What I’m Reading: God Emperor of Dune

Over the past couple years, I’ve been re-reading what at one time were my favorite books ever, Frank Herbert’s Dune series.  In a previous post, I decided that my estimation of the series had fallen a few notches since high school, due largely to the stilted dialogue and a somewhat overwrought writing style.  Nevertheless, the world-building and cool concepts still left me with an overall positive impression.  This time out, I’m reviewing the fourth book in the series, God Emperor of Dune.

This book jumps forward 3,500 years (!) from the events in the previous books, where we had last seen Leto II, rightful heir to the galaxy-spanning empire, physically combining his body with the sandtrout (precursors to the spice-producing sandworms on the planet Dune) that would provide him with near-immortality, though at the cost of his humanity.  At the opening of GEoD, the symbiotic relationship with the sandtrout is well advanced, with only Leto’s human face and hands left, embedded at one end of a massive wormy body.

Politically, Leto Atreides has come to totally dominate life in the galaxy.  The sandtrout provide his human brain with massive doses of the spice, giving him visions of the future and memories of humanity’s past, while his control of Dune allows him to regulate the flow of spice to the rest of the galaxy, and his Fish Guards, an all-female army who worship Leto as a God, are feared across the empire.  All the great organizations of the previous books are highly curtailed–the Spacing Guild is little more than an intergalactic bus service, the Bene Gesserit religious order is a fraction of its former size, the technology-building Ixians and body-cloning Bene Tleilaxu severely circumscribed in their ability to act.

Under Leto, the galaxy is under an enforced peace and war has not been seen for generations.  But his reign has a deeper purpose as well, for in his visions he saw that humanity was on a path to die out.  By carefully manipulating the various strands of social, political, and religious life in the empire, Leto means to avoid this and guarantee humanity’s future, what he calls his Golden Path.

Nevertheless, all is not well.  A new clone of Duncan Idaho, the swordmaster to the Atreides, has recently arrived on Dune (Leto has a new one grown every time an old one dies–keeping a piece of the old days around) to take command of the Fish Guards, and this new Duncan is highly skeptical of God Emperor Leto and his total control of human life.  The daughter of Leto’s major domo, Siona, is leading an underground rebellion against Leto on Dune itself.  Finally, the Ixians have sent a new ambassador to Leto’s court, Hwi Noree, a beautiful and sensitive woman bred specifically to appeal to Leto’s long-dormant human side.  These characters and their plotting and machinations bring Leto’s millenia-long reign to a crisis point.

This book is quite different from the first three in the series.  For one thing, many chapters are structured something like a Platonic dialogue, with Leto using his vast store of experiences and knowledge to lead a character via deep conversation to a new way of thinking.  I get the feeling he’s something of a stand-in for Frank Herbert himself, providing Herbert’s views on religion, morality, and human nature, rather like Jubal Harshaw in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  Despite that, the action in the book moves along fairly briskly, and Leto is such a fascinating character that these long conversations don’t drag.  At least they didn’t for me.

Another difference is a strong undercurrent of eroticism.  Leto’s vision for his Golden Path requires him to manipulate human breeding, weeding out the brutal and the slow-witted, and selecting for the creative and physically hardy.  However, his ethos leads him to avoid forcing people to act whenever he can, instead convincing them his way is best or otherwise maneuvering them to make his preferred choices.  A repeated theme involves his efforts to get certain characters to notice the physical attractions of other characters, thus leading them to mate with the right partners for Leto’s program.  Oddly, I didn’t remember this aspect of the book at all from when I last read it 20 or more years ago.

It’s almost impossible for me to imagine someone coming into this book cold and reading it through to the end.  A reader would really have to have read at least one or more of the previous books in the series to have a prayer of understanding it.  Yet, it’s so different in tone and content from the previous books that I would think many Dune fans might also be repelled by it.  Personally, upon this re-read, I find it rivals Children of Dune as the best in the series, with thought-provoking themes and compelling characters (still a lot of stilted dialogue, though).  Overall, I can’t recommend it generally, but for a reader who has some familiarity with the Dune universe and isn’t afraid of a science fiction book pretentious enough that this reviewer can see parallels with Plato’s works (not that Dune fans aren’t familiar with pretension…) this makes for fine reading.

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