Religion in Sci-Fi

Since its inception as a literary genre, religion has played an important role in science fiction. Whether it took the form of informing the author’s own beliefs, or was delivered as part of their particular brand of social commentary, no work of sci-fi has ever been bereft of spirituality.Even self-professed atheists and materialists had something to say about religion, the soul and the concept of the divine, even if it was merely to deny its existence.

And so, I thought it might make for an interesting conceptual post to see exactly what some of history’s greats believed and how they worked it into their body of literature. As always, I can’t include everybody, but I sure as hell can include anyone who’s books I’ve read and beliefs I’ve come to know. And where ignorance presides, I shall attempt to illuminate myself on the subject. Okay, here goes!

Alastair Reynolds:
Despite being a relative newby to the field of sci-fi authors, Reynolds has established a reputation for hard science and grand ideas with his novels. And while not much information exists on his overall beliefs, be they religious or secular, many indications found their way into his books that would suggest he carries a rather ambiguous view of spirituality.

Within the Revelation Space universe, where most of his writing takes place, there are many mentions of a biotechnological weapon known as the “Indoctrination Virus”. This is an invasive program which essentially converts an individual to any number of sectarian ideologies by permeating their consciousness with visions of God, the Cross, or other religious iconography.

In Chasm City, these viruses are shown to be quite common on the world of Sky’s Edge, where religious sects use them to convert people to the official faith of the planet that claims Sky Haussmann was a prophet who was unfairly crucified for his actions. In Absolution Gap, they also form the basis of a society that populates an alien world known as Hela. Here, a theocratic state was built around a man named Quaiche, who while near death watched the moon’s gas giant disappear for a fraction of a second.

Unsure if this was the result of a strain he carries, he created a mobile community that travels the surface of the planet and watches the gas giant at all times using mirrors and reclining beds, so that they are looking heavenward at all times. Over the years, this community grew and expanded and became a mobile city, with each “believer” taking on transfusions of his blood so they could contract the the strain that converted him and allowed him to witness all that he did.

While this would indicate that Reynolds holds a somewhat dim view of religion, he leaves plenty of room for the opposite take. All throughout his works, the idea of preserving one’s humanity in a universe permeated by post-mortal, post-human, cybernetic beings remains a constant. In addition, as things get increasingly dark and the destruction of our race seems imminent, individual gestures of humanity are seem as capable of redeeming and even saving humanity as a species.

In fact, the names of the original trilogy allude to this: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. Like with everything else in his books, Reynold’s seems to prefer to take a sort of middling approach, showing humanity as an ambiguous species rather than an inherently noble one or foul one. Religion, since it is a decidedly human practice, can only be seen as ambiguous as well.

Arthur C. Clarke:
At once a great futurist and technologist, Clarke was nevertheless a man who claimed to be endlessly fascinated with the concept of God and transcendence. When interviews on the subjects of his beliefs, he claimed that he was “fascinated by the concept of God.” During another interview, he claimed that he believed that “Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use.”

However, these views came to change over time, leading many to wonder what the beliefs of this famed author really were. At once disenchanted with organized religion, he often found himself subscribing to various alternative beliefs systems. At other times, he insisting he was an atheist, and nearing the end of his life, even went so far as to say that he did not want religious ceremonies of any kind at his funeral.

Nowhere were these paradoxical views made more clear than in his work. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme of transcendence, of growing to the point of becoming god-like, is central. Early hominid’s evolution into humanity is seen as the direct result of tampering by higher forces, aliens which are so ancient and evolved that they are virtually indistinguishable from gods. Throughout the series, human beings get a taste of this as they merge with the alien intelligence, becoming masters of their own universe and godlike themselves.

In the last book of the series – 3001: Final Odyssey, which Clarke wrote shortly before his death – Clarke describes a future where the Church goes the way of Soviet Communism. Theorizing that in the 21st century a reformist Pope would emerge who would choose to follow a similar policy as Gorbachev (“Glasnost”) and open the Vatican archives, Clarke felt that Christianity would die a natural death and have to be replaced by something else altogether. Thereafter, a sort of universal faith built around an open concept of God (called Deus) was created. By 3001, when the story is taking place, people look back at Christianity as a primitive necessity, but one which became useless by the modern age.

So, in a way, Clarke was like many Futurists and thoroughgoing empiricists, in that he deplored religion for its excesses and abuses, but seemed open to the idea of a cosmic creator at times in his life. And, when pressed, he would say that his personal pursuit for truth and ultimate reality was identical to the search for a search God, even if it went by a different name.

Frank Herbert:
Frank Herbert is known for being the man who taught people how to take science fiction seriously all over again. One of the reasons he was so successful in this regard was because of the way he worked the central role played by religion on human culture and consciousness into every book he ever wrote. Whether it was the Lazarus Effect, the Jesus Incident, or the seminal Dune, which addresses the danger of prophecies and messiahs, Frank clearly believed that the divine was something humanity was not destined to outgrow.

And nowhere was this made more clear than in the Dune saga. In the very first novel, it is established that humanity lives in a galaxy-spanning empire, and that the codes governing technological progress are the result of a “jihad” which took place thousands of years ago. This war was waged against thinking machines and all other forms of machinery that threatened to usurp humanity’s sense of identity and creativity, resulting in the religious proscription “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Several millennium later, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a quasi-religious matriarchal society, are conspiring to create a messianic figure in the form of the Kwisatz Haderach. The name itself derives from the Hebrew term “Kefitzat Haderech” (literally: “The Way’s Jump”), a Kabbalic term related to teleportation. However, in this case, the name refers to the individual’s absolute prescience, the ability to jump through time in their mind’s eye. In preparation for the arrival of this being, they have been using their missionaries to spread messiah legends all over the known universe, hoping that people will respond to the arrival of their superbeing as if he were a messianic figure.

