Content notice: discusses physical and psychological child abuse, racist tropes, colonialism, eugenics, white supremacy, sexism, and ableism in a SFF setting
Paul Atreides, the protagonist and controversial messiah figure from the classic 1965 sci-fi novel Dune by Frank Herbert, is a result of the Bene Gesserit Order’s centuries-long eugenics program. A nominally religious organization, the Order uses telepathy, secrecy, religious trappings, and mythology to secure political power. Many critics have addressed the white supremacy, white saviorism, and Orientalist tropes inherent in these prophecies. As a eugenics program to breed a male messiah called the Kwisatz Haderach, the Bene Gesserit’s overarching plan is manipulative, sexist, and racist. Their goal of creating a brilliant, intellectually gifted man is necessarily intellectually ableist as well.
Note: I wanted to write this blog post on my Medium because I couldn’t find anything calling the Bene Gesserit intellectually ableist. I try to be careful with citations in all my writing and social media posts. I found these quotes to the best of my knowledge and ability, but some page or location numbers may be inconsistent (from different editions) or missing from this blog post. I can’t search a Nook book on my browser.
Photo: Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, a young, white man with blue eyes and long, brown, curly hair, wearing black armor and holding a sword over his head. (Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ Dune, 2021)
I’ve read only the first book and watched the 2021 Denis Villeneuve film. Readers who are familiar with the entire franchise and the 1984 David Lynch adaptation will have a more thorough perspective than I do. Readers who have finished the series say it subverts the chosen one narrative. This is implied even in the first book, when Paul already feels ambivalent about his role. Characters including Jessica, Paul, and other Bene Gesserit members admit to manipulating prophecies or using them for their own ends. It’s a cynical, satirical view of religion in general, and specifically prophecies as a potential tool for controlling people.
While reading, I Tweeted that Dune is a cautionary tale about wanting your kid to be gifted: “smart,” a “genius,” accomplished, good at academics, and so on. I try to avoid sarcastic scare quotes, but I want to indicate that these labels are eugenicist, intellectually ableist, subjective, emotionally loaded, and almost impossible to define.
“Careful what you wish for, Jessica!” I Tweeted, half in jest, as her quest is so much more than the typical mom of a “gifted kid.” However, it is in many ways, the struggle of parents of “gifted kids,” but exaggerated and with cosmic ramifications. It all fits together as fascist: racism, eugenics, sexism, and the white, male messianic figure as a superior person. These elements are necessarily connected, even inextricable.
In a world so preoccupied with genealogy, Paul Atreides has an impressive lineage on both sides of his family. Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, is a member of the Bene Gesserit, which usually trains female children exclusively. She persuades them to make an exception for Paul. His father is Duke Leto Atreides, leader of the planet Caladan. As heir to his father’s duchy, Paul receives an excellent education from the best private tutors, in everything from history and languages to martial arts.
The Bene Gesserit put such stock in prophecies (which they also create and reiterate), lineage, and fate that Paul seems like an ideal candidate for their Kwisatz Haderach. Alternately, even if his destiny is not predetermined, he is poised to be trained and revered as a messianic figure. As with many paradoxes in SFF, their prophecies are self-fulfilling because they are self-serving.
Jessica thinks of herself as “a broodmare preserving an important bloodline for the Bene Gesserit Plan” (Herbert 232). The Bene Gesserit make their plans seem like destiny. When she realizes she underestimated a Fremen man named Stilgar, Jessica thinks: “What is his ancestry? she wondered. Whence comes such breeding?” (335) Jessica is deeply interpellated or indoctrinated into the Bene Gesserit’s ideology. Instead of realizing that a person cannot be judged by their ancestry, she is impressed by Stilgar in spite of his unknown ancestry.
Near the end of the book, Paul tells his mother that she taught or trained him too well. He feels burdened by his precociousness and the mantle of becoming Dune’s Messiah. Paul calls himself a “freak” more than once in the first book. So does Alia, Paul’s baby sister, who is even more precocious than Paul because Jessica drank the water of life when pregnant with her. Both absorbed all the previous Reverend Mothers’ memories in the ordeal of spice agony. Freak was a word used to describe disabled people historically. As a disabled writer who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s, I found Paul’s calling himself a freak and feeling burdened by expectations relatable.
