CHILDREN OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1976)

I’ve written a lengthy analysis of Dune, and of Dune Messiah too. My text on Dune focuses on the issue of Paul as a tragic hero, without free will, and has some notes on the book as a literary construction. The one on Messiah compares it with the first book, and also deals with its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and with the relationship between prescience and the absence of free will.

I’ve tried to keep overlap between this text and the previous ones to a minimum, so if you’re interested in a deep desert dive, please read those first.


Children of Dune Di Fate

“The landscape which met their gaze was beyond pity, nowhere did it pause – no hesitations in it at all.”

There is something relentless to Children of Dune. It was the most difficult hurdle yet in my project of rereading the entire series.

It is a bit of a surprise this became “the first hardcover best-seller ever in the science fiction field” and also won the 1977 Hugo, because there is undeniably truth in David Pringle’s assessment of the book being “convoluted stuff.”

There’s a paradox to this very review and how it determined my reading experience, and it has to do with that convolutedness. Because I knew I wanted to write this text, I read Children carefully – maybe too carefully, taking notes, trying to figure things out. Especially in the second half of the book, that left me gasping for air at times, unable to figure out what Herbert wanted to do, lost in the mystical ramblings about visions and futures, focusing on inconsistencies or what I thought were inconsistencies. It took a bit of joy out of reading.

At the same time, I did like the overall plot a lot, and could see Herbert had actually managed to tell yet another great story with perfect pacing, especially when the action kicked in: his characteristic style of cutting between short scenes with lots of dialogue somehow delivered the goods again. All that left me with about a 3 out of 5 stars tally, a bit in line with when I first read the series, and I then thought book 2 and 3 were the weakest of the six.

But when I started to reread (and reread and reread) all the quotes I had marked to get a better grip on the book’s difficult stuff, I actually understood more of it, and most inconsistencies dissolved. So yes, this review at times wrecked my reading – instead of just riding the flow, I focused too much on trying to understand – but in the end it also reconciled me with the book. That leaves me with a 3.5, maybe 4 star rating, because I still think Herbert could have cut back some on the mystic philosophy, without actually hurting its core.

In what follows, I first tried to write something of a review of the book: strengths, weaknesses, characters, you know the drill. I primarily focus on Alia as tragic figure, and also discuss an important thing that remains unclear & possibly inconsistent: Paul’s relationship to the Golden Path.

For those that want to dive in even deeper, after that first part, I zoom in on four very specific subjects: how I think ‘change’ is the central concept of this book, the prevalence of a Nietzschean Amor Fati, the book’s relationship with Nietzsche’s morality beyond good & evil, and finally, free will and its relation to Leto II’s specific version of prescience.

Both parts are a spoiler bonanza, but I guess this kind of writing will not appeal to those who haven’t read the books anyway.

The text is heavy with quotes, but I wrote it so that you can still follow the logic if you skip them – except once, and I’ll warn you there. The quotes are for the die-hards. I had 9504 words selected out of the book, of which I used about 6200. Add to that my own 4400 words, and abracadabra …another long read, totaling 10630 words. It is what it is, I couldn’t help it. A full, thorough discussion of the book needed those.


THE STORY OF ALIA & HER ILK

As a story, Children of Dune is great. Herbert’s slow reveal of countless of plots, counterplots, factions & betrayal works well. It takes some time before it gets going, but it is never boring, and it is plotted masterfully, with cliffhanger after cliffhanger, question after question, never letting go. This third book gives the story back to Atreides & Fremen characters: the Spacing Guild, Tleilaxu or even the Bene Gesserit – aside from Jessica – hardly play a part.

While Dune Messiah was engaging too, that book felt a bit dumbed down – and that is totally not the case for Children. It seems by now Herbert had enough confidence in the success of the fairly difficult Dune to continue in that vein, and even add to the difficulty – making this the most convoluted part of the series yet indeed. As I wrote in the introduction, the complicated nature of certain parts is this novel’s main weakness. Oblique mystery fits the themes on the one hand, yes, but at the same time it bloats the book. I also think there’s unneeded repetition here and there – a minor nuisance only.

Messiah‘s strength was the emotional focus on Paul. In that respect, Children focuses on Alia, and on the Bildung of Leto. This double focus does diminish some of the book’s emotional power, for when Alia’s downfall finally arrives, she has been out of the picture for quite some chapters that mainly deal with Leto, and the emotional punch is less because of it. I think that it is Herbert’s major mistake in this installment. It’s sad, because Alia’s tragedy is even more tragic than Paul’s, gut wrenching, and without any heroism.

