Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert

By Timothy O'Reilly
Copyright © 1981 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc. (Out of print.)


Chapter 8: Transcending the Human

The sense of cyclical history that informs Children of Dune also helps to illuminate Herbert's 1979 novel, co-authored with Bill Ransom, entitled The Jesus Incident. In this sequel to Destination: Void, the ship's final injunction to worship has been given a dogmatic twist by generations of unconscious humans. Despite every effort of a nearly omniscient being, they persist in misunderstanding both its nature and their own. In trying to awaken humans, the ship (or Ship, as it has come to be called by the superstitious) has somehow frozen the space-time continuum and replayed human history over and over again, following slightly different tracks each time. Nothing has produced the desired results, and Ship grows tired of endless repetition. Ship is going to 'break the recording" and destroy all humans. In one final attempt to let the humans discover the nature of its worship, it has placed a select group on the poison planet Pandora, where it is hoped that survival stresses, the contact with an intelligent alien species, and certain revelations by Ship will provide the needed stimuli.

And the plan does succeed, after the humans, without any help at all from Ship this time, have made a determined attempt at yet one more replay of their history. Defeated, forced to adapt to the planet rather than conquer it, they at last give up the old matrix and face life fresh. Letting go of the human, they discover it for the first time. In the end, one character, a poet who talks to Ship, sax's, "That's all Ship ever asked of us. . . . That's all WorShip was ever meant to be: find our own humanity and live up to it.

The poet discovers his own inner power because, recognizing Ship as a being of awesome dimensions, he does not beg or resist what he sees, but tries to communicate. He becomes Ship's friend by seeking that which is himself, apart from Ship, and sharing it. Ship is larger, immensely more powerful, but somehow the two can relate as equals.

Unfortunately, the poet is a rare exception. Mankind has forgotten that Ship, however powerful, was its own creation, only a bubble, however large, in an infinite sea. Mankind was doomed to play out all of its old religious history, projections of its own possibility onto a universe that is unwilling to respond on cue.

This point is underlined by one of Ship's revelations. It has sent one woman back to view the crucifixion. Seeing the man on the cross, she asks herself:

Why are they causing him such pain? What do they want him to do?

Hali pressed forward in the suddenly silent throng. . . . She had to see it close. She had to see. Ship had commanded her to observe. It was difficult moving in the press of people even with the strength of her inner drive. And she suddenly became aware of the breath-held silence in the throng.

Why were they so silent?

It was as though the answer had been flashed on her eyes. They want Yaisuah to stop this by some secret power in him. They want a miracle! They still want a miracle from him. They want Ship . . . God to reach out of the sky and stop this brutal travesty. They do this thing and they want a god to stop it.

Religious violence is the heritage of those who make demands on their gods instead of heeding Cod's demands on them.

Gradually, the point comes home. The unknown is mastered by receptivity, not compulsion. When the poet, sent by Ship, contacts Avata, the sentient "electrokelp," he is able to absorb its awesomely large awareness of all as one self, as well as its submission to the ecological strictures of life and death on its own peculiar planet. The kelp is destroyed by other humans who are seeking to terraform the planet, but not before it has, through the poet, impregnated a woman with a child who is born with the consciousness of both human and electrokelp, and represents a new beginning for both species.

There are instructive similarities between The Jesus Incident and the Dune trilogy. Like Leto in Children of Dune, Ship is the unwilling patron of human evolution, and like Paul, Ship feels trapped by a local order it completely comprehends. Its experience consists of endless replays; its most profound desire is to escape from the god game. When finally Ship is able to abandon its role, its last words echo in the minds of all the people left to begin a new life on Pandora: "Surprise me, Holy Void!" Even a god, on its own higher level, is faced with ultimate mystery.

The minor differences between the trilogy and The Jesus Incident are even more significant. Leto seeks to break the messianic mystique by becoming its devilish antithesis. Ship has many devils. Its current chaplain-psychiatrist, Morgan Oakes, is a clone of Morgan Hempstead, the original moonbase director of the project that created Ship, and a master manipulator. To Gakes, belief in God and disbelief are both tools that serve his own greed for power. Ship has also awakened from hybernation Flattery, the doubter from the original voidship crew (now renamed Thomas), as "a special kind of demon, a goad." Like Leto's Harq-al-Ada, he both longs for and distrusts all that his seeming god stands for. But most strange and affronting to sensibility is Jesus Lewis, a fiendish genetic experimenter and torturer, the evil twin of that benificent, suffering Jesus whom Ship had sent the woman Hali Ekel back to see. When Ship departs, Jesus Lewis also vanishes. Ship calls him "the other half of me." God and devil are inseparable. Both exist in man, and the longed-for externalization of the one produces the other. Both must be exorcised together.

