—as reminiscent of Herbert's own escape from the confines of the family matriarchy. More importantly—and this provides a clue to the eventual amalgamation of the Nathian matriarchy and the Foundation in the Bene Gesserit—Herbert has described the Bene Gesserit as "female Jesuits." The aunts overcame Herbert's agnostic father and insisted that the son receive Catholic training. As it turned out, he was taught by Jesuits. An order whose political power and long-term vision silently shaped a great sweep of world affairs, and who were once famed for their training and asceticism, the Society of Jesus bears no small resemblance to the witches of the Imperium. The association in Herbert's mind between the aunts and the Jesuits seems to have stuck, and may have provided the link between the matriarchy and future management in the Bene Gesserit. In the long run, Herbert recalls:
My father really won. I was a rebel against Jesuit positivism. I can win an argument in the Jesuit fashion, hut I think it's flying under false colors. If you control the givens, you can win any argument.
Paul's break with the Sisterhood therefore seems to echo Herbert's own experience rather closely.
Another interesting development in these stories is the growing role of psychic powers. In the two earliest, "You Take the High Road" and "Missing Link," and even in "Operation Haystack," Orne's skills are more on the level of Sherlock Holmes than of Paul Atreides. He has heightened powers of observation coupled with imagination and a keen sense of linguistic and anthropological clues to buried motivation. However, in "The Priests of Psi," Orne is revealed as a "psi focus" of immense power.
This development is not evidence of budding interest on Herbert's part; he had had a powerful telepathic experience while still in his teens. Sitting with a girlfriend by the fire, for a lark he had essayed to call off a deck of cards as she looked at them, and succeeded with every one—a scene which he later described very closely in "Encounter in a Lonely Place." He had also written about telepathy in his second science-fiction story, "Operation Syndrome," which was published in Astounding. No one who wrote for editor John W. Campbell, Jr., could avoid the subject. But Herbert was consistently more interested in the immediately provocative possibilities of expanding ordinary perception than in the exploration of the so-called paranormal.
The reason for Herbert's return to the subject in "The Priests of Psi" was most likely his concurrent research for Dune. The original conception of Dune did not require Paul to be capable of total prophecy. Ecology, not prescience, was the intended focus of the messianic upheaval on Arrakis. Initially, Herbert was doubtless influenced more by the prophetic models of Judaism and Islam than he was by the Greek. The desert prophet was a messenger of God whose prescience, if at all evident, served only to demonstrate the truth of his mission. In ancient Greece, on the other hand, prophecy was regarded as an ambiguous art. Cassandra, the prophetess of Troy, was cursed with a vision that nobody would believe. The Delphic Oracle was infamous for giving men answers that could be misinterpreted due to their desire for a certain turn of events. Such a twist, full of ambiguities for the prophet himself as well as for his followers, must have had great appeal to Herbert. The difference between the prophet as moral force and the prophet as seer, a distinction unimportant at first, grew to enormous proportions as the novel evolved, so that in the end the problems of "future management" overshadowed ecology as the major subject of the novel.
The beginning of this evolution can be seen in "The Priests of Psi." Orne has only a "prescient awareness of danger," not the full-fledged time-vision of Paul Atreides. But there is one moment when Orne feels a peculiarly different kind of foreboding.
Orne became conscious of prescient fear… Within him there was a surging and receding like waves on a beach. Emolirdo had described this sensation and interpreted it: Infinite possibilities in a situation basically perilous.
This is closer to the kind of prescience Paul has: a perception of the infinite possibilities of a universe basically perilous—the situation of every man, of which few are aware. Despite the prescient warning, Orne "felt himself committed to this blind force." Here Herbert has made the first link between prescience and the juggernaut, a process that, once started, cannot be stopped, and which renders too much foreknowledge a curse. With this linkage Herbert explodes the science-fiction stereotype (fostered by John Campbell) that the holders of psi power are necessarily good, because they have "evolved." Orne discovers that a psi focus can motivate miracles for good or ill. He learns that "men create gods to enforce their definitions of good and evil" and realizes that such "creations may act independently of their creators." This theme is extremely potent in Dune and is repeated throughout Herbert's work. In "The Priests of Psi," the transition from Asimov's Foundation to the Bene Gesserit has also become clearer, but the story still does not display Dune's criticism of the scientist-shamans who seek to shape the future. The priests of the planet Amel, fountainhead of all galactic religions, secretly see themselves as a school for prophets. They are developing a science of religion similar to that practiced by the Bene Gesserit. They want to stop the "wild religions" that cause more misery and destruction than they alleviate, and to train incipient prophets in the wise use of their powers.
Orne is one who has the potential to be such a prophet. The priests of Amel begin to stir up public sentiment against the I-A, and as they expect, Orne is sent to stop them. Instead, after a number of remarkable experiences on Amel, Orne becomes an adept in their hierarchy and assists in Amel's takeover of the I-A. This takeover resembles the absorption of BuSec by BuPsych predicted at the end of Under Pressure, as well as the supremacy of Asimov's "second foundation" over the first. A crude fixation on control is replaced by a more sensitive and aware use of control as a tool. Like the I-A, the priesthood sees itself as a kind of galactic horticulturist, encouraging an optimum growth for the new galactic synthesis. But unlike the I-A, the priests have gone beyond simply reading nonverbal cues to develop a true science of consciousness. They teach Orne to channel his budding prophetic abilities and show him how to establish lasting peace in the galaxy far more effectively than the I-A ever could with its more traditional methods.
The solution offered by Amel is not to oppose war but to otherwise channel the energies that give rise to it and educate those people who might become its focus. The Abbod of Halmyrach asks Orne, "Were you prepared to be the surgeon, to cut out the infection and leave society in its former health?" The efforts of the I-A to stamp out war can only breed more war, in a dreadful cycle of stagnation and upheaval. Orne realizes the Abbod is right: "To strengthen a thing, oppose it… You become like the worst in what you oppose."
