Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Source of the Butlerian Jihad?

Pardon me, but the English geek inside me is coming out. Remember as Dave Barry said, if you can easily come up with idiot interpretations of novels, you should major in English. I majored in journalism, meaning I could easily come up with idiot interpretations of news events. Same thing.

So here’s my idiot interpretation of Samuel Butler’s contribution to Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Herbert, author of the Dune novels, may have taken the name of Butler and the idea of a societal rebellion against machines from Butler’s novel Erewhon into Herbert’s books as the Butlerian Jihad, in which sentient robots and thinking machines were banned, with the ensuing chaos and violence that the word jihad implies. This is certainly not an original thought, as many Dune enthusiasts (I hesitate to call them scholars, since there are no endowed chairs, at least that I know of, for the pupose of literary study of the Herbert canon, though it would not surprise me at all to find someone, several someones, who have focused on Herbert in masters or doctoral theses. I'll bet Comic Book Guy would have a few words to say on the subject.) have also come to the same conclusion. There’s a lot of disagreement, however, most of it superficial, such as this.

I believe there is strong evidence that supports Herbert’s drawing on Butler’s name and Erewhonian philosophy as background for the Butlerian Jihad.

Butler’s Erewhonians believed that an overreliance on machines would weaken humanity and cause natural selection to stumble in allowing weaker humans, aided by machines, to continue contributing to the gene pool. This belief is in line with the criminalization of illness in Erewhon, where diseases of the body were treated as crimes and justly punished, while what we consider to be crimes – embezzlement, tax evasion – are tolerated under Erewhonian law as proof that the minds that performed such activities are stronger than those that do not, pushing the drive to succeed by any means above the drive to succeed honestly.

In addition, Butler’s Erewhonian scholar writes:

The misery is that man has been blind so long already. In his reliance upon the use of steam, he has been betrayed into increasing and multiplying. To withdraw steam power suddenly will not have the effect of reducing us to the state in which we were before its introduction; there will be a general break-up and time of anarchy such as has never been known; it will be as though our population were suddenly doubled, with no additional means of feeding the increased number. The air we breathe is hardly more necessary for our animal life than the use of any machine, on the strength of which we have increased our numbers, is to our civilization; it is the machines which act upon man and make him man, as much as man who has acted upon and made the machines; but we must choose between the alternative of undergoing much present suffering, or seeing ourselves gradually superseded by our own creatures till we rank no higher in comparison with them, than the beasts of the field with ourselves.

Here we see the roots of and consequences of Herbert’s Butlerian Jihad. Erewhonians feared overreliance on steam. Herbert’s empire-dwellers feared the overreliance on thinking machines. Despite the fact that withdrawing the steam/thinking machines all at once would introduce a period of anarchy, both the Erewhonians and Herbert’s people chose war, rather than continue to become subject to the machines they created. Both there Erewhonians and Herbert’s people prepared alternatives – Erewhonians relied solely on men, judged by horse-power, to accomplish the work of the steam-engines; Herbert’s people used the mentats. But both in Erewhon and in the Empire, overreliance on machine became overreliance on the “machine” built to replace the machine, leading to the same general conditions the rejection of machinery and the jihad were meant to overcome.

Not until mélange is made synthetically Рand never in Erewhon Рis the paradigm shifted enough to bring about another revolution.

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