The difference between human and Ship is that "with gods, dreams take on substance and life of their own." This makes the hidden patterns obvious, and explains why Leto, for all his paradoxes, does provide a solution to Herbert's story problem in the Dune trilogy. Leto, like Ship and Jesus Lewis, brings to actuality the latent potentials for both good and evil in a persistent human pattern (of which, as we have seen, the belief in gods and messiahs is only one small part). He himself is not the solution to the problem, but as the living visibility of all the contradictions in the old pattern, he points the way to a new one in which humans will have given up the single vision of the good and its inevitable dark companion.

Despite some very nice touches, and the illumination it provides for the Dune trilogy, The Jesus Incident is not up to the standard of Herbert's best work. The ideas carry more weight than the story, which seems somewhat contrived. Man's salvation by contact with an alien race (ironically enough, with Ship hanging in the sky overhead) has a deus ex machina quality.

The encounter with alien intelligence is treated more playfully, and more deeply, in Whipping Star (1972) and The Dosadi Experiment (1978). These novels are both conceived in Herbert's best style, rich with themes looping off in seemingly irrelevant but ultimately meaningful directions. Both take place in a "ConSentient Federation" peopled with aliens whose different bodies, minds, and cultures illuminate the behavior of the humans in the story. Both are oriented around a character whom Herbert has developed in two earlier stories ("A Matter of Traces" and "The Tactful Saboteur"), Jon X. McKie of the Bureau of Sabotage.

BuSab is one of Herbert's most delightful fictions, an agency born of necessity after public pressure had caused the total elimination of government red tape. The result was that

the great machine with its blundering power over sentient life had slipped into high gear, had moved faster and faster. Laws had been conceived and passed in the same boor. Appropriations had flashed into being and were spent in a fortnight. New bureaus for the most improbable purposes had leaped into existence and proliferated like some insane fungus.

Far from eliminating bureaucracy, the new system of government eliminated its only predator, inefficiency. The Bureau of Sabotage came into being once "the need of obstructive processes in government was established as one of the chief safeguards for human rights." Its function is to slow down government by sabotaging its efforts, and furthermore, to make it appear clownish so that too much respect would never be invested in it.

The actual sabotage efforts of the Bureau are not the primary subject of the stories, however, except in "The Tactful Saboteur." BuSab agents have training that makes them equal to Herbert's other heroes in perceptiveness and personal integrity. To perform their function, agents must understand and use the self- imposed limitations of individuals and species against them. Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment emphasize the linguistic nature of most of these limitations, or at least the importance of language as a tool to reveal underlying patterns of experience. The influence of general semantics is particularly obvious in Whipping Star.

The difference between McKie and Herbert's other hyperperceptive heroes is that McKie could never be mistaken for a messiah, except perhaps by the froglike Gowachin. He is squat and ugly, and full of self-deprecating humor. He is based, says Herbert, on John Adams, who "distrusted power no matter who exercised it." McKie distrusts especially himself and the other members of the Bureau. Of all government agencies, BuSab is the most necessary target for sabotage.

The story problem of Whipping Star concerns the Calebans, mysterious beings who have provided the Federation with the "jumpdoor," a means of instantaneous transport. McKie is assigned to the case when the giant metal "beachballs," the only means of communication with the Calebans, begin to disappear, followed by death or insanity for all those who had used jump-doors. The case is dumped in the lap of BuSab because government is afraid to touch it.

McKie has to understand first of all what the Calebans are and what their jumpdoors are, and then find out why the Caleban beachballs, and the jumpdoors they control, are disappearing. As he discovers, the Calebans are as close to infinite beings as he can imagine. Their visible embodiments are stars, and on a deeper level the Calebans are one gigantic consciousness that forms the topological matrix of the manifest universe. The jump-doors are simply an expression of their pervasive existence behind or apart from space. They are disappearing because an "egofrozen" Pan Spechi has established an unbreakable contract with a Caleban, and is torturing it. (The Pan Spechi are a "five gendered race which can mimic almost any other sentient form." Only one of the five genders that make up a family group can be individually conscious at one time. The ultimate Pan Spechi crime is to be surgically ego-frozen to keep consciousness from passing to another member of the group.) The other Calebaus want nothing to do with such perverse little gnats. This is precisely the intention of the Pan Spechi, who wants an end to the jumpdoors, and in fact the entire universe, so the others of his race will not see his shame. After discovering the nature of the Calebans and the source of the problem, McKie must outwit both the villain and the Caleban, whose sense of contractual honor forbids it to use any of its enormous power to protect itself. He succeeds ultimately by understanding the Caleban, and loving it.