Herbert's awareness of the limitations of a one-sided response to social problems may have been sparked by his father, who understood police work to be a service to the people he was protecting rather than a quasi-military form of law enforcement. This insight was supplemented by Herbert's subsequent study of psychology and religion. The Abbod's wisdom is founded on a psychology similar to that explored in Paul's early Bene Gesserit training. He says:
Suppose you have a transparent grid, three dimensional. Like graph paper. You look through it at the universe. It is a matrix against which you can plot out the shapes and motions of the universe… This grid, this matrix is trained into human beings… With this matrix they break nature into bits. Usable hits. But somehow, they too often get the idea that nature… the universe is the bits… It's like an old man reading script with his nose pressed almost to the page. He sees one thing at a time. But our universe is not one thing at a time. It's an enormous complex.
It is only a brief intuitive leap from here to the gestalt psychology principle of figure and ground, and from there to a Zenlike sense of the mutual coexistence of opposites.
"Do you know how we see the bits, Mr. Orne?" the Abbod asks.
We see them by contrast. Each bit moves differently, has a different color, or…
Very good. We see them by contrast. To see a bit we must also see its background. Bit and background are inseparable. Without one you cannot discern the other. Without evil you cannot determine good. Without war, you cannot determine peace.
The writer Eugene Herrigel describes a crisis in Zen practice that aptly describes the point Herbert is trying to get across.
In order to grasp one thing the student of Zen must reject the other. He thus adopts an attitude which is always one-sided. In spite of his having decided for goodness, its opposite gains power over him.
The training offered by the priests of Amel is to look beyond the illusion of opposites fostered by the grid and to master the instinctual responses those opposites provoke. Uncertainty, and therefore religion, arise when the beliefs that form the structure of the grid no longer match experience. "Things are changing," the Abbod says. "Things will change. There is an instinct in human beings which realizes this… We seek something unchanging." When a person is gifted with extraordinary vision and powers, he often comes to believe that he can offer humanity something unchanging, a new belief. "He knows the true from the false by some inner sense… Around him he sees much that is false." Especially if he does not understand the temporary nature of his vision, he may start a new religion. And, the Abbod notes, such
prophets have tended to preach without restriction—uninhibited and really undisciplined. The results were always the same: temporary order that climbed toward greater and greater power, then the inevitable degeneration. We, on the other hand, have another method. We seek the slow, self-disciplined accumulation of data that will extend our science of religion.
The basic premise of Amel is that the phenomena of religion are as much amenable to science as the phenomena of nature. They merely occur on a more subtle level. Religion is a psi field created by massed emotions, and a prophet has the psychic focus to control it.
In one scene, the Abbod demonstrates to Orne his ability to produce a flame in midair by mind power alone and says, "The first man to tap that source of energy was burned alive as a sorcerer by his fellow humans." This statement brings to mind the treatment of the Foundation scientists as wizards by the decadent peoples they come in contact with.
The assumption that all phenomena may be reduced to science is closely related to one Herbert noticed in Foundation, that "science can provide a surprise-free future for humankind." The priests of Amel see the cyclical pattern of order and decay in human affairs, but like Asimov's Han Seldon, they believe they know how to bring it into manageable form. Orne seems to believe they are right.
A great deal from "The Priests of Psi" has been carried over into Dune: the "truthsense" of the budding prophet, the similarity between the Bene Gesserit "grid" psychology and that of Amel, the unusual conceptual tie between religion and war, and the idea of a controlling science of religion. Orne even discovers that "psi phenomena are time phenomena," a realization that reaches full flower in Dune. In addition, the "Ecumenical Truce" that gave rise to Amel's syncretistic religion is paralleled by Dune's "Commission of Ecumenical Translators" (described in an appendix), who met to produce a single ecumenical religious document, the Orange Catholic Bible. The aim of the Commission was "to remove a primary weapon from the hands of disputant religions… the claim to possession of the one and only revelation."
A detailed comparison with Dune would show many more carryovers from "The Priests of Psi" than have been mentioned here. The crucial difference between the two, apart from the gulf separating a sketch and a finished masterpiece, is one of Herbert's later guiding assumptions. When he wrote "The Priests of Psi" in 1959, he seems to have toyed with the idea that a school for prophets such as it describes could offer a possible solution to the problems of messianic upheaval and future management. Perhaps, as Asimov seemed to assume, there could be a level of sensitivity and wisdom from which it is possible to oversee history; perhaps a science of psychology could provide the answers. By the time he wrote Dune, three years later, Herbert had changed his mind. The Bene Gesserit have many admirable ideas and valuable skills, but from his very first interview with the Reverend Mother, Paul senses a wrongness to their methods and rejects their supervision. It is likewise clear that ecumenism is powerless to defuse messianic uprisings like Paul's jihad. Even with all his training, Paul is overwhelmed by the forces he unleashes. Ultimately, he submits wholeheartedly to them.
"The Priests of Psi" and Dune can be compared to experiments in which certain variables are tested while others remain constant. Both explore the same basic issue, in Herbert's words, that "certain kinds of [organic and evolutionary] changes tend to be resisted in our society until those changes overwhelm people." However, since the viewpoint of each treatment is so different, so are the conclusions." The Priests of Psi," like Foundation, depicts the activity of groups seeking to manage change. The portrayals are sympathetic but hedged with reservations. (The Abbod knows that even with all his science, change will still happen; his call is not to stop it but to develop the self-discipline needed to live with it.) Dune, on the other hand, focuses on the figurehead of a tidal shift that has already been resisted too long and has become explosive as a result. Another factor is consistency of characterization.
