Science Fiction Classics: “Children of Dune” (by Frank Herbert)

Having finished Dune Messiah, I decided to move right into Children of Dune, the third novel of Frank Herbert’s magisterial Dune Chronicles. While it still has the feel of the previous two novels, events have begun to move quite quickly, and the characters, particularly the titular children, have to move swiftly in order to keep up.

This novel has a bit of something for everyone. For those who enjoyed the political aspect of the original novel, there is a lot of palace intrigue, as various factions both within the court and outside of it scheme for power. For those who loved the Fremen and the sandworms, there’s some of that, too. And, of course, there is also a lot of philosophizing, particularly as young Leto II has to contend with the burdens placed on him by his father’s mission.

There are there tragedies that punctuate this story. The first is that of Alia, the sister of Paul and one of the key members of his regime. Since before birth she has had the ability to sense the various voices of her predecessors (and this is why she is known as an Abomination to the Bene Gesserit). Unfortunately, she proves unable to withstand the voices inside of her head and one in particular, the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (her own grandfather who died at her hand in the original novel) gradually takes possession of her, twisting her psyche until she becomes a tyrant as bad as any that occurred previously in the series. In the end, she chooses to end her life rather than continue doing the bidding of the corrupt voice in her head. It’s rather heartbreaking to see this character that we have been with almost since the beginning perish in such a way, but it’s a reminder of the terrible price that power takes in this world.

The second tragedy is Leto II. Tortured, like his father, with prescience, he has seen the future that lies in store for humanity and knows that he must make the choice that his father refused. While it’s unclear what, exactly that entails for most of the book, near the end we realize that it entails becoming one with the very sandworms that are such a key part of the Arrakis ecosystem. I’ve often wondered how it is that we get from Children to God Emperor, and now I know. I have to say that it felt a little bizarre to see a character become a human-sandworm hybrid, but within the context of the series it makes sense. Leto, unlike his father, knows that the only way to see humanity follow his path is to become a god, with all of the power, and the immortality, that such deification entails.

The third is, of course, Paul himself, who returns from his exile in the desert in the form of the figure known only as the Preacher. While the novel leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not this mysterious man is indeed Paul until the very end, in a meaningful conversation with Leto it is revealed that he is, indeed, the hero of the previous two novels, come back to condemn the excesses of the regime that he left behind. Ultimately, he returns near the end of the novel to condemn his sister Alia and her tyranny but, alas, he doesn’t even get a death that has all of the grand drama that one might desire, since he is slain on the steps of the temple by outraged priests. It’s an ignominious ending for a man who managed to remake the entire universe in his own image, and that is no doubt the point. In the universe that Herbert imagines, there is no satisfactory conclusion for those who ascend to the highest ranks of power, only death and disillusionment.

It’s easy to see why this novel marks the point at which many people quit the series. While the palace intrigue and religious ruminating are definitely part of the overall ethos of the Dune books, you can’t escape the fact that the novel ends with Leto becoming a hybrid of human and sandworm, one that is seemingly destined to rule over the universe for millennia. For some people, that’s enough to turn them off. For others, this novel is a conclusion to the Paul narrative arc and thus don’t feel the need to proceed. In my opinion, though, they’re shortchanging themselves (I’ve already started God Emperor and I love it).

For my part, I personally found this novel to be one of the most exciting (and challenging) in the series, precisely because of the fact that it breaks new ground. It has to be said, however, that Leto’s transformation, and all of its consequences, renders the political machinations of several of the characters ultimately moot. After all, a significant part of the novel deals with the efforts of the disgraced House Corrino to regain the throne that they feel is rightfully theirs. Irulan’s daughter Wensicia is, at first, the instigator of this plot, her son ultimately banishes her and is, finally, granted the position of recorder for Leto.

There are, however, a myriad of unanswered questions. What happened to Jessica? Or Ghanima, for that matter? What about Irulan, the Corrino princess who became a sort of surrogate mother figure for the two children? These were some of the more fascinating characters in the series, and I found myself feeling a little let down that they didn’t get a fitting ending (especially since God Emperor takes place three and a half millennia after the events of Children).

Like its predecessors, Children of Dune asks some important philosophical questions, forcing us to confront the nature of tyranny, history, faith, and government. Is it acceptable, or desirable, for a figure to take control of the universe if that means that it will avert the destruction of humankind? What is the best kind of government? Can faith unite people or is it doomed to divide?

It’s the engagement with these questions that makes the Dune books such an enduring pleasure to read.