Communication is the key to the novel. This is shown in all the interspecies relations that occur, and especially with the Galeban, who is crucial not only as the focus of the story, but as the most different alien in the book. To study a Pan Spechi, a Laclac, or a Wreave yields some important perspective on the human; but the Caleban view of the essential interconnectedness of all things (especially when it is presented negatively, as an inability to grasp "odd one tracks" like McKie's belief in separateness) is so centrally different that it yields some kind of "universally" significant perspective.

The Dosadi Experiment focuses on the froglike Gowachin and their odd concept of law:

The Gowachin combined such an odd mixture of respect and disrespect for their law and all government. At the root lay their unchanging rituals, but above that everything remained as fluid as the seas in which they evolved. Constant fluidity was the purpose behind their rituals. You never entered any exchange with the Gowachin on a sure-footed basis. They did something different every time ... religiously. It was their nature. All ground is temporary. Law is made to be changed. That was their catechism. To be a Legum is to know where to place your feet.

Gowachin laws do not proliferate; each new decision replaces all precedents. The Legum who loses the argument in the Courtarena forfeits his life, as may both the innocent and the guilty. Law is infrequently invoked, and the concentration on justice is immense. McKie is one of the few non-Gowachin ever trained as a Legum.

Although it might be hoped that the possessors of such a legal system would have a species wisdom far exceeding the human, certain Gowachin are actually the villains of the story. They have engineered a monstrous experiment on Dosadi, a poison planet. They have hired a Galeban (whose limited understanding of lower sentient species and his own peculiar code of ethics does not restrict him from carrying out their will) to isolate the planet with an impenetrable "godwall." The inhospitable planet itself then confines 89 million inhabitants (with three times that many crowded out on "the Rim") to the prepared city-haven of Chu. Engineered history gives no clue to the origins of Dosadi's strange civilization, but there are enough inconsistencies to make certain of the inhabitants aware that they are living in an artificially manipulated world.

The Dosadi experiment serves two purposes: first, it is a secret breeding ground for bodies that can be used for mindswap with the aging experimenters, thus providing them with the means of virtual immortality; second, it is an unequalled training ground for survival skills and heightened awareness. The human and Gowachin inhabitants of Dosadi have adapted to the intense competition for space and food by developing a hardness and a hyperperceptiveness and a skill in manipulating power that would enable them to rule the galaxy if they were ever to be released. Even McKie, with all his training, appears slow and dull to them when he arrives.

The flaw in the Gowachin experiment is that they have created a monster they cannot control. To be Dosadi-trained is not to be the equal of the Dosadi-born, and to be immortal is not to be the equal of those

faced with the evidence of body exchange all around, [who'd] judged that to be a deadly choice--the conservatism of extinction. Instead, they'd trusted sperm and ova, always seeking the new and better, the changed, the adapted.

The Cowachin manipulators have become the prey of certain Dosadi humans, who even from within the confines of the god-wall and its enforced ignorance have learned to outwit their masters. When McKie is sent to Dosadi by the Gowachin (they hope to lure him away from his investigation on behalf of BuSab), Keila Jedrik, Warlord of Chu and the ultimate product of Dosadi breeding, accepts his coming with glee. McKie, of course, after learning the ways of Dosadi, refuses the bait of personal immortality and allies with her to end the experiment.

The Caleban contract that isolates the planet allows Dosadi bodies to pass through its jumpdoor only if they bear offworld minds. McKie and Jedrik must exchange bodies (normally the donor ego is destroyed along with the old body) so they can escape and use McKie's Legum training to bring the Running Phylum, perpetrators of the plot, to fearsome Gowachin justice. The Dosadis are unleashed upon an unsuspecting universe. Like Paul's Fremen, they will be softened in the process, but not before profoundly changing the ConSentiency.

Like Whipping Star, The Dosadi Experiment is about transcending the human in order to understand alien differences. Both the Cowachin and Dosadi make tremendous demands on McKie's perception. He has to live up to potentials he never dreamed he had. The novel hints at even greater heights of awareness, more than the human nervous system can stand, and from which it must fall hack as Bickel fell back from the awakened consciousness of the ship's computer in Destination: Void. In Whipping Star, the Calebans had suggested this mystery of the unattainable, but McKie's experiences at that time enabled him to work with, but not to comprehend, the Caleban mentality. Far more stunning is an experience McKie and Jedrik have when they enter the mindswap. Somehow, the two awaken a consciousness sleeping deep within themselves,

a primal current, unswerving purpose, a force which could override any other thing in the universe. It was not God, not Life, not any particular species. It was something so far beyond such articulations that Jedrik/McKie could not even contemplate it without a sense that the next instant would bring obliteration.

This consciousness does not want to be "awakened." At least not to the kind of limited awareness the protagonists have.