Herbert emphasizes that "The Priests of Psi" was the conclusion of a series of stories in which Orne has been presented as an "organization man." One cannot expect from him the same reactions as from Paul, who has been trained as a leader completely able to stand on his own. And if Orne can only see his choice as between organizations, the priests of Amel, with their emphasis on Eastern-style self-discipline, do have a much more appealing solution than the I-A's tactics of repression. Paul's conflicting feelings about the Sisterhood are grounded in the story. His mother is Bene Gesserit, a fact that both ties him to the sisterhood and makes them the focus for his adolescent rebellion. Furthermore, his first knowledge of the breeding program comes after the Reverend Mother has just threatened his life. Such concrete story elements as Orne's character as an "organization man and Paul's familial link to the Sisterhood make their own demands for consistency, entirely apart from the requirements of the theme.
However, The Godmakers, Herbert's 1972 rewrite of the Orne stories, bears out the suspicion that the differences between "The Priests of Psi" and Dune do reflect an actual evolution in his concepts and not just an alternate story framework. In the later version, Orne does not become an obedient agent of Amel, but like Paul, transcends the "God-makers" who would have shaped him to their will. The change does not indicate that Herbert has turned against the religious and psychological insights of the Abbod (any more than he rejects the teachings of the Bene Gesserit), but merely that he has lost faith in any possibility of using (or misusing) them to control the future. The Abbod recognizes the necessary coexistence of chaos and order, but thinks he has found a way to beat the game. By the time of Dune, however, Herbert appears to have let go of even this final bias against disorder, and accepted it with Zenlike equanimity as a necessary part of life.
In the years after he wrote Dune, Herbert set out to make the application of its ideas to our society more explicit. Dune had absorbed so much of his energy, and had become a melting pot for so many of his themes, that he needed a break. "Really it was kind of a psychological R and R period," he says. "I'd just been very deep into a book that really drained me. And I knew that to make the others [Dune Messiah and Children of Dune] fit, I was going to have to do it again. I had to take some time off." He did some more research for Dune Messiah, and then he "went out and did some other things while I was thinking about it."
These "other things" were three short novels—The Green Brain, Destination: Void, and The Eyes of Heisenberg—which explore tangents suggested by Dune, carrying them out to logical extremes in a way that was impossible within the confines of a single imaginative world. While these novels lack the graphic force of Dune and must have proved a disappointment to many of Herbert's readers, they served the important function of separating his key concepts from the vehicle that had first allowed him to formulate them.
Dune was the culmination of years of research, and sums up all of Herbert's prior work. A work of such dimension is inevitably more than a synthesis; it has the power to call forth from the author ideas he did not possess before he began, and which cannot then be separated from the mythic elements that give the story life. In the years after he wrote Dune, Herbert began to translate its mythic language to make explicit and self-conscious the ideas buried therein. This distillation appeared to weaken the novels that immediately followed; the concepts, stripped of affect, seem naked without the images that had served them so well. But the eventual result was to be a new level of artistic brilliance would ultimately lead to The Santaroga Barrier and Dune Messiah.
The Green Brain (1965) focuses on the modern passion to produce a world tailored to human needs—another example of the desire for control over an uncertain universe that Herbert has dissected as a motivating force of religion. The novel describes the crisis that occurs when the nations of the International Ecological Association finally succeed in wiping out all insects that are useless" to man. The plant world, which is dependent on insects, dies. Although the government denies it, China, the first land to be freed of the "undesirable" insects, is going barren. In Brazil the situation has not gone that far. The insects of the Mato Grosso have mutated to produce a superintelligent colony-organism in response to man's virulent attempts to wipe them out. And the bandeirantes, the exterminator-warriors are beginning to suspect that they have dedicated their lives to an erring cause. At the start of the novel, a full-scale war between man and insect is in the offing, fueled by man's fear of giant, mutated insects as well as by the scheming of government bureaucrats who would rather endanger their planet than their jobs.
This confrontation is staved off when Joao Martinho, the most famous and successful of the bandeirantes, is kidnapped by semi-intelligent insects acting in consort as a human simulacrum and taken to the half-insect, half-vegetable "green brain," which directs their operation. In the course of an escape attempt (which takes tip most of the novel), Joao is killed. But he reawakens, and his father, who had died of a heart attack when the two of them had been captured, is standing over him. In a desperate attempt to convince the humans that cooperation, not warfare, is its aim the green brain has brought both men back to life, replacing their hearts with mutated insect-tissue pumps powered by chlorophyll transformation of sunlight.
Although Joao had initially been touched by the Carsonite heresy of North America, which opposed the worldwide insect slaughter, he is fearful of this demonstration of insect power. He protests, "I am a slave now… I must obey you or you can kill me." If the conscious insects are truly necessary to the biosphere, as confirmation of China's barrenness has convinced him, men will be at their mercy. "'We'll… achieve a new balance,'" the Brain concedes. 'It will be interesting to see.'" But the lesson of mankind's folly has not been lost on the insect mind. All life is interdependent.
"Life has developed through millions of years on Greenhouse Earth," the Brain rumbled. The more different forms of life there are, the more life the greenhouse can support. The successful greenhouse must enclose many forms of life—the more forms of life, the healthier for all."
The Brain reminds Joao that he and his father, with their insect hearts, are the new ambassadors of this interdependence, symbols to mankind that all living beings on earth are "greenslaves." "There is sunshine this morning," he says. "Let the sun work on your skin and on the chlorophyll in your blood. And when you come back here, tell me if the sun is your slave."