The Bene Gesserit wanted Jessica to have and train daughters only. In both the novel and the 2021 film, they accuse her of “trying to produce the Kwisatz Haderach” by having a male child with the Duke.
James Kerr at Screenrant in 2021 wrote that Dune “subverts the Chosen One narrative.” He explained: “Paul Atreides is the chosen one three times over: by the Bene Gesserit as their Kwisatz Haderach, by the Fremen as their Lisan al Gaib, and by his own internal struggles with visions of his future greatness. All these chosen one plots are related, connected, and not what they first appear.” What some characters call destiny is ultimately the Bene Gesserit’s machinations. They have passed down their plans, which they call sacred prophecies, over generations. Kerr calls the Bene Gesserit mission “a project, not a prophecy.”
The Kwisatz Haderach, then, is the logical culmination of eugenic quests to produce a “superior” or “gifted” child.
To the Fremen (Indigenous Arakeen people), Paul is the long-awaited Lisan al-Gaib, or “Voice from the Outer World,” an “offworlder” (not originally from Arrakis). It’s curious and ironic that Arrakis specifically needs a foreigner to lead its people and show them how to irrigate a climate hell into a verdant climate utopia. This sets up the story as a racist, explicitly white savior narrative, with him being from another world as a requirement. Even disregarding the religious aspect, Paul is better at being a Fremen, somehow, than the Fremen themselves are.
(For a more recent example of this trope of a “mighty whitey,” who immediately succeeds over much more experienced people of color, Malcolm Harris names Breaking Bad’s Walter White.)
Adults frequently apply this vague prophecy to Paul when he is still a teen: “He shall know your ways as though born to them” (p. 110). It’s strange that the prophecy stipulates this, when every Arrakeen would know Arrakis’ customs better than Paul does. This requirement, implying that Paul knows the Arrakeens’ customs better than they do, establishes his supremacy over them.
When Paul wears Arrakeen clothes and stillsuits correctly without being taught, he replies, “It seemed the right way” (110). Adults make much of this in both the book and in the 2021 Denis Villeneuve movie, repeating, “It seemed the right way” and invoking the prophecy. They’re conflating a child performing a certain type of intelligence, exactly as he has been trained to do, with the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy about a superior leader. Intelligence is a vague, fraught, and biased concept itself.
However, it shouldn’t be surprising or remarkable that Paul speaks like an adult, given his upbringing and education. He is the pursuit of “giftedness” taken to extremes, as well as aristocracy taken to its logical extreme. His parents are powerful, procure the best teachers for him, and introduce him to their political allies. Furthermore, until near the end of the first book, in his late teens, he is an only child. All these factors can make a teen surrounded by adults talk or act like an adult in some ways.
The novel also critiques prophecies, religious laws, and how they can be used to control people. Although many of his visions are subconscious — dreams, for example — Paul also admits he consciously tries to fulfill prophecies. His prescience, whether other characters believe it’s a spiritual gift or not, is also a function and a sign of his intellect. It’s treated as both a spiritual and intellectual gift in the novel, as that which makes him (doubly) special and superior.
Years later, Paul’s wife, Princess Irulan, writes about her legendary husband:
“Prophecy and prescience — How can they be put to the test in the face of the unanswered questions? Consider: How much is actual prediction of the “wave form” (as Muad’Dib referred to his vision-image) and how much is the prophet shaping the future to fit the prophecy? What of the harmonics inherent in the act of prophecy? Does the prophet see the future or does he see a line of weakness, a fault or cleavage that he may shatter with words or decisions as a diamond-cutter shatters his gem with a blow of a knife?
— Private Reflections on Muad’Dib by the Princess Irulan (p. 271)
This passage fascinates me because it’s basically an admission that the prophecies are a sham in one way but possibly genuine in another. Paul himself may be unaware of this, subconsciously manipulating and drawing on his visions as he was trained to do since his childhood. Irulan, who was Paul’s wife and biographer by this point, describes the “wave form,” how Paul experiences his “vision-image,” while she privately admits he uses them in a strategic, opportunistic way. He later sees all possibilities fanning out before him.
