Frank Herbert’s Dune, often named as the greatest science fiction novel ever written, turns 50 this year. Set thousands of years in the future, the novel and its sequels portray a universe in which religion is a powerful influence, yet in which the religions of our own time—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism—are scrambled, changed at times almost beyond recognition. Much of humanity follows a religion called Zensunni, for instance, one of several syncretic belief systems through which Herbert winks at the reader, who sees how the supposedly timeless faiths and scriptures of today will be altered and recombined for use tomorrow.
Indeed, Herbert’s fictional universe juxtaposes religion, which is presented as mutable and manipulable, with genetics, in which the permanent truths reside. This is seen especially in the operations of the Bene Gesserit, an all-female organization that controls the destiny of humanity. For thousands of years they have secretly stewarded the genetic lines of humanity, with the ultimate goal of engineering a messiah. In the meantime, they create and exploit religion to control and guide human populations. “We plant protective religions to help us,” explains a member of the order. “That is the Missionaria’s function.” We “[e]ngineer religions for specific purposes and selected populations,” says another. The religions of Dune are fungible covers for foundational truths that are locked in genetic memory.
Only one religious group from our own time has defied this garbling of dogma and practice. In Chapterhouse: Dune, the sixth book in the series and the last Herbert wrote before his death in 1986, the Jews show up.