This message of ecological interdependence is clearly a spill-over from Herbert's research for Dune. A basic principle of ecology, on which the ecological transformation of Arrakis is based, is that life increases the ability of an ecosystem to support additional life. Niches multiply and do not compete. As the references to the "Carsonites" of North America would imply, The Green Brain also reflects the influence of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and the growing public awareness in the sixties of the dangers of pesticides. "The 'control of nature,'" Carson wrote, "is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man." The control of nature was an important subtheme in Dune. In the enthusiasm spawned by the dream of open water on Arrakis, even the careful use of ecology intended by Kynes was an arrogant shaping of the planet to human needs. One of the purposes of the story, Herbert recalls, was to show the way man inflicts himself upon his environment. In The Green Brain, this theme is given full play, as if Herbert felt he hadn't done it justice in the overwhelming tapestry of Fremen messianism.
Even in The Green Brain, however, Herbert's other themes do not entirely recede. Ecology is only one example of principles illustrated elsewhere in his work by philosophy, psychology, and religion. The development of insect mutations as a result of man's attempts to eradicate them was based on contemporary observations, but it also echoed the Halmyrach Abbod's remark in "The Priests of Psi": "We have a very ancient saying: the more god, the more devil; the more flesh, the more worms; the more anxiety, the more control; the more control, the more that needs control."
As Herbert has emphasized, he is not a "hot-gospel ecologist," convinced that all man's interventions into nature are evil. Ecology, like all other creeds, is dangerous when it becomes an absolute. Herbert believes that whatever man does, he must be prepared to accept the consequences. One character in The Green Brain remarks "The jungle is a school of pragmatism… Ask it about good and evil? The jungle has one answer: 'That which succeeds is good.'" The human attempt to dominate nature does not succeed. Man must acknowledge that he is a part of life and its continuing evolutionary struggles.
One of Herbert's most frequent psychological questions is "who is man as a human animal?" In answer he attempts to relate psychological patterns to evolutionary adaptive behavior. Whereas Greenslaves (the novella on which The Green Brain is based), deals only with the theme of ecological interdependence, an important subtheme in the latter is the insect-mind's attempt to understand the human. The Brain observes Joao and his escaping companions (Chen-Lhu the Chinese diplomat and Rhin Kelly, Chinese agent and Joao's lover) under stress and pieces together the concepts and motivations that rule these individualistic sex-driven mammals, so different from the hive-conscious insects.
In Destination: Void (1966), Herbert returned to the subject of science and religion that had preoccupied him in the Orne stories and Dune, but this time from a startingly different angle, Destination: Void embodies the religious myth of the ultimate protector not in a divine messiah but in its uniquely modern equivalent, an electronic computer. Herbert describes a starship that has been designed to fail. Its crew of four and its frozen cargo of three thousand colonists have been sent on a mission to colonize an Earthlike planet orbiting around Tau Ceti. What the crew-.except for one member does not know is that there are no habitable planets at Tau Ceti, and the real purpose of the mission is to create an artificial consciousness in the ship's computer
The voyage is initially guided by an "organic mental core," a brain taken from a deformed infant and raised in symbiosis with the ship. Everything is kept operating by internal homeostasis and reflex action, as if the ship were the body of that brain. Now, contrary to all expectations, three Organic Mental Cores in succession have gone insane and died. As the ship's acceleration increased, the strain of keeping conscious control destroyed them. There are two possibilities for the crew. They can convert to a closed-system ecology and continue on to Tau Ceti at a slower rate—taking generations instead of the twenty years originally planned—or they can try to remedy the situation by building a mechanical consciousness into the ship's computer.
It is this latter alternative that the ship's planners intend. Bickel, the ship's engineer, is loaded with subconscious compulsions by the planners, and cannot conceive of turning back or slowing down. He must tackle the artificial intelligence problem. Gradually, he comes to suspect that the ship is a set-piece. He knows there have been six previous colony ships that failed, but the project planners did not indicate that the difficulties might have begun with the Organic Mental Cores. Failure seems to have been expected, but no word was given to the crew. It is Bickel realizes, as though they have been thrown into the water in hopes that they will learn to swim.
In addition to the OMC failure, the ship is programmed for disaster after disaster. The computer makes random errors—the artificial gravity shifts, machinery gone wild. Three of the original six crew members have already been killed in such "accidents" when the story begins. Another is brought from the "hyb" tanks to bring the crew up to its minimum strength of four.
All of this, Bickel realizes, was designed to combat one problem. In an artificial consciousness project carried out at the moon base, "the experts [wandered] away, doing everything but keeping their attention on the main line"—as though they had unconscious resistance to tackling the problem. Here the attempt to force men to focus on the problem of consciousness is desperate: their lives depend on it. The strain is enormous. The ship is being run on manual control with a jury-rigged master board originally intended only for monitoring the OMC's performance. At the speeds the ship is traveling, and with the complexities of its internal homeostasis the responsibility is crippling. But it seems that under stress the human mind can reach new peaks of ability, and it is on this that the planners have counted in setting up the project.
The conceptual drama unfolds on two levels: the search for artificial consciousness and the development of heightened consciousness in the crew as they grapple with the dangers of their quest. The search for artificial consciousness proceeds through a miscellany of sciences—computer design, neurology, the psychophysiology of perception, game theory, as well as philosophy and psychology. In each case, the crew must try to understand their own consciousness so that they can create an analogue of it. The result is both a series of working hypotheses for redesigning and reprogramming the computer and a series of quantum leaps in self-awareness.
