The OF Blog: Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune

God Emperor of Dune (1981), the fourth volume in Frank Herbert's Dune Chronicles, is the oddest of the series to date to place.  Set 3500 years after the events of Children of Dune and 1500 years before the events of the fifth novel, Heretics of Dune, it is a bridge novel that somehow also ends up feeling as though it were as separated from the fictional "past" and "future" of the series as the titular character, the transformed pre-Sandworm/human Leto II Atreides, appears to those around him.  This perhaps might be the most difficult of the series to categorize and to analyze briefly.

The structure of the novel differs significantly from the previous three.  Although Herbert still utilizes chapter epigraphs to provide thematic content related to plot developments inside the novel, the voice of these epigraphs shifts away from distant observers toward Leto II himself, via the use of "stolen journals" and official recordings. I seem to recall reading somewhere that Herbert originally had envisioned this novel being told exclusively through the voice of Leto II; it certainly feels like there are vestiges of that in the way that epigraphs and several of the dialogues between Leto II and others are constructed.

When I first read this book back in late 2001, it was, along with the first book, my favorite in the series.  In re-reading it, I found myself remembering why I had held this book in high esteem, although I also noticed several structural elements this time that I had either downplayed or ignored in my initial read.  Depending on how one takes Leto II's personality (-ites?) and the observations that Herbert makes through his titular character in regards to human motivations, sexuality, religious practice, etc., this book either will be a thought-provoking read or a horrid mess of a didactic dialogue that needs to be expunged from the reader's mind. 

The story begins as Leto II is approaching the final stages of his transformation into a full-blown Corialis sandworm.  Due to the environmental changes begun in the first three volumes, Arrakis is no longer an arid planet.  The precious spice melange stopped being produced with the last death of the sandworms.  Leto II controls all of the spice supplies necessary to keep the constituent parts of the old Imperium barely functioning.  He is worshiped by some, such as the Fish Speakers he created out of elements of old Terran myths, and reviled as the Tyrant by others.  Leto II's life is the tragedy of those who never have been allowed to be fully human and that is the starting point of this novel.

Leto II's Golden Path, the planned future for humanity envisioned by him and his now long-dead sister Ghanima (and earlier rejected by his father, Paul Muad'Dib) that is to save humanity from a cataclysm called Krazilec, is progressing at a horrible (and predicted) cost to human impulses.  Leto II has seized control of the Bene Gesserit breeding program and he has introduced new elements into the human genetic pool, elements that add quicker speed, endurance, reflexes, and ultimately, in the form of Siona Atreides, protection against prescient powers such as Leto II himself.  It is a project that has taken a huge toll on those involved, particular Leto II himself, and it is this cost and how others around him fail to understand it that becomes the core of God Emperor of Dune.

In shifting the focus inward to Leto II, Herbert appears at first to de-emphasize the complex interactions of people, their political, religious, and social structures, and their physical environments.  However, upon further consideration, each of the issues introduced in the first three volumes finds fruition here, in Leto II's manipulations of each of these ecological elements.  Although Herbert's interpretations of the origins and uses of certain elements (such as the nature of warfare, his take on utility of homosexuals, view on how the genders vary, etc.) are a bit questionable at times (the Jungian interpretation that Herbert gives, through Leto II and later Moneo Atreides, of the juvenile nature of homosexuality is pretty much discredited today), those elements do contribute to the story's focus on the terrible cost Leto II is enduring to protect the human species from extinction.

Although as an intellectual exercise God Emperor of Dune might be above-average, as a novel it is stylistically a mess.  Herbert rarely showed an ability to write evocative passages revolving around strongly-drawn characters and in this novel, outside of Leto II, the other characters, from the latest Duncan Idaho ghola revival to the descendants of Leto II's sister to the religious/military orders now existing in the Imperium, are all little more than ciphers who appear to exist more to serve as the foil for Leto II than they do to create a vivid story.  While doubtless Herbert's concerns were more with the exploration of the consequences of human genetics and their actions and mistakes, the lack of a strong discernible plot and dynamic characters to develop both plot and themes renders several stretches of this novel almost as bone-dry as the Saheer desert that exists as Leto II's training area and nostalgic stomping grounds.

At this point in my re-read of the series, I am resigned to the fact that Herbert's style does not appeal much to me.  The faults that I've noted in previous commentaries are again reflected here, as the tendency to have internal monologues to show the narrative and character tensions gets rather tedious after a while.  Yet there is something compelling about the story despite the problems I have had with the prose and characterizations.  It is Herbert's vision of humanity and its possible futures that intrigues me, even when I disagree with his assessments of specific elements.  God Emperor of Dune was a slog for much of the time, but despite this, I am more curious than I was before to re-read the last two volumes and see how the consequences of the actions here play out.

5 comments:

Ian Sales said...

I've said for years that the last two Dune novels by Frank Herbert are better written than the preceding four. It'll be interesting to see if you agree.

Larry said...

I have fond(er) memories of those two, so it'll be interesting to see if that holds up. Read the first 60 pages or so of Heretics of Dune already and it is easier to follow.

Joe Sherry said...

I kind of want to do a Dune re-read now. I think I've only read each book once, though it took me two shots to get into God Emperor (and when I did, I very much enjoyed it).

If memory serves, I agree with you on Herbert's writing. He seems to work better on a conceptual level than a prose level.

Daniel Ausema said...

This has been interesting to read your reactions to rereading this series. The 14/15-year-old me absolutely hated this book, after loving the first, liking the second a lot, and liking the third quite a bit. I reread the first a few years ago but had little desire then to continue rereading the series. It'd be interesting how different the book would strike me almost 2 decades later.

Larry said...

Re-reads after a lengthy period can be a good thing. I've said elsewhere that I don't believe that texts are immutable. They shift in meaning as the readers who interpret them change with time and experience. Perhaps one or both of you will re-read and comment on the series. That'd be great. If not, perhaps with another book. Regardless, I suspect there'll be things relearned and things learned differently. Part of the magic of thinking/reading, I suppose :D

 
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