When the main character, Paul Atreides – the product of Bene Gesserit’s breeding program – arrives on the planet Arrakis, where his family is betrayed and killed, he and his mother become refugees amongst the native Fremen. They are one such people who have been prepped for his arrival, and wonder if he is in fact the one who will set them free. In order to survive, Paul takes on this role and begins to lead the Fremen as a religious leader. All along, he contends with the fear that in so doing, he will be unleashing forces he cannot control, a price which seems too high just to ensure that he and his mother survive and avenge themselves on their betrayers.

However, in the end, he comes to see that this is necessary. His prescience and inner awareness reveal to him that his concepts of morality are short-sighted, failing to take into account the need for renewal through conflict and war. And in the end, this is exactly what happens.By assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen’s Mahdi, he defeats the Emperor and the Harkonnens and becomes the Emperor of the known universe. A series of crusades followers as his followers go out into the universe to subdue all rebellion to his rule and spread their new faith. Arrakis not only becomes the seat of power, but the spiritual capital of the universe, with people coming far and wide to see their new ruler and prophet.

As the series continues, Paul chooses to sacrifice himself in order to put an end to the cult of worship that has come of his actions. He wanders off into the desert, leaving his sister Alia to rule as Regent. As his children come of age, his son, Leto II, realizes the follies of his father and must make a similar choice as he did. Granted, assuming the role of a God is fraught with peril, but in order to truly awaken humanity from its sleep and prepare it for the future, he must go all the way and become a living God. Thus, he merges with the Sandworm, achieving a sort of quasi-immortality and invincibility.

After 3500 of absolute rule, he conspires in a plot to destroy himself and dies, leaving a huge, terrible, but ultimately noble legacy that people spend the next 1500 years combing through. When they come to the point of realizing what Leto II was preparing them for, they come to see the wisdom in his three and half millennia of tyranny. By becoming a living God, by manipulating the universe through his absolute prescience, he was preparing humanity for the day when they would be able to live without Gods. Like the Bene Gesserit, who became his chosen after the fact, he was conspiring to create “mature humanity”, a race of people who could work out their fates moment by moment and not be slaved to prophecies or messiahs.

As you can see, the commentary ran very deep. At once, Herbert seemed to be saying that humanity would never outlive the need for religion, but at the same time, that our survival might someday require us to break our dependency on it. Much like his critique on rational thought, democracy and all other forms of ideology, he seemed to be suggesting that the path to true wisdom and independence lay in cultivating a holistic awareness, one which viewed the universe not through a single lens, but as a multifaceted whole, and which was really nothing more than a projection of ourselves.

For those seeking clarity, that’s about as clear as it gets. As Herbert made very clear through the collection of his works, religion was something that he was very fascinated with, especially the more esoteric and mystical sects – such as Kaballah, Sufism, Zen Buddhism and the like. This was appropriate since he was never a man who gave answers easily, preferring to reflect on the mystery rather than trying to contain it with imperfect thoughts. Leto II said something very similar to this towards the end of God Emperor of Dune; as he lay dying he cautions Duncan and Siona against attempts to dispel the mystery, since all he ever tried to do was increase it. I interpreted this to be a testament of Frank’s own beliefs, which still inspire me to this day!

Gene Roddenberry:
For years, I often found myself wondering what Roddenberry’s take on organized religion, spirituality, and the divine were. Like most things pertaining to Star Trek, he seemed to prefer taking the open and inclusive approach, ruling nothing out, but not endorsing anything too strongly either. Whenever religion entered into the storyline, it seemed to take the form of an alien race who’s social structure was meant to resemble something out of Earth’s past. As always, their was a point to be made, namely how bad things used to be!

Behind the scenes, however, Roddenberry was a little more open about his stance. According to various pieces of biographical info, he considered himself a humanist and agnostic, and wanted to create a show where none of his characters had any religious beliefs. If anything, the people of the future were pure rationalists who viewed religion as something more primitive, even if they didn’t openly say so.

However, this did not prevent the subject of religion from coming up throughout the series. In the original, the crew discovers planets where religious practices are done that resemble something out of Earth’s past. In the episode “Bread and Circuses”, they arrive on a planet that resembles ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial fights, Pro-Consuls, and a growing religion which worships the “Son”, aka. a Jesus-like figure. This last element is apparently on the rise, and is advocating peace and an end to the cultures violent ways. In “Who Mourns Adonais”, the crew are taken captive by a powerful alien that claims to be Apollo, and who was in fact the true inspiration for the Greek god. After neutralizing him and escaping from the planet, Apollo laments that the universe has outgrown the need for gods.

In the newer series, several similar stories are told. In the season one episode entitled “Justice”, they come Edenic world where the people live a seemingly free and happy existence. However, it is soon revealed that their penal code involves death for the most minor of infractions, one which was handed down by “God”. This being is essentially an alien presence that lives in orbit and watches over the people. When the Enterprise tries to rescue Wesley, who is condemned to die, the being interferes. Picard gains its acquiescence by stating “there can be no justice in absolutes”, and they leave. In a third season episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”, Picard becomes a deity to the people of a primitive world when the crew saves one of their inhabitants from death. In an effort to avoid tampering with their culture, he lands and convinces him of his mortality, and explains that progress, not divine power, is the basis of their advanced nature.

These are but a few examples, but they do indicate a general trend. Whereas Roddenberry assiduously avoided proselytizing his own beliefs in the series, he was sure to indicate the ill effects religion can have on culture. In just about every instance, it is seen as the source of intolerance, injustice, irrationality, and crimes against humanity and nature. But of course, the various crews of the Enterprise and Starfleet do not interfere where they can help it, for this is seen as something that all species must pass through on the road to realizing their true potential.

