God Emperor of Dune – Frank Herbert (1981)
The fans of ‘Dune’ and indeed the fans of Frank Herbert fall into two camps. There are those who are desperate for ever more tales of the universe in which Arrakis and its intricately structured interstellar society exists. Indeed, the likes of Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert are still churning out new ‘Dune’ material nearly fifty years after the first novel was published. Then there are those who feel ‘less is more’ and that ‘Dune’ should have been left as a quite extraordinary stand alone novel, undoubtedly a classic and arguably one of the top ten SF novels of the 20th century.
To be fair to Herbert, ‘Dune Messiah’ and ‘Children of Dune’ were not simply ‘more of the same’. They were stylistically pushing the boundaries of the first novel, but even so, lacked much of the complex structure and rich colour of the original.
This, the fourth novel, takes us three thousand years into the future. Young Leto, the son of Muad’dib. has entered into a symbiotic relationship with the larval forms of the giant sandworms. Having been encased within their bodies he has been slowly transformed over centuries until he is physically more worm than man.
Leto, being not only prescient but possessed of the memories of all his ancestors, is a difficult creature to assassinate, although people keep trying.
Where this novel fails is that the narrative is for the most part centred around Leto, and Leto is not a creature who is that mobile. Now and again he goes out on a cart, but not often enough.
Consequently there is a continual succession of scenes where characters are summoned to the Emperor’s presence, at which they have long – often meaningless – discussions, since Leto operates through the medium of riddles, or oblique comments which his guests and servants are expected to decipher.
Arrakis has been terraformed and there is now only one small desert left in which ‘Museum Fremen’ are allowed to dwell.
There is a shortage of spice – the ‘unobtainium’ that bestows longevity and gives the Guild starship pilots their ability to navigate hyperspace.
The Ixians, the Tleilaxu (who have provided a new Duncan Idaho for the Emperor after he killed the last one) and the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, are all suspicious of each other.
As with ‘Dune Messiah’ there is a sense of doomed Shakespearean inevitability about it all, particularly in view of the fact that Leto can – to a certain extent – see the future and knows what is going to happen.
There are some interesting points made both obliquely via the narrative and through Leto’s conversations and journals about politics and religion. However, Herbert is covering old ground here since ‘Dune’ had already examined quite subtly and in exquisite detail the complex overlapping boundaries of religion and government.
One would have to clarify, having said all that, that this is not a bad novel. It’s just not a good Frank Herbert novel. Herbert was a writer whose name figures largely in the pantheon of SF saints but, like Anne McCaffrey and Fred Saberhagen, seems to be doomed to be remembered for one book that spawned an industry of sequels and franchise, leaving his other work sadly neglected.