Improvisation is the key to success. "We've no code for this… this kind of emergency," Timberlake, the life-systems engineer, says when the OMC first breaks down. And as he watches Bickel set out to boldly confront their difficulties, Flattery, the psychiatrist-chaplain muses, "Do something even if it's wrong… The rule books don't work out here." Bickel himself sees to the heart of the situation: "We're going to be juggling a hell of a lot of unknowns," he says. "The best approach to that kind of job is an engineering one: if it works, that's the answer." He is not interested in defining consciousness, except insofar as definition will help him tackle the problem. "We may never define it. But that doesn't mean we can't reproduce it."
Bickel has the idea that "what we're hunting for is a third-order phenomenon—a relationship, not a thing." There is no single undiscovered "consciousness factor," but a complexity that must be recreated. He starts out by building a test device, which he calls the Ox, with a one-way gate to the main computer so that it can draw on the computer's resources without inputting its own experimental program and causing a ship failure. But there are connections not indicated on the schematics—another trick of the planners—and all his work does go directly into the computer. The result is that all the data addresses are rearranged, and the only means of access to the computer is the Ox. There is to be no halfway experimentation.
The first problem that Bickel faces is one of "infinite design." That is, in order for a computer to deal with any situation, a program needs to be written that describes all the possible choices of action and the desired response to each circumstance. But in a real universe there is always the unexpected. For a computer to respond to any emergency, its instruction set must comprehend every possibility—obviously this is impossible. There must be some way of enabling the computer, like a human mind, to make judgments based not on absolute algorithms (rules of procedure), but on probabilistic jumps from insufficient data. Another way of stating this dilemma is to say that the computer must have free choice. The infinite design requirement is not merely a matter of an impossibly large instruction set, but that an algorithm must be absolutely predetermined. Response to the unknown requires consciousness and freedom. "'We'd have to foresee every possible danger,' Bickel agreed. 'And it's precisely because we can't foresee every danger that we need this conscious awareness guiding the ship.'"
To solve this problem, Bickel builds "a random inhibitory pattern in the net." This will hopefully produce "a behavior pattern that results from built-in misfunction." The "roulette cycles" that produce this random pattern will act as a kind of filter, cancelling out instructions at random and allowing others to be acted upon. In a contemporary computer, all this would produce is garbage.
But the ship's computer works with multiple redundancy of data. The AAT (the "Accept and Translate" module of the computer), which enables the ship to communicate with Earth, ingeniously compensates for errors in reception, data lost through static, and so on. It receives 500 channels of identical message beamed from the moon base. These are compared with each other and with the acceptable English language possibilities stored in the computer memory. A composite message is then output.
When the AAT function is combined with the Ox's random inhibitory pattern, this begins to create an analogue of human consciousness. 'All sense data are intermittent to the human consciousness," Pine Weygand, the ship's medical officer, points out. Bickel replies, "But we assume that the one who views the data is continuous—a flow of consciousness. Somewhere inside us, the discrete becomes amorphous. Consciousness weeds out the insignificant, focuses only on the significant."
Such detailed technology is only a fraction of the research Herbert describes. There is speculation concerning various kinds of game theory responses, enabling the computer to "change the game." The computer is given the ability selectively to raise and lower thresholds to data entry, so that certain stimuli are received more easily than others. Basal rhythms similar to the human alpha cycles are introduced, and so on. Each of these results in a little more of the appearance of independent, conscious action by the computer. In one experiment, Bickel combines the computer's ability to search out data for itself with an attempt to introduce human feeling, such as guilt. "The Ox-cumcomputer had to surmount barriers, Bickel knew. It had to flex its mental muscles. And guilt was a barrier." He programs it for an information search about death, which offers the option of filling the gaps in its data by killing an animal embryo in the hybernation tanks.
As Bickel attempts to re-create every function of human consciousness he can think of, a problem begins to obsess him. "We can't be sure we're copying everything in the human model. What're we leaving out?" Bickel decides on one final bold move.
The system you can't tear apart and examine is called a black box. If we can make a white box sufficiently similar and general in potential to the black box—that is, make it sufficiently complex—then we can force the black box, by its own operation, to transfer its pattern of action to the white box. We cross-link them and subject them to identical shot-effect bursts.
Bickel may not be able to analyze fully the "black box" of his own brain, but he has made the computer into a "white box" as similar as he is able. What he now wants is to put himself into rapport with the computer, to transfer the pattern of his own consciousness onto it. This is dangerous, but it is the last hope.
After Bickel does this—a mind-wrenching experiment that leaves him shaken—the computer says only, "The universe has no center," and shuts itself off. The problem, Bickel realizes, is that he has placed a demand on it to become totally conscious. This was the same demand that destroyed the Organic Mental Cores. They had too much consciousness and no means of surcease from it.
There is a further dimension to the stalemate, which Timberlake hits on. "The universe has no center, the computer had said. It had no reference point, nothing to give it a sense of individual identity. "It exists right now in that universal sea of unconsciousness," Timberlake says. Herbert is defining one component of consciousness as a sense of individual identity.
As the crew members debate how to turn the computer back on—and indeed whether they should turn it back on—Flattery, the chaplain-psychiatrist, who has been primed for this moment all the way from Earth, decides that the life they have created is just too dangerous, and pushes the hidden destruct button that was intended to meet this ultimate contingency. A message capsule containing information on the research thus far accomplished is sent hurtling back to earth. In ten minutes, all aboard will be dead and the ship blown up.
But instead of following its built-in destruct override, the computer wakes up. The destruct command was the final spur to consciousness.
The ship held control of its own death. It could die. And this was what had given it life. The impulse welled up into the AAT from the Ox circuits and was repressed, the way humans repressed it. The ship had come to life in the way they had—in the midst of death. Death was the background against which life could know itself. Without death—an ending—they were confronted by the infinite design problem, an impossibility.