George Lucas:
Whereas many singers of space opera and science fiction provided various commentaries on religion in their works, Lucas was somewhat unique in that he worked his directly into the plot. Much like everything else in his stories, no direct lines are established with the world of today, or its institutions. Instead, he chose to create a universe that was entirely fictional and fantastic, with its own beliefs, conflicts, institutions and political entities. But of course, the commentary on today was still evident, after a fashion.

In the Star Wars universe,religion (if it could be called that) revolves around “The Force”. As Obi-Wan described it in the original movie “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In Empire, Yoda goes a step farther when he says “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”Sounds rather pantheistic, doesn’t it? The idea that all life emits an essence, and that the fate of all living things is bound together in a sort of interdependency.

What’s more, the way the Force was governed by a Light Side and a Dark Side; here Lucas appeared to be relying on some decidely Judea-Christian elements. Luke’s father, for example, is a picture perfect representation of The Fall, a Faustian man who sold his soul for power and avarice. The way he and the Emperor continually try to turn Luke by dangling its benefits under his nose is further evidence of this. And in the end, the way Darth Vader is redeemed, and how he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son, calls to mind the crucifixion.

In the prequels, things got even more blatant. Whereas Anakin was seen as a sort of Lucifer in the originals, here he became the prodigal son. Conceived by the “Will of the Force”, i.e. an immaculate conception, he was seen by Qui Gonn as “The Chosen One” who’s arrival was foretold in prophecy. The Jedi Council feared him, which is not dissimilar to how the Pharisees and Sanhedrin reacted to the presence of Jesus (according to Scripture). And of course, the way Anakin’s potential and powers became a source of temptation for him, this too was a call-back to the Lucifer angle from the first films.

All of this was in keeping with Lucas’ fascination with cultural mythos and legends. Many times over, Lucas was rather deliberate in the way he worked cultural references – either visually or allegorically – into his stories. The lightsaber fights and Jedi ethos were derived from medieval Europe and Japan, the architecture and many of the costumes called to mind ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the setting and gun fights were regularly taken from Old Westerns, and the Imperial getup and rise to power of the Emperor were made to resemble Nazi Germany.

However, Lucas also dispelled much of the mystery and pseudo-religious and spiritual quality of his work by introducing the concept of the “midi-chlorians”. This is something I cannot skip, since it produced a hell of a lot of angst from the fan community and confounded much of what he said in the original films. Whereas the Force was seen as a mystic and ethereal thing in the originals, in the prequels, Lucas sought to explain the nature of it by ascribing it to microscopic bacteria which are present in all living things.

Perhaps he thought it would be cool to explain just how this semi-spiritual power worked, in empirical terms. In that, he failed miserably! Not only did this deprive his franchise of something truly mysterious and mystical, it also did not advance the “science” of the Force one inch. Within this explanation, the Force is still a power which resides in all living things, its just these microscopic bacteria which seem to allow people to interact with it. Like most fans, I see this as something superfluous which we were all better off without!

H.G. Wells:
Prior to men like Herbert and the “Big Three” (Asimov, Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein), Wells was the master of science fiction. Since his time, during which he published a staggering amount of novels, short-stories and essays, his influence and commentaries have had immense influence. And when it came to matters of faith and the divine, Well’s was similarly influential, being one of the first sci-fi writers to espouse a sort of “elemental Christian” belief, or a sort of non-denominational acceptance for religion.

These beliefs he outlined in his non-fiction work entitled God the Invisible King, where he professed a belief in a personal and intimate God that did not draw on any particular belief system. He defined this in more specific terms later in the work,  aligning himself with a “renascent or modern religion … neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian … [that] he has found growing up in himself”.

When it came to traditional religions, however, Wells was clearly of the belief that they had served their purpose, but were not meant to endure. In The Shape of Things to Come, he envisioned the creation of a global state (similar to Zamyatin’s “One State” and Huxley’s “World State”), where scientific progress was emphasized and all religions suppressed. This he saw as intrinsic to mankind’s progress towards a modern utopia, based on reason and enlightenment and the end of war.

In War of the Worlds, a similar interpretation is made. In this apocalyptic novel, one of the main characters is a clergyman who interprets the invasion of the Martians as divine retribution. However, this only seems to illustrate his mentally instability, and his rantings about “the end of the world” are ultimately what lead to his death at the hands of the aliens. Seen in this light, the clergyman could be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s primitive past, something which is necessarily culled in the wake of the invasion my a far more advanced force. And, as some are quick to point out, the Martians are ultimately defeated by biology (i.e. microscopic germs) rather than any form of intervention from on high.

Isaac Asimov:
Much like his “Big Three” colleague Clarke, Asimov was a committed rationalist, atheist and humanist. Though he was born to Jewish parents who observed the faith, he did not practice Judaism and did not espouse a particular belief in God. Nevertheless, he continued to identify himself as a Jew throughout his life. In addition, as he would demonstrate throughout his writings, he was not averse to religious convictions in others, and was even willing to write on the subject of religion for the sake of philosophical and historical education.

His writings were indicative of this, particularly in the Foundation and I, Robot series. In the former, Asimov shows how the Foundation scientists use religion in order to achieve a degree of influential amongst the less-advanced kingdoms that border their world, in effect becoming a sort of technological priesthood. This works to their advantage when the regent of Anacreon attempts to invade Terminus and ends up with a full-scale coup on his hands.

In the Robot series, Asimov includes a very interesting chapter entitled “Reason”, in which a robot comes to invent its own religion. Named QT1 (aka. “Cutie”) this robot possesses high-reasoning capabilities and runs a space station that provides power to Earth. It concludes that the stars, space, and the planets don’t really exist, and that the power source of the ship is in fact God and the source of its creation.

Naturally, the humans who arrive on the station attempt to reason with Cutie, but to no avail. It has managed to convert the other robots, and maintains the place in good order as a sort of temple. However, the human engineers conclude that since its beliefs do not conflict with the smooth running of the facility, that they should not attempt to counterman it’s belief system.