“I pity her,'” Ghanima said. “The lure of it must’ve been subtle and insidious, creeping up on her until ….” “She’s a victim, yes,” Leto said. “Abomination.”

Later in the book, Ghanima even despises her aunt: “… And perhaps I’ll go as you have gone, but for now I can only pity you and despise you.

Alia’s struggle is the same as the struggle of Leto & Ghanima. Yet there is nothing heroic either about Leto & Ghanima overcoming their predicament – in the end, it is a coincidence the twins manage to keep abomination at bay, or at least manageable: Leto manages because he is forced to undergo the spice agony & finds a way in his trance, and Ghanima manages as a side effect of the “self-hypnotic suppression”.

Alia’s tragedy is one of self-fulfilling prophecy.

She was particularly bitter at the way the Sisterhood’s mythology had trapped Alia. Fear built on fear! The habits of generations had imprinted the fate of Abomination upon her. Alia had known no hope. Of course she’d succumbed. Her fate made the accomplishment of Leto and Ghanima even more difficult to face. Not one way out of the trap, but two. (…) They might have saved Alia. But without hope, nothing had been attempted until it was too late. Alia’s water had been poured upon the sand.

It’s interesting that it is fear that destroys her – as the Litany Against Fear has become such an iconic signifier for the entire Dune series, something I’ll write about a bit more later on.

I think the “perverse will to self-destruction” Jessica ascribed to her daughter earlier in the book was a variant of the flight reflex, and not really a choice, as Jessica seemed to see it first:

Alia had allowed her life to degenerate in a terrible way. Observing this, Jessica began to harbor the suspicion that Alia was a willing participant in Abomination.

Self-destruction is the only course of action that is left to her, as Alia can’t even ask for help from her very own brother – a messiah, no less. She wants to, but her body doesn’t allow it.

She wanted to run after him, pleading for him to save her from herself, but she could not move. While others pressed to follow The Preacher and his guide, she stood intoxicated with an absolute despair, a distress so deep that she could only tremble with it, unable to command her own muscles.

Alia’s character is one I loved in the previous books: a youthful rebel with an old soul. It makes her demise in Children even more powerful, as she quickly becomes lonely, mad even, estranged from Duncan Idaho, who – even with his mechanic eyes – cries for his love. And when she also cries for him, her inner demon, the Baron Harkonnen, mocks her. She transforms physically, becomes fatter, like the Baron.

It should be noted that the Baron again fails in Children. He’s responsible for his second death: because of him Alia commits suicide. That’s doubly ironic: she killed him in Dune, and now feels the need to kill herself because of him, and by doing so, kills him again.

His greed to posses Alia and via her, experience sexual sadism again, proved too big in the end – even though he knew restrain was needed to keep things working. He might also be at the base for Alia’s choice to try immortality – against Bene Gesserit habit. Like so many other characters in the books, Vladimir Haronnen just couldn’t help himself, determined by who he was, and so he came to dominate his partnership with Alia, dominating her to death.


As for the other characters… It’s again ironic that The Preacher is in fact a cool, new hero. Much has been written about Paul Muad’Dib as a failed hero, but his final incarnation kinda kicks ass all the time, speaking truth to power. He’s not tragic anymore, and even as he dies – by the hand of an anonymous priest – there’s glory in it, thwarting Alia’s plan. The fact that he is the only character in the entire series that is so clearly converted into water at the end of the third book, confirms Paul’s status as the linchpin of the entire series.

“This water is the ultimate essence, a source of outward streaming creativity. Though motionless, this water is the means of all movement.”

I will talk more about his relationship with Leto further down.

Leto’s character on the other hand isn’t yet tragic in Children of Dune. Yes, his tragic loneliness in the later books is foreshadowed, and there’s even talk of a deathwish once, but the main feeling associated with Leto in this book is one of being in control, even culminating in supreme power – to the extent that he is a pulpy caricature of the ultimate superhero, and probably the most pulpy element of the entire series.

He’d cowed them into submission the previous week, performing for the assembled arifa of all the tribes. The Judges had seen him walk through a pit of fire, emerging unscathed to demonstrate that his skin bore no marks by asking them to study him closely. He’d ordered them to strike him with knives, and the impenetrable skin had sealed his face while they struck at him to no avail. Acids ran off him with only the lightest mist of smoke. He’d eaten their poisons and laughed at them. At the end he’d summoned a worm and stood facing them at its mouth. He’d moved from that to the landing field at Arrakeen, where he’d brazenly toppled a Guild frigate by lifting one of its landing fins.

