Frank Herbert’s Dune: The Prescience Trap and the End of Free Will, Part One

Paul Atreides’ prescience, the ability to see future events, in Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is both a literary device and commentary on science throughout his novel. As a literary device, Herbert uses Paul’s ability to see the future as a way of foreshadowing events in the book. In Paul’s visions, the reader sees the destruction of the House Atreides, Paul meeting Chani and the Fremen, and his rise as a messianic figure. The author also shows how Paul may be the long-anticipated hero of this messianic story, the Kwisatz Haderach, as hinted in the scene with the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam and the Gom Jabbar test. But Herbert also tells the reader another story, one about the danger of living in a deterministic society where freedom gives way to absolute predictability and control. The trap of the prescient as he calls it.

To understand Frank Herbert’s fear of a world where everything is determined and predictable you have to understand the times in which he lived. From the 1940s through the 1960s science was both the boon and a bane of human society. Through science, human beings could increase lifespan, end hunger and disease, and promote peace. Science could also make more devastating weapons and introduce the threat of a technocratic despotic state. Computers, or thinking machines, could orchestrate all aspects of human life and, with their ability to predict future events, create a static society where everything is determined and controlled. Herbert hated this idea, of the loss of free will, so much that in his book he had the “thinking machines” destroyed in a Great Jihad. He also postulated that this folly by the people who wanted to predict the future, to control the fate of others, would not end with that. So in ‘Dune’, Herbert introduces the reader to prescience, and Bene Gesserit’s eugenics program to achieve this goal, and how this could lead to the extinction of humankind.

The creation of the Kwisatz Haderach by the “witches” in the narrative gives the story both the reason for the central character, Paul Atreides, to be the messianic figure in this story and the theme which is the folly of predictability. Paul’s abilities set him apart from those around him through his visions of the future and foreknowledge of things he shouldn’t know. For example, when he knew how to wear his stillsuit for the first time or of his mother’s pregnancy with his sister. His visions of the future weren’t perfect, though. They were not always accurate and could even be open to interpretation as to when he failed to predict Gurney Halleck’s attack on his mother and the death of his first son, Leto. Paul himself described his prescience ability as a man traveling through the desert. When the traveler reaches the crest of a dune he can see for miles in the direction of his destination. It is only when he begins his journey, and climbs down to the lowest part of the dune, that his vision and sense of direction become obscured. Paul could see the future but once he attempts to move in that direction “his vision becomes obscured.” This is an analogy of computer efficiency in Herbert’s day. Computing technology was good at making short-term trend predictions but for predicting anything long-term with any accuracy it was virtually impossible. Like the traveler, the scientists could see their answers on the horizon but couldn’t see how to get there. In the novel, Paul saw an infinite number of scenarios, all equally valid, with the only difference being choosing the one least unfavorable. Instead of leading a conquering army on a bloody crusade under the Atreides banner, he chose the part of the messiah for the Fremen Jihad and Emperor of the Known Universe. Statistical analysts had the same problem, but not so dramatic. They also could see an infinite number of scenarios through the data they accumulated and from those chose the most plausible. If, they thought, you could build a better, faster thinking machine, a computer able to handle more data, then you could eliminate the uncertainty and make a better forecast of future events. Paul in his frustration in not being able to “see” Gurney Halleck’s attack on his mother echoes the same indignation futurists had with computing systems. They, like Paul, wanted a better way to improve their vision of the future, to make trends more predictable, and that is what Frank Herbert saw as dangerous.