The Gom Jabbar
Early in the book and 2021 film of Dune, there’s a harrowing scene of the torture of a child, with the consent of his distressed mother. Reverend Mother Superior Helen Gaius arrives at the Atreides’ home on Caladan and tests Paul with the gom jabbar. She forces him to place his hand in a box and experience tortuous pain while she holds a poisoned gom jabbar needle to his neck. If he removes his hand from the box before she allows him, she will kill him.
Several conversations on Reddit and Tumblr call this an evil, high-stakes version of the marshmallow test. Like the real marshmallow experiment, this is supposedly a test of willpower or intellect, or delayed vs. instant gratification. However, it’s really a test of the child’s relative privilege. Children who’ve had breakfast at home, for example, find waiting much easier.
Also (and this ties into the fascism and eugenics program!) Paul quotes a religious commandment:
“ ‘Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind’ “ (p. 24–5). In The LA Review of Books in 2020, Jordan S. Carroll explained this as banning computers because humans had become reliant on them. He also explained the Bene Gesserit “eugenics program” and preoccupation with lineage. These two ideas are connected because the Order considers people superior who, for example, can do complex calculations mentally. This is an extremely intellectually ableist worldview, to the point of the fetishization or worship of intelligence.
The Reverend Mother Superior repeatedly says that some people are “human,” and others are not. Although it’s hard to parse exactly what she means by this, the gom jabbar is a winnowing, a way of “proving” which persons are truly “human.” The gom jabbar “kills only animals” (20). The test “proving” not all “people” are “human” feels very intellectually ableist to me, as a disabled writer who has written about this topic. It has many precedents in European philosophy.
Other Examples of Intellectual Ableism
“Everything which distinguishes man from the animals depends upon this ability to volatilize perceptual metaphors in a schema, and thus to dissolve an image into a concept.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense”
I always say this: there is so much ableism inherent in philosophy, plus the inaccessibility of the writing itself. Using and conceptualizing metaphors, which requires a certain type of intellect and often sensory perception, is what makes us human, it says!
In this essay, Nietzsche discusses the inadequacy and incommensurability of language. There will always be a gap between the signifier and the signified, or words and the real-life things they represent. This is true for all humans, but essays like these also privilege non-disabled people over disabled people by default.
A lot of philosophy says this, as I try to critique in my work, for example:
Many SFF books, especially those written after 1965 and/or by authors of color, try to avoid basing fictitious religions and civilizations directly on real life. The potential for harmful stereotypes is too high. Dune deliberately mentions real religions. Paul’s ancestors were Christian. Jessica quotes Saint Augustine, and the Atreides mention an updated Catholic version of the Bible. Reverend Mother Superior Helen Gaius’s name evokes both Roman Catholicism AND Ancient Rome.
The Fremen mention their “Sunni ancestors” (445). They’re literally descended from Muslims from Earth — and from Zen Buddhists, some sources say. “They denied us the Hajj!” is a frequently repeated Fremen grievance (405). The word jihad is frequently used (234). While it’s possible the resemblance to real religions in some SFF books is coincidental and not consciously intended, this interpretation is not possible here, when the references are so explicit. Dune is deeply critical of colonialism in some respects, but is itself arguably colonial, racist, and Orientalist.
In December 2021 at the Turkish site TRT World, Ibrahim al-Marashi wrote that he didn’t consider Dune Orientalist because the characters who are Muslim (or descendants of Muslims) are mundane and heroic, rather than vilified or exoticized. He also wrote that a 2021 adaptation of this 1965 novel must necessarily be influenced by Star Wars and by the US wars in Iraq. He points out that Herbert used the word jihad long before it would become associated with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Here’s another perspective on the complex representation of Islam in the novel and film.
Mir Ali Hosseini found the 2021 film deeply Orientalist, as if from an Orientalist tropes playbook. Positive stereotypes can be dangerous, just like negative ones can. He wrote that all the Fremen seem wise, in a way that flattens them and makes them less distinct than the white, colonist characters. As he points out, the story appropriates real, Arabic words and Muslim theological concepts, bringing them into an imaginary sci-fi setting.