I believe Herbert also willingly inscribed himself into the literary tradition of the grotesque with the creation of the Leto-Worm, in which the grotesque is more than just an aesthetic category, but also something that “functions as a fundamental existential experience” and a “device that societies have used to conceptualize alterity and change” – according to Rémi Astruc, who made those remarks in general, not in relation to the Dune saga. The fact that there’s an entire section in this very text that’s devoted to ‘change’, seems to confirm the relationship.


Before I dive into a further analysis of three specific themes, I have a few questions on the inner consistency of Children of Dune and the series up to now. Two quickies for starters: How did Farad’n become Bene Gesserit in mere months? And why did Herbert reminded the readers about the inexplicable fact that Paul saw through Leto’s eyes at the end of Messiah?

“I gave you the sight of my eyes once and took your memories,” Leto said.

I guess we can chalk that up to the deliberate pulp Herbert wanted to insert? The main course in this section however, isn’t a minor issue. It deals with Paul’s relation to the Golden Path: didn’t he forsee it completely?

I always thought Paul forsaw the totality of the Golden Path. At times, it looks like he didn’t want to choose the Path, or feared the Path, and all that is true: as I wrote in my the analysis of Dune Messiah, people choose things and people want things – that is not up for debate. Even Leto seems to think so.

Cilia had crept into his flesh, forming a new creature which would seek its own metamorphosis in the eons ahead. You saw this, father, and rejected it, he thought. It was a thing too terrible to face. Leto knew what was believed of his father, and why. Muad’Dib died of prescience. But Paul Atreides had passed from the universe of reality into the alam al-mythal while still alive, fleeing from this thing which his son had dared.

The question is if Paul’s choices are the fundamental determining factor – and they are not. It is hinted at in Children of Dune that Paul simply wasn’t the person apt to take up the role. Only Leto could do so:

No sandtrout had ever before encountered a hand such as this one, every cell supersaturated with spice. No other human had ever before lived and reasoned in such a condition. Delicately Leto adjusted his enzyme balance, drawing on the illuminated sureness he’d gained in spice trance. The knowledge from those uncounted lifetimes which blended themselves within him provided the certainty through which he chose the precise adjustments, slaving off the death from an overdose which would engulf him if he relaxed his watchfulness for only a heartbeat.

To achieve the symbiosis with the sandtrout and transform into the God Emperor-worm, Leto needed all his knowledge, including his genetic memory. Paul had prescience, and could see the past and the present too, but he didn’t have preborn genetic memories to help him make the correct adjustments.

As far as I can remember Paul also didn’t have Other Memory, period – even though his Wikipedia-page says otherwise. There’s heaps of conflicting stuff about it on the Internet, like this Reddit page. It’s safe to say Herbert changed the mechanics throughout the series. His poetic license, yes, but sad too, in a series that has so strong theoretical underpinnings.

Anyhow, Paul’s inability to become a God Emperor further explains Paul’s decisions at the end of Messiah, but it remains unclear where the standoff between Leto & The Preacher comes from in Children of Dune.

He thought of his father then, telling himself: “Soon we’ll dispute as man to man, and only one vision will emerge.”

Here’s a longer quote from that dispute – and best read most of this one to fully grasp the rest of the discussion.

“If that’s your vision, I will not share it,” The Preacher said. “Perhaps you have no choice,” Leto said. “You are the fit-haquiqa. The Reality. You are Abu Dhur, Father of the Indefinite Roads of Time.” “I’m no more than bait in a trap,” The Preacher said, and his voice was bitter. “And Alia already has eaten that bait,” Leto said. “But I don’t like its taste.” “You cannot do this!” The Preacher hissed. “I’ve already done it. My skin is not my own.” “Perhaps it’s not too late for you to -” “It is too late.” (…) “When I heard…” The Preacher began. And again: “You cannot do this!” “I am doing it. What matter if you’re made blind once more?” “You think I fear that?” The Preacher asked. “Do you not see the fine guide they have provided for me?” “I see him.” Again Leto faced Tariq. “Didn’t you hear me, Assan? I’m the one who escaped from Shuloch.” “You’re a demon,” the youth quavered. “Your demon,” Leto said. “But you are my demon.” And Leto felt the tension grow between himself and his father. It was a shadow play all around them, a projection of unconscious forms. And Leto felt the memories of his father, a form of backward prophecy which sorted visions from the familiar reality of this moment.

