The Classics are must-see, must-read, must-play works revered by The Verge staff. They offer glimpses of the future, glimpses of humanity, and a glimpse of our very souls. You should check them out.

Frank Herbert is well-known, even amongst less hard-core science fiction fans, as the author of Dune. However, few have heard of The Jesus Incident, a later work written in collaboration with poet Bill Ransom. First published in 1979, the novel tells the story of a warring group of humans and clones, placed on a terrifying yet beautiful planet by a god-like figure known as Ship.

'The Jesus Incident' challenges religious beliefs, political opinions, and even sexual taboos

Like the Dune series, The Jesus Incident also has a messiah-like figure and grapples with similar philosophical questions, but the latter has a brilliance of description — likely due to Bill Ransom’s contributions — that the earlier novel lacks. The majority of events take place on Pandora, a planet of extremes populated by unique creatures like the peaceful, orange, jellyfish-like hylighters that float in the sky, and a sentient kelp that communicates by flashing multicolored lights. However, Pandora is also home to its own particular horrors, like nerve runners that enter the human body through the eyes to feast on nerve tissue.

Despite being largely unknown, The Jesus Incident has served as a source of inspiration for games like the Marathon Trilogy (from Bungie, developers of Halo) and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. It also seems pretty clear that the novel inspired parts of James Cameron’s Avatar — the planet’s name and the presence of sentient, planet-wide vegetation are just a couple of the parallels — but I’m hesitant to associate such a wonderful piece of literature with a thoroughly mediocre film. However, where the plot of Avatar fell flat for a lack of originality, The Jesus Incident goes above and beyond, challenging religious beliefs, political opinions, and even sexual taboos. In fact, this novel contains one of the most disturbing and fundamentally unsettling sex scenes that I have ever read.

The book is, in its own way, a religious experience

The Jesus Incident is, in its own way, a religious experience. The novel grapples with what an omniscient, omnipotent god would actually be like, and how such a being could interact with mankind. It also touches on common science fiction themes like the nature of reality, genetic engineering, colonization, and political corruption, but applies them to a plot heavily steeped in Christian mythology. While all the religious references may be a little off-putting for some, it’s worth sticking with the book for the challenging worldview it presents as a conclusion. Oh, and there’s time travel.

Although it’s technically the second book in the series, The Jesus Incident may be the best place to start. The first book, Destination: Void, was written solely by Frank Herbert, and strays often into hard science fiction — it’s safe to skip if you’re not interested in extremely technical explanations on how to create an artificial consciousness. The following two novels, The Lazarus Effect and The Ascension Factor, are similar to The Jesus Incident in voice and scope, and advance the conflict between humans and Pandora. The whole series encompasses events spanning about 500 years, and like all outstanding science fiction, raises some profound questions about human nature and our society today.