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: “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.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Tarkin” (by James Luceno)

As I continue my journey through the expanded Star Wars universe, I continue to find myself drawn to the books about some of its most iconic villains. Thus, I decided to read Tarkin, because I’ve always found him to be a fascinating character. So far we’ve only seen him in two films, and in neither one do we get much of an indication about what makes him tick and why he’s devoted himself so fully to the Empire and its nefarious purposes.

In Luceno’s book, we get a bit more insight into both of those areas, though not as much as I would have liked. The story follows two tracks, one in the present that focuses on Tarkin’s attempt to track down a group of rebels, and the other focuses on his youth and the brutal training he undergoes at the hands of his kinsman Jova.

There are parts of this book that really work. The scenes that flesh out Tarkin’s past–in particular his brutal survivalist training–were compelling, if only because it’s rather difficult to imagine the buttoned-up Tarkin actually mucking about in the forest. This past allows us to understand why it is that a man like Tarkin would throw his lot in with the Empire and become infamous for his willingness to use the threat of power to intimidate everyone into bowing before Imperial might. In essence, Tarkin has internalized the law of the jungle. While this threatens to drain him of any sort of moral compass, it also allows him to rise high in the Imperial administration.

The portions of the book told from the point of view of Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine also draw you in. Anyone who knows me knows that I think that Sidious is one of the best things to ever happen to the Star Wars universe, and I’m glad that we get to see some of the inner workings of his complex mind here. Even though Luceno’s Darth Plagueis has been declared noncanon, it seems that some aspects of it–including the revelation that Darth Plagueis was Sidious’ master–are to remain canon. In this novel, we get a stronger idea of what makes this enigmatic villain tick, including his ultimate desire: to literally bend the fabric of reality to his will.

Other aspects of the novel, however, threaten to drag down the narrative. Luceno is clearly one of those authors who allows himself to get a bit enraptured by the technology of Star Wars. We are thus frequently treated to lengthy descriptions of the various types of ships, as well as catalogues of just what types have appeared at any particular moment. There are also clunky descriptions of ship mechanics and actions. While this might be pleasurable for some people to read, I have to admit that I found it rather a chore, and there were even times when I found myself skimming to get to the good bits (and I rarely do that). Some discussion of technology is fine, of course, but not at the expense of character and development.

Overall, I’d place Tarkin somewhere in the middle rank of the newly-established canon of Star Wars novels. It’s a bit too short to really give us an extensive dive into Tarkin’s psychology, and it too often gets side-tracked with the ostensible “good guys.” This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if they were given the sort of development that would make them genuinely likable and understandable characters, but as it is they sort of feel like cardboard cut-outs. I continue to find it strange that books that are supposedly about villains spend just as much time in the heads of the heroes. Frankly, if I wanted to hear from the heroes, I’d read one of the dozens of other books set in the Star Wars Universe (or watch the movies, for that matter).

Still, I enjoyed Tarkin, and I’d recommend it to those die-hard fans who want to get a glimpse into an important period in Star Wars history. Other, more casual fans, might be advised to skip this one.

Now it’s on to Timothy Zahn’s new series focused on Thrawn, another of the most iconic villains in Star Wars. Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Phasma” (Delilah S. Dawson)

In my opinion, one of the best things about the sequel Star Wars trilogy was the enigmatic villain known as Captain Phasma. Unlike all of the other villains of the story, we never really learn much about her and, unfortunately, she met a rather premature death in The Last Jedi. For those who were frustrated by the rather cursory way in which she was dispensed with, Delilah S. Dawson’s book, focused on her early life and related through those who knew her, is something of a corrective.

The novel is related primarily through three different characters. One is Vi, a woman who works for the Resistance (but is not part of it); Cardinal, the First Order captain who captures her and forces her to tell him what she knows about Phasma; and Siv, a young woman who was part of Phasma’s clan on the dying planet of Parnassos. Through these three characters, we get some measure of insight into the past events that have shaped Phasma and made her into the ultimate expression of the First Order’s philosophy.

Indeed, what I personally found so compelling about the novel was the insight it provides on the inner workings of the First Order. While the films allow us to imagine this organization as a sort of faceless, amorphous evil, the novels allow us to see it as comprised of a number of individuals–in this case Cardinal and the elder Hux–who do sincerely believe that the First Order is the only way of bringing some level of equality and justice to the Galaxy. They may be woefully and dangerously misguided in the methods that they seek to do this, but they are still human beings, with all of the flaws and foibles that they have.

Dawson has a keen gift of description, and through her words I gained a strong sense of what kind of Parnassos is. She ably captures the sort of life-and-death struggle that characterizes this planet. She leaves you in no doubt that Parnassos is exactly the type of crucible seemingly designed to produce a person like Phasma, committed to their own survival no matter what the cost, no matter how many other lives have to be taken in order for that to be a reality.

While Phasma is, ostensibly, the center of the narrative, both Cardinal and Siv dominate large parts of the story. Cardinal is a particularly interesting example, as he is one of those who is a true believer in the First Order and is shaken to his core by the mendacity of both Phasma and General Hux (the younger). You can’t help but sympathize with a man who has given his entire soul to an organization and its philosophy, only to discover that it’s rotting from the inside out. Siv is also a sympathetic character, precisely because she shows that it is possible for someone from Parnassos to hold true to their principles and not become a sociopathic monster.

There are a few complaints that I have about the novel, most of which have been noticed by others. Though I enjoyed Siv and Cardinal and Vi as viewpoint characters, I personally would have liked to have seen at least a little bit inside of Phasma’s head. As it is, we only get the briefest glimpse, and that doesn’t happen until the very end. What we do get is very compelling indeed, and it makes you wonder whether the novel might have been stronger with more of her in it.

And yet, I also have to wonder if that is part of the point that the novel is making. Phasma remains something of an enigma, a figure upon whom her enemies and her allies can project their own anxieties and desires. More than that, though, it may just be that Phasma doesn’t have interiority to speak of. To my mind, that makes her all the more terrifying as a villain, a potent reminder that, much as we might like it otherwise, there are some people who we simply cannot understand within our existing frameworks.

All in all, I quite liked Phasma. Though it might not to everyone’s taste, it is, nevertheless, a valuable addition to the new Star Wars canon.