Yet, for me – and a bunch of other readers – the spirit of Dune Messiah was that Paul knew what was at stake. But maybe that is just projection in retrospect, after having read more books in the series. To fully set this matter, I would need to reread Messiah again, and that’s not going to happen soon. On the Fandom Dune Wiki it also seems the consensus however, and that supports my own feelings & memories of Messiah:

Although sixty billion people have perished, Paul’s prescient visions indicate that this is far from the worst possible outcome for humanity. Motivated by this knowledge, Paul embarks on the Golden Path, a complex and perilous plan to set humanity on a course that will not inevitably lead to stagnation and extinction, while at the same time acting as ruler of the Empire and focal point of the Fremen religion.

To Herbert’s defense, it must be repeated that the Golden Path is not mentioned even once in Dune Messiah.

It’s very curious The Preacher doesn’t want to share Leto’s Path, even though he himself helped initiate a brutal Jihad that “killed sixty-one billion, sterilised ninety planets, completely demoralised five hundred others”. Why did he do that then, if not for the same reason as Leto’s plan?

This seems to me the most fundamental plothole in Children of Dune. One could say The Preacher changed his mind in the dessert, but that doesn’t convince, as Paul was clear about free will not existing. Moreover, the main reason to go into the desert was to safeguard Leto’s chances. What tipped the balance? Why would he risk human extinction after his desert years? Another explanation would be that Paul initially had a different vision, but that doesn’t convince me either, as his prescience was supposed to be perfect, and as I already said, why unleash the murderous Jihad in the first place?

Herbert himself seems to try and explain it in Children by introducing uncertainty to Paul’s vision – but again, that seems contradict what happened in Messiah, and it makes the necessity of the Fremen Jihad a mystery.

Leto looked up to the top of the dune where his father stood, still defiant, but defeated. That was Paul Muad’Dib up there, blind, angry, near despair as a consequence of his flight from the vision which Leto had accepted. Paul’s mind would be reflecting now upon the Zensunni Long Koan: “In the one act of predicting an accurate future, Muad’Dib introduced an element of development and growth into the very prescience through which he saw human existence. By this, he brought uncertainty onto himself. Seeking the absolute of orderly prediction, he amplified disorder, distorted prediction.”

&

Paul knew this because he no longer could see how Leto might manipulate the reins, could only recognize the inhuman consequences which Leto had accepted. And he thought: Here is the change for which I prayed. Why do I fear it? Because it’s the Golden Path!

But in the book, Paul admits two times he did indeed see Leto’s future Golden Path and its violence. The first time, early in the book, it is his father’s memory inside of Leto that implicitly admits it, and he says it is inevitable with Leto’s mouth – in the conversation with Ghani via Ghanima.

“The Golden Path,” she said. “It’s not a good vision.” “It’s the only possible vision.”

Granted, it’s not fully clear here how much Paul saw – but there’s at least the indication it is not good.

Later in the story, Paul as The Preacher admits to have seen a “similar thing”, and then Leto claims Paul was corrupted as The Preacher by the people in Jacurutu. (Excuse me for the three long slabs of quote that follow, they are entirely skippable if you don’t care for the details.)

“Of course. And those forms of violence which I permit. It’ll be a lesson which humankind will never forget.” “I spit on your lesson!” Paul said. “You think I’ve not seen a thing similar to what you choose?” “You saw it,” Leto agreed. “Is your vision any better than mine?” “Not one whit better. Worse, perhaps,” Leto said. “Then what can I do but resist you?” Paul demanded. “Kill me, perhaps?” “I’m not that innocent. I know what you’ve set in motion. I know about the broken qanats and the unrest.” “And now Assan Tariq will never return to Shuloch. You must go back with me or not at all because this is my vision now.” “I choose not to go back.” How old his voice sounds, Leto thought, and the thought was a wrenching pain. He said: “I’ve the hawk ring of the Atreides concealed in my dishdasha. Do you wish me to return it to you?” “If I’d only died,” Paul whispered. “I truly wanted to die when I went into the desert that night, but I knew I could not leave this world. I had to come back and -” “Restore the legend,” Leto said. “I know. And the jackals of Jacurutu were waiting for you that night as you knew they would be. They wanted your visions! You knew that.” “I refused. I never gave them one vision.” “But they contaminated you. They fed you spice essence and plied you with women and dreams. And you did have visions.” “Sometimes.” How sly his voice sounded. “Will you take back your hawk ring?” Leto asked. Paul sat down suddenly on the sand, a dark blotch in the starlight. “No!” So he knows the futility of that path, Leto thought. This revealed much, but not enough. The contest of the visions had moved from its delicate plane of choices down to a gross discarding of alternates. Paul knew he could not win, but he hoped yet to nullify that single vision to which Leto clung. Presently Paul said: “Yes, I was contaminated by the Jacurutu. But you contaminate yourself.” “That’s true,” Leto admitted. “I am your son.” “And are you a good Fremen?” “Yes.” “Will you permit a blind man to go into the desert finally? Will you let me find peace on my own terms?” He pounded the sand beside him. “No, I’ll not permit that,” Leto said. “But it’s your right to fall upon your knife if you insist upon it.” “And you would have my body!” “True.” “No!” And so he knows that path, Leto thought.

