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God Emperor of Dune, Frank Herbert, Berkley, 1983, 423 pp. (originally published in 1981)

God Emperor of Dune follows closely on the events that conclude Children of Dune, if that can be said about a sequel that takes place approximately three thousand years later. What is the Golden Path that made Paul Atreides do what he could to avoid it and that his son Leto took upon himself? Here we find out, in what can only be described as strange mix of excruciating detail and essential vagueness. God Emperor of Dune has little suspense in the ordinary sense -- we find out on page 14 from Leto what will happen at the end. But the rest of the book proceeds in odd tension to that revelation, as everything marches forward according to normality. Odd seems a good word for the little touches that mark God Emperor of Dune in many places (does anyone care to explain Nayla's orgasm in the third last section?), and I would use the word disturbing for some of Herbert's historical generalizations. But despite whatever faults I might ascribe to the book, I also felt it hard to stop reading, and the milieu was just as fascinating in its own way compared to the three earlier books.

As I said, Herbert chooses to reveal the ending of the book on page 14. So without much of a spoiler warning, I quote that little passage. Leto, the God Emperor, is thinking to himself: "I often think about my final metamorphosis, that likeness of death. I know the way it must come but I do not know the moment or the other players. This is the one thing I cannot know. I only know whether the Golden Path continues or ends" (14). Leto has been ruling for three thousand years at this point, in his half-human, half-sandworm body. Much of the plot that fills in the next four hundred pages has to do with the inner tension that Leto feels between his human-self and his worm-self. Or put another way, whatever little plot that does exist is swamped by Leto's verbosity. As I said in my reviews of earlier Dune books, the plot of God Emperor of Dune mirrors that of Dune Messiah. Unfortunately, what was lean and straightforward in Book Two has become bloated and less interesting in Book Four. Paul was much more of a tragic character, whereas Leto is not struggling against his fate in the same way. Herbert is making a point about Leto's loss of humanity, but it still saps quite a bit of sympathy and urgency from the plot.

That is unfortunate because many of the players in the unfolding story are quite interesting. Nayla, apart from the scene where she has an orgasm for no particular reason, is a bit player with some depth, like the Bene Gesserit Anteac. Moneo and his daughter Siona are both well-portrayed, with Moneo's slow breakdown and Siona's leaps in intuition and power being believable and shown in their actions. I liked how Herbert used the ghola of Duncan Idaho, and how this particular Duncan differentiated himself from the stream of others in the previous three thousand years. I didn't understand the whole Hwi Noree subplot, and I was a little bothered by her portrayal as a "perfect" woman. Every man with tyrannical powers over the universe needs a self-effacing woman to vent some spleen towards, apparently.

On the whole, Herbert carries off the necessary fiction of a three thousand year old superbeing and his internal thought processes. Leto can see the future and access the lives of all of his ancestors, which gives Herbert a glorious opportunity to pontificate with Leto as his mouthpiece. Sometimes the voluble reflections are engaging and serve the plot, like the following two examples. Leto is thinking about jihads and violence: "What is anathema? The motivation to ravage, no matter the instruments" (42). Just like my next example, here we see part of Leto's own motivation for his actions on the Golden Path. Later on, he is talking to Hwi Noree about planning the future: "'Most believe that a satisfactory future requires a return to an idealized past, a past which never in fact existed'" (390). But other times, Herbert seems to lose his bearings in the freedom of trying to speak with surety of such a being as Leto -- witness the section on pages 91 through 99 about homosexuality in the military and about female nature.

I will close this review with two smaller peeves. Leto often takes potshots at people and institutions that his listeners know nothing about, like the Jesuits, as if the thirteen thousand years since the Jesuits of our day couldn't furnish a better example. And while I typically like the kind of framing device that Herbert uses for God Emperor of Dune, here I was hoping for more open-endedness, considering how tightly planned the rest of the book happens to be. Book Four of the Dune series has many of the same strengths as the previous three, and I was indeed kept up late at night. Readers with stamina should read God Emperor of Dune in order to be prepared for the excellent sequel, Heretics of Dune.


Last modified: September 24, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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