Dune is not an ecological novel, Norman Spinrad argues:
And though melange is referred to throughout the novel as a “spice” and consumed in small quantities as such, that is not what it really is at all.
What it really is is that which could hardly speak its name in clear in the science fiction of the early 1960s, which explains why the book was such a hard sell to publishers in 1964 and 1965 even with the terminological obfuscation. Which also explains why it became a best-seller after the cultural transformations of 1967 once it was published and why it was one of the engines of those transformations.
Melange is not a fictional “spice.” Melange is a fictional psychedelic drug. Its effects are similar to those of LSD or mescaline or peyote. Only much more powerful.
DUNE, therefore, is not primarily a novel thematically centered on ecology. It is centrally a novel exploring chemically enhanced states of consciousness and their effects not only on individual personality and spirit but on culture.
One of the very first. And, after all these years, still one of the most profound.
Melange, in even small continuous doses, is addictive, turns the sclera of the eyeballs blue, has milder psychedelic effects than LSD, and, like the peyote of the American southwestern desert, an integrated sacrament of the Native American religion, is thoroughly incorporated into the culture and religion of the Fremen.
On the level of the interstellar culture, it is taken in much stronger doses by the Navigators of the Spacing Guild, who use it to attain extreme states of altered consciousness which allow them to pilot starships through a form of hyperspace, turning them into transhuman beings as part of the existential bargain.
The Bene Geserit female adepts use it for more visionary purposes, and dream of creating and/or finding the “Kwisatz Haderach,” a male capable of handling the spice on the highest level, whose consciousness will be freed thereby from conventionally perceived space and time into a kind of Einsteinian four-dimensional viewpoint which will enable him to see “the future” presciently, or, more subtly and profoundly, to surf the geodesics of probability.
Thus Herbert portrays four levels of both the use of psycho-active drugs by a society and the corresponding levels of consciousness. The Fremen incorporate melange as the sacrament of a tribal religion. The Guild Navigators employ it as a pragmatic technological augment. The Bene Gesserit use it in vision quests and mind-melding sessions.
Paul Atreides passes through these three ascending stages on his way to finally employing the drug to achieve the ultimate level, to become the Kwisatz Haderach, the fully Enlightened One, able to view the conventional realm of space and time from the outside, as Einsteinian four-space, a consciousness rendered therefore prescient up to a point, an Enlightenment that turns out to be both a godlike power and a tragic curse.
All this is set in a culture which is anachronistically archaic in a manner which is both rather too familiar and yet interestingly strange.
Stretching disbelief and contorting technological logic by staging swordfights in a space-going technology capable of using atomic weapons and inflicting an improbable monarchical political system upon it for the purpose of setting a pseudo-medieval action-adventure story on alien planets is hardly Frank Herbert’s invention, and these fictional swords-and-spaceships cultures are almost always implicitly Christian and more or less Catholic.
In DUNE too, we have an Emperor and noble vassals and a hierarchical feudal system with a theocratic underpinning. But it is not Catholic or even Christian.
Although the word “Islam” never even appears in the novel and you have to be rather conversant with the real-world referents to get it, the religious template in DUNE is Islamic, not Christian, more Eastern than Western.
The term “Padishah Emperor” certainly points to Herbert’s deliberate decision to do this, since “Shah padi Shah” means “King of Kings” in Farsi, the language of the Islamic Persian Empire.
Nor is it going too far to suppose that the grudge-nursing Fremen, exiled on Arrakis after a long and complex interstellar hegira, are cognates of the minority Shi’ite followers of Ali persecuted and reviled by dominant Sunni cultures.
And the visionary Bene Gesserit have their similarities to the mystic Sufis, Muslims who claim their sect predates Islam, and who emphasize techniques designed to induce direct mystical experience and insight, rather than ritual, rules, or a belief system.
Why Frank Herbert chose Islam as the religious and mystical underpinning of an interstellar culture that is otherwise based on that of medieval, feudal, Catholic Europe, is perhaps beyond the scope of literary analysis, a choice made somewhere in the deep subconscious regions from which artistic creation arises.
However, one can speculate…
While Islam is generally grouped with Judaism and Christianity, the monotheistic religions out of which it arose, there is one fundamental difference between Islam and its direct predecessors.
Judaism began as a tribal religion centrally concerned with the relationship between the history of the Jews and their God and its Bible was written by diverse hands over a long period of time. Christianity converted Judaism into a proselytizing universalist religion based on the story of one transhuman figure, Jesus Christ, its Bible was written in a much shorter period of time in four alternate versions (not unlike Lawrence Durrell’s ALEXANDRIA QUARTET), it is basically a biography of Jesus, and its central concerns are sin, redemption, and morality.
Islam too began as a tribal religion, that of the Arabs, and was transformed into a proselytizing universalist religion, and its holy book, the Koran, is also filled with rules and regulations.
But the Koran, unlike either Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible, was created by one man, Mohammed, over a very short period of time in historical terms; directly dictated to him by Allah, if you are a believer, and certainly in the throes of some powerful mystical and visionary experience even if you are not, since Mohammed was an illiterate who had never created a literary work before.
Thus Islam, unlike Judaism or Christianity, but like Buddhism, has as its core one man’s mystical and visionary awakening experience. And Mohammed, liked Buddha, made no pretense of being the Godhead, merely (if that can be the word)of directly experiencing it.
The transcendent goal of Christianity is individual immortality in a vaguely described but rather concrete heaven, to be achieved by following the rules. Thus it is basically a religion of morality.
The transcendent goal of Buddhism is the achievement of Nirvana, the ecstatic reintegration of the individual spirit with the universal Godhead from which it arose, to be achieved by meditative techniques. Thus Buddhism is an experiential religion, whose goal is achieving a transhuman state of consciousness.
Islam stands somewhere between. The Koran is as full of moral and legalistic prescriptions as the Bible, but it was written by one man in a state of mystically transcendent consciousness.
And the “heaven” of Islam, salaciously misunderstood by many, including many Muslims, is described as a state of continuous orgasm, which, seen on a mystic level, is a state of transcendent consciousness not unlike the Buddhist Nirvana.
Which perhaps explains why the Sufis, an older and thoroughly experiential religion, aimed entirely at achieving such states by ecstatic dancing, drugs, and other such means of transforming consciousness, could become an aspect of Islam and be generally accepted as such by the mainstream thereof.
And why alcohol, a drug not known for its psychedelic effects, is far more acceptable in Christian cultures than marijuana and hashish, which are far more acceptable in traditional Islamic cultures than alcohol.
Which may explain why Frank Herbert chose to employ Islamic mystical and religious referents in a novel whose central themes are the cultural, psychological, and religions relationships between a psychedelic drug and the societies based upon it, and the stepwise visionary transformation of a young boy’s consciousness by the use thereof into the transcendent consciousness of a “Kwisatz Haderach,” a being so enlightened that in the end he can even perceive the ironic tragedy of his own prescience.
Which certainly goes a long way towards explaining why DUNE could not find a major American publisher, inside the science fiction or in the mainstream, in the early 1960s, before there was anything like the Counterculture it helped to create.
And why it eventually became a long-term best-seller after the evolutionary changes in the consciousness of a generation it did so much to catalyze.