At this point it becomes evident that they have done more than create an analogue of a human. They have created a kind of god. When Bickel had made the mind-transfer with the computer, he had sensed this. Its awareness (as distinct from its self-consciousness, which was still not present) lacked the built-in limitations of human awareness. The enormity of its sensations dwarfed its abilities to comprehend:
Alien sensory interactions thrust themselves upon him—spectrum upon spectrum, globe of radiation upon globe of radiation. He was powerless to hide from it. He couldn't react—only receive.
A globe of tactility threatened to overwhelm him. He felt movements—both gross and miniscule—atom by atom—gasses and semi-solids and semi-semi-solids.
Nothing possessed hardness or substance except the sensations bombarding his raw nerve ends. Vision!
Impossible colors and borealis blankets of visual sensation wove through the other nerve assaults.
Pharyngeal cilia and gas pressures intruded with their messages. He found he could hear colors, see the flow of fluids within his ship-body, could even smell the balanced structure of atoms.
Now he sensed himself retreating, still pounded by that multidimensional nerve bombardment. He felt himself pulling inward—inward—inward, a structure collapsing inward—through the sensation-oriented skin awareness of a worm-self—inward—inward. The nerve bombardment leveled off, and he felt himself to be merely a body of flesh and bone cocooned in a sleep couch.
Awareness, sensation, has to do with the body. It is the foundation of consciousness. When the ship, with this enormous range of sensation, achieves consciousness, it surpasses many of the limitations that the human sensory system imposes on the infinite possibilities of mind in direct contact with the universe.
Flattery confesses to the others what he has known all along—that there are no habitable planets at Tan Ceti—only to be contradicted by the computer. Somehow it has transported them to that distant sun in a heartbeat, and what's more, engineered an Earthlike paradise on the raw planet it found there. Suddenly the computer speaks:
I am now awakening the colonists in hybernation. Remain where you are until all are awake. You must be together when you make your decision… You must decide how you will worship Me.
In the flush of success, all the repressed uncertainties of the novel are back in a new form. The story, like the starship itself, is a set-piece for exploring the conditions that give rise to consciousness. Whereas an artificial consciousness was the goal of the starship's planners, human hyperconsciousness was Herbert's. In searching for an electronic analogue to the human, Bickel was forced to ask himself "Am I really conscious?" and concluded that he was not. All along, he had sensed the difficulty, almost like swimming against a swift current, of concentrating on consciousness. He does not want to face himself. But when he has grappled with the problem long enough, he finds himself beginning to wake up. One by one, the crew members go over the brink into a state that includes not only heightened sensory awareness but an enlargement of self and meaning.
Thus equipped, they could easily handle manual control of the ship. The tension that crippled them when they began has produced the necessary adaptation. They have become sufficiently conscious to handle their original difficulties. But now they have a new problem, a final coda: even hyperconsciousness is not enough. Herbert's characters are extremely aware of the paradoxes in what they are attempting. They know that adaptation to one crisis may seed another. However clear and penetrating their perception of the situation, it does not change; all their heightened abilities are not equal to those of the being they have created. Awareness is not a solution to crisis, it is simply a byproduct.
This story is not only an excellent piece of technological extrapolation, it is an allegory of considerable richness. Consider the title, Destination: Void. The starship brain comes to life only when it understands its final destination—death. Consider the birth imagery: Bickel calls the ship "the tin egg"; its crew is formally titled the "umbilicus crew"—not the heart, but the navel of the project. And consider the whole shape of the story: The starship, named Earthling, is limited by built-in failings and aimed for a paradise that exists only in the mind. When, paradoxically, the starship arrives at the object of its desire, the planet has not been found habitable, but created. This is a second point of the title—the starship's destination is the void that is the future, where paradise must be built and not plucked from the flowering trees of some undiscovered Eden. Furthermore, the starship's true purpose is not to arrive there at all. Its task is to overcome its limitations. The becoming is important, not the goal. In the end, then, Herbert returns the reader to the world of Paul Atreides—the world of self-reliance, of meaning found in discovering one s own potential, not in creating the illusion of mastery over life.
Destination: Void has many similarities to Under Pressure. Four individuals, alone in a metal shell, race toward an unknown destination. The pressures of their environment and close confinement, together with the crew's continual attempts to manipulate each other, complete the parallel. When this comparison is made, the flaws in the later novel become apparent. Destination: Void has only the skeleton of a plot; and where Under Pressure has characters who stand out in vivid individuality, the crew of the Earthling is stamped with a mechanical sameness. The four crewmembers are identified each by an implanted compulsion—for Bickel, to go on, no matter what (Flattery calls him a "direct authoritarian violent man"); for Timberlake, the ineffectual life-systems engineer, to protect the lives of the colonists; for Flattery, to be the voice of society, the planners, and their fears; and for Prue Weygand, the medical officer, some combination of these. (There is also an attempt to represent the characters as examples of the four Jungian types, i.e., Bickel as thinking, Weygand as feeling, Timberlake as intuition, and Flattery as sensation, but it is not carried out in any detail and adds little to the story.)
In the dialogue, only Bickel and Flattery stand out. The others as often as not speak only to create the illusion of dialogue, interrupting Bickel's train of thought when it would otherwise become too apparent that Herbert had written not a novel but a treatise. Additional material, such as Prue's research into psychedelic drugs seems to have been inserted simply at Herbert's whim. They are described in startlingly inappropriate interior soliloquies, which bear no relation to what is going on and add little to the final solution of the problem. The plot is overwhelmed by ideas that are not integrated into the fabric of the story, and which lessen rather than intensify the tension. There is little of that wonderful blending of ideas and action in the observations of a hyperconscious character that was so splendid in Dune and Under Pressure.
