*Spoiler alert: The following contains spoilers regarding the book Dune by Frank Herbert (1965).
I first read Dune by Frank Herbert as a teenager, and it was a mind-blowing experience. Originally published in 1965, it’s arguably the most popular science fiction book ever, with millions of copies sold worldwide and the subject of comics, TV shows, and movie adaptations—the latest of which just hit theaters. The narrative centers on the journey of Paul Atreides, son of a Duke, as he moves with his family to their newly appointed fief, Arrakis—also known as Dune, the desert planet. But the Atreides have fallen into a trap and Paul is forced to flee to the desert, finding refuge among the Fremen tribes while planning for revenge. Dune shaped my worldview as a teenager, and revisiting it as an adult, I found that the novel is even more relevant for me today in my foresight practice.
Three of the most relevant drivers of change shaping our futures today are rising populism, worsening climate change, and the growing uncertainty emerging from constant disruptions in society. As it turns out, Dune's main themes deal precisely with the abuse of power through religious and political messianism, the social and cultural impacts of extreme environments and ecological awareness, and the complexities of prescience and analysis. The novel is packed with insights that Herbert reveals through the characters' own reflections on these themes.
First and foremost, Dune is a book about power. There’s been no shortage of discussion around whether Paul is the story's hero or its ultimate villain. Herbert uses the character to subvert the trope of "the chosen one” to tell a machiavellian story about the manipulation of a people through their culture and dominant narratives. Paul is recognized by the Fremen as their long-awaited messiah, a “meme" planted generations ago by a powerful political group known as the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Though conscious he is not the messiah, Paul plays the part and manipulates cultural codes to become the leader of the Fremen. The niche tactics of this memetic manipulation resembles how Qanon came to be: a group of conspiracy theorists combined and organized their myths in a compelling story that was culturally fit for the US of 2017. But the thing about conspiracy theories, disinformation, and messianism is that they’re generic and have long-term effects. It only takes one messiah or charismatic populist to take advantage of a latent narrative.
Dune is also a book about ecology. Etymologically speaking, ecology means knowledge of one’s home, and Dune’s characters become hyper-aware of the planet’s extreme environment. Everything in Arrakis is about its environment, to the extent that Paul is reminded by a mentor of “the importance of this planet as an enemy,” one that is largely hostile to human life. Yet, humans persist. It’s interesting to read how the Fremen culture has adapted and even surrendered to the extreme environment. While Herbert still exhibits a modernist point of view in which nature is an obstacle to be removed, he writes that the purpose of ecology is understanding consequences. And the long-term effects of manipulating Arrakis’ ecosystem prove disastrous, as we see by the fifth book in the series, thousands of years into Dune's future.
Finally, long-termism and foresight are key themes in Dune. Paul is the culmination of an interbreeding program that has been running for thousands of years, intended to generate a human capable of true foresight: the “Kwisatz Haderach.” Though Paul’s prescience is fantastic in its nature, it is far from normative. “I have another kind of sight. I see another kind of terrain: the available paths,” Paul says. Even with this quasi-mystical prescience, Paul still has to read signs carefully, has trouble interpreting the implications of his scenarios, and is torn between multiple courses of action. Paul wants to avoid a catastrophic future in which a holy war is waged in his name, but he still has to find the right moment to act. And he does it by embracing uncertainty as an ally and as a source of insight. “A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of process, must join it and flow with it,” he says. Most importantly, Paul not only embraces uncertainty but consciously avoids the obvious, safe paths; he knows that this safe path “leads ever down into stagnation."
Dune is a classic. It never exhausts all it has to say to its readers. People looking for a good read will find complex characters, intrigue, and superb prose. But for foresight practitioners, the novel also offers relevant parallels to the political messiahs and the memetics shaping our world—not to mention how climate resilience might impact humanity in the decades to come—foregrounding a powerful message about the dangers of prophecy. Even to this day, many people approach the futures field expecting to reduce uncertainty and predict the most likely outcome. Almost 60 years ago, Herbert showed how this approach is not only ineffective (and impossible) but dangerous. "Prescience was an illumination that incorporated the limits of what it revealed—at once a source of accuracy and meaningful error. The expenditure of energy that revealed what [Paul] saw, changed what he saw," Herbert writes. The ultimate lesson in Dune might be that it's precisely that meaningful error that makes foresight so useful.