What’s more, in a later story entitled “Escape!” Asimov presents readers with a view of the afterlife. After developing a spaceship that incorporates an FTL engine (known as the hyperspatial drive), a crew of humans take it into space and perform a successful jump. For a few seconds, they experience odd and disturbing visions before returning safely home. They realize that the jump causes people to cease exist, effectively dying, which is a violation of the Three Laws, hence why previous AI’s were incapable of completing the drive.

Taken together, these sources would seem to illustrate that Asimov was a man who saw the uses of religion, and was even fascinated by it at times, but did not have much of a use for it. But as long as it was not abused or impinged upon the rights or beliefs of others, he was willing to let sleeping dogs lie.

Philip K. Dick:
Naturally, every crowd of great artists has its oddball, and that’s where PKD comes in! In addition to being a heavy user of drugs and a fan of altered mental states, he also had some rather weird ideas when it came to religion. These were in part the result of a series of religious experiences he underwent which began for him in 1974 while recovering from dental surgery. They were also an expresion of his gnostic beliefs, which held that God is a higher intelligence which the human mind can make contact with, given the right circumstances.

Of Dick’s hallucinations, the first incident apparently occurred when a beautiful Christian woman made a delivery to his door and he was mesmerized by the light reflecting off of her fish pendant, which he claimed imparted wisdom and clairvoyance. Thereafter, Dick began to experience numerous hallucinations, and began to rule out medication as a cause. Initially, they took the form of geometric patterns, but began to include visions of Jesus and ancient Rome as well. Dick documented and discussed these experiences and how they shaped his views on faith in a private journal, which was later published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

As he stated in his journal, he began to feel that his hallucinations were the result of a greater mind making contact with his own, which he referred to as the “transcendentally rational mind”, “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS” (vast active living intelligence system). Much of these experiences would provide the inspiration for his VALIS Trilogy, a series that deals with the concept of visions, our notions of God and transcendent beings.

In addition, many of Dick’s hallucinations took on a decidedly Judea-Christian character. For instance, at one point he became convinced that he was living two parallel lives; one as himself, and another as “Thomas” – a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. At another point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. These experiences would lead him to adapt certain Biblical elements into his work, a prime example being a chapter in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which bore a striking resemblance to the a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which Dick claimed to never have read.

All of this is a testament to the rather profound (and possibly nuts!) mind of PKD and his fascination with all things divine and spiritual. Though not a man of faith in the traditional sense, he was very much a part of the counter-culture in his day and experimented with drugs and alternative religious beliefs quite freely. And while most of his ideas were dismissed as outlandish and the result of drug abuse, there were many (Robert A Heinlein included) who saw past that to the creative and rather gifted artistic soul within. It is therefore considered a tragedy that PKD died in relative obscurity, having never witnessed how much of an impact and influence he would have on science fiction and modern literature.

Ray Bradbury:
Next up, we have the late great Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer for whom all literature was of immense import. This included the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran, and just about any other religious text ever written by man. What’s more, many of his works contain passages which would seem to indicate that Bradbury held religion in high esteem, and even believed it to be compatible (or at least not mutually exclusive) with science.

For example, in his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the most precious volumes being protected by the character of Faber, a former English professor, is the Bible itself. When Montag confronts him and begins ripping the pages out of it, Faber tells him that it is one of the last remaining copies in the world that actually contains God’s words, instead of the newer versions which contain product placements.

As the story progresses and World War III finally comes, Montag joins Faber and a community of exiles, all of whom are responsible for “becoming a book” by memorizing it. In this way, they hope to preserve whatever literature they can until such a time as civilization and the art of writing re-emerges. Montag is charged with memorizing the Book of Ecclesiastes, and joins the exiles on their journey.

In the Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is even more clear on his stance vis a vis religion. In the short story “-And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, the Fourth Expedition arrives on Mars to find that the majority of the Martians have died from chickenpox. A disillusioned character named Jeff Spender then spends much time in the alien ruins and comes to praise the Martians for how their culture combined religion and science.

Humanity’s big mistake, according to Spender, was in praising science at the expense of religion, which he seemed to suggest was responsible for modern man’s sense of displacement. Or has Spender put it: “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”

In short, Bradbury saw humanity as lost, largely because of it deification of reason at the expense of faith. However, he did not appear to be advocating any particular religion, or even religion over science. When it came right down to it, he seemed to be of the opinion that faith was important to life, an outlet for creativity and inspiration, and needed to be preserved, along with everything else.

Robert A. Heinlein:
As yet another member of the “Big Three”, Heinlein’s own religious view bear a striking resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Much like Clarke and Asimov, he was a committed rationalist and humanist, and varied from outright atheism to merely rejecting the current state of human religion. According to various sources, this began when he first encountered Darwin’s Origin of the Species at the age of 13, which convinced him to eschew his Baptist roots.

These can be summed up in a statement made by Maureen, one of his characters in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, when she said that the purpose of metaphysics was to ask the question why, but not to answer. When one passed beyond the realm of questions and got into answer, they were firmly in religious territory. Naturally, the character of Maureen preferred the former, as the latter led to intolerance, chauvinism, and persecution.

In Stranger In A Strange Land, one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, plenty of time is dedicated to the main character’s (the Martian Smith) experiences with religion. After becoming disillusioned with humanity’s existing institutions, he decides to create a new faith known as the “Church of All Worlds”. This new faith was based on universal acceptance and blended elements of paganism, revivalism, and psychic training. In short, it was an attempt to predate major religions by reintroducing ancient rites, nature worship, and the recognition of the divine in all things.

What’s more, Stranger’s challenge to just about every contemporary more, which included monogamy, fear of death, money, and conventional morality could only be seen by religious authorities as an indictment of traditional values. In that respect, they were right. Heinlein plotted out the entire novel in the early fifties, but did begin writing it for a full decade. He would later of say of this, “I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right.”