The passage continues, and again Paul admits he knew of Kralizec/the Typhoon Struggle.

Before I quote the rest of the passage, first a sidenote on Kralizec. It’s fair to assume Kralizec is the obliteration of humankind by those the Honored Matres flee from in the final books, presumably descendants of the thinking machines that fled the Butlerian Jihad. It’s pretty clearly forshadowed in this passage from Children: “”The beginning and the end are one,” Leto said. “(…) A phase has closed. Out of that closing grows the beginning of its opposite. Thus, we will have Kralizec. Everything returns later in changed form.” It’s also loud and clear this ties into Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrance – read my text on Messiah for more on that.

The enshrining of Muad’Dib’s body by his son could be contrived as a form of cement for Leto’s vision. “You never told them, did you, father?” Leto asked. “I never told them.” “But I told them,” Leto said. “I told Muriz. Kralizec, the Typhoon Struggle.” Paul’s shoulders sagged. “You cannot,” he whispered. “You cannot.” “I am a creature of this desert now, father,” Leto said. “Would you speak thus to a Coriolis storm?” “You think me coward for refusing that path,” Paul said, his voice husky and trembling. “Oh, I understand you well, son. Augury and haruspication have always been their own torments. But I was never lost in the possible futures because this one is unspeakable!” “Your Jihad will be a summer picnic on Caladan by comparison,” Leto agreed. (…) ” “I see that I cannot sway you. Let me touch you, then, for you are my son.” Leto held out his right hand to meet the groping fingers, felt their strength, matched it, and resisted every shift of Paul’s arm. (…) Tears slipped from the sightless eyes and Paul released his grip, dropped his hand to his side.

The passage continues even further, and Herbert doesn’t seem able to choose. On the one hand, Paul foresaw it, but didn’t want it because he would be considered evil. On the other hand, Paul didn’t see it and didn’t take his vision far enough. Again, in both cases: why then the Fremen Jihad? And how come the Bene Gesserit would have suspected it, yet Paul Muad’dib would not?

“If I’d chosen your way, I’d have become the bicouros of shaitan. What will you become?” “For a time they’ll call me the missionary of shaitan, too,” Leto said. “Then they’ll begin to wonder and, finally, they’ll understand. You didn’t take your vision far enough, father. Your hands did good things and evil.” “But the evil was known after the event!” “Which is the way of many great evils,” Leto said. “You crossed over only into a part of my vision. Was your strength not enough?” “You know I couldn’t stay there. I could never do an evil act which was known before the act. I’m not Jacurutu.” He clambered to his feet. “Do you think me one of those who laughs alone at night?” “It is sad that you were never really Fremen,” Leto said. “We Fremen know how to commission the arifa. Our judges can choose between evils. It’s always been that way for us.” “Fremen, is it? Slaves of the fate you helped to make?” Paul stepped toward Leto, reached out in an oddly shy movement, touched Leto’s sheathed arm, explored up it to where the membrane exposed an ear, then the cheek and, finally, the mouth. “Ahhhh, that is your own flesh yet,” he said. “Where will that flesh take you?” He dropped his hand. “Into a place where humans may create their futures from instant to instant.” “So you say. An Abomination might say the same.” (…) Paul buried his face in his hands. His shoulders shook for a moment, then he lowered his hands and his mouth was set in a harsh line. “There is a curse upon our House. I prayed that you would throw that ring into the sand, that you’d deny me and run away to make… another life. It was there for you.” “At what price?” After a long silence, Paul said: “The end adjusts the path behind it. Just once I failed to fight for my principles. Just once. I accepted the Mahdinate. I did it for Chani, but it made me a bad leader.” Leto found he couldn’t answer this. The memory of that decision was there within him. “I cannot lie to you any more than I could lie to myself,” Paul said. “I know this. Every man should have such an auditor. I will only ask this one thing: is the Typhoon Struggle necessary?” “It’s that or humans will be extinguished.” Paul heard the truth in Leto’s words, spoke in a low voice which acknowledged the greater breadth of his son’s vision. “I did not see that among the choices.” “I believe the Sisterhood suspects it,” Leto said. “I cannot accept any other explanation of my grandmother’s decision.” The night wind blew coldly around them then.

Oof! That was a lot of quote – again: excuse me.

