Frank Herbert’s Dune: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Science fiction is often about technology, yet there are some fictional universes where some technologies we take for granted are taboo. Let’s take computers, for example.

Religious dictats are as prevalent in one world as strictures against Muslims and Jews eating bacon are here, today, arguably even more enforced. That is the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

This was actually one of the first articles I wrote on this blog way back in 2011. It had an overhaul in 2016 or thereabouts and now, with the new film due, a second revamp.

There’s Something About Dune

The original story, one of the best space opera stories of all time, tantalises us with quotes like the one above portraying a fanatical negativity toward computing. Any new technology is evaluated for whether it is a “thinking machine”. If it has no artificial intelligence, it is permitted yet if it is demonstrated to be able to “think” like a real person, it has broken the strict rules and will be destroyed.

A cymek from the Dune prequels – Cymeks were cyborgs, not completely machine, but not completely human either

We rely on humans to do our thinking for us (how novel!) and people with superior powers of deduction and logic are trained to be “Mentats”, human computers able to perform all of the functions that we might use a supercomputer for today.

Even through the later books, there is an inbuilt mistrust of any computer technology. In God Emperor of Dune hints of the future are seen by Siona Atreides who prophesies of “seeking machines”.

He saw the milky distances enter her eyes. Without asking permission, she tapped his front segment, demanding that he prepare the warm hammock of his flesh. He obeyed. She fitted herself to the gentle curve. By peering sharply downward, he could see her. Siona’s eyes remained opened, but they no longer saw this place. She jerked abruptly and began to tremble like a small creature dying. He knew this experience, but could not change the smallest part of it. No ancestral presences would remain in her consciousness, but she would carry with her forever afterward the clear sights and sounds and smells. The seeking machines would be there, the smell of blood and entrails, the cowering humans in their burrows aware only that they could not escape… while all the time the mechanical movement approached, nearer and nearer and nearer…louder…louder!

Everywhere she searched, it would be the same. No escape anywhere.

Frank Herbert hinted at the future but did not live long enough to write it.

One of the minor houses, House Vernius of the planet Ix, specialised in creating machinery and were moving toward miniaturisation technology. They fell foul of the laws against A.I. technology but were pulled up on it only when it was felt they had crossed the line too far. After all, many of the other races benefited from their technology. In the first prequel series (Prelude to Dune) written by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert, the Emperor investigates House Vernius, accusing them of creating thinking machines.

When this doesn’t work, he sends a batallion of Sardaukar shock troops and sponsors the Tleilaxu invasion. His reasons were less about the possibility of thinking machines so I will not go into further detail here. This friction between the increasingly-powerful Ix and the rest of society would manifest itself right through the original series.

A Future Without AI

Unfortunately, it seems that Frank Herbert would not leave too much in the way of detail regarding how he imagined humanity would have become so anti artificial intelligence. We knew then that humanity were enslaved but was this physical enslavement or a metaphorical “I’m addicted to Facebook” kind of abstract enslavement? This left a lot of speculation. It was left to Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert to speculate on what The Butlerian Jihad was all about. They did this in the second set of prequels, known as Legends of Dune.

The trilogy is set 10,000 years before the original and opens with a battle between humans and a group of Cymeks. The Cymeks, the original conquerors of humanity, were once human themselves but had their brains preserved in portable machines which can be transferred from machine to machine, effectively cyborgs with interchangable bodies.

They lost this control to Omnius, a hive-minded supercomputer and are ruled by the “Evermind”. The Titans seek to overthrow Omnius and humans are seeking to overthrow any rule by machines. The Jihad begins when Erasmus, a robot seeking to learn more about humanity so that Omnius might better understand them in order to quell future rebellions, kills Serena Butler’s child.

Serena Butler and her family use this murdered child as a martyr for humans to finally rise up against all machines. A three way war ensues with the Cymeks openly rebelling. The human army assaults and destroys Earth and the Omnius mind based there.

In the second book, The Machine Crusade, the war is in full swing. The Ixians are liberated and begin to understand and work technology that had once enslaved them and the seeds of the later book are beginning to be sown. Omnius is being fought back. In the third and final book, The Battle of Corrin, both the Cymeks and the final Omnius Evermind are destroyed putting humanity on the path to the future that Frank Herbert created.

Though I have not read Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune, also written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, they are based on notes written by Frank Herbert before his death for his never-written “Dune 7”. I have avoided plot synopses of both books so as not to spoil the plot but as I understand it, the “ancient enemy” referred to in Chapter House: Dune is a single remaining Omnius seeking to re-establish the Synchronised Worlds.

In the world of Dune, artificial intelligence has become a force for evil, a very real spectre of enslavement and genocide for humanity. It is by no means the only example in fiction of the dangers of surrendering too much of our control to machines to do our thinking for us but there is no more carefully constructed vision of a post-AI. future.

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