Science Fiction Classics: God Emperor of Dune (by Frank Herbert)

Now at last we come to one of the most divisive entries in the Dune Chronicles. It’s not hard to see why. After all, this is a novel that has as one of its main characters a man who managed to make himself a hybrid of human and sandworm. To be honest, when I long ago read the cover of this novel, I thought it sounded ridiculous, a far cry from how things had started out in Dune. Now that I’ve finally finished the first three volumes, the fourth does make more sense than I thought it would.

To be fair, the novel is weird, particularly in comparison to the other entries in the series. By this point, 3500 years have passed since Leto first began his transition into a human/sandworm hybrid. He now rules as the supreme authority in all of the universe, known as the God Emperor. Utterly convinced that his is the only path by which humanity can avoid catastrophe, he represses dissent in his domain. However, he has begun to lay the groundwork for his own downfall, which will come about at the hands of Siona and another ghola version of Duncan Idaho. At the same time, Leto has also begun to find himself falling in a strange sort of love with the Ixian Hwee Noree.

Despite the novel’s absolute strangeness, I found myself absolutely captivated by it. In part that’s because the character of Leto himself is so bizarre and yet so utterly compelling. This is a creature that has given up almost all semblance of his humanity in order to bring about what he sees as the salvation of humanity, and there is in his story (as there was in his father’s) a profound tragedy. This is particularly acute for the reader that remembers Leto as the child that he was in the previous novel (though of course he was never really a child, since he has had full consciousness from birth). The fact that Leto feels himself so drawn to Hwee, even though he also knows that he stands at the brink of his own death, heightens the sense of tragedy.

It’s sometimes been said of this book that it indulges too much in Leto’s own delusions about his godlike status. However, to me that rather misses the point. The novel makes no bones about the fact that this creature is, indeed, a tyrant, and it betrays a certain ambivalence as to whether his actions–which he claims were taken in order to prevent humanity from destroying itself–are really just a cover for his own desire to rule over everything in his power. To a large extent, it seems that the final determination on that particular question must lie with the reader though, for my part, I think that Leto’s strenuous command of the entire narrative–almost every chapter has an excerpt from one of his journals–definitely skews it in his favor.

Though Leto occupies a substantial portion of the narrative, the other major players are Duncan Idaho and the rebel Siona. I’ve always found it particularly haunting that Idaho, who served the Atreides so faithfully, should be endlessly replicated through the centuries. Of course, Idaho gholas have played a significant role in each of the previous two novels, but this one is different, somehow. As the last being other than Leto himself that has a memory of what things were like before, he is something of a conscience figure, for both us as readers and for Leto himself. More than any of the other iterations of the character, he is a reminder of the old system of morality and order that existed before the rise of the God Emperor and the decline of the old Imperium. It’s small wonder, then, that it is he who joins with Siona in order to bring about the end of his rule.

Whereas Duncan is the past, Siona is the future. The product of numerous generations of Leto’s select breeding of the Atreides breeding, she has been chosen by Leto bring about his end. Like so many other members of her family, she finds herself caught up in forces that she cannot control, responsible for moving history forward. In bringing about the end of Leto’s reign, she sets in motion something that will radically reshape Dune (yet again), whatever her own wishes might be in the matter. Though parts of the novel are from her perspective, she still remains something of an enigma, though it’s always nice to see a woman do something in a science fiction novel rather than just serving as window dressing.

As much as I enjoyed God Emperor of Dune, however, I also found myself wanting to understand more about the events that transpired in the three and a half millennia since the last installment of the series. In particular, I found myself wanting to know the eventual fates of the many characters that we met in the last installment, people like the Lady Jessica (always one of my personal faves), as well as the tragic Princess Irulan, and of course Leto’s own sister Ghanima. Of course, I know that sometimes less is more when it comes to these sorts of stories, but I’m also the sort of person who wants to know each and every detail about characters, particularly ones that I’ve spent so much time with. What’s more, I wanted to know more about how the Fremen have become the degraded beings they are by the time of the events of this novel, reduced to merely aping the practices of their ancestors.

For all of that, this novel is a bold and risky one. It’s the rare author who would attempt a time jump of such magnitude between book and the next, and it’s a testament to Herbert’s skill as a storyteller that we as readers are brought so immediately into this world that he has created. I’ve already begun reading Heretics of Dune, which takes place a millennium and a half after the fall of Leto. I can’t wait to share all of my thoughts with you!

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.

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

Having finished Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune, I decided to dive right in and begin the second volume, Dune Messiah. While it lacks some of the narrative richness of its predecessor, in many ways it is even more theologically and philosophically sophisticated, as Paul must contend not only with the consequences of the jihad he unleashed upon the universe, but also with a conspiracy and with the ever tightening noose of his own prescience.

The novel begins several years after Paul seized the throne. The Fremen have swept everyone before them, and Paul is now the undisputed ruler of the Imperium. However, there are those that see him as a danger that must be removed, among them a Navigator from the Spacing Guild, a Tleilaxu Face Dancer, the Princess Irulan, and a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit (none other than Gaius Helen Mohiam herself). While their plan ultimately fails, it is enough to both physically blind Paul and send him wandering into the desert and his presumed death.

Given that this is Dune we’re talking about, there is a great deal of discussion about Paul’s powers of prescience. By this point, they have become more a prison than anything else, a millstone around his neck that he can’t shake off. It is, however, the one thing that allows him to prevent even greater violence and, just as importantly, to protect the lives of those that he loves (to an extent, at least). Indeed, I would argue that one of the novel’s great strengths is that it not only explores the philosophical underpinnings of prescience and its consequences but also shows how those consequences manifest in Paul’s life and his physical well-being. Paul, ultimately, is a sort of negative tragic hero, denied the fulfilling life that some might think that he deserves.

