The OF Blog: Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune

Heretics of Dune (1984), the penultimate volume in the original Dune Chronicles, was simultaneously the easiest and the most difficult to read of the five novels read so far.  I ascribe this to the structural and plot shifts in this novel, but the degree to which I enjoyed this novel depended upon how quickly I was able to adapt to the narrative focus shifting away from the Atreides descendants to the Bene Gesserit and the latest in the long line of Duncan Idaho gholas.  It was not the easiest of adjustments, especially at first.

For most of the series to date, the Bene Gesserit, who apparently were modeled after Catholic religious orders (I seem to recall a comment, I believe in God Emperor of Dune, where Leto II compares them, in an unfavorable fashion, to 16th and 17th century Jesuits), have been presented either as cold-hearted genetic manipulators or as active antagonists to the Atreides protagonists of the previous four novels.  It took some adjustment on my part to view the narrative here in light of their extended stage time.  If it weren't for the reappearance of the Idaho ghola and yet another Atreides descendant, I am not for sure if I would have been able to buy the shift in narrative.  Herbert certainly did not do too much to help change reader perspectives of the Bene Gesserit and, later, the other main forces in the old Imperium.

As was the case with the previous volume, Heretics of Dune is set well after the events of the previous novel.  1500 years have passed this time since the "transformation" of the God Emperor Leto II into what his worshipers on the now again-arid planet of (Ar)Rakis call the Divided God.  The pent-up frustrations that had built up in the human species under Leto II's rigid 3500 year control have exploded into a universes-expanding event called The Scattering.  Recently, some of forces within The Scattering have returned to the lands of the Imperium and led by the Honored Matres, they seem hell-bent on unleashing destruction whenever they cannot manipulate their way into control.  Only the Bene Gesserit, their untrustworthy allies-by-necessity the Bene Tleilaxu, and the military prowess of the recalled Bashar Miles Teg (whose purposeful resemblance to the old Duke Leto I plays a major role in the novel) appear to stand in the way of the Honored Matres gaining complete.  And on Rakis, a long-foretold controller of the sandworms, Sheeana, has appeared.

Although Herbert did cover these topics to some degree or another in his previous four volumes, in Heretics of Dune, the religious backstories behind the Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilaxu come to the fore.  The religious fervor of the Zensunnis and Zensufis and how each have affected some of the motivations behind the the groups' actions throughout the series makes for some fascinating scenes.  However, Herbert appears more interested, as he did to a lesser extent in the earlier novels, in the cynical manipulations of the religious orders than on the consequences of the faiths of the various groups.  I could not help but to wonder if this focus on the manipulative forces within religious communities might have contributed to the sense of cold distance that I had on several occasions here and in the earlier novels whenever there would be scenes involving religious groups.  There just seemed to be little to these faiths other than how religions can control people and shape their desires. 

The characterizations were better here, perhaps because there was not as much of an introspective bent to the narrative.  The Bashar Miles Teg and the latest Duncan Idaho ghola in particular were interesting because more time was spent showing their inner conflicts, as Herbert did not seem to rely as much upon internal monologues to drive the plot as he did in the earlier novels.  In fact, Idaho plays a much more central role to the plot here, although at first it took a while for Herbert to explain just exactly why the Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilaxu kept reviving him centuries after Leto II's sandtrout dissolution.  Having him be, even more so than was the case in God Emperor of Dune, a source of "wild" genes in the thousands of generations of genetic crossbreeding added an intriguing element to the plot, one that I'm curious to see if it will carry over to Chapter House:  Dune

I found the narrative, and in particular the prose, to be easier to focus.  As I noted in my previous commentaries, Herbert's prose often was dense at the expense of a good story flow.  Here, with the lessening of internal monologues and on showing the effects of the changes introduced in the first four volumes, everything seemed to flow better.  This is not to say that there weren't some interesting concepts introduced or explored here.  The Honored Matres and their manipulations of males was in turns intriguing and off-putting.  Having biological developments, particularly of a sexual nature, enhanced by training certainly created a looming menace to the Honored Matres, although this also had its drawbacks.  One scene late in the novel involved the Honored Matre Murbella and Duncan Idaho was a bit disjointed in how clinical a sex scene was described.  This was especially true in reading descriptions of a "pulsing vagina," which unfortunately conjured up images closer to the infamous South Park episode starring Oprah's minge.  Suffice to say, Herbert did not write a good sex scene there.

I am going to hold back on discussing my perceptions of gender roles in the latter Dune novels until the next one, since Chapter House:  Dune reads more like the second half of this novel rather than a distinct novel of its own.  I will note that despite exploring the backstories more here, Herbert certainly left much to be explored.  I wonder if Heretics of Dune was indeed conceived as the opener of a trilogy, as it had the feel of setting up situations and the chief participants more than it did as something that could be read semi-independently of the other novels.  Regardless, I enjoyed it more this time around than I did when I originally read it back in 2001.  Looking forward to the final volume, despite knowing that Herbert's original vision most likely was not fulfilled in the stories co-written by his son and Kevin Anderson.

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