My guess is that Herbert wrote himself in a mess when he opened up this particular can of worms. Did he even need a stand-off between both of the Kwisatz Haderachs, except for dramatic spectacle? It seems to be more pulp than consistent philosophy.

If you have any ideas about this, a different interpretation, or if you spotted mistakes in my reasoning, I’d be very glad to hear from you in the comments. It would be nice to be proven wrong, so I can update this section with a more solid explanation.


Children of Dune 1985 cover


THE BACKBONES OF THE WORMS: FOUR KEY CONCEPTS

Backbone 1 – CHANGE

This part is again heavy with quotes. You don’t have to read the quotes to keep track of my reasoning, so feel free them to skip if you don’t want textual proof of my claims.

Much more than in Dune or Dune Messiah, change takes the center stage. It is clear from the set of the story itself: Arrakis is changing into a greener planet, a significant part of the Fremen are changing into complacency, and – believe it or not – some stillsuits have changed and expose more naked face. Even the “animals moved to strange new rhythms”.

And while a desert as a backdrop to a story about change might seem inadequate, the sand ever shifts, and, maybe more importantly, it is hostile to things that stay put:

Everything remains mobile in the desert or perishes.

Leto sees through the deceptive sameness of the desert as well:

There’s your damned universe for you! he thought. Seen close up it was a hustling place like the sand all around him, a place of change, of uniqueness piled upon uniqueness. Seen from a distance, only the patterns lay revealed and those patterns tempted one to belief in absolutes.

The characters change too: most obviously there is Leto’s literal, physical transformation – and as the Desert Demon, he changes Arrakis yet again. We also witness Alia being overcome by Vladimir Harkonnen, Jessica reverts her loyalties back to the Sisterhood, and Farad’n Corrino gains Bene Gesserit skills. Paul Muad’dib transformed into The Preacher between book 2 & 3.

There’s a certain stability in the side characters: Stilgar, Irulan, Halleck, Idaho – but none of their roles is similar to those in the first two books. One of the first lines describing Stilgar in the opening chapter is this:

“And as his planet changed, he knew he had changed. He had become a far more subtle person than the one-time sietch chieftain.”

It ties ecological, contextual change to inner change – and it is again a clear demonstration of being determined by one’s surroundings, as I wrote about at lenght in my analysis of Dune.

If you look even closer, aside from all these different changes happening in the story, Herbert repeatedly stresses the importance and even necessity of change for healthy systems. The very first epigraph, just as it did in Messiah – as I remarked at the end of my text on the previous book – gives away the central theme.

Muad’Dib’s teachings have become the playground of scholastics, of the superstitious and the corrupt. He taught a balanced way of life, a philosophy with which a human can meet problems arising from an ever-changing universe. He said humankind is still evolving, in a process which will never end. He said this evolution moves on changing principles which are known only to eternity. How can corrupted reasoning play with such an essence? -Words of the Mentat Duncan Idaho

Stilgar might have changed, and some Fremen have changed too – water fat & complacent & more individualistic – but at the same time he is a symbol of the old ways, resisting change, a leader of the only remaining band that adheres to the old ways, and his submission to Leto at the very end is one of the highlights of the book. Also in the beginning of the book, it is made clear the Fremen symbolize resistance to change.

But Leto found himself thinking now in the Old Fremen manner, wary of change, fearful in the presence of the new.

&

Alia was fond of saying that old ways gave ground slowly. Stilgar admitted to himself that he’d always found this statement vaguely reassuring. Change was dangerous. Invention must be suppressed. Individual willpower must be denied. What other function did the priesthood serve than to deny individual will?

There’s a similar dualistic tension in Leto – both prophet of change, and vessel of the past.

“I have no first person singular, Stil. I am a multiple person with memories of traditions more ancient than you could imagine. That’s my burden, Stil. I’m past-directed. I’m abrim with innate knowledge which resists newness and change. Yet Muad’Dib changed all this.” He gestured at the desert, his arm sweeping to encompass the Shield Wall behind him.

But it is clear Leto in his new form cannot exist without constant inner change – it protects him from being overtaken by Other Memory:

As the worm sped southward, Leto allowed his mind to run free. He tried to think of this passage as a new ceremony for his life, one which kept him from considering the price he’d have to pay for his Golden Path. Like the Fremen of old, he knew he’d have to adopt many new ceremonies to keep his personality from dividing into its memory parts, to keep the ravening hunters of his soul forever at bay. Contradictory images, never to be unified, must now be encysted in a living tension, a polarizing force which drove him from within. Always newness, he thought. I must always find the new threads out of my vision.