But just in case his work did not suffice, Heinlein expressed his opinions quite clearly in the book entitled Notebooks of Lazarus Long (named after one of his recurring characters): “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.” These and other quotes illustrated his issues with religion, which included their irreconcilable nature with reason, their inherent contradictions, and the ludicrous things done in their names.

Summary:
And that’s what the masters had to say on the subject, at least those that I chose to include. As you can plainly see, their opinions ran the gambit from outright condemnation of religion (but not necessarily of faith) to believing that religion had it’s place alongside science as an equally worthy form of expression. And of course, there were those who fell somewhere in the middle, either seeing religion as an ambiguous thing or something that humanity would not outgrow – at least not for the foreseeable future. Strangely, none of them seemed to think that religion trumped science… I wonder why 😉

Hunters of Dune, part II

Hunters of Dune, part II

Okay, now that I’ve managed to sum up the book, let’s get down to why it sucked! In addition to the usual weakness one can expect out of a book by these two – bad characters, bad story, cliches, and a general feeling of exploitation – there were several other glaring points. As usual, I’ve tried to break them down as succinctly as possible, going from best to worst.

1. Sequel Complex:
As I’m sure I’ve said before, the Preludes and Legends series suffered from an unmistakable sense of duty. I.e. the story was brought down by the voluminous amount of page time that was dedicated to origins stories and explanations that really had little or nothing to do with the main plot. In this book, things were turned around slightly. Instead of explaining where everything came from, the duo dedicated all kinds of page time and chapters to explaining where everything went.

Examples abounds, but here are just a few that come to mind. In the early chapters, much is made of the differences between the BG’s and HM’s and how they were having a hard time getting along. This was best demonstrated by Murbella’s chief companions, one a BG, the other an HM (for the life of me, I can’t remember their names!). Point is, after many chapters of doing the “odd couple” thing, the HM woman suddenly kills the BG woman, Murbella forces her to take on the other’s memories, and the thread is dropped.

Another example comes in the form of Uxtal and his efforts with the HM’s. After having several chapters dedicated to him and his attempts at recreating axlotl tanks so he can make gholas, artificial spice, and the raising of the Baron Harkonnen ghola, he is killed and fed to a farmer’s sligs. If the early chapters that featured him were any indication, it was that he was supposed to be a main character. However, once he serves his purpose, he’s cast aside and the thread that took place from his POV dies. Just another victim of Brian and KJA’s writing style!

And finally, there’s the many, many chapters dedicated in the beginning designed to flesh out every single detail about the gholas, the Face Dancers efforts to infiltrate the Old Empire, and the the war between the Sisterhood and the HM holdouts. For the most part, these chapters feel like pure filler, giving us a slew of boring details that could have been left in the background and do nothing to build towards the climax.

2. Weak Writing:
Brian and KJA are known for their wooden dialogue and one-dimensional characters. But in Hunters, as with the Preludes series, things were not nearly as bad as they were with the Legends series. One can infer from this that wherever Frank’s original characters and notes were available and the duo didn’t have to rely on their own instincts, everything read much better. However, some examples of crappy writing still crept into this book and it really showed!

Take the part of the book where the Paul and Chani gholas are talking and falling back into love. Seriously, the dialogue was so weak and sappy that I was honestly reminded of the terrible love scene from Attack of the Clones! “I love you. I have always loved you. Time cannot separate us,” is literally the type of dialogue that occurs here. Who the hell talks like this? Also, consider the chapter where Sheeana decides to ride one of their captive sandworms in front of a Futar. The purpose, apparently, was to impress the half man, half felines, in order to earn their loyalty and get information from them about the Handlers (who they are, etc). It responds by saying “You better than Handlers!” And thenceforth, they become their loyal protectors. Weak!

Another glaring example is the many, many references to what is referred to as the Outside Enemy (this is actually how it appears in the text). In Chapterhouse, we are made aware that the HM’s were themselves fleeing from something, and that was why they had returned to the Old Empire and were seeking to obtain the BG’s secrets. However, at no point where they referred to as the Outside Enemy. What’s more, this is such a lame name for an enemy. Hell, it’s not even a name, it’s a basic description! It as if they had found a footnote in Frank’s notes where he described the threat in these words and decided that this was how they were going to reference it from thence forth. I’m not sure if that’s weak or just plain lazy.

And finally, there is the addition of the Phibian creatures – a race of man-fish hybrids that are basically the aquatic versions of Futars. Aside from making a brief appearance in the story, they serve no purpose and seem to only exist because Brian and KJA thought they were a cool idea. This novel and its sequel, Sandworms, abound with examples of this, things that Frank made no mention of and seem completely at odds with his original vision, but made it in because the authors seemed to think they were cool. The fact that these terms now show up in Dune terminology is both sad and discouraging!

3. Weak Plot:
As all the previous examples will attest, this story suffered from the problem of making the reader wade through a slow-buildup packed with extraneous detail and poor writing before it finally got to the climax. But by the time it arrives, the entire pace of the book changed and important revelations are simply dropped in or rushed through in a desire to get to the halfway point before all the real action starts (which takes place in book II). And in truth, I was able to endure all the weakness thanks to the anticipation factor; I hung on in the hopes that something big was going to be revealed soon!

In fact, its not until the Ithaca and its crew discover the planet that’s been cloaked by a no-field that things begin to feel like they’re picking up. Finally, we are handed the first bit of hard evidence that the threat the HM’s were fleeing was a plague that left their world’s sterilized and deserted. However, they deduce so quickly that this planet was destroyed by a terrible plague after chancing upon an abandoned library and picking up one shred of document. C’mon man! Show us some mass graves, show us some hospitals filled with dead people, show us some signs that there was a terrible holocaust! This is important stuff, don’t just have them figure it out and then take off!