Herbert wasn’t the only science fiction author writing stories about “science going amok”. If scientists were to create machines that controlled human society it would mean the extinction of humankind. It is an old trope with countless examples (it is still in use today with the fear of AI and life under the control of the machines!). In ‘Dune’, the electronic machines were replaced by “human computers”, the mentats. Mentats were human number crunchers which is what computing systems were at the time Herbert authored his novel. They perform copious amounts of numerical computations quickly so that the data can then be analyzed and propose workable solutions to problems. It was making short-term predictions by following the trends in the data. The more data that could be accumulated the more accurate the predictable outcomes. A mentat is only as good as the information it was given. It is no surprise that mentat training was part of Paul’s education through Thufir Hawat. Making reliable predictions, to see into the future, was the goal for developing supercomputers. Once you had such a system you can control multiple aspects of functionality, control the fates of others, and eliminate randomness. Control, and the end of free will, is what scared writers, like Frank Herbert, in this genre. But there were limitations in building such a system. There was a need for new programming algorithms and the miniaturization of transistor electronics. An intuitive leap in technology was necessary to create the kind of control in trends for long-term predictions. There was a need to shorten the way.

In the novel, Paul takes the “Water of Life” and makes his ascension to the level of the perfect seer. Computing technicians were doing the same in a way, through innovations in microchip technology and software, by building bigger and faster computing systems. To Frank Herbert this acquisition of technology was equivalent to Odin drinking from the Fountain of Wisdom and, as with Odin, it would come with a price. Paul drinks, pick the path of lesser evils (according to trend analysis seen as the possible scenarios in his visions), vanquishes his enemies, marries the princess, and becomes the new emperor. But what then, Herbert leaves us to ask? How will history judge us for following the words of the seer and ignoring the warnings of common wisdom (for Chani was wise!). Is the future a paradise of peace and plenty under the rule of the Perfect Prophet? Can a pre-deterministic controlled society, with no free will, end humankind’s problems? Frank Herbert continues his treatise on the scientific folly of predictability in his next three next books culminating with ‘God Emperor of Dune’. (To continue in Part Two)

-A. M. Holmes

Why AppleTV’s ‘Foundation’ Failed, and Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ Succeeded.

They are both wrote about the decline and fall of an empire but observe how this comes to be through different eyes and resolutions.

Asimov’s approach in ‘Foundation’ is one of a historian. He describes how bureaucratic inefficiencies and a disconnected oligarchy caused the end of the Galactic Empire. He does so analytically and logically throughout ‘Foundation’ and ‘Foundation and Empire’. He changes in ‘Second Foundation’ when he introduces a proper protagonist/antagonist narrative. He had to. The first two books were an amalgamation of published short stories with a common theme. To continue the story beyond the first two books he had to shift style and construction. From ‘Second Foundation’ to his last Foundation book he continues the narrative in this way but never abandons the logic (as questionable it becomes) of the events to the end.

Herbert tells the same story but from a more traditional mythological saga approach. The story of how the empire falls and rises again is the story of the hero’s journey. It begins with Paul Atreides and ends with Duncan Idaho, the last “true Atreides” (I do not include those works by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson because those books were not part of the original vision). Herbert tells the story as a storyteller. Where ‘Foundation’ stresses the “Science” ‘Dune’ is all about the “Fiction”. AppleTV failed with its version of ‘Foundation’ because David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman tried to make it into something it wasn’t, a mythic saga. Nothing in the first book lends itself useful for this kind of format. Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ is systematically logical and few on character development. To adapt it, Goyer and Friedman used a familiar narrative, and it is the reason it feels more like a bad imitation of the worst ‘Star Wars’ tale. This is not the same for Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’. Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is a mythic saga. Other than changes by the director for running time and artistic interpretation it is the same story by Frank Herbert. ‘Foundation’ failed with audiences because it tried to be something it wasn’t, and ‘Dune’ succeeded because it was what people expected.


Defining Science Fiction.

I just listened to an intriguing podcast on Science Fiction with Damien Walter where he tries to answer, ‘What is Science Fiction?’ (https://damiengwalter.com/2021/07/20/what-is-science-fiction/). In it, Walter brings up what he calls the three fallacies concerning science fiction. He says science fiction is not a genre as it is more like an artistic movement, it is not just “speculative fiction”, and not entertainment. I agree with what he said about two of these fallacies and slightly disagree with him on one.

