Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. ‘God Emperor of Dune’ Embodies the Greatness (and Strangeness) of the ‘Dune’ Universe

 

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.

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  1. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Lynch ’em all.

    • #1
    • July 17, 2019, at 3:18 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  2. AQ Member
    AQ Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I read the whole series (well, most of the series) many years ago, and I remember loving God Emperor of Dune. Your commentary makes me want to start all over again!

     

    • #2
    • July 17, 2019, at 3:29 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  3. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    JackButler:

    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.

    I also enjoyed God-Emperor, but it also tested my limits for sheer weirdness. On the one hand, that’s part of what makes it so fascinating, but it’s jarring to compare how polished and conventional (mostly in a good way) the original Dune was compared to God-Emperor’s mad-genius.

    • #3
    • July 17, 2019, at 3:44 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    I read the first three, really consumed them in three sittings in the late 1970s, but do not recall reading the others. I thought the first attempt to translate to film was a complete flop.

    • #4
    • July 17, 2019, at 4:16 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  5. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor

    JackButler: as a new adaptation of Dune by Frank Herbert will come to theaters.

    Please tell me they found a role for Sting.

    • #5
    • July 17, 2019, at 4:17 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    I thought the first attempt to translate to film was a complete flop.

    It’s a mess. When it’s good, it’s very good. Unfortunately, it’s often quite bad.

    The SciFi series works surprisingly well if you watch it with a forgiving eye for the production and an even more forgiving ear for (some) of the performances.

    • #6
    • July 17, 2019, at 4:25 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. Arahant Member

    JackButler: But I know which upcoming sci-fi epic I’m anticipating more, and it’s not the one that comes out this December.

    You’ll be disappointed. There are things that writers can produce that our graphic technologies of today still fall far short of. But, if you keep your expectations low, you might be pleasantly surprised.

    • #7
    • July 17, 2019, at 4:40 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. Arahant Member

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):
    But I know which upcoming sci-fi epic I’m anticipating more, and it’s not the one that comes out this December.

    Loretta Lynch?

    • #8
    • July 17, 2019, at 4:40 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):
    But I know which upcoming sci-fi epic I’m anticipating more, and it’s not the one that comes out this December.

    Loretta Lynch?

    Huh?

    • #9
    • July 17, 2019, at 4:47 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. Arahant Member

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):
    Lynch ’em all.

    Loretta Lynch?

    Huh?

    Almost as confusing as your comment.

    • #10
    • July 17, 2019, at 5:19 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  11. Drusus Coolidge

    Let us know what you think of Heretics and Chapterhouse. I found them almost unreadable, and they double down on the flaws you mention above. 

    • #11
    • July 17, 2019, at 7:03 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Barfly Member

    Your post makes it plain you’re enraptured by Herbert’s work. (Frank’s. I imagine you’ll be as disappointed in the sequels his son scribbled as I was.)

    I am envious of people who’ve just discovered Dune and get to read it for the first time. Same with Roger Zelazny’s work. (I think T. Sturgeon said that about Zelazny.)

    • #12
    • July 17, 2019, at 7:19 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  13. Skyler Coolidge

    Frank Herbert is a good writer with nothing to say. I waded through four of his books, wondering when he was going to get to the point, but after book four I decided he was going nowhere and wandering all over the place.

    I guess I was pretty patient. He especially excelled in making hard, unbreakable rules for his universe and then breaking all the rules he made and making new unbreakable rules and breaking those. I got so tired of it.

    I think the first book was interesting, but all that followed which I had hoped would be the big reveal instead were just more nothing.

    • #13
    • July 17, 2019, at 8:41 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  14. Bcaward Thatcher
    Bcaward Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I haven’t read beyond the first one or two; perhaps I should start again and catch up with you.

    Btw, Neuromancer is probably my all-time favorite book. It certainly is if you go by how many times I have read it (probably 50). Not sure why, but I love to relive that story.

    There is a recorded version, a special one that was made for its 10th anniversary, back in 1993. Gibson reads it, there’s background music and a few audio effects. It’s one of the most satisfying audiobooks ever made (according to me, of course). It’s hard to find, but everything is findable these days, right?

    People say that Gibson’s performance was not up to snuff; Bah I say! His reading was perfect. His Case had just the right amount of bewilderment, cynicism, world-weariness, fear, and anger – it is better to hear this than to read the book. Though the book is great. 

    • #14
    • July 17, 2019, at 8:49 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor

    Bruce Caward (View Comment):
    Neuromancer

    “The sky was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” That’s one of my favorite lines in all of literature. And… sorta incomprehensible with digital televisions now. That’s the problem with the future. Always making promises it can’t keep.

    • #15
    • July 17, 2019, at 9:21 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  16. Arahant Member

    If you want some good political SF based on human nature, always go with H. Beam Piper. Many of his shorter works are available at Gutenberg.

    • #16
    • July 17, 2019, at 9:36 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. GeezerBob Coolidge

    I read most of the Dune works many years ago. But more recently, I stumbled across a three volume set of prequels by Brain Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson. Oddly, I found them on the english language shelf of a bookstore in Thessaloniki, Greece. As I spend much time in Greece, they provided a lengthy diversion. The titles are Prelude to Dune I House Atreides, Prelude to Dune II House Harkonnen, and Prelude to Dune III House Corinno. As the titles indicate, they set the stage for the Dune series proper as derived from notes left by Frank Herbert. Both authors are scifi writers in their own right, and Brian is obvioulsy the son of Frank Herbert. The copies I have are paperback published by UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

    • #17
    • July 17, 2019, at 10:49 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  18. Henry Castaigne Member

    I object to Dune on the basis of libertarianism. The God Emperor sounds like a total fascist. 