The societies in Dune are largely patriarchal, with the notable exception of the matriarchal Bene Gesserit. In a world where women will never have equality with men, the Bene Gesserit retaliate by abusing and oppressing men and boys. The Reverend Mother Superior tells Paul that he should feel honored to be tested (tortured!), as they usually do not test boys.
Like in many real patriarchal societies, Caladan and Arrakeen women are either degraded or put on a pedestal, but never viewed as equal human beings. Women have isolated pockets of power (Bene Gesserit). Unlike some other SFF books, gender is fixed and binary, with rigid social roles.
The novel ends with Jessica advising Paul to marry Princess Irulan for political reasons. Irulan, a tall, white woman with blonde hair and green eyes, will be Paul’s wife in name only, while Chani, a native Fremen woman, will remain the love of his life. Chani will technically be Paul’s “concubine,” as Jessica herself was to Duke Leto. Like Chani, she was the Duke’s true partner, with more power than real queens.
As I pointed out on Book Riot in 2021, the term ableism was coined in the late 1980s, so, I’m not trying to be ahistorical by applying it to work from the 1960s. However, the Nazis and their eugenics programs were extremely ableist, and the Bene Gesserit program also employs eugenics.
Reading this book the week in August 2022 that Kim Kardashian reportedly wasted hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in a year was something. Disabled people often need more water, plastic, electricity, etc. than average. We need them to stay alive, and no one should waste water. Both statements are equally true.
The LARB article I cited earlier says that Herbert was interested in ecology and environmentalism. This is reflected in Dune and the Fremen dream of nurturing an ecological paradise, turning Arrakis into an easily livable planet. However, this ideology easily veers into ecofascism, or sacrificing people for the sake of the environment. When Jessica arrives on Arrakis, she observes that her family’s new home contains a solarium that requires as much water as a poor family on Arrakis would use in a year.
In both the book and the 2021 film, the Atreides learn that each Arrakeen date palm tree requires enough water to keep five human beings alive. “Twenty palm trees. A hundred lives,” says a man in the movie.
The class differences are also stark at a banquet, where Duke Leto defies tradition by giving peasants water. Previous rulers had left the beggars to scrounge for discarded water.
The colonists expect the Fremen to be “primitive,” a common stereotype that the Fremen defy. Colonists are horrified by the Fremen funereal custom of reclaiming water from a dead person’s body. To the Fremen, each person’s flesh belongs to themselves, “but his water belongs to the tribe” (396). To colonists, this seems barbaric, almost like cannibalism or vampirism, although those words are never explicitly used. However, their technology is advanced and precise. The water reclamation is both a sacred, respectful ritual and a precise scientific procedure. Somewhat condescendingly, Jessica feels impressed by this nation of scientists. Dune tries to counter and critique colonialism but reinforces racist stereotypes at the same time.
Dune’s Bene Gesserit Order has an inherently intellectually ableist philosophy that cannot be separated from its racist, colonial mission to genetically engineer a messiah. The order, which usually admits girls and women only, tries to produce the Kwisatz Haderach: the only male capable of withstanding the ritual of spice agony. They believe they have succeeded in Paul Atreides, an unusually intelligent, skilled, white boy from the noble House Atreides. Their focus on lineage and selective breeding is necessarily eugenic and is traumatic to Jessica and her son, Paul. The Kwisatz Haderach is the product of centuries of eugenics to produce a “superior” or “gifted” child. By having a child with Chani, a Fremen women, Paul subverts the Bene Gesserit’s eugenic plans. Inevitably, the Bene Gesserit value and devalue people for their genes and perceived physical and mental fitness. This is the definition of ableism, which often overlaps with and enables eugenics and genocide.
Herbert, Frank. Dune. New York: Penguin Group, 1965.
Herbert, Frank. Dune. Copyright 1965 by Herbert Properties LLC. New York: Penguin Random House. Nook edition (2010).
Thanks for reading! I’m a lifelong SFF reader and writer. If you found my Medium randomly, you may not know I write fan and original fiction too. I recently watched the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) on Doctor Who. I wrote a fanfic on AO3, “The Veil Between the Worlds,” mashing up Doctor Who with “The Ballad of Tam Lin.”