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This December, the last Star Wars movie (probably) featuring any of the original series’ cast members will come out. Good riddance. Because in November 2020, the god-emperor of science fiction will reign supreme once more, as a new adaptation of Dune by Frank Herbert will come to theaters.
And I’ll be there, even though I’m a relatively new convert to Dune’s greatness. As a sci-fi- inhaling youngster, I was told that the two sci-fi books I had to read were Dune and Neuromancer by William Gibson. I bought them both at a Half-Price Books more than a decade ago…and did nothing with either of them until July 2016, when I finally made my way through Dune.* I liked what I read, and have been gradually working through the series since.
This is how I learned that Dune is not merely “Star Wars for adults,” as the new film’s director, Dennis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) accurately stated. Indeed, Star Wars stole much of its backbone from Dune, in ways that their both starting as sci-fi hero’s journey stories can adequately explain.
Dune (first published in 1965) and its sequels also involve: an ancient order of psychic warriors who manipulate history and can control people with their voices (the Bene Gesserit), monstrous creatures who dwell in the desert and devour anything that comes their way (sandworms), twins born with mystical powers (Leto and Ghanima Atreides), a tyrannical Galactic Empire, and much more. Oh, and did I mention that Dune is set on a desert planet?
But there is far more to Dune than vivid feats of imagination that lesser works cribbed. Over the course of the first book and its Frank Herbert-authored sequels, Dune becomes a fascinating exploration of politics, religion, and morality, never losing sight of these essential themes despite being set thousands of years in the future, in a universe far different from our own.
The most fully realized work in the Dune series after the first that I’ve read so far (I’m 5 books in) is God Emperor of Dune, which I just had a chance to discuss on the Legendarium podcast (where earlier this year I appeared to talk about The Silmarillion). The first three books of the Dune series form a trilogy of sorts, showing the rise and fall of Paul Atreides, their Luke Skywalker figure (though he’s a bit more than just a Luke). But God Emperor of Dune is a dramatic divergence from these in many ways.
For one, it transports us 3,500 years into the already-far future of Dune, in a Galactic Empire still dominated by one of Paul’s children, Leto II. Through an arduous process, Leto, now ruler of the universe, has become functionally immortal, having merged with one of the aforementioned sandworms, and virtually omniscient, inheriting and even building on the psychic abilities of his father.
Unsurprisingly, this book is largely about the God Emperor. And if he were a poorly realized character, you would chafe as in a poorly fitting stillsuit at having to spend most of the book in his company. But this is not the case. With Leto II, Frank Herbert puts a decisively Dune spin on a classic sci-fi archetype: the godlike ex-human struggling to remain connected to humanity. This despite the fact that he knows more about the human race than probably anyone else who has existed in that universe. In addition to his prescience, the God Emperor houses the ancestral memories of billions of people, allowing him an incredible command of history and its personalities. “I am the waylaid pieces of history which sank out of sight in all of our pasts,” he says of himself.
What Herbert puts in the God Emperor’s mouth makes this acute historical awareness seem plausible. Leto II is a veritable font of maxims and axioms about politics and life, many of which ring strikingly true. Take, for example, his observation that “a population that walks is easier to control,” explaining why he has deliberately kept his Empire at a lower level of technological advancement. Political scientist James C. Scott makes a similar argument in his book Seeing Like A State.
God Emperor of Dune also expertly portrays the singular struggles of the God Emperor. Leto II is perhaps the loneliest character in all of science fiction. For not only does the universe lack a single being anything like him. He alone also knows fully the “Golden Path”–the “survival of mankind, nothing more, nothing less”–along which he must steer humanity if it is to survive, even if it objects to his apparent tyranny along the way. And, perhaps most cruelly, he must suffer the lingering attachments of human emotions, as embodied in a love that he cannot reciprocate, one that brings him to the first tears he has shed in centuries (tears that literally burn him due to his unique physiology). In these and other ways, the God Emperor as a character, and the book in which he stars, are a culmination of Dune’s enthralling take on science fiction as filtered through politics and psychology.
There is more to commend God Emperor of Dune. It is one of the most action-packed entries in the series, beginning with a scene that I could already picture as a movie. It is full of stunning explorations of what it would be like to live in the same society as the deity you worship. And it has, in a character resurrected from previous books, a worthy and fascinating foil to the God Emperor: the long-suffering and noble Duncan Idaho(s).
This is not to say that it’s a perfect book. It lacks compelling characters beyond the two I’ve named, who, though taking up a majority of the story between themselves, don’t take up all of it. It also simply cannot be read in isolation from its predecessors, with whom it shares some weaknesses, such as a bizarre obsession with sex and sexual humor whose manifestations are as perplexing as they are unpredictable, and a preponderance of overlong expository dialogue passages.
Yet I am inclined to forgive God Emperor of Dune for its faults, as its virtues far outweigh them. I’ve encountered nothing quite like it in my journey through science fiction, as I discuss at greater length here. As such, it is yet further proof of Dune’s rightful place atop the genre, against which juvenile imitators such as Star Wars pale in comparison. If that’s too strong for you, fine. But I know which upcoming sci-fi epic I’m anticipating more, and it’s not the one that comes out this December.
*Neuromancer remains unread.