Herbert may have done this intentionally, however, as a further level of allegory. When the characters begin to have their hyperconscious awakenings, they view the others and themselves as they used to be as "zombies." They have been "programmed" and are not free. It is not until they wake up that they can be called truly conscious. This is an important point, but it is not effectively handled.
The novel's length is also a problem. The thoughts contained in Destination: Void overflow the story like a waterfall overwhelming a camper's tin cup. Even though it was expanded from a novelette, Destination: Void still seems to be little more than the idiomatic outline of a novel that requires fleshing out. That it is as successful as it is, is a tribute to the strength of its ideas.
Such emphasis on ideas raises questions about Herbert's insistence that he is "primarily an entertainer." Sometimes he seems more interested in educating his readers than in telling a good story. But Herbert believes that he can best entertain by challenging the reader. Two of the functions of science fiction are to tackle conceptual puzzles and to explore the limits of the possible. The difficulty of the concepts in Destination: Void does not detract from the entertainment value of the novel; they are in fact its strongest suit.
The sources for Destination: Void's incredible melange of ideas are as diverse as the sciences from which Herbert drew his technical information. However, there are several philosophical debts that stand out. Heidegger, whom Herbert had studied at the time he worked with the Slatterys, noted that man "is that particular being who knows that at some future moment he will not be, who has a dialectical relation with… death."
This is also a Buddhist notion. The Buddhist sees consciousness as undifferentiated, as void. But what the crew is trying to create is individual consciousness, the sanskrit maya, or illusion of separate individuality. In Buddhist terms, this illusion comes about because of desire—the preference for one thing over another. A primary preference is that of life over death. This is the first split from oneness.
Zen Buddhism shows up in the emphasis on hyperconscious awakening in the crewmembers. At one point Flattery notes, "The question of Western religion is: What lies beyond death? The question of the Zen master is: What lies beyond waking?" (It is interesting to note in this context that the original magazine title for this piece was "Do I Wake or Dream?") Pine's awakening, for instance, demonstrates not just Herbert's now standard hyperawareness ("She kept her hand on the switch, the new sensitivity of her skin reporting the molecular shift of metal in direct contact."), but a mystical loss of self ("There came an instant in which the universe turned upon one still point that was herself. The feeling shifted: self no longer was confined within her. As she gave up the self, clarity came.").
Another concealed tribute to Zen is the name Bickel gives to the device he hooks up to the computer: the Ox. One of the most famous works of Zen is the "Ten Bulls" of the twelfth-century Chinese master Kakuan, in which the individual search for enlightenment is mirrored in the mastery of man over ox. The ox, in one interpretation, represents the body, and the man who rides him, consciousness. This is reflected exactly in the computerized solution to the consciousness problem. Bickel at first thinks that the Ox is the computer's "organ of consciousness," but later, Prue realizes that the seat of consciousness is actually the AAT module, "the manipulator of symbols." She adds, "The Ox circuits are merely something this manipulator can use to stand up tall, to know its own dimensions." One could say that the Ox is the "body" of Kakuan's metaphor.
All through the novel, Herbert is also obviously playing with the Frankenstein story. Flattery says:
This is the thing that writers and philosophers have skirted for centuries with their eyes half-averted. This is the monster out of folklore… This is Frankenstein's poor zombie and the sorcerer apprentice. The very idea of building a conscious robot can be faced only if we recognize the implicit danger—that we may be building a Golem that'll destroy us.
The artificial consciousness project is being carried out on a starship not just because of the intensification of effort that will be brought about by the life-or-death situation, but because the project planners are afraid of what they might create. Early in the story we learn that the crew and the colonists are expendable—not "human" at all, but clones of criminals, raised in isolation on the moon and trained from birth in all the disciplines necessary for their mission. There is continual fear of unleashing a rogue consciousness." Flattery has been given leave, indeed a compulsion, to destroy them all on the slightest pretext. His tortured meditations on the ethics of the research reinforce the sense of dread.
Herbert has combined the basic elements of the Frankenstein story with the religious themes first explored in Under Pressure and continued in Dune. Man, in need of some ultimate protection against the unexpected, against the vagaries of a universe that does not seem to care for him, creates God as an ultimate focus of that need. "Skipper an' God are buddies," said one of the crewmen in Under Pressure. And the mystique of Muad'Dib, as we have repeatedly seen, shows the same psychological force at work among the Fremen. In Destination: Void, Herbert imagines the embodiment of man's desires for a savior into a mechanical device.
The tin egg's crew had been under the pressures of a ship in peril. The danger was real, no matter its source or intent; he had only to study the report on damage accretion to confirm this. But the pressure on the umbilicus crew had started with the loss of the Organic Mental Cores. The pressures had started when they were no longer shielded by another consciousness.
or the first time, Bickel turned his thoughts onto the concept of consciousness as a shield—a way of protecting its possessor from the shocks of the unknown.
That the computer consciousness born to protect them now desires to rule them is only to be expected. Like Paul's myth, it has gotten out of hand. And for the same reason: man's psychology. When Bickel made the black box—white box transfer to the computer, he, in effect, became its unconscious. His complexes—including his desire for a protector—become the basis for its behavior. In addition, through a feedback loop in special monitoring equipment that Flattery had focused on the rest of the crew, it picked tip the chaplain's soul-searching prayer. "Whatever religion is to you," Bickel says to Flattery, "that's what it'd be to the Ox."
Throughout Herbert's work, religion is seen through the lens of psychology. Although real transcendence is possible, much of what is called religion is really the search for a father protector to replace the one lost with the passing of childhood. Each of Herbert's heroes must break this pattern and learn to stand alone. One can trace the process of this realization in Herbert's early work: In "Operation Syndrome," Eric Ladde recognizes the transference of father-feelings onto his analyst. Ramsey understands at the end of Under Pressure that Obe, far from being omnipotent, is only an old, blind man in need of affection. Paul says, 'There is probably no more terrible instant of enlightenment than the one in which you discover your father is a man—with human flesh." The hunger for a protective father may first have become clear to Herbert in his own analysis with the Slatterys, but he soon saw that the search for father substitutes informs such widely separated behavior patterns as messianism the belief in absolutes, and faith in the saving power of technology.