What’s more, no good reason is ever given for why the Face Dancers (and their machine masters) need gholas of Paul and the Baron. It is merely said that the former is “necessary” for the “Enemy’s” calculations, i.e. to help them take over the universe. As for the Baron, no real reason is given beyond saying he’s useful too. But its pretty clear its just so they can bring back the old characters and give them a final run. And of course its obvious from the get go, even without the extremely strong hints they give, that the Ithaca’s Paul and the Face Dancers “Paolo” are going to meet up and battle it out. Wow, a battle between the hero and his evil twin! Nothing cliche or obvious about that!

The same holds true for the Ithaca’s own gholas. In their case too, Duncan, Sheeana and the rest simply decide to start making them because they figure they might be “useful”. But if Duncan is already the new Kwisatz Haderach, what do they need to be resurrecting Paul and Leto for? What reason, for that matter, do they have for creating the others aside from bringing all the old crowd back and giving them a big sendoff? I get the sentimental appeal, but it really wasn’t necessary or even plausible to be resurrecting so many old characters. What was the point of killing them off if they’re all just going to be back before the end?

And let’s not forget what Daniel said at the end of Chapterhouse when Marty mentioned how Scytale had that nullentropy tube full of ghola cells and asks why he let them get away. “Didn’t let them…,” he replies. “Gholas. He’s welcome to them.” In other words, it sounds like the old man and woman were not the slightest bit threatened by the Ithaca and its ability to create gholas, nor do they seem to have any particular use for them themselves. So why would they go to the trouble of creating their own? Like most things in this book, it doesn’t fit with Frank’s original work.

4. Tie-ins:
A major flaw in this series, one which I hear many a fan complain about bitterly, is the fact that Brian and KJA felt compelled to write their own characters into the story. Not only is there no reason for them to be included, they are shoved into the story with all the subtlety of a square peg being rammed into a round hole.

For example, we are told that Scytale’s nullentropy tube, which he carries in his chest, contains the dead cells of all the series’ major figures. This includes Paul, Leto II, Jessica, Chani, Stilgar, Duke Leto, the Baron, Duncan, Thufir, Gurney, et al. In essence, the tube is the means to create gholas of all of history’s greats. But in Hunters, Brian and KJA decided to amend this list to include Xavier Harkonnen and Serena Butler. These two characters did not exist in the original series and were not mentioned once in Chapterhouse when the ghola tube was first described. So really, throwing them in was just a shout out to their own work, which seems crass.

Also, in the course of exploring her “Other Memory” Murbella comes across the memories and personality of Serena Butler. Aside from making this brief appearance in the story, she serves no purpose other than mentioning that she knows a thing or two about wars. This did not fit with the story at all seeing as how Serena is never mentioned in any of the original books, and really served no purpose other than as a reference to the duo’s work yet again. Brian and KJA even tactitly admitted this by writing that Murbella had no idea who Serena was or how she was related to her. Her voice, much like her inclusion in the story, appears out of nowhere and then promptly disappears.

Another tie-in comes in the form of the “Oracle of Time”, a Guild Navigator who never appeared in any of the original books. Initially, it seems that she is a descendent of the “Oracle of Infinity”, the patron saint of Navigators who first appeared in Dune: House Corrino, but by the end it is revealed that she in fact Norma Cenva (a character of the Legends series). In short, she was yet another character from Brian and KJA’s shoddy prequels who was thrown into the mix to draw attention to their own work.

Her character plays a central role in this story and its sequel, unlike Xavier or Serena; however, her appearance is rendered completely implausible because of the simple fact that she made absolutely no appearances in any of the original novels. If she comes to us from the Legends series, then she’s been around for over 15,000 years, right? So where has she been all this time, and if she’s an oracle, why the hell didn’t Paul or Leto notice her in the course of their prescient sweeps? Surely the existence of another prescient being, aside from the regular navigators, would have sent up some red flags for them! But again, this was not done for the sake of consistency or plausibility, it was done solely so the duo could write their own work into Frank’s story.

5. Wrong Again!:
As I mentioned before in my reviews of the Dune prequels, one can’t help but get the feeling that these guys completely misunderstood what Frank was going for. In the Legends series, for example, we are presented with a vision of the Butlerian Jihad that involves free humans battling it out with robots for the sake of freedom and survival (a la The Terminator franchise). Not only did it seem like Brian and KJA were relying on a ton of cheap sci-fi concepts to create this series, there was absolutely no indication in the original novels that the Jihad was anything like this. Consider this definition taken from Terminology of the Imperium, the glossary for the original Dune novel:

JIHAD, BUTLERIAN: (see also Great Revolt) — the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. Bible as “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

When one looks up Great Revolt, it simply refers back to the other definition.

GREAT REVOLT: common term for the Butlerian Jihad (See Jihad, Butlerian)

Not a lot to go on there, but notice the complete lack of any mention of cymecks, evil robots, or hive minds enslaving humanity. Also, there is no indication that this “Jihad” was a war in the literal sense. If anything, it sounds like a metaphor for a moral crusade against a specific kind of technology, a Luddite rebellion in other words. In God Emperor of Dune, Leto II explained the Jihad further:

“The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines,” Leto said. “Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed.”

Once again, sounds like Frank was talking about a war in the metaphorical sense, that humanity’s “slavery” to machines constituted a willingness to let them handle our decisions, not slavery in the literal sense. So in addition to the Brian and KJA’s books reading like pulp sci-fi crap, it also seemed to completely miss the point of what the Jihad was all about.