(The passage on the Fremen of old need not be contradictory with what I wrote above: I think Herbert talks here of the first Fremen that came to Arrakis and had to change to survive. Once those changes had taken place, the hostile environment asked for a more conservative mindset – and a practical mobility.)

Ultimatly, Leto speaks of the importance of change for an entire society, and he even ties important themes of the previous book – organised religion & the hero-leader being negative things – to change:

“There’s always a prevailing mystique in any civilization,” Leto said. “It builds itself as a barrier against change, and that always leaves future generations unprepared for the universe’s treachery. All mystiques are the same in building these barriers – the religious mystique, the hero-leader mystique, the messiah mystique, the mystique of science/technology, and the mystique of nature itself. We live in an Imperium which such a mystique has shaped, and now that Imperium is falling apart because most people don’t distinguish between mystique and their universe. You see, the mystique is like demon possession; it tends to take over the consciousness, becoming all things to the observer.”

Without the changes forced by the Golden Path, humanity will perish:

He said: “I’ve become pasigraphic. I’m a living glyph to write out the changes which must come to pass. If I do not write them, you’ll encounter such heartache as no human should experience.”

&

“Some questions have no answers,” he said. “I’ve seen that future, but the contradictions would only confuse you. This is a changing universe and we are the strangest change of all. We resonate to many influences. Our futures need constant updating. Now, there’s a barrier which we must remove. This requires that we do brutal things, that we go against our most basic, our dearest wishes… But it must be done.”


When we broaden our scope beyond Paul & Leto, we find agreement with change everywhere in the book. The Preacher – not exactly Muad’dib – does still agree with him on change:

But the basic lesson of our relativistic universe is that things change.

And also the mentats acknowledge its unavoidable importance:

“There’s no real mystery about this at the moment. This is what we want now. It may prove wrong later, but we’ll correct that when we come to it.” The mentat-generalist must understand that anything which we can identify as our universe is merely a part of larger phenomena. But the expert looks backward; he looks into the narrow standards of his own specialty. The generalist looks outward; he looks for living principles, knowing full well that such principles change, that they develop. It is to the characteristics of change itself that the mentat-generalist must look. There can be no permanent catalogue of such change, no handbook or manual. You must look at it with as few preconceptions as possible, asking yourself: “Now what is this thing doing?” -The Mentat Handbook

As do the Bene Gesserit:

To learn patience in the Bene Gesserit Way, you must begin by recognizing the essential, raw instability of our universe. We call nature — meaning this totality in all of its manifestations — the Ultimate Non-Absolute. To free your vision and permit you to recognize this conditional nature’s changing ways, you will hold your two hands at arm’s length in front of you.

When Ghanima recices the Sisterhood’s Credo, we notice the link between change & creativity.

” (…) And always the ultimate unspoken commandment is “Thou shalt not question!” But we do anyway. We break that commandment as a matter of course. The work to which we have set ourselves is the liberating of the imagination, the harnessing of imagination to humankind’s deepest sense of creativity.”

Also Farad’n Corrino, in his later role as historian and scribe, writes of change. It is of note that the new name given to him by Leto is “the one who changes customs” in Arabic.

There exist obvious higher-order influences in any planetary system. This is often demonstrated by introducing terraform life onto newly discovered planets. In all such cases, the life in similar zones develops striking similarities of adaptive form. This form signifies much more than shape; it connotes a survival organization and a relationship of such organizations. The human quest for this interdependent order and our niche within it represents a profound necessity. The quest can, however, be perverted into a conservative grip on sameness. This has always proved deadly for the entire system. -The Dune Catastrophe, After Harq al-Ada

Finally, also the Spacing Guild echoes the principle:

Any path which narrows future possibilities may become a lethal trap. Humans are
not threading their way through a maze; they scan a vast horizon filled with
unique opportunities. The narrowing viewpoint of the maze should appeal only to
creatures with their noses buried in sand. Sexually produced uniqueness and
differences are the life-protection of the spices. -The Spacing Guild Handbook

It’s surprising in a saga with so many opposing factions that they all seem to agree on this one thing: the need for change. As it is so pervasive throughout the book – and in the storyline of the sequels, as it is the essence of the Golden Path – I can only conclude that in this, they all voice the personal idea of Herbert himself too. He knew about nature, and the only real biological law is evolution. Herbert is a Darwinist.

“I’m here to give purpose to evolution and, therefore, to give purpose to our lives,” Leto said.


When Leto spoke of the desert a few quotes above, he already warned for absolutes. He does so again, and the refusal of absolutes ties in to what I will talk about in the next section – a morality beyond dualism, beyond the absolutes of good and evil.