In addition to interpreting the Frankenstein story as the conclusion of many an unthinking religious search, Herbert was also commenting on changing assumptions about the reach of science. Destination: Void can be seen as a parody of the "space opera of the twenties and thirties, in which bold and inventive scientists, the cream of humanity, brainstorm their way through one seemingly impossible problem after another. In E.E. Smith's "Skylark" series, for instance, a scientist swiftly leaps from the discovery of a primitive space drive to overlordship of all intelligent life in the universe. Herbert's own characters find that their triumphant solution is itself a problem more enormous than the one they faced before. He seems to be saying that the solution to today's problems will inevitably bring on the crises of tomorrow.
It is not quite inevitable, however. There is an element of choice involved. The starship is failing because it is going too fast to safely manage with the abilities of its human crew. They have the option to slow down or to continue accelerating in hope that they will be able to handle the crises that arise. In a way, their choice is to simplify life by turning away from technology, or to insist that man can solve any problem he creates.
Herbert does not formally commit himself to one side or the other. His characters decide to push on because their training (read "the traditions of Western culture") makes turning back repugnant to them, not because it is the right choice. Herbert is interested chiefly in exploring the consequences of that decision. There is no doubt in his mind that to go on will lead them (and by analogy, us) to life-threatening risks, perhaps to destruction. His message is that if we expect final solutions on this path, we are in perpetual danger of being betrayed by life. To go on with the expectation of new crises is a spur to consciousness; its opposite, a retreat into a closed society, is a path to unconsciousness. Flattery notes that to convert the ship for the long voyage will necessitate cannibalism and the unconsciousness of cold sleep, whereas introspection and the danger of the project will lead the crew to undreamed-of capabilities.
At the heart of Herbert's analysis is an ambivalence about modern Western culture. So much of our science seeks to impose an order on nature that is not intrinsic to it, to control life instead of responding to it. At the same time, Herbert seems to have a profound respect for the practical, engineering approach grounded in improvisation, which Bickel displays. After all, Bickel's efforts get results, both in solving the computer problem and in providing the nucleus for the hyperconscious expansion of the crew.
In the standard stereotype it would be Bickel, the "direct-violent-authoritarian man," who is the source of the control mentality. Instead, Flattery, the voice of fear and control through repression, causes problems by using Bickel inappropriately. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Western science, Herbert seems to be saying, only with the neurotic way we use it.
Herbert's respect for improvisation reflects his country upbringing, with its emphasis on self-reliance in the use of technology. He still sees technological pragmatism as one of the most important things about America. In a public appearance, he reported a conversation with an engineer in Pakistan. The Pakistani described the difference between American and Soviet engineers in charge of foreign-aid projects: The Soviet would stand back and supervise the operation from a distance, while the American would roll up his sleeves and show them how it was done.
The significance of this anecdote becomes apparent with reference to Dune. Herbert has cited Russia as the prime example of an "aristocratic bureaucracy" such as he was depicting in the Empire. Social mobility seems to be linked in Herbert's mind with improvisation, risk-taking, and hyperconsciousness. Unlike the Atreides, the Emperor and the Harkonnens (recall the Baron's given name, Vladimir) would never involve themselves in personal risk. The na-Baron, Feyd- Rautha, for political reasons, toys with the appearance of risk; but the slave-gladiators he duels have been drugged and hypnotically conditioned to defeat. The Harkonnens become involved in dangerous situations only when they believe their precautions are absolute.
Such caution is not characteristic merely of the villains of Herbert's novels. The tension between improvisation and control is internalized by each "side" and within each individual. Often there are no villains. In Under Pressure, BuSec's passion for security and Ramsey's insistence on psychological control, not just the enemy subs, provide fuel for the crisis. Herbert points out that in Dune the Atreides "display the same arrogance toward common folk' as do their enemies. And in Destination: Void, both Bickel, the engineer, and Flattery, the repressive chaplain, are products of the same culture. Although a critique of Russian attitudes may have given the impetus to Herbert's thought, it is obvious that the control mentality and its corollary, "class distinctions," are a cancer pervading all of modern society.
Herbert's warning to such a culture is to expect, above all, the unexpected, and not to hide from it. Move forward into the future, but with open eyes, mistrusting especially the things you most rely on, the assumptions you cannot question. Duke Leto is betrayed by Yueh, the Suk school doctor whose conditioning is to be trusted absolutely, whose loyalty cannot be questioned. Likewise, the Emperor and the Baron are grounded on Arrakis when Paul does the unthinkable. He uses the family atomics to blow a hole in the cliff wall surrounding the inner plains before the Arrakeen city, allowing a monster storm to rage in from the desert. Static electricity shorts out the shields protecting the Emperor's spaceship, and Paul's men blow off its nose with artillery, an ancient weapon useless against shields. From a position of security, far from the scene of the fighting and ready to depart in an instant if things turn against him, the Emperor is reduced to a helpless participant. Even his Sardaukar are no longer the invincible defense they once were. Any force will ultimately create a stronger counterforce, and so the Sardaukar have created the Fremen.
In the kind of universe Herbert sees, where there are no final answers, and no absolute security, adaptability in all its forms—from engineering improvisation to social mobility to genetic variability—is essential. Improvisation is the only security. It is not an absolute security, but relative. Life is always changing and demanding new adaptations.