The same is true in Hunters of Dune. Essentially, we are expected to believe that the old man and woman, the people who represent the threat the Honored Matres were fleeing, were in fact the evil robots from the prequels. Not only did this seem like a blatant and wholly transparent attempt to tie the ending back to their own work, it also seemed like it completely missed the mark! At the end of Chapterhouse, Frank Herbert strongly implied that the old couple were in fact Face Dancers. Consider the following conversation that occurred between the old man and woman, Daniel and Marty:

“[Tleilaxu Masters] have such a hard time accepting that Face Dancers can be independent of them.” “I don’t see why. It’s a natural consequence. They gave us the power to absorb the memories and experiences of other people. Gather enough of those and…” “It’s personas we take, Marty.” “Whatever. The Masters should’ve known we would gather enough of them one day to make our own decisions about our own future.”

Notice the key words here: “US”, “WE”, “OUR”. Why use the plural, when referring to Face Dancers, if they were in fact robots in disguise (uh-oh, I sense another franchise being ripped off here!)? In addition, all kinds of hints were dropped in Heretics and Chapterhouse that alluded to the possibility that Face Dancers were evolving beyond their master’s control. And, to top it all off, there’s the part in Chapterhouse when Duncan is confronted with the image of the old man and woman where he draws the following conclusion about them:

“That thought aroused Idaho’s suspicions because now he recognized the familiarity. They looked somewhat like Face Dancers, even to the pug noses … And if they were Face Dancers, they were not Scytale’s Face Dancers. Those two people behind the shimmering net belonged to no one but themselves.”

See? Face Dancers, clearly. And clearly of a variety that had learned how to stand on their own two feet and had their own agenda, whatever that was. Turning them into Omnius and Erasmus, who were not part of the Face Dancers but LEADING them, was nothing short of forced and inaccurate. It also makes no sense, seeing as how the Face Dancers were supposed to have evolved beyond the control of their masters. Why the hell would they throw off the shackles of the Tleilaxu only to enlist with the robots? And what reason could they possibly have for wanting to see humanity, of which they are essentially a part, annihilated?

And I am certainly not the only one who sees the inconsistency in all this. Consider the following statement by author William F. Touponce from his 1988 book entitled Frank Herbert:

“Herbert gives us a segment narrated from their point of view only at the very end of the novel. They are offshoots of the Tleilaxu Face Dancers sent out in the Scattering and have become almost godlike because of their capacity to assume the persona of whoever they kill — and they have been doing this for centuries, capturing Mentats and Tleilaxu Masters and whatever else they could assimilate, until now they play with whole planets and civilizations. They are weirdly benign when they first appear in the visions of Duncan Idaho as a calm elderly couple working in a flower garden, trying to capture him in their net…”

Similarly, in an August 2007 review of Sandworms of Dune, John C. Snider of SciFiDimensions.com argued that it “doesn’t fit” or “add up” that Frank Herbert’s Daniel and Marty are the “malevolent” thinking machines Brian Herbert and Anderson created in their Legends of Dune prequel novels. I, and many fans besides are inclined to agree. For starters, how could Frank have planned to end the series with characters he didn’t even create? Repeatedly, Brian and KJA have stated that they based Hunters and Sandworms on Frank’s “copious notes” and outlines, but they also claimed that when it came to the Butlerian Jihad, Frank had left no real notes behind, so the two had to rely on their own imaginations to come up with the story.

In short, Omnius and Erasmus were the creation of Brian and KJA, not Frank. Making them the villains at the end not only didn’t fit, it was also a clear attempt to put their own indelible stamp on Frank’s series. And that, in addition to being cynical and exploitative, just seems like a big ol’ middle finger to both Frank and his fans!

Some Final Words:
When Brian and KJA began releasing the books of the Preludes series, they made it abundantly clear that they would concluding the franchise by creating Dune 7. What’s more, they insisted that they were writing it based on Frank’s original notes, of which there were many! In spite of all the accusations to the contrary, they continue to make this claim, stating that the series ended precisely how the elder Herbert had intended. However, given the content, the writing style, and the completely unlikely ending, there is no way this can be true.

For one, the entire saga ends with characters that Frank Herbert had no involvement in creating. Norma Cenva, Erasmus, Omnius – these were all the independent creations of the Brian and KJA. What’s more, the story they concocted blatantly contradicted Frank’s own work. You can say you were following the master’s plan all you like, but when the end result is loaded with references to your own stories and the whole thing reads like nothing he would ever produce, people are going to know you’re lying through your teeth!

However, what’s become clear to many over the past few years is that KJA is the real driving force behind their collaboration. In addition to the McDune books reading more like his work, the sheer number of books released since the two teamed up is more in keeping with his quick, prolific style. At this juncture, it seems clear to many that Brian’s only real role in the duo is contributing ideas and making sure the name Herbert appears on the cover. I honestly feel guilty when doing these reviews and including Brian’s name in any indictments or criticisms. Sure, he might be drinking from the cup, but that doesn’t mean he’s not being used and abused! Rather than criticize him, I want to urge him to ditch the leech that’s been sucking him and his father’s legacy dry!

Okay, that’s about what I thought of Hunters of Dune and the partnership of Brian and KJA. I shall return, just as soon as I summon up the strength to actually (gulp!) read Sandworms of Dune in full. Not an easy task, but someone has to warn others to stay away! And you really can’t criticize if you’re not willing to read… This is gonna suck, I just know it! Until next time!

Hunters of Dune, a review

Hunters of Dune, a review

Oh boy, it’s finally here! After years of waiting and having to endure those horrible prequels, the long-awaited conclusion is finally here! Yes, that’s what I thought when I first heard the news. After years of making us wait and spend our hard earned money on a sleuth of teaser prequels and filler, Brian Herbert and KJA (or as I like to call him, NOT FRANK HERBERT!) finally delivered on their promise and released the damn Dune 7 novel!

Like most fans, I had been waiting years for that day. Ever since KJA and Brian got together and announced that they would be releasing Dune 7, a book which Frank had apparently been working on shortly before he died, I was understandably excited. It was just a few years before this announcement that I had finally worked my way to the end of the Dune series (Chapterhouse: Dune) only to find that it ended on a cliffhanger note with numerous loose ends.