Herbert explained the significance of this scene in an interview:

If you postulate a kind of multidimensional intelligence, where time does not bind, then . . . it seems to inc that if such an awareness inserts itself in time, it's asking for boredom. The entire experience is going to be instant replay. And. . . while such an awareness might be "aware of the fall of every sparrow," so to speak, it might not be concerned with it. And if some less transcendental creatures impinged themselves on another intelligence on a higher level, this is like an ant trying to kick a giant.... So I tried to create an awesome sense of somehow, the power--that if you really saw it it would destroy you. If you really encompassed it it would destroy you.

Here Herbert is focusing on the negative aspects of such an interaction, but his statements may be turned around to give an understanding of his "sense of hierarchical intelligence in the universe. Herbert's analogue for higher intelligence, and ultimately for Cod, is of a "layered system" in which the same processes and events are perceived more deeply, and hence differently, on succeeding levels. When Paul came to Arrakis, for example, he was able to see the crowding possibilities of the future when those around him saw only meaningless events. The difference was Paul's deeper grasp, not of facts, but of patterns. When Fannie Mae, the Caleban of Whipping Star, tries to communicate her perspective to Jorj McKie, the overwhelming difficulty is not her scope, but her way of seeing things, her sense, once again, of their meaningful pattern. Similarly, contact with the electrokelp Avata (The Jesus Incident) has the effect on most humans of a powerful dissociative hallucinogen. Clinging to the linear paths of logic and language, they are overwhelmed. Kerro, the poet, does not have this problem. He is in touch with his body, he "trusts his senses." This simple fact is somehow equivalent to that self-knowledge so torturously achieved by Leto in his conquest of abomination. In the face of overwhelming consciousness, the body, with its links to the species-past, is the rock on which we can found identity, the anchor that will allow us to ascend to a primal sense of enormity and at-one-ness with the universe, and yet remain human and alive. This is the lesson of Avata: 'The source is always with us. . . . It is in reference that we are. It is through the other that self is known." For Avata, the essential other was the rock to which it clung, but the poet "speaks the forgotten language of his animal past. . . as [Avata] speaks rock."

Herbert's layered view of higher intelligence no doubt had many sources, built over time into a coherent philosophy. However it is conveniently explained in the language of general semantics. Any event has an infinite number of characteristics that can be abstracted from it; any sensory system (a mix of neurology, language, and training) abstracts a finite number, therefore experience is always less than the event that gave rise to it. Different sensory systems might perceive the same object entirely differently. A larger sensory system might approach a larger grasp of the object, a larger sense of its internal characteristics, as well as of its interrelationships with other objects and events. Herbert's assumption, as shown in his treatment of the Calebans and of Avata, the electrokelp, is that a larger consciousness will come to see more and more of the essential interconnections of the universe, its multiple tracks of intertwined identity. On still deeper levels, asymptotically approaching (but never reaching) the infinity of the universe itself, consciousness approaches the appearance of unconsciousness (as in the Sleeper of The Dosadi Experiment), because perceiver and perceived approach identity. The logical conclusion of this process is that an infinite being, or Cod, is conterminous with the universe itself, and not with any of its parts. The savior god of human dreams must inevitably be a more limited creation; if not, like Jesus on the cross, he must inevitably refuse to act.

Paul, who had been a god to his people, finally realizes that no achievement of higher consciousness, no bubble of his own devising, will be large enough to bypass the strictures of infinity. As his wisdom deepens, and he approaches a kind of totality, he says, I think I tried to invent life, not realizing it'd already been invented," and shortly before the end of his vision,

he wanted to turn to the aides massed in the sietch entrance, shout at them: If you need something to worship, then worship life--all life, every last crawling bit of it! We're all in this beauty together!

The principle is the same as that embodied in a Zen parable of which Herbert is fond: "Before Satori, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. After Satori, once again mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers." A true discipline of conscious awakening does not take one away from life, but endlessly returns one to it, so that one is simply here, ordinary as ever. To be more than human is to be, in the end, fully human.

Therefore, though it may be true that on some deep level, "the universe has no center capable of noticing us," and that even a being "aware of the fall of every sparrow" might not be concerned about it, there is compassion and love in the universe, human love. As McKie discovers in Whipping Star, it can redeem even a being that at first he regarded almost as a god. And as Captain Sparrow of Under Pressure, that man of faith whose name reflects the same biblical reference, noted:

There is such a thing as being on God's side. Being right with the world. That's really the thing behind miracles. It's quite simple. You get in.. . well, phase.

That's the mechanical way of saying it. You ride the wave instead of bucking it.

The same point is made in The Jesus Incident: Those who make demands on Ship are ignored, and lapse into alternate entreaty and rebellion, but Ship talks to those, like the Poet, who are ready to listen.

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