For it is also true that the novel also raises potent questions about the relationship between faith and politics. In many ways, the world that emerges in the aftermath of the Paul’s jihad is very similar to that faced by all political and military movements that emerge from religious fervor that centers on a powerful, charismatic individual. Paul has the distinct disadvantage of still being alive while the theocracy he leads is built around him, and even his prescience isn’t entirely enough to prevent the seeds of rebellion from taking root. In Messiah, as in its predecessor, Paul is simultaneously omnipotent and completely impotent, caught in an impossible position that he alone has made possible.

One of the most surprising things about this novel is how much it manages to pack into its relatively short length. In it, we not only see the birth and growth of the conspiracy that will ultimately cost him his eyes, but also the conflicted nature of his sister Alia, the conflicted loyalties of Irulan and, perhaps most importantly, the ghola Duncan Idaho, who has been resurrected by the powers of the Tleilaxu. His presence is a troubling and unsettling reminder of the powers that this reclusive group wields, in this case the ability to resurrect dead flesh. What is particularly striking here is that even though Duncan is at first distinctly not the same as he was when he was alive before, Paul is able to force his former persona to resurface. It’s a pivotal moment in the novel, positing the radical idea that there just might be memories, and fundamental aspects of who we are as individuals, buried deep within our cells. It’s a fascinating and troubling idea.

It is also a remarkably pessimistic novel. When, at the end, Paul walks into the sands of Arrakis, leaving behind his two newborn children, his sister, and his lieutenant Stilgar behind to rule his empire, it’s a breathtakingly devastating moment. This is the man, after all, that we as readers have followed since the very beginning of his journey to the top of the universe. It’s tragic, in the truest sense of that term, that he is unable to attain the rewards that he clearly deserves.

If I have one minor complaint about the novel, it’s that the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, one of the shrewdest women in the Imperium and a key part of Paul’s own rise, is killed off-screen on Alia’s orders. While it makes sense that Alia would engage in an act of retribution for the death of her brother, it seems to me that a character like Mohiam would have, at the very least, deserved a more meaningful death.

Overall, however, I quite enjoyed my re-read of Dune Messiah. While it doesn’t quite attain the epic grandeur of its predecessor, it is nevertheless a worthy successor and a compelling prelude to the many things to come.

Science Fiction Classics: Dune (by Frank Herbert)

I’m not sure what prompted me to go back and reread Dune, the science fiction masterpiece by Frank Herbert. I’ve read it several times now, but something just keeps drawing me back to it. Part of it, no doubt, is the fact that it is basically the sci-fi equivalent of The Lord of the Rings, and it focuses more on politics, philosophy, and religion than it does on science. Part of it also has to do with the fact that it continues to be a part of the cultural conversation, both because Herbert’s son Brian (along with his coauthor Kevin J. Anderson) continue adding to the series and because there is a hotly anticipated new film adaptation coming this fall.

For those who haven’t read it, the novel focuses on Paul, the heir to Duke Leto Atreides. When his family is betrayed and his father killed, he flees into the desert of the planet Arrakis with his mother, the Lady Jessica. Ultimately, Paul learns to live among the Fremen and ultimately leads a revolt against the Emperor Shaddam, after which he claims the throne for himself.

What I found most fascinating about the novel is the way in which it manages to give us insight into the science that makes the planet of Arrakis work as well as the politics that surround it. In the universe that Herbert has created, the vast edifice of the Empire rests on spice, without which nothing can function. The entire novel is, in some ways, a potent warning about the dangers of an entire society building its fortunes and its most fundamental structures on one resource. Indeed, the various powers come to realize that they have been very foolish indeed to not only rely so much on the spice but also to underestimate the Fremen, who end up being key to Paul’s bid for revenge against his family.

Yet it is just as much a rumination on the power of biology and destiny to shape our lives. By the end of the novel, Paul has come to accept that the jihad that he has attempted to keep from happening will in fact spiral out of control no matter what he does. Like so many other epic heroes that have emerged in literature, Paul is in the unenviable position of being a super powerful figure–his very existence is due to a generations-long genetic experiment by the group of sorceresses known as the Bene Gesserit–that is nevertheless helpless to really change the course of events that surround him. Though the full extent of this powerlessness won’t manifest until Dune Messiah, even in these early days it is clear that Paul will ultimately become the victim of his own success, a figure that has both extraordinary power and yet none at all.

There are, of course, a whole host of other characters that are equally if not more compelling than Paul, foremost among them his nemesis the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He is, without a doubt, an absolutely fascinating figure, precisely because so much of him remains unknown (though more is revealed in the prequels published by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson). Equally interesting is the figure of the Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, who is a testament to the ability to science fiction to feature strong women.

Re-reading the novel, I was struck by how neatly it cleaves into two separate parts. The first part is the well-developed one that shows the complex web of politics and scheming that brings the Atreides to their knees, as well as showing how Paul gradually finds himself drawn into the world of mysticism and foretelling that will shape so much of his future destiny. The second half occurs after a time jump and, to be honest, still feels a little less-developed than the one that preceded it. Even now, it feels as if the climax of the novel is a bit rushed.

Admittedly, there are some things about the novel that don’t age particularly well, chief among them Baron Harkonnen’s penchant for young boys, which falls far too neatly into the pernicious stereotypes that evil people must be sexual perverts. Though one rather expects this sort of lazy storytelling from others, one would think Herbert would be above it.

All in all, though, I loved Dune just as much this time as I have in my previous readings. It’s one of those rich and textured works of literature that is both infinitely accessible and yet continually full of new meanings to be explored.