Sunday, April 13, 2008
God Emperor of Dune
Our book today is God Emperor of Dune, Frank Herbert's 1981 third sequel to his massively successful and influential Dune, and even just that half of a sentence suddenly requires about a year's worth of explanation and clarification, which we here at Stevereads will attempt to boil down to just a couple of enjoyable paragraphs, as a public service (and to save ourselves some labor, since we plan on writing about all the other sequels in due time). And it's not just a factual rear-guard action we have to wage, informing and filling-in, no: because in addition to everything else, we've found that the sequels to Dune, in and of themselves, are apt to spark arguments from Manhattan to the Ivory Coast.
The gist of the matter is this: somewhere in the early '80s, an idea took hold in what, for want of a better term, we'll call the science fiction community, and that idea was this: Dune is, of course, great - but either a) Dune Messiah stinks, Children of Dune is good, but all the others - God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune, all stink, or b) all the sequels stink. This opinion was disseminated wide and far and can today be heard firmly parroted by science fiction fans who've never actually read any of the books in question.
This idea is almost entirely wrong. It's true, Dune Messiah is a very, very rare creative misfire by Frank Herbert. But all the other "Dune" books are fantastic, each in many ways better than the one before it. Herbert's art grew wiser as he grew older. There are epic battle-scenes in Chapterhouse:Dune that are drawn with only a handful of extremely deft master-strokes, and God Emperor of Dune is full to over-brimming with a gigantic and playful wisdom. It's in every way a thoroughly remarkable book, poorly served by the knee-jerk condemnation floating around the sci-fi world, a condemnation made all the easier by the largely atrocious books churned out lately by the author's son.
For those of you coming cold to the world of Dune, a few preliminary words: the setting is the far, far future, a galaxy-spanning empire ruled by an emperor and fueled by the spice melange, which prolongs life for those wealthy enough to afford it, and the mind-expanding qualities of which allow the navigators of the Spacing Guild to ply the space-lanes between star systems, thus making the empire possible at all. The spice occurs on only one planet: Arrakis, the desert planet - Dune.
In Dune, the control of the spice is wrested from the empire by the desert people of Dune, lead by an exiled scion of a noble Imperial house, Paul Atreides. He thereby becomes the most powerful man in the empire, and when a resurgence of his enemies manages to kill his infant son Leto, he's devastated and names his next son Leto as well. This second Leto grows to young manhood in an empire controlled by House Atreides but riven everywhere by striving power factions - the Spacing Guild, the shape-changing Tleilaxu, rival imperial houses, Fremen purists from the sand-villages of Dune, and perhaps most effectively of all, the Bene Gesserit, an ancient and secretive quasi-mystical sisterhood following their own long-sighted ends. Leto II's grandmother was a Bene Gesserit, and he grew up both schooled in their ways and resentful of them.
In response to a crisis in Children of Dune, Leto does something remarkable and unprecedented: he accepts the larvae of Dune's enormous, savage sandworms into his own body. They begin immediately to make physical changes that give him physical abilities which allow him to save the day in that book, but the after-effects are unknown.
Those after-effects are the main scaffolding of God Emperor of Dune, because the novel opens thousands of years after the close of Children of Dune. As far as we're aware here at Stevereads, this is the only time such a devise is used in all of science fiction, and it's only made possible by that amazing gamble young Leto II takes in the previous book. Because it turns out the sandworm organisms he grafted into his body have changed that body, strengthening it and altering it as they slowly, gradually transform Leto into the title character, the God-Emperor whose rule has lasted for thousands of years. In God Emperor of Dune Leto is no longer human in any way - not only is he physically transforming into a great sand-worm, but he's mentally coping with being a not an individual but a self-defining community, vastly older than everybody around him, constantly incubating a plan, a hideous, long-term plan to at last domesticate humanity.
Herbert captures all these utterly weird eventualities with a width of vision that's hugely, dramatically convincing. Long, long hours of deep contemplation perhaps gave these insights to Herbert (that, and losing his beloved wife, a loss he heartbreakingly makes memoir of in a later Dune volume), but the genesis of it hardly matters - the result is a book of precipitate speed and power. Here, for instance, is God-Emperor Leto wistfully contemplating his lost humanity:
I feel the vanished parts of myself. I can feel my legs, quite unremarkable and so real to my senses. I can feel the pumping of my human glands, some of which no longer exist. I can even feel genitalia which I know, intellectually, vanished centuries ago....
Herbert has many strengths as a writer, but his strongest by far is his ear for dialogue (two things should be pointed out here: first, this is, oddly enough, the hardest trick for writers to master, and second, Herbert's son utterly fails at it - hasn't written a convincing word of dialogue in thirty years). In Heretics and Chapterhouse his dialogue explodes off the page, becomes in and of itself an action, but even in God Emperor it's achieved a crystalline quality most science fiction writers can only dream of:
"Where did you get the spice-essence?" Leto asked.
"We bought it from smugglers," [Bene Gesserit sister] Anteac said.
"There've been no smugglers for almost twenty-five hundred years."
"Waste not, want not," Anteac said.
Events in God Emperor of Dune are pre-ordained - Leto has the spice-gift of predicting the future, only to an extent no other savant has ever approached, and he's plotted the course of his life down to the last 'accident' that twists its path. But somehow, Herbert manages to weave this element of pre-destination throughout all his "Dune" books without ever sapping the dramatic impulse that pulls them all forward. The entirety of the series (possibly excepting Dune Messiah) is hugely worth your time, regardless of nerd-sci-fi prejudices, and we here at Stevereads - being immortal and semi-human ourselves - favor this particular book above all the others in the series. The next time you see a paperback of it for 40 cents, take a chance and dig right in!