“This is where things get weird.”
So the prophecy foretold when I went forth into the desert and proclaimed that it was time for the sleeper to awaken, that I would finally look into the place I feared to look and find, staring back at me, God Emperor of Dune. Considering how weird Frank Herbert’s “Dune” saga had gotten in the previous book, Children of Dune, I looked forward to picking up where I left off, even though I “left off” in 1986.
I first read Dune when I was in middle school, as a follow-up to having completed the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and realizing about five pages in that The Silmarillion was the point beyond which my Tolkien affection did not extend. Granted, I was too young to be reading it, but I was also too young to get the most out of the “Rings” trilogy yet still enjoyed it immensely. The same can be said for Dune. Adult themes and philosophical contemplations may have been lost on me, but it was easy to ride upon the surface and enjoy the simple tale of a bad-ass kid having awesome adventures and blowing up stuff in the desert. Which, as Frank Herbert would tell me, was exactly the wrong lesson to take from Dune.
It wasn’t too long after I read the book that David Lynch’s cinematic adaptation was released to befuddled and uninterested crowds. I remember stories about theaters issuing a sort of Cliff’s Notes of family and planet names and all the weird words the movie would be slinging at the audience, though I don’t recall that I myself was presented with such a cheat sheet. Legions of hardcore fans of the book were aghast at the movie’s rendering of their beloved story, made under the demand that it be equal parts Frank Herbert, George Lucas, and David Lynch with a dash of leftover Alejandro Jodorowsky. In the opinion of most, failing abominably. I felt differently. I loved it. I still do. It makes mistakes (those whispered voiceovers…ugh), but I find it still to be visually dynamic, narratively interesting, thrilling, and weird.
A short while later, I moved on to Dune Messiah. That it threw me for a bit of a loop had nothing to do with my age. It was Herbert’s design to create a godlike superman in one book and, in the next, undermine everything about him and expose the tragic fallibility of gods, leaders, prophets, and saviors. “Never trust your leaders” was, according to Herbert, the overarching message of his series. Don’t be taken in by prophets and messiahs, by seductive larger-than-life characters who claim to know more than you. They probably don’t. It was also a jolt to move from the vast spaces of Dune to the claustrophobic urban setting of Dune Messiah, like going from being Lawrence of Arabia to being a guy in an office cubicle. Look what happened to T.E. Lawrence once he moved out of the field and into the muck of colonial politics, conniving, and machination. It may very well have been my first exposure to that sort of subversion, and though it shook me as it shook many who had read it before me, I embraced the central idea. There was also still plenty of “Dune stuff.”
By the time I read Children of Dune, I was in high school. I found it even more alienating than Dune Messiah…so far away from the grand opera of the first book. I was more interested in poor, haunted Alia than the titular children of the book. Still, it also had a good bit of “Dune stuff,” so I was all right with it, even though, before I started rereading the books last year, I could remember nothing about it other than “blind guy, and another Duncan Idaho, maybe?” So it was that I proceeded to the fourth book in the series, God Emperor of Dune. And that was that. It was, at the time, the Silmarillion of the “Dune” series.
I don’t remember at what point I abandoned the book, nor what specifically was the trigger, but I can guess. For starters, it jumps 3,500 years into the future. Dune is no longer Dune…desert planet. Centuries of terraforming have turned it into country that, while not lush, sports forests and rivers and weather other than, “gonna be hot again.” The Fremen are long gone, represented in this era by a shoddy bunch of cosplayers called the Museum Fremen. The Guild and the Bene Gesserit still exist, but in much diminished states. It is an even more jarring shift in time and place than going from Dune to Dune Messiah.
It starts off thrilling enough, but after those first couple of chapters, Frank Herbert delivers what amounts to basically 400 pages of an immortal man-worm spewing freshman-level philosophy while the thousandth Duncan Idaho stomps his foot and complains about lesbians. Then everyone falls off of a bridge. Granted, back then I abandoned the book long before Duncan was whining about lady-on-lady good times, but whatever the case, it was not what I wanted from a “Dune” book. I tapped out and never returned, even though I reread Dune and Dune Messiah in college. Not Children of Dune. The stink of God Emperor of Dune was, retroactively, all over that one. I didn’t want to spend time with Leto II in any form.
A few years ago, I read Dune for the third time, and then struck on what was, in retrospect, a terrible idea: to read Brian Herbert’s “Legends of Dune” prequel series: The Butlerian Jihad (2002), The Machine Crusade (2003), and The Battle of Corrin (2004). The less said about those abominations, the better. They were my gom jabbar test, and I failed. The prick of a poison needle would have been a welcome release by comparison. But, I figured, if I had endured those horrors, maybe I should give the rest of the Frank Herbert books a chance. God Emperor of Dune left such a bad taste in my mouth that I never even contemplated picking up Heretics of Dune or Chapterhouse: Dune, Herbert’s final two “Dune” novels. So the crusade began. I reread Dune yet again, because that’s easy. I also found that now I immensely enjoy Dune Messiah, and liked Children of Dune more than I had previously, even if I still sympathized far more with mad Alia. Which brings me to God Emperor of Dune, which I finished in late February.
