The OF Blog: Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune

Friday, April 30, 2010

Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune

Chapterhouse:  Dune (1985) is the last Dune Chronicles novel that Frank Herbert managed to complete before he died in 1986, leaving behind apparently only an outline for the final volume in this second quasi-trilogy set in the Dune universe.  Knowing this before re-reading it made for at-times uncomfortable reading experience, as I found myself detecting what I suspect were clues as to themes, plot events, and character developments that he had planned to address in the never-written seventh novel (I discount what Herbert's son, Brian, and Kevin Anderson wrote, since I suspect that they added quite a bit of extraneous material that they had invented and did not stay true to any outline, if such did in fact exist, that Frank Herbert had created before his untimely death).  However, on the whole, Chapterhouse:  Dune was one of the better "middle volumes" that I have read in some time.

The story picks up eight standard (Earth?) years after the events of Heretics of Dune.  The Honored Matres, freshly returned from the Scattering that followed Leto II's transformation/death 1500 years before, have furthered their wrathful conquest of the old Imperium.  The Bene Gesserit have been driven underground, forced to seek refuge on their "secret" planet/new headquarters of Chapterhouse.  The newly-discovered Atreides descendant/sandworm handler, Sheeana, has helped the Bene Gesserit begin the process of turning that planet into a new Dune.  On board the Ixian no-ship, which keeps prying prescient eyes from detecting him, the latest Duncan Idaho ghola, now possessing all of his serial memories, has to train the clone of the late Miles Teg, who died on Rakis fending off the Honored Matres before they blasted the planet into a lifeless shell those eight years before.  The former Honored Matre (Matron?), Murbella, is being trained to become a Bene Gesserit.  And there are Jewish refugees aboard the ship as well, a secretive remnant of the Imperium's oldest surviving religion.

These are the basic characters and plotlines that stretch across the last two novels.  As he did with Heretics of Dune, Herbert spends more time developing the characters and their precarious situations than he did in the previous four volumes.  There is a greater sense of urgency throughout the book, making it perhaps the quickest and easiest to read of the six volumes.  This is not to say that Herbert skimped on the challenging themes and ideas that were present in the earlier novels. If anything, the way that both the Honored Matres and the Bene Gesserit interact with each other and with the people surrounding them serve as prime examples for the ideas that he has explored throughout the entire series.

Early in this series, I noted that these books, particularly the first, read like "ecological novels."  I went on to explain that the complex interactions between human groups, their value systems, their economic systems, their political arrangements, their religious hierarchies, and the influences they had on the living and non-living parts of their environs and how there was also a reciprocal relationship in which their surroundings altered and affected each human interaction group - all of these formed a complex ecological web that affected events within the story.  In Chapterhouse:  Dune, it was the exploration of the survival instinct, connected with Leto II's Golden Path, that drove much of this novel's narrative.

Although I was not very fond of Herbert's application of sexual activity and bondage through sex in this novel and the previous one, he certainly brings to the fore the idea that it is within sexual interplay (not necessarily just intercourse) that the seeds of human change and desire first develop offshoots.  Why do the Honored Matres exploit sexual desires in order to control males?  What has them (and later, the Bene Gesserit) so fearful about survival?  What deaths occur within the "little death" and what futures spring forth from them?  These are some of the underlying questions that I asked myself while re-reading this novel for the first time in nearly nine years. 

What is so important about Duncan Idaho and "wild" genes?  Finally, Herbert began to hint just what Idaho's ultimate role might be.  Throughout the series, he has been a loyal (sometimes, too-loyal) supporter of the Atreides, who had originally rescued him from the Harkonnens at some point prior to the first novel.  But as the series progressed, Idaho became more than just a sort of mute Chorus for the Atreides tragedies that were unfolding.  He became a gene source that would be introduced at certain times to produce offspring that contained wild, unpredictable powers, something not always to the liking of the Bene Gesserit.  But here in Chapterhouse:  Dune, through the careful denials placed in strategic places, it seems Idaho may be akin to what the Bene Gesserit had hoped to produce before Muad'Dib appeared:  a Kwisatz Haderach, a shortener of the paths.

While I will not weigh in on the unfinished narrative arcs dealing with Murbella, the surviving Bene Gesserit, the plots of the sole surviving Bene Tleilaxu, Scytale, and the Jews onboard the no-ship, I will note that Herbert did develop these arcs just enough to make me wish fervently that he had lived to complete the seventh volume, as there are so many issues involving free will and fate that are left unresolved here that I was left frustrated when I read the final volume and came to realize just who "Marty" and "Daniel" might have been.  But life, in its complex forms, did appear to go on at the conclusion and that, I suspect, is a large part of what Frank Herbert wanted to explore in this quasi-trilogy.  A shame he didn't live to finish it, but at least this novel was as enjoyable as the last two.  Very glad that I undertook a re-read, as I find myself with a greater appreciation for Herbert's accomplishments, despite the flaws and odd world-views that I noted in previous commentaries, than I had after my initial reads in 2001.  Certainly worth the effort for any who have vacillated on reading these novels.


Chad Hull said...

I never would've guessed le petit mort played a part in Dune.

Larry said...

I had forgotten about it, but yeah, when the Honored Matres enter the scene in the fifth book, it's one of the ways they control the male (pet) population.

vwanner said...

I'm curious, who DO you think Daniel and Marty might have been?

Larry said...

Well, Herbert hints strongly that they are independent Face Dancers, so I came to think of them as being personifications of Free Will. I know Herbert's son and Kevin Anderson portray them as being two machine intelligences from their prequel series.

Adam Whitehead said...

"I know Herbert's son and Kevin Anderson portray them as being two machine intelligences from their prequel series."

The British way of ending this sentence would be, "...but that would be total bollocks, obviously."

Larry said...

Ha! Well, I think the Southern way I could have ended it would have been, "But those two fruitcakes wouldn't know their asses from holes in the ground, so who gives a rat's ass about their takes, right?" :P

Paulo Faria said...

It's implied they are face dancers who are semi-immortal (using clones with transferable other lives, like Ducan himself) and free willed through an offshot of that weird other-lives genetic ability that the bene gesserit have, maybe also the consensus that a appears on children of dune, but applied to their victims.

Specifically that would explain some of the bene tleilaxu and the bene geserit antipathy, besides the obvious philosophical differences.

Paulo Faria said...

Larry said...

Sounds like a good, plausible explanation. Thanks! :D

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