First, what I agree with. Having viewed and read science fiction since I was a small child I have been inspired to write science fiction stories. For most of my life, I’ve done this as a hobby, something I did as a form of expression, to tell stories to myself. Now, encouraged by my wife’s publications, I wish to take this hobby and turn it into something that I can share with others. One of my wife’s questions, she writes epic fantasies, was what specific subgenre I was writing in. Well, I never considered that because to me science fiction is just that, and to break it down to a subgenre, or a sub-sub-genre seemed to me to be a ludicrous idea. Why would I want to pigeonhole myself into a specific slot and limit my creativity? Why does a story need to be limited to a specific arbitrary group when it can be more than that? “Who’s your target audience?” she answered. So the idea is a marketing tool and not a real literary definition. I agree with Damien Walter in that science fiction, with its crossover into many media forms and influence is more of an artistic movement no different than, say, post-modernism. It is only defined into its narrow literary definition of “genre” and all its “subs” to make it easier for the people who market it. So, the difficulty in defining it comes from it not being a specific product.

Is science fiction speculative fiction? Yes, it can be. But is it speculation? Not necessarily so. If you take science fiction out of being a genre you can do so much more with it along other avenues of thought. Rod Serling’s ‘The Twilight Zone’ did this in many of their stories. It wasn’t always about the “if this now, this is where we’ll end up” but at times about “here we are, now take a good close look at it”. Science fiction is storytelling with one foot in reality and the other in fantasy. It is the combination of the imaginative and the rational into one narrative. Technology, physical phenomenon (e.g. time travel, black holes, etc.), and non-human encounters are aspects of the setting unless they are the protagonist/antagonist of the story. They do not define science fiction but are part of the framework. I think Damien Walter’s explanation of science fiction as the melding of the “Mythos/Logos” is very much true. It is storytelling using the abstract notion of creativity with the rationality of realism. It is a form of expression distinctly unique as in any other artistic movement, for a movement it is.

Is it entertainment? Now, here is where he and I disagree. The reason I want to be a published writer is not that I want fame or notoriety, or to make a butt-load of money but to tell a good story. Storytelling is one of the oldest endeavors that first evolved in humankind. Our ancestors told stories around the campfire to educate and, depending on the manner it was told, to entertain. You can make the daily hunt more interesting if you tell it in a certain way. Storytelling is entertainment and science fiction is or should be, about the story.

-A.M. Holmes

The 4 Categories of Star Wars Fans

All 9 of the “Skywalker” saga not including the side “Star Wars” story movies.

I love all sci-fi from books to movies to tv series so there are times like these where I can step back and watch what makes a “true fan” of a particular franchise.

As an observer, I find that ‘Star Wars’ fans fall into 4 categories that have a similarity to religious divisions. They are as follows,

1. Those that love the original 3 (as shown in the theater) movies and read the books as canon. They don’t like the later movies (especially the ‘Phantom Menace’ and ‘The Last Jedi’) and had a stroke when “The Mouse” took over.

2. Those that love all 6 movies from Lucas (including the digitally remastered), read the books as canon. They feel a little weird about ‘The Phantom Menace’ and hate ‘The Last Jedi’. They feel apprehensive about “The Mouse”.

3. Those that love all 9 movies plus the side stories (‘Rogue Squadron’ ‘Solo’), love ‘The Mandalorian’, have never read any of the books, feel J. J. Abrams has done okay, and are open to see what “The Mouse” does as long as they don’t ruin it (whatever that means).

4. And those that love all things ‘Star Wars’ -the movies, the t.v.shows, the games, the merch, EVERYTHING. They have even gone to Disney World to see Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Of course, there are those that overlap and just like religious fanatics, the most conservative of zealots are the most vocal.

And don’t get me started on the ‘Star Trek’ fans and their Paramount/Bad Robot/CBS divisions.

Star Trek: Discovery First Episode, ‘Brother’

Who needs movies when Disco with its special effects and script are going to be this good! Glad to see more of the bridge crew and development of Saru and Tilly. After the seriousness of the 1st season, it’s good to see some lightheartedness (“cry like a baby tribble in a kill zone” 🤣 ). Anson Mount as Captain Chris Pike-👍Good job overall! 👏 We’re looking forward to the rest of the season.