In absolutes, we may lose our way. This made him think of the familiar warning from a Fremen ditty: “Who loses his way in the Tanzerouft loses his life.” The patterns could guide and they could trap. One had to remember that patterns change.

&

“But you aren’t contented. You see, Gurney? Namri proves it to us. Every question, every problem doesn’t have a single correct answer. One must permit diversity. A monolith is unstable. Then why do you demand a single correct statement from me? Is that to be the measure of your monstrous judgment?”

In this final passage on change, it seems opposed to determinism & the lack of free will, of which I will talk in the final backbone section. It’s in opposition only at first glance. Biological evolution is determined by genetic copying mistakes, and sexual reproduction which always introduces variation – and again, that people make choices is not up for debate: the question is what determines those choices.

The child who refuses to travel in the father’s harness, this is the symbol of man’s most unique capability. “I do not have to be what my father was. I do not have to obey my father’s rules or even believe everything he believed. It is my strength as a human that I can make my own choices of what to believe and what not to believe, of what to be and what not to be.” -Leto Atreides II, The Harq al-Ada Biography


Backbone 2: #Nietzsche – AMOR FATI

I have writen before about Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence in Dune Messiah, among other things about the concept of eternal recurrence. I’ve also linked to Brook Pearson’s 2011 essay ‘Nietzsche goes to space’ before, and that explicitly talks about eternal recurrence in Children of Dune. I will not write about that concept any further here.

What I do want to write about is a concept connected to eternal recurrence, as that thought experiment’s desirable outcome is a love for life either way it occurs: a kind of seize the day, also if that day turns out to be a thistle and not a rose, to borrow an image of philosopher Patricia De Martelaere.

For starters, the Bene Gesserit’s Litany Against Fear – as I wrote above, aside from the worms, probably the most powerful symbol for the entire series, tattood by many – is a call for cool acceptance, and by accepting trouble neutralizing it. It is the paradoxical effect of amor fati: by loving your fate, even if it is a negative one, you dispell it, deprive it from its powers.

Throughout the book, this concept returns a few times in different forms.

The most important issue is how to deal with Other Memory. Leto & Ghanima know acceptance is the key, and – although she fails – even Alia knows: “It must be done lovingly.” As we have seen in some of the various quotes above, the reason why Leto & Chani are not (fully) overtaken has to do with a lack of fear, the willingness to accept constant change, and acceptance: an amor fati.

We’re already amalgams of those lives within us. We don’t resist; we ride with them.

It’s stressed again later that Leto did so, as it is a Bene Gesserit way of doing things.

Leto stood out from his background as though at the focus of a blinding light. He had achieved harmony simply by accepting it. “Tell me, Paul,” Halleck said. “Does your mother know?” The Preacher sighed. “To the Sisterhood, all achieved harmony simply by accepting it.”

And it is also key to the mechanics of Leto’s Golden Path:

“Because it’s the amor fati which I bring to humankind, the act of ultimate self-examination. In this universe, I choose to ally myself against any force which brings humiliation upon humankind. Gurney! Gurney! You were not born and raised in the desert. Your flesh doesn’t know the truth of which I speak. But Namri knows. In the open land, one direction is as good as another.”

Herbert creates what seems to be paradox out of amor fati. Loving our fate sets us free. To borrow yet another image of De Martelaere: the rebelious teenager that voluntarily goes to his room, nullifies the punishment from his parents, and as such becomes free of it. That’s similar to what Jessica says when she talks about her son Paul in this quote:

“Of all our observations, this is the most crucial,” she’d said. “Life is a mask through which the universe expresses itself. We assume that all of humankind and its supportive life forms represent a natural community and that the fate of all life is at stake in the fate of the individual. Thus, when it comes to that ultimate self-examination, the amor fati, we stop playing god and revert to teaching. In the crunch, we select individuals and we set them as free as we’re able.”

They key is “as free”: freedom is not absolute. Nobody is free from determining factors, and as such, true freedom does not exist. As such, ‘amor fati’ is tied to the final section about determinism.


Backbone 3: #Nietzsche – BEYOND GOOD & EVIL

I was first turned to Nietzsche’s presence in Herbert’s saga by Gaping Blackbird. In his excellent text on Children of Dune, he extensivly writes about The Preacher as a Nietzschean figure. He also write this:

Leto II takes the mantle in the above quote, claiming by birthright a more nuanced understanding of the nature of evil. This is an example of Herbert philosophically departing from Nietzsche — Nietzsche posits that good and evil are not at the metaphysical essence of existence, and that evil is a construct of envy and resentment. Herbert suