Ever since H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the topic of time and our ability to interact with it has been at the forefront of science fiction. Time travel, time control, seeing time … and especially seeing the future. It’s this last concept that takes the main stage in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Dune is a science fiction book due to have a film adaptation out in theaters this October, and to this day it remains one of the most popular novels throughout the entire genre of science fiction. One of my favorite things about Dune is that it manages to weave one of the most well-made conceptions of prescience that I have ever been able to find, spinning together scientific ideals and lyrical writing to produce something truly fascinating.
In Dune, prescience is afforded by “the spice melange,” a psychedelic-narcotic drug central to commerce and travel throughout the universe. It produces many effects, including physical changes, health benefits, and mind alterations that can sometimes include prescience. While that last ability is extremely rare, it is not only found in the main character of Dune, Paul Atreides, but completely unleashed from its previous limits. More than just a small aid to see into the short term future, Paul is able to harness it to see entire lifetimes and consider millions of paths and possibilities. This is because he is literally born to have this extraordinary ability. His ancestral bloodlines are carefully planned, and he is trained since birth to gain mental and physical prowess. By the time the book begins, he’s already having vague dreams about the future, just by living on the planet where spice is produced.
However, his consciousness is truly expanded when he eats a meal with spice. In what is probably my favorite scene of the novel, his ingestion of the spice completely flings open the door to the true power of prescience, and the writing itself echoes this mind-changing experience.
“He sank to the floor, sitting with his back against the rock, giving himself up to it. Awareness flowed into that timeless stratum where he could view time, sensing the available paths, the winds of the future … the winds of the past: the one-eyed vision of the past, the one-eyed vision of the present and the one-eyed vision of the future—all combined in a trinocular vision that permitted him to see time-become-space.”
The prescience described here is one of the most compelling ways I’ve seen it written in any sort of novel. There is a perfect balance between an interesting, believable method of foresight, and beautiful, artfully-crafted words—capturing both the science and the fiction of science fiction.
It makes sense that time is frighteningly indeterminable, described as “winds” of past and future. We’ve all had the realization that where we are now is the effect of millions of tiny choices linked together, the overwhelming truth of the butterfly effect. There isn’t one single future; there are “available paths,” constantly flowing and crashing against each other. And these choices are particular to the science of Paul’s prescience. In other parts of the novel, it is explained that not only are the paths like waves, but they are actually literal “wave forms,” reacting to Paul’s own knowledge of the paths like “a kind of Heisenberg indeterminacy.”
For any amateur (or not-so-amateur) scientist, these descriptions help flesh out the nature of Paul’s prescience to add an extra layer to the story. The Heisenberg indeterminacy stated above is actually related to a real scientific fact, where the act of observation in an experiment can affect the results of said experiment. One example is quantum particles, which act like waves upon observation.
This concept fits in perfectly with paths in prescience, where the discrete paths turn out to truly be tumultuous waves when Paul looks too closely: “In grasping the present, he felt for the first time the massive steadiness of time’s movements everywhere complicated by shifting currents, waves, surges, and countersurges, like surf against rocky cliffs.”
And it makes sense logically too that the knowledge of possible futures would then affect those futures. Taken altogether, the description of prescience in the book is enjoyable simply because it gives food for thought, allowing us to consider what prescience would look like in the real world.
Yet that is not all. Herbert’s descriptions of seeing the past and future also include gorgeous lines of writing. In between the sharp physical description of his spice experience and the technical, scientific explanations, we get these arresting, more literary descriptions of what Paul is beginning to see:
“There was danger, he felt, of overrunning himself, and he had to hold on to his awareness of the present, sensing the blurred deflection of the experience, the flowing moment, the continual solidification of that-which-is into the perpetual-was.”
It is not just the flow of time he experiences; it is “the continual solidification of that-which-is into the perpetual-was.” It is not just wave-paths of time he sees extended into the future; it is “shifting currents, waves, surges, and countersurges, like surf against rocky cliffs.” These descriptions elevate the text from simple speculation about science into literature, imbuing it with imagery, rhythm, and pure poesy.
It also echoes a spiritual or mind-altering experience, timely for its publication date of 1965. This echo is found in the repetition of terms like “consciousness,” “awareness,” and “understanding.” Just like the psychedelic drugs popular at the time, the spice doesn’t just affect what one sees; it’s a full-blown, mind-expanding experience—not just being aware of time, but a true awareness of it.
While the technical terms give the passage scientific depth, these choices of description give the writing emotional depth. Yet the two parts aren’t at odds with each other. They are woven together, each piece relying on the other to become fully apparent. And together they make something greater than the sum of its parts: both fantastical and conceivable, lyrical and rational. The entire Dune series spans millennia, a scale so maximalist that it becomes inconceivable to the reader. It is these pieces, the actual descriptions of seeing time and interacting with it, that give that missing conceivability. And it provides that conceivability both by making sense and sounding good while doing so—by writing both science and fiction.