Star Trek Fans -Good News!


Exciting news! Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) is coming back and so is Sir Patrick Stewart. It was announced by Alex Kurtzman, Executive Producer of Star Trek: Discovery, and Stewart at Star Trek Las Vegas (Capt. Picard in New ‘Star Trek’ Series for CBS All Access). In an article earlier this year, also from Variety, I think, Kurtzman had suggested that an animated Star Trek series was in the works and that it would be a continuation, or reboot involving an alternate timeline TNG. I doubt it will be a live action because either all of the actors have aged too much for the roles (Brent Spiner, for example, can not be the age-less Data) or are involved in other projects (although, with Jonathan Frakes directing on DISCO, he could be available for voice roles). One more thing, animated series have worked really well for the Star War franchise so it’s only logical that Star Trek should do the same. 

-A. M. Holmes



I read a posting on INTROVERT, DEAR titled Quit Making It a Crime to Be Quiet in the Classroom that I can relate to. I was a very quiet, awkward child in grade school and there was only one teacher that I remember, a Mrs.Truxell (sic) that ever got me. I still remember the book on dinosaurs she gave me because she understood how fascinated I was (still am) about those creatures. Just because a child seems to be quiet and not so outgoing doesn’t mean there’s something wrong or make them mentally ill. It may simply be that they are blessed with a certain introspectiveness most people can not understand. But in this age of mental health concerns how do you know the child may need help? Simple, get to know the child, find what their interest are, and most of all, never judge nor presume.

-A. M. Holmes


Natural Selection versus Genetic Drift in Single nucleotide polymorphisms, SNPs


Research published from The University of Queensland indicates that natural selection plays a greater role than genetic drift in SNPs dealing with height, waist-to-hip ratio, BMI, and schizophrenia among European, African, and Asian populations (Does evolution make us or are we just drifting that way?). Led by Professor Jian Yang from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience and Queensland Brain Institute, the team used more than 400,000 genetic samples from African, East Asian and European populations to determine if the SNPs (pronounced as “snips”) showed a tendency towards randomness, implying genetic drift, or not, and thus natural selection.


The results showed that for SNPs such as height, waist-to-hip, BMI, and schizophrenia, there was a greater frequency for height among Europeans; a greater BMI number for Africans with Europeans having greater than Asians; both Europeans and Africans falling out of the mean for schizophrenia. None of these traits showed the tendency towards a random distribution which indicates that for these SNPs natural selection plays a greater role than genetic drift. In other words, what this study says that rather than in the colloquial debate of Nature versus Nurture it’s more like Selection over Nature and Nurture not having a factor at all. This is important in that it gives hope for the potential to treat certain ailments, such as schizophrenia through treatments such as CRISPR. 

It has left me to wonder how much of natural selection over genetic drift influenced hominin traits? Eyebrows/brow ridges, robust/gracile, even “having a chin” how were these more a product of selectivity among groups than randomness among Neandertals, Denisovans, and modern humans? More intriguing, could this be applied to culture as well? 

-A. M. Holmes



Wow, and I thought I was a Progressive Thinker.

Three female scientists discussing their research

This morning I got a Twitter notification from All Revolutions (@RevolutionsCen) about an article from The Atlantic by Ed Young (@edyong209 ) where, as he tells it in I Spent Two Years Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in My Stories , “I knew that I care about equality, so I deluded myself into thinking that I wasn’t part of the problem”.  He had seen how a lot of his articles reflected a gender bias he never intended to portray. Reading this opened my eyes to the fact that even though I claim to be “gender-blind” I wasn’t doing any better. Here I’m thinking I’m a progressive thinking person now to find out I’m as dirty as our misogynist President (I wasn’t aware of Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer Doudna, and CRISPR). I was fooling myself completely. Now I begin to wonder where else has my supposed “blindness” toward gender, race, or ethnicity has misled me to promote instead the same prejudices I have always felt unjust?  The article is very enlightening. Also, it has good resource information at the end of it.

-A.M. Holmes