God Emperor of Dune, by Frank Herbert, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1981, 411 pp., $12.95.
The Dune series—it will take a while to get over calling it the Dune trilogy—is the work of a 60-year-old ex-journalist, Frank Herbert. God Emperor of Dune is Herbert's 24th book in 25 years and the fourth book chronicling the future history of the planet Arrakis known as Dune.
The first and most critically acclaimed book of the series, Dune, hit the bestseller list in 1965. Dune and Herbert broke out of the science fiction market and into the mainstream together. Yet the move was not made by producing something less than science fiction. Dune won the Hugo, the sf award voted by fans, as well as the Nebula Award given by sf writers.
Dune initiated the saga of the Atreides family, one of the galaxy's competing royal lineages. As the book starts, the family is taking over administration of the brutal desert planet Arrakis, peopled by the Fremen, a sort of ultimate technological bedoin society that has elevated "the survival of the fittest" to a religious code. The Fremen are apparently descendants of Arabs, for their language is largely Arabic in form. Forged through the rigors of the desert into a tough and honor-bound cadre of warriors, the Fremen are eventually made the core of the Atreideses' military power.
At the center of the Fremen faith is the melange spice and the giant sandworms that produce it. Melange is the most valued substance in the universe. Besides extending life spans many times, it is crucial to interstellar navigation and a sacred tool used by the conspiratorial matriarchal priesthood known as the Bene Gesserit. The sandworms, Shai-Hulud, are 400 meters long in adult form and must be ridden at great risk by the Fremen in their rites of passage.
Paul Atreides, named Muad'Dib after his initiation into Fremen ways, uses the people and the sandworms to gain an absolute monopoly over the melange, the coin of the realm, thereby making the Atreideses the most powerful force in the galaxy. And that's just the first book.
In the second, Dune Messiah, Paul Atreides's genetic heritage, the work of the Bene Gesserit, takes an important role in the epic. The combination of his breeding and the effects of melange addiction turns him into a creature with such prescience that he doesn't even miss his sight when blinded in an assassination attempt. He continues with his plan to transform Dune into an agricultural planet, a move that will further limit the production of melange and strengthen the Atreideses' power.
Amongst the many intrigues that the family must deal with is a plot by the water sellers, threatened by destruction of the water market, to overthrow their rule. At the end of the second book, Paul walks alone into the desert and his son, Leto, begins to emerge as the dominant power of the family, now extended to most of the galaxy.
Paul Muad'Dib emerges in the third novel, Children of Dune, as a blind wandering prophet. Leto, in order to maintain his power in a struggle for control of the Atreides throne, merges with the larval form of the sandworms to become a human with a living protective skin.
It is remarkable that a plot that demands such a great suspension of disbelief should be a success in the mainstream of popular literature. Other successful crossover authors such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, and Robert Heinlein usually write fiction that is essentially realistic with the exception of some event or situation that is changed for literary purposes. They represent the all-other-things-being-equal branch of sf that makes no great demands on readers unfamiliar with the cliches and styles of the genre.
Herbert, on the other hand, has created an entire galaxy based on numerous premises that must be learned and accepted along the way. One such premise is that it is possible for a person's ancestors consciously to live through certain individuals. Another is the total absence of computers in an otherwise technical universe.
It is to Herbert's credit that he has sold the incredibly complex (in retrospect) story to the public. It can only be his artistry that accounts for the success of the first three novels and now of God Emperor of Dune. The particulars of the plot do not alone reveal what the Dune series is "about." According to Herbert, he was inspired to do the series by his interest in the effects of power, the US Postal Service being a good example of the affected.
The Atreides family provides a fascinating case of accomplished benevolent "made it evident that legal protection for power seekers. The royal family and court study power and its acquisition the way the Gallos study wine. They communicate easily in several complex languages via subtle hand and finger gestures unnoticeable to outsiders. Children are trained in manipulative techniques as soon as they are teachable. The Atreideses, as consummate philosopher kings and queens, struggle constantly with their desire to wield the forces of government for good without being corrupted or destroyed.
In the latest Dune book, the power theme is developed even further, perhaps to the detriment of the plot. Even by Herbert fans, the book has been criticized for a weak story line.
Leto Atreides, 3,000 years after he donned the sand worm skin, is actually being transformed into a sandworm himself. The lack of action, I think, can be forgiven in light of the delightful intellectual change that Leto, equipped with complete ancestral memory, undergoes. He becomes the center of religion because of his god-like powers of prediction and manipulation along with his huge worm shape. Leto's powers dwarf those of the predecessors.
The first three books deal with the moral and psychological dilemmas inherent in wielding power. The author's conflict between the effort to make rulers real and rulers heroes comes to a head in Leto. Finally, the only way to make the emperor a hero is to set him against himself. For example, Leto sets out to cure the universe of hero worship. The god-emperor becomes a "predator," seeking out and destroying those who are unfortunate enough to fall for his line.
As Leto's actions grow more onerous, his motives grow clearer. Early in the novel he tells an old friend: "We are myth-killers.…That's the dream we share. I assure you from a God's Olympian perch that government is a shared myth. When the myth dies, the government dies." In the same vein, Leto warns, "Power bases are very dangerous because they attract people who are truly insane, people who seek power only for the sake of power."
These are not new thoughts, but they are well stated in context and represent a fairly sophisticated conception of politics. I wonder if the philosophical evolution of the Atreideses is not really the story of Frank Herbert's evolution. The author even turns against heroes of the earlier novels, casting unfavorable light on those previously presented as relatively unblemished. What comes across in God Emperor is that Frank Herbert is extremely interested in, even fascinated with, the nature of government and power, and he has managed to communicate a good deal of his passion. The reader may not agree with all of his theories (for example: one of the major causes of war is latent homosexuality that comes into play in all-male militaries), but many are thought-provoking ("Scratch a liberal and you'll find an aristocrat").
Leto's power and his plans to rid the universe of governments and restore Dune to its desert state are finally threatened by his love for a woman. The end of the book is ambiguous, almost necessitating another sequel. But that's fine—a lot of people like the series.
If you liked the first three, you'll like the new one. If you haven't read them, be careful. I read the first three in less than a week only a year ago. My work, my health, and my love life suffered. God Emperor of Dune got me again!
Patrick Cox, a free-lance writer, is currently working on several contributions to the science fiction genre.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Herbert's Dune It Again".