For example, what was this mysterious enemy that the Honored Matres were fleeing? Who were the old man and woman from Duncan’s visions? What was Duncan’s role in all this; i.e. was he the new Kwisatz Haderach or something even greater? And above all, was this all the result of Leto’s vision, or were the main characters finally free of the Tyrant’s “Golden Path”? These and other questions I wanted answered, and after many years of waiting, I kinda felt entitled!

Needless to say, the anticipation I felt was rivaled only by the disappointment, but that didn’t occur until the very end when the answers were revealed. There was plenty of material to disappoint in between, but I was able to endure all that so long as I got see how it all ended. I’ve said all this before, so I shan’t waste any more time with it here. Let me get to the specifics of the story and why it was such a horrible, crass, and cynical novel that left Dune fans everywhere disappointed and angry.

Hunters of Dune:
As fans of Dune are no doubt aware, this book was part I in a two part collection that was meant to tie up the series. While this novel didn’t end, it did tie up most of the threads Frank had laid down in Chapterhouse and predicted what the ultimate ending would be. It is for this reason that this book is arguably more important than its follow-up Sandwords of Dune. This book established what the conclusion would be, the other one was mere filler, seeing the threads through to their conclusion and giving every character a final farewell.

Plot Synopsis:
The story picks up three years after the events in Chapterhouse: Dune, with Duncan and the crew of the Ithaca trying to find their way in an alternate universe, hoping to stay ahead of the old man and woman. However, there efforts are upset when Duncan is spoken to telepathically by a mysterious character known as the “Oracle of Time”, a Guild agent who then plucks him from his current location and brings him back to the known universe. The old man and women realize he’s returned, and immediately begin trying to catch him in their tachyon net again.

Meanwhile, back on Chapterhouse, Murbella is continuing with her efforts to bring the Bene Gesserit and Honored Matres together in preparation for the coming war. In addition, she is approached by the Guild who are desperate for spice now that Chapterhouse is the last known source of melange. Given their past support for the Honored Matres, Murbella is loath to help them, but manages to leverage their future loyalty in exchange for not cutting them off completely. In the meantime, the Guild is in contact with the Ixians, who are busy developing a machine that will take the place of a Guild Navigator. Unbeknownst to them, Face Dancers have already infiltrated Ix and are now dealing directly with the Guild.

The Face Dancers are essentially doing this all over the Old Empire, infiltrating worlds and replacing key people with their own copies. Having replaced the last of the Tleilaxu masters with their own copies, their leader Khrone now focuses on infiltrating the HM’s. They do this by putting Uxtal in the custody of Hellica, the new leader of the HM’s. In exchange for sparing his life, Hellica demands that he teach them the secret of axlotl tanks. In addition, Uxtal’s tasks include creating a ghola of the Baron Harkonnen and Paul for Daniel and Marty’s purposes. The reason for this is because the old man and woman feel they will be “useful”, especially Paul who’s prescience will be intrinsic to their “calculations”.

A third reason for his research into axlotl tanks is to create a Waff ghola so he can obtain the secret of making artificial melange (a secret thought to be lost with the destruction of the Tleilaxu Masters). This will come in handy for the Guild Navigators, who are looking for an alternative to the Sisterhood’s source. However, they are unaware that Scytale – the last surviving Tleilaxu master – has already given said secret to the crew of the Ithaca. They in turn are generating it using their own tanks for their own use, seeing as how the sandworms they have aboard are not yet mature.

In addition, Scytale has revealed the existence of the nullentropy tube with the ghola cells he’s kept hidden to Duncan and the Ithaca crew. He does this in exchange for the creation of a Scytale ghola, one which replace him when he dies, which is getting closer. Duncan, Sheeana and Miles all decide that it would also be in their best interests to start cloning all the other people in this tube – Paul, Leto II, Chani, Stilgar, etc. – because apparently, “they will prove useful”. Over the course of the next few years, they begin to give birth to and rear these gholas, one by one.

In the meantime, Murbella’s forces continue to consolidate their hold over more and more of the Old Empire, flushing out HM’s and adding their weapons and resources to their own. This includes the so-called “Devastators”, some kind of super weapon that can sterilize an entire planet. Murbella also begins searching her “Other Memory” in order to find the answers she needs; namely, where the Honored Matres came from and who their enemy is. She learns in the course of this that the HM’s are the descendents of Tleilaxu women who were freed with the help of Fish Speakers and Bene Gesserit’s from the Scattering. Hence why the HM’s seem hellbent on wiping out the Tleilaxu. There’s also the brief and needless scene where she converses with Serena Butler, figurehead of the Butlerian Jihad.

Shortly thereafter, the Sisterhood attack Ix, and Hellica, and Uxtal all die in the process. Waff however, escapes and finds refuge with the Guild, promising them the secret to breeding their own sandworms instead of artificial melange. Meanwhile, the Ithaca stumbled onto a planet that is concealed by a no-field. They find that the place was sterilized by a deadly plague, and after a very brief exploratory mission, they realize that it was this same plague that the Honored Matres were fleeing. Shortly thereafter, they come upon the planet of the Handlers, which they learn are in fact Face Dancers. In the course of trying to return the Futars to the surface, a boarding party attacks them and they are forced to flee, but some make it aboard.

And finally, through “Other Memory”, Murbella realizes the true identity of the old man and woman. Apparently, they’re the evil robots Omnius and Erasmus, who survived the Butlerian Jihad by sending probes into deep space. They reveal themselves shortly thereafter when their ships are marshaled and start heading into the Old Empire to attack. It is also revealed that the “Oracle of Time” is none other than Norma Cenva, who’s been alive and hidden for 15,000 years and has come out to fight this war. The story ends on the cliffhanger note, if it could be called one, and is one of the biggest disappointments in the history of literature…

More to follow in part two, coming up soon!