    • #18
    • July 18, 2019, at 1:10 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  19. Skyler Coolidge

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    I object to Dune on the basis of libertarianism. The God Emperor sounds like a total fascist.

    It’s been a long time, but I think he was just an ordinary totalitarian, not necessarily a fascist. 

    • #19
    • July 18, 2019, at 6:00 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  20. Chuck Thatcher

    Dune was excellent. Read it several times. As far as I am concerned, the series was a downhill toboggan ride after that, and I could not even come close to finishing the “God Emperor of Dune” – even on a flight to Japan.

    The first Dune movie was not one I ever even thought about watching again. I gave it a second chance, though, and my opinion did not improve. Maybe if I’d seen the movie first…

    I didn’t know there was a remake in progress, I expect to see it but I also expect to be disappointed.

    • #20
    • July 18, 2019, at 11:09 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. Skyler Coolidge

    Slow on the uptake (View Comment):

    Dune was excellent. Read it several times. As far as I am concerned, the series was a downhill toboggan ride after that, and I could not even come close to finishing the “God Emperor of Dune” – even on a flight to Joel.

    The first Dune movie was not one I ever even thought about watching again. I gave it a second chance, though, and my opinion did not improve. Maybe if I’d seen the movie first…

    I didn’t know there was a remake in progress, I expect to see it but I also expect to be disappointed.

    The Dune miniseries from 2001 or so was pretty good.

    • #21
    • July 18, 2019, at 12:01 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  22. Yudansha Member
    Yudansha Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Slow on the uptake (View Comment):

    Dune was excellent. Read it several times. As far as I am concerned, the series was a downhill toboggan ride after that, and I could not even come close to finishing the “God Emperor of Dune” – even on a flight to Joel.

    The first Dune movie was not one I ever even thought about watching again. I gave it a second chance, though, and my opinion did not improve. Maybe if I’d seen the movie first…

    I didn’t know there was a remake in progress, I expect to see it but I also expect to be disappointed.

    The Dune miniseries from 2001 or so was pretty good.

    I liked how faithful the Dune miniseries was to the source material (unlike the earlier David Lynch version) but the costumes were so wacky, ugly and absurd as to be a distraction that totally ruined the experience for me. Combine the miniseries screenplay with the costumes and set dressing from the Lynch movie and you’ve got a pretty good adaptation. Not a great one mind you; Dune is too complex a story for visual-only media. Too much of the story takes place via inner-monologue.

    WRT the David Lynch version, I saw it as a kid, years before I ever read the books and I love it. Over the years I’ve probably seen it more than 100 times. I just tend not to associate it to any great degree with the books — except for the character names.

    • #22
    • July 18, 2019, at 12:22 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  23. Skyler Coolidge

    Yudansha (View Comment):
    Too much of the story takes place via inner-monologue.

    Yes, they talk to themselves too much.

    • #23
    • July 18, 2019, at 2:26 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  24. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Slow on the uptake (View Comment):

    Dune was excellent. Read it several times. As far as I am concerned, the series was a downhill toboggan ride after that, and I could not even come close to finishing the “God Emperor of Dune” – even on a flight to Joel.

    The first Dune movie was not one I ever even thought about watching again. I gave it a second chance, though, and my opinion did not improve. Maybe if I’d seen the movie first…

    I didn’t know there was a remake in progress, I expect to see it but I also expect to be disappointed.

    The Dune miniseries from 2001 or so was pretty good.

    It was. William Hurt was the star-star, but as he played Leto, he left early. 

    • #24
    • July 18, 2019, at 5:55 PM PDT
    • Like
  25. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Yudansha (View Comment):
    Too much of the story takes place via inner-monologue.

    Yes, they talk to themselves too much.

    In the parody Doon, they had a special language for thinking thoughts to themselves for security purposes. 

    • #25
    • July 18, 2019, at 5:56 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  26. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Yudansha (View Comment):
    Too much of the story takes place via inner-monologue.

    Yes, they talk to themselves too much.

    There is a special place reserved in Exposition Hell (Dante’s 23rd circle) for that kind of inner monologuery. 

    • #26
    • July 18, 2019, at 5:57 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  27. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    I made it through God Emperor Dune – and at least Chapterhouse wotsit – before bogging down. What I remember most of GED was the mawkish weepings of Hwee Noree (or similar, I can’t remember how she was spelled). I wanted to feed her to a real sandworm. 

    • #27
    • July 18, 2019, at 6:03 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  28. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor

    TBA (View Comment):

    I made it through God Emperor Dune – and at least Chapterhouse wotsit – before bogging down. What I remember most of GED was the mawkish weepings of Hwee Noree (or similar, I can’t remember how she was spelled). I wanted to feed her to a real sandworm.

    It went Heretics then Chapterhouse.

    • #28
    • July 18, 2019, at 6:46 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  29. RPD Member
    RPD Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Ugh, Dune. In the early 90’s I acquired much of the series while on a six month deployment on a Navy frigate. It turned out to be so pointless and poorly written that after perhaps half the first book I ended up tossing the lot in to a bit we kept for books that anyone could fish them out for the reading.

    Some 20 years later I gave it another try. I ground through the book reading one chapter a day. I remain mystified by Dune’s popularity.

    • #29
    • July 18, 2019, at 7:16 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  30. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    I liked some aspects of the books. They had the lived-in future before SW and there was a feeling of dread, assassins around every corner, distrust of those closest to the hero, that gave the universe a sinister bent. The sex aspect started to creep me out after awhile. 

    The technobabble and linguistic mumbo-jumbo were well worth the price, though the ‘house nukes’ didn’t age well. 

    The world-building was evolutionary. 

    It was a fun ride. 

    But you should still dig out your copy of Neuromancer. 

    • #30
    • July 18, 2019, at 7:31 PM PDT
    • 2 likes

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