21 Dec 2022
Featuring Katherine Gwyther
When you imagine the distant future, what do you see? Some, like Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, envision a future utopia, where humankind has finally worked through their differences, solved hunger and poverty, and have united in a mission of peace and discovery. For many others, like HG Wells, author of The Time Machine, the future is a post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare of our own creation. In his 1965 novel Dune, Frank Herbet envisioned a future that has advanced as much as it digressed, rebuilding the feudalism of our past in far off galaxies. Dune clearly doesn't present a utopian future. But are utopias really all they're cracked up to be?
In this episode, we look at Deni Villeneuve's 2021 adaptation for the big screen (the first, in what will be a series of films). We explore the nature of utopia, and dissect the biblical parallels in a fictitious future world filled with ritual, belief, and religious imagery. What sort of figure is our protagonist, Paul Atreides? Is he a "chosen one" akin to Moses? Or is he more of a classic Jesus-type saviour figure? Finally, we pull the future all the way back to the biblical past to ask: Can you read the Bible as science-fiction?
This is a glossary of terms used in Dune, and their relationship to Hebrew and Arabic words.
Kwisatz Haderach -
Meaning, literally, "the shortening of the way", this is a term used by the Bene Gesserit (a powerful, ritualistic order) to refer to a messianic-type figure with the ability to bridge space and time. The word is derived from the Hebrew, Kfitzat haDérech, which refers to miraculous travel between distant places. The Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, better known as Rashi (1040-1105), used Kfitzat haDérech, to mean that the road miraculously shrank, or shortened, to facilitate faster travel. This is how the term is also used in the Talmud.
"The one who will lead us to paradise." This is the term used by the Fremen (a desert people from the planet, Arakis) to refer to their expected saviour figure. In Islam, the mahdī, meaning "divinely guided one", is a messianic figure whose presence is expected to bring forth a new age of justice and true faith.
Lisân al-Ghayb -
The Fremen term for an off-world prophet, or messiah. Also, "the voice from the outer world". In Arabic, “he who gives voice to the unseen world”, or, “the language of the invisible world”, or, “the voice of the future”. Only one historical figure was ever given this title: the 14th-century Persian poet, Hafez.
A Fremen word, and a name given to Paul Atreides, meaning, "the strength of the base of the pillar". In Arabic, uṣūl means “root” or "foundation". In Islam, the uṣūl al-fiqh are the roots of law (also known as the "foundational principles"), the principles and methodologies through which practical legal rules are derived.
A desert mouse and Paul’s chosen name. Related to the Arabic, mu’addib, for “Teacher”.
To learn more about the Islamic terms addressed here, we recommend The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World.
Many thanks to Katherine (Kat) Gwyther for her time and expertise.
Kat is a PhD researcher in Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds, working on utopia and Exodus. She’s interested in how utopian literature and science fiction (and the related criticism) can enrich our understanding of biblical texts and their reception. You can find Kat on Twitter @KatGwyther.
Peter Herman, "The Blackness of Liet-Kynes: Reading Frank Herbert’s Dune Through James Cone," Religions 9/9 (2018).
Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).
Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).
Roland Boer, "Religion and Utopia in Fredric Jameson" Utopian Studies 19/2 (2008): 285–312.
Roland Boer, Novel Histories: The Fiction of Biblical Criticism (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997).
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven (many editions and publications available).
Michael Weingrad, "Jews of Dune" Jewish Review of Books (25 Mar 2019).