The Bene Gesserit in To Boldly Go

Many people who read Frank Herbert’s Dune focus in on the environmental aspects of the plot. What I remember most, not surprisingly, are the female characters:  Princess Irulan and her memoirs, Chani and the Fremen, Alia and her relationship with Duncan Idaho, and the famous Lady Jessica. All of them had an influence on their society but in different ways.

Someone I know had agreed to write a chapter in a book on military strategy, leadership, and how these are represented in science fiction literature. We had talked about her work and where it might go, what she might write about. We both liked Dune and were intrigued by the Bene Gesserit, the female order whose motto “I exist only to serve” is simple on the surface but contains a multitude of meanings (for example, serve whom?). I jumped in as a co-author and we wrote the chapter on that organization and their place in the society  that is sometimes called the “Duniverse.”

You can read “I Exist Only to Serve: The Bene Gesserit and Informal Power,” co-written with Kelly A. Lelito, in To Boldly Go: Leadership, Strategy and Conflict in the 21st Century and Beyond, edited by Jonathan Klug and Steven Leonard. Casemate published the book in October 2021. It’s past one of the major gift-giving holidays but if you received an Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Bookshop.org gift card you can still pick up a copy, or buy directly from Casemate.

Our premise is that when people are locked out of the formal power structure, as women are in the Duniverse, they find other ways to influence the world around them. The Bene Gesserit do that in an organized and stealthy fashion. They can’t rule in their own name, but they educate and train many of the daughters, wives, and concubines of rulers. While this training is presumed to be of the domestic variety, how to be diplomatic and act as a good hostess, the lesser-known parts of the curriculum include statecraft, physical fighting, control of one’s own body, including fertility, gender of children, and breathing. They provide advisors and truthsayers. They can modulate their voice in such a way to control or influence those who hear it. These are not docile housewives (if, indeed, there actually is such a thing).

The Bene Gesserit are also involved in a generations long breeding program to bring forth a messianic male figure; even they could not imagine a woman playing such a role. As a student of folklore, I was also fascinated by their Missionaria Protectiva program – on new worlds they plant the kernel of stories that other members of the order can play upon when landing on that planet in greater numbers. In the initial Dune book there isn’t a lot of backstory for the Bene Gesserit; it is teased out in bits and pieces. Because they are women in a male dominated world they are overlooked.

People often overlook things they weren’t expecting to find or that don’t fit their worldview. As one simple historical example, people talk about discovering oil. That isn’t accurate. It has always been there. What we discovered was a use for it. Women in the workforce, whether as mill workers, or Rosie the Riveter in World War II, didn’t appear out of nowhere. Women had always been there; it’s just that other than domestic help there wasn’t a place for them outside the domestic sphere.

A discerning mind learns to look for things that are present but unseen. For military strategy this is a necessity, as the present but unseen can be dangerous.

Doing research for the chapter I used both a print and digital version of the text. We limited ourselves to the first book in the larger series, as it introduced the Bene Gesserit, and some of the other books took place in much different time frames. Studying a group over a large geographic and chronological area becomes difficult when working with a short document like a book chapter, and as this book contains 35 chapters each is allotted a relatively small number of pages. All of the chapters are interesting and provide a good introduction to military science fiction, or just science fiction generally, in print, on television, or in film. It is a great way to dip into a large selection of works, and then decide what to read in depth.

Interestingly, one of the more difficult aspects of writing the chapter involves a quote from Sun Tzu. I read it initially in a Sunday newspaper supplement, I think an article in Parade, but am not certain at this point. However, the quote wasn’t footnoted. I couldn’t use it without a citation, so I started searching to find the edition it was from. I couldn’t find it, and all of the editions I did find used different translations, each with a different nuance. I finally did find one I could use. That took longer than any other aspect of the research. It’s odd the things that trip you up with a writing project!

About juliemstill

Julie Still is working on a dissertation in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg. She has a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Library Science from the University of Missouri, and an M.A. in History from the University of Richmond.  Librarian by trade, writer by choice, once (and future?) Girl Scout leader and community participant, she reads history (all kinds), science fiction / fantasy (ranges from Scalzi to McKillip), mysteries (varied), and more.
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