I genuinely love Frank Herbert's "Dune" and despite disappointment in the way a lot of things played out after the first book, I still think it's a fantastic universe. After all, you have a richly textured, far-future setting full of giant monsters, feuding houses, philosophical commentary and a kid who does space drugs, gets in a knife fight and saves the universe. What's not to love?
The Spacing Guild plays a crucial role in the Dune universe, as this is the organization that transports everything from world to world — and its navigators perform their jobs by ingesting massive quantities of the fictional drug Melange. This "spice" gives them the gift of precognition: the ability to perceive events that have not yet occurred. Only by glimpsing the future can they dodge the countless disasters that await them in interstellar travel.
If you've read the books or seen the movies, you already know that. But this is where the real-life comparisons get exciting. Outside the pages of science fiction, the Soviet Union allegedly entertained the notion of using psychic cosmonauts to navigate in space. The planned program was just one of many Russian and U.S. projects aimed at evaluating the possible military applications for the paranormal.
A 1973 study compiled by the RAND Corporation for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) makes special mention of Russia's plan to launch psychics into orbit:
"Regarding precognition, we found only one (unverified) report, by a Soviet investigator, that a program was being planned to train astronauts to 'foresee and to avoid accidents in space.' It was clear from the context that he was referring to precognitive process."
Obviously none of this quite worked out, much like the alleged attempt to test psychic communication by sacrificing a litter of baby rabbits on board a Soviet submarine (also mentioned in the RAND study). The idea was that the mother rabbit, located on the surface, might receive psychic signals from her dying young. Yep, it's kind of monstrous. It's the paranormal. It's magic. And when we hold up the candle of science, we see them for the fictions, cons, legends and lies that they are.
So, to clarify, the Soviet space program depended no more on psychics than it did on giant sandworms — and, by all means, consider the unverified nature of the report cited in the RAND study as well. But the idea that such a paranormal-rooted program was even proposed in the 20th century is thoroughly fascinating. It makes me think, in a quantum sorta way, that there's a universe out there where cosmonauts glimpse the future, Cold War spies wield telekinetic powers and science somehow prospers with the aid of paranormal ability.
But what about psychic soldiers? Read my post over at HowStuffWorks.com and imagine a world where the U.S. Army employs faith healers on the battlefield.