The OF Blog: Frank Herbert, Children of Dune

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Frank Herbert, Children of Dune

Children of Dune (1976) serves as a mini-resolution of sorts for the Dune Chronicles novels.  In this third volume, several of the thematic and plot developments of the first two novels, Dune and Dune Messiah, come to a head, as author Frank Herbert continues his exploration of the complex ecological relationships of humans; their (anti-)heroes; their hierarchies of politics, social networks, and religions; and the ways that his imagined worlds affect and are affected by their physical, social, and moral environments.  It is not an easy novel to read, however, as I found out in my first re-read (and second total read) since 2001.

If Dune Messiah served in part to illustrate the corruptive aspects of (prescient) knowledge and power (as embedded in Paul Muad'Dib's struggles to rein in the Jihad done in his name), then part of Children of Dune's attraction for readers drawn to the political/moral elements of Herbert's first two novels will be the application of this insidious corruption to Paul's younger sister, Alia.  However fascinating it was to see her descent into depravity at the hands of an ancestral element within her, what I valued most about Children of Dune was how Herbert inverted some of the plot elements introduced in the first novel.

Set nine years after the concluding events of Dune Messiah, Children of Dune revolves in large part around three members of the Atreides family, the above-mentioned Alia and Paul's two young twin children, Leto II and Ghanima.  and how each deals with the ancestral memories that were awakened in them before their physical births.  Much of the narrative tension deals with how Alia succumbs to the malevolent guiding of one of her ancestors, while the two twins struggle to learn how to cohabitate with these ancient memories/personalities.  It is this narrative tension between the choices that these three characters make that I found to be one of the more fascinating parts of this book, especially as Leto II becomes more and more cognizant of that terrible prophetic future that his father tried so desperately to avoid during the course of the first two novels.

Surrounding this narrative core are several peripheral conflicts that resonate with earlier events - the scheming of House Corrino to retake control of the Imperium, the mysterious and nefarious legend of Jacuruku and what that might portend for Arrakis's present and future, the runaway effects of the windtraps and other measures to reverse Arrakis's desertification, and the moral outrage, as embodied in the mysterious blind prophet The Preacher, against the deleterious effects that power and ready water have had on the Fremen in the quarter-century or so since Muad'Dib came into the desert.  The complex interactions between these several subsidiary conflicts quickly come to a head in ways that I found both intriguing and very frustrating.

It was at times difficult to remain engaged with the text.  As noted in my earlier reviews, Herbert was not as much interested in the characters for their own sake, but instead for the ideas and symbols that could be expressed through them.  The passages involving Lady Jessica and the Corrino heir, Farad'n, were at times tedious to read, in large part due to the sense I got that their repartees were more to explore ideas than to explore their characters.  It is a weaknesses of mine, I suppose, to lose interest when characters become more symbols of ideas than actual dynamic personages, but one of the difficulties I had with this novel was the overly didactic nature of the character interactions.  While at times these type of exchanges were necessary and occasionally were even entertaining (such as the talk between Ghanima and Leto II before their decision on the Golden Path was made, or the conversation late in the novel between Leto II and The Preacher), on the whole, the dialogue in Children of Dune was the weakest of the three for me in terms of there being a natural ebb and flow.  Stilted dialogue, compounded with a near surfeit of chapter epigraphs spelling out certain plot/theme elements, can lessen enjoyment after a while.

However, much of these deficiencies were counterbalanced by the evolution of the ecological element of how humans adapt to/are adapting their environs from a planetary level to a more universal one that encompasses the moral, spiritual, social, religious, and political subsets of human sociology.  I am intrigued with the implications of Leto II's Golden Path and the reasons why his father had rejected it.  There is a lot of foreshadowing in this book of elements that I believe Herbert addresses in much greater length in his final three volumes (and which he probably intended to address in the never-completed Dune VII), especially in regards to the apocalyptic Kralizec, or the Typhoon Struggle.  Herbert devotes much more space here to concerns of how lax and complacent humans have become in the ten thousand years or so since the Butlerian Jihad and how fragile their continued survival as a species truly was despite their control of the hundred planets or so of the Imperium.  Very curious to see how he develops these points in the remaining novels.

So while I did not enjoy Children of Dune as much as I did the first two novels, I did find it to be a valuable part in broadening the narrative to encompass concerns about human survival and evolution.  Although Herbert's prose was again not very appealing to me, he does manage to set up quite a few intriguing conflicts that play out over the course of the book, as well as developing the seeds of future conflicts.  As a "bridge" novel, it does its tasks competently, although not spectacularly.  Mild recommendation at best, but mostly for those who were fans of the first two novels.

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