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Heretics of Dune, Frank Herbert, Berkley, 1986, 471 pp. (originally published in 1984)

Heretics of Dune is the fifth entry in the ongoing Dune series. And surprisingly, Heretics of Dune is a much better book than I remembered, and a distinct improvement over God Emperor of Dune (which lost favour with me on this re-reading half a dozen years after the first time through). Herbert leaps forward fifteen hundred years after the events of God Emperor of Dune, and works wonders with some new speculation and an entirely new batch of characters. He weaves together several fascinating storylines with almost the same mastery as informed Dune, and keeps the reader intent on the next revelation or twist. What is this basic suspense? There are some involved schemes occurring, and all of the mysterious machinations might become clear on the very next page. If you thought history had ended with the prescient visions of Paul Atreides, or with the millennia-long reign of his son Leto, then Herbert pulls a number of flashy new tricks out of his familiar hat. In some ways, this book belongs to the Bene Gesserit, so the intrigue is indeed intense, but we encounter more bizarre sexual behaviour from the Sisterhood and their enemies than some might wish to know.

The plot hums along nicely from beginning to end, its only flaw that it ends too abruptly. The Bene Gesserit are raising a ghola of Duncan Idaho for some mysterious reasons of their own. This clone was supplied by the Bene Tleilax, about whom we find out a great deal for the first time in the series (which enriches this book considerably). They have their own schemes for the future of the universe, which put them at odds with the Bene Gesserit. On Rakis, formerly known as Arrakis or Dune, the Priesthood of the Divided God (the remnants of Leto now scattered across the desert in the form of the various sandworms) has found a young woman named Sheeana who can control the sandworms. The other main element of the book consists of the peoples of the Scattering, the great outward flight after the collapse of Leto's empire. The scattered ones are returning, and among them are the Honoured Matres, a kind of pseudo-Bene Gesserit, who want to destroy the Bene Gesserit. Each of these storylines is encapsulated nicely in the dilemmas and learnings of the relevant characters.

Duncan Idaho is perhaps central to Heretics of Dune because of his importance to the plot developments. And we follow his voyage to self-knowledge with a kind of aching empathy, mostly triggered by the scene on page 30 where he deduces that he is a clone: "Late afternoon in the library, all of the esoteric machinery around him faded into a sensory background, and a ten-year-old sat silently before a scanner hugging the knowledge to himself. I am a ghola! " (30). Miles Teg is the most famous military commander of the day, and he is assigned to protect Duncan. But Teg is not a military man as we might know it -- in Heretics of Dune's nicest touch, we finally see some of the benefits of Leto's Golden Path as chatted about endlessly in the previous book. Take a glimpse at Teg's thought processes: "He felt as he always did just before battle: Empty of all false dreams. This was failure. The talking had failed and now came the contest of blood... unless he could prevail in some other way. Combat these days was seldom a massive thing but death was there nonetheless. That represented a more permanent kind of failure. If we cannot adjust our differences peacefully we are less than human " (108). Strong words, and ones that perhaps we don't hear often enough. Unfortunately, Teg loses much of his interest after a fantastic transformation near the end.

Teg is commanded by the Bene Gesserit. Taraza is the Mother Superior, the ultimate schemer, who, along with her friend (as much as Reverend Mothers have friends) Odrade, are tweaking their plans throughout the known universe. The two women are characterized fully, despite how much emphasis Herbert places on the fact that the Bene Gesserit repress their emotions. As part of their massive strategy, Odrade goes to Rakis to help train Sheeana. I liked the way that Sheeana was introduced, and her original encounters with the Rakian Priesthood. But her vividness seemed to fade as the mechanics of the plot took over and she became a pawn for the Bene Gesserit. Heretics of Dune has a large cast of supporting characters, and all of them are given at least some depth despite their functional role, like Burzmali, Teg's successor, or Waff, the leader of the Bene Tleilax.

The Honoured Matres have gained power because they know how to create supreme sexual ecstasy for a man. I don't want to give away the main part of Herbert's plot, but the Bene Gesserit are indeed fighting back. This kind of conflict leads to some odd moments, especially in Herbert's hyper-metaphysical writing style. I also thought that the sequence where Lucilla and Burzmali have to disguise themselves was unnecessary -- Lucilla becomes a "lady of Hormu" and Burzmali her customer. In another strange theme that runs through the book, Herbert harps on the belief that everyone should know their place and that hierarchical ways of governing are best (a theme that Leto often expounded upon in God Emperor of Dune and appears explicitly in a few of the Bene Gesserit epigraphs here, page 33 for example). Teg is thinking about the basis for this belief: "It began with the recognition that humans were not created equal, that they possessed different inherited abilities and experienced different events in their lives. This produced people of different accomplishments and different worth" (198). All of the characters in the book seem to hold this belief, and it's partly a way for Herbert to justify his subject: these advanced beings, at the top of the hierarchy, "naturally" get to do all the exciting, important, universe-shattering things. But the underbelly of this viewpoint is a contempt for the mass of un-special people, the "muck" as the Honoured Matres refer to them. Teg tries to draw a distinction between the Honoured Matres' attitude and his own: "Will I ever think of them as muck? It could only happen if he let it happen, he knew" (448). But even Teg, the enlightened military man, makes some elitist-style choices at the conclusion, writing them off as tough command decisions.

Herbert has another successful Dune book here, despite the flaws I've mentioned. Heretics of Dune is a good read, and I've always admired Herbert's ability to get closure out of open-endedness, out of the opening stages of a vast transformation. Heretics of Dune does not stand alone, but builds on the implications and events that have come before -- quite a feat, considering the quality of the earlier books.

Last modified: September 21, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (

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