GOD EMPEROR OF DUNEA novel by Frank Herbert
(1984, Berkley Science Fiction)
[original copyright 1981]
Dune Chronicles, book 4
Half human, half worm, Leto resides over an empire unaware of his sacrifice, as forces plot to overthrow his rule.
-- 2nd reading (paperback)
It started out so good, with action and excitement, but quickly moved into the realm of philosophy and meaningless banter, in which nobody suffered any consequences.
This book opens a new chapter in the Dune saga, and is different enough from the first three books that it could be an entirely new saga. The only constants are the groups vying for power, and Leto himself, of course.
At the end of the interminable Children of Dune, Leto saw something in the future that forced him into the decision to bond with sandtrout, so that he could transform into a worm, in order to protect his "Golden Path". What did he see? It's not entirely clear, even after reading this book, but I gather that he saw the rise of artificial intelligence, created by the Ixians, that had gone wild, searching out and destroying all of humanity. His evolution into a God Emperor changed that. However, he wanted more than just the survival of the human race. He also wanted... well, I'm not entirely sure what else he wanted.
Over the three and a half thousand years that he has reigned, Leto created a breeding program similar to that of the Bene Gesserit. Where they tried to create a human male who could see all futures and pasts, Leto was never sure what he was breeding for. I initially thought Leto's breeding program was intended to create a human who could view the long term future, but I don't think that's correct. He seems to be surprised at Siona's occasional invisibility to his senses, yet at other times, he appears to have altered his breeding program just for that purpose. I read elsewhere that because of Siona, and her offspring, any spice users who could see the future, like the Guild and the Bene Gesserit, could not sense them, and that ensured nobody could do what Leto had done, because they could always influence the future in unexpected ways. Apparently Leto was breeding for that kind of unpredictability.
In fact, that's the quality I loved most about Leto, the way he loved surprises, that some things were out of his prescience, or that he refused to look at some futures so that he could be relieved of his eternal boredom.
The first half of the book was quite enjoyable, as we learned about Leto's empire from various sources. I was hooked from the first page, when Siona is running for her life after stealing Leto's journals. The journals, which preface nearly every chapter, tell us about the state of the empire, but more importantly, Leto's mindset, and his abilities. Some of the early chapters come from the far future, presumably the time of Heretics of Dune, for the planet is called Rakis, and it tells us a little (very little, but enough) about what history thought of his reign.
I wondered about a lot of things in the empire that were not addressed directly, however. Dealing directly with things is not something this book does. Did he do away with marriage altogether? The old Duncan sounded like an exception when Siona introduced his wife to the new one. I suppose that would get rid of some of the jealousy and violence in society, making it more communal, especially if all the leaders become women. He is trying to breed out violence, but based on this and subsequent books, I'm not sure he succeeded. In order to create a "peaceful" humanity, he seems to have removed all passion, all creativity. Is this a utopia vision? He also stated that part of his consciousness would be transferred to each of the sandtrout when he died, but that they would not be able to influence anything. How does that help his Golden Path, then?
I wish we had seen more of Siona. After her initial run-in with the wolves, she goes missing for a very long time. I figured she must be related to the Guild steersman that Paul couldn't see in his vision in Dune Messiah, but he is never mentioned. Siona, of course, is a rebel, like her father and all the other Atreides before her. She wants to end the Leto's tyranny, and she is completely right in her motivation -except that she knows nothing about the Golden Path, and its alternatives. We are told very early on that she will be tested by Leto, and if she survives the test, she will learn about the Golden Path, and finally accept her role. When we finally get around to the test, nearly to the end of the book, she doesn't learn a thing, but is changed in the most frustrating way that I complained about in Children of Dune: suddenly and without reason. Fortunately, she retains some of her spunk. However, by the end of the book, I didn't understand her any more than she understood Leto. How far did she accept the Golden Path? If she kills Leto, because her hatred is stronger than her belief, does she understand the consequences? Does she care?
I wondered how different this change-of-storyline really was from the original Dune, when the spice essence showed Siona visions of a past that never happened. In the other books, it showed potential futures, and the actual past from the cellular memories that resided within. Was it the memory of Ghanima that showed her what she saw in her own future?
We learned in Dune Messiah that a clone-like reproduction of Duncan Idaho could regain all of the memories and training of the original by attempting to kill Paul Atreides. Leto has kept using gholas to command his army and to supplement the gene pool of his breeding program. This started out as a neat way to contrast Leto's world to the one that we knew in the first three books, especially the first Dune. He still has a sense of the old traditions, and needed to be taught about the new world. We got to learn with him. Unfortunately, he didn't like what he learned, and all we get is constant complaining and stomping around.
It didn't take long for the book to get into the seemingly deep, meaningless dialog. Through the journey to Onn, the city where Leto supposedly puts himself on display, the Worm talks to Idaho and his major-domo Moneo (another Atreides, and Siona's father) about his empire, his reasons, and doesn't end up saying anything. At least we were entertained by the Tleilaxu attack. (Are lasguns new to this story? I don't remember, but it appears so because Duncan had to be educated about why shields were illegal -because they explode when touched by lasguns. I seem to remember something about exploding shields from the first book, but it might have been one of the movies, instead.)