I still don’t like it very much.
Talking to God…and Talking…and Talking…
My reasons are not much different than what I assume they were decades ago, with one notable exception. I have grown, in my older age, to appreciate when a creator takes a much beloved property and turns it into something alienating and unlike what came before it — so long as, at the progression makes sense. I enjoyed when The Legend of Korra time-jumped the story of Avatar: The Last Airbender into a steampunkish future full of slick stretch limos. I didn’t like when Star Trek was revived by just recreating the past of the show. It would have been so much more fun for a Trek series to being with “3,500 years later…” But that’s far more difficult — and risky — a creative endeavor than banking on nostalgia and the voracious appetite of fandom for easter eggs and references and reassurance that someone else also remembers this thing they remember.
So I like the unsettling time jump of God Emperor of Dune. Alas, that’s about all I like. It is, otherwise, a long book filled almost entirely with sorta-sandworm Leto II mercilessly ruling over the galaxy but justifying his mercilessness because, in the prescient state he achieved at the end of Children of Dune, he has seen there is one and only one path humanity must follow to avoid extinction. And he, now encased in a grotesque, yet nigh immortal and indestructible worm body, takes it upon himself to guide — or force — humanity down the Golden Path. All of which is fine the first time he brings it up. Maybe even the second. By the fifth or sixth time…less so. And then he keeps going. There are plots afoot to usurp Leto II’s millenias-long reign, but the bulk of those happen “off screen” and are only referenced before or after the fact. Herbert populates the book with insufferably boring characters who go round and round the same conversations with no resolution, no growth, until finally, mercifully, some of them fall of of a bridge and Herbert wraps the whole thing up.
You might think from the exciting way the book begins, that cool, deadly Siona is going to be a main character with an interesting story. She’s leading an insurrection! She has skills! If that gets you excited…bow out. She’s quickly relegated to the back burner, surfacing from time to time to take part in an awkward teen love triangle involving Duncan “I’m not your stud!” Idaho and an ambassador who has bewitched both Duncan and Leto II. So…not a triangle I guess. A romantic Venn diagram? Siona does step back onto the main stage for a lengthy walkabout with Leto II in what remains of Arrakis’ deserts, but by and large, she remains an afterthought even during the book’s finale.
At first, I thought it a shame to see the once-proud and interesting Duncan Idaho reduced to a petulant thrower of tantrums. But then I reconsidered. It’s also an effective portrayal of a “man out of time.” If God Emperor of Dune was set in the here and now, Duncan Idaho would be posting on facebook about how confusing gender and pronouns are now and how the gays want to use the bathroom. That it is Duncan in whom these characteristics manifest makes it one of the more effective of the book’s gambits. It’s easy to condemn someone you already dislike, but homophobic men’s rights advocate Duncan is something more challenging: a person you admired, who was brave and noble, and who now reacts to shifting social mores with fear and hate.
And don’t get me started on how it is basically impossible, even for a writer of Frank Herbert’s talents, to describe Leto II in action without it seeming utterly ludicrous. I mean, yeah, sure. If a whale-sized worm with a human face and tiny little arms was screaming and rolling at me right now, it’d probably be terrifying. But in the book, especially when he’s chugging along on his royal cart…not really. Even the most adoring and dedicated fan art can’t make him look anything but absurd. Which…I don’t know. Was that the point? Like how people follow ridiculous-looking televangelists?
That is a load of negative, but here’s the thing: I found the book boring but also wanted to keep reading, despite Leto II going on for hundreds of pages like a stoner exploring the meaning of “Holy Diver.” I wasn’t interested, but I still wanted to know what was going to happen. There must be a German word for that sensation. Unlike my previous ill-fated expedition, it actually made me more interested, rather than not interested at all, in completing the cycle with Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune, which I plan to read in March and April respectively. I marvel, missteps notwithstanding, at the long path the “Dune” series travels. If nothing else, I am more excited by and interested in ambitious failures that try to be different than I would be if Frank Herbert wrote a book that was basically, “Hey, remember Dune? It was awesome, right? Well, here it is again.” If I wanted that, I’ll just read Dune for the fifth time.
Buried under the interminable, redundant philosophical “debates” of God Emperor of Dune — which are mostly Leto II yammering on for a few pages until his assistant Moneo or Duncan Idaho VMM or whatever number he is yells, “I don’t understand, God Emperor!” and stomps off — are some interesting themes. Somewhere in that worm body is a partially interesting examination of how tyrants justify their cruelty, of how gods and heroes are filled with human foibles, how brainless violent cults and religions are fashioned out of once-worthy ideals, and how older generations often cannot adapt to the social changes of the next generation. But I’m not sure the return is worth the investment.