From a narrative standpoint, this "deep thought" dialog is a terrible way to present things. Leto is constantly telling Moneo and Idaho things that they don't understand. Without another point of view, how can the readers understand, if the characters don't? So much of what he says is irrelevant. It makes the book so uninteresting.
Fortunately, there are some moments of clarity, such as when Leto makes statements on the distant past (and our present), as well as his proposed changes and the reasons for them. He also hints at events that will take place in the next book (note that all the Family Atomics have been stored deep, deep within Arrakis, something that will affect events in Heretics).
The author attempts to take the terrific style from the original Dune, in talking to one character after the other individually. Here, it doesn't work, because Leto doesn't say much of anything to any of them. Much of the discussion seems simply there to lengthen the book, and nothing else.
What I found interesting was Leto's utter obliviousness to the fact that he started to lose control of himself, and thus his empire, the moment the new Duncan and Hwi Noree came into his life. In the few short days (or weeks?) that they were in Onn, and he fell hopelessly in love for the first time in millennia, he couldn't properly train Duncan, then he lost control of Moneo, the faith of his fish speaker guards, and even himself, when he went on the murderous rampage after the attack on Hwi. As he lost control, he lost patience, which is the one thing that allowed him to keep moving along the Golden Path. Loss of patience, of course, lost him more control. He should have seen the spiral coming, and knew that his death was approaching.
The text on the back of the book speaks about Leto's sacrifice. From what I remembered about the book, I figured it gave away the ending, because he sacrificed his life for the future. But that's not it at all. The text actually refers to Leto's lost humanity, which he had to give up in order to become the Tyrant that keeps humanity alive. The book's very thin plot delves into this by contrasting it to his ultimate love for Hwi, the new Ixian ambassador whom he decides to marry. The Ixians created her in a bubble that Leto could not see. I was rather disappointed that we didn't get to see the Bene Gesserit mission to Ix, but I wasn't surprised, because there were very few points of view in this novel.
Unlike other books where I've seen shifting points of view within a chapter, this one didn't take any special getting used to. The shift was done with precision, so that it made complete sense. I suppose it takes practice to get that done right. The other thing I really liked about the way the book was written was the way we shifted time frames within a chapter, as well. Many chapters started out in the current time, then moved backwards several hours or days, or even years. It mimics human thought, that way.
The climax of the book, for what it's worth, deals with Leto's death. Leto told Moneo at one point that his major-domo would be long dead before the God Emperor was transformed back into sandtrout. He was wrong, of course, but I wondered how he could think he knew, if he refused to look for his own death in the future.
Siona and Idaho's planning for Leto's assassination was way too quick, and seemed tacked on. We never really saw Siona as a rebel, except for two quick chapters near the beginning of the book. Siona was so underdeveloped that it was hard to accept her as such. Telling us that she was a rebel doesn't make it so. Siona learns about Leto's weakness because of a freak rainstorm in the deep desert. Why didn't Leto dive underground at that point, covering his human face with his cowl? He could have avoided showing his weakness. I'm not sure Siona used that weakness anyway. I think she was planning to kill him by destroying the bridge and letting him fall, not caring that there was water there to care for the sandtrout. Leto's death was far too anticlimactic, and really just felt like an afterthought. The book needed a much longer denouement, at the expense of much of the middle stuff.
There was one cool moment at the end, however, and that was the demonstration of how humanity had to improve after the Butlerian Jihad, which destroyed all thinking machines. The people of this era (more precisely the era of Dune) had to have extraordinary memories and physical skills. The descriptions of Idaho's long climb up the shear wall sounds implausible to today's minds, but I have no doubt it could be done with enough training -and I'm not talking about only the climb itself, but his memory of the crevasses and ledges from inspecting it earlier from below.
It's unfortunate that the book rambles on about nothing (as opposed to this review, which rambles on about the same things...), because it appeared from the beginning that this volume was going to have many of the political treachery of Dune, without the meaninglessness of the previous books. I liked the fact that both Leto and Siona were correct in their convictions, that there were no enemies in the traditional sense.
Leto speaks a lot to Duncan about his female army, which is, he says, better equipped to deal death because they have the ability to give life. I wonder how the Bene Gesserit fit into his scheme. They are female leaders and seem to dominate, not nurture, compared to his description of his fish speaker guards.
The plot could have been so interesting, if the author had followed through with it. Instead, we get a 3500 year old man who has thought about so many things, which nobody else can understand, even the reader. I want to know why everybody comes to a sudden revelation to Leto's Deep Thoughts with eyes going wide open, and why the Duncan we saw at the beginning of the book died calling out Siona's name? Did he have future memories as well as past memories?
Anyway, this book introduces us to Leto's peace, which will become important in the next books, I think. After his death, the Empire goes through death as well, killing billions of people in the process. His empire was created in order for people to look back and remember the humanity's longest peaceful time ever. More importantly, because I think this plays a large part in the next books, it introduces the Atreides line that cannot be seen by prescience.
Strangely enough, the purpose of this book can be better understood only if the reader knows what happens in the future. Call this book a bridge, though I would have liked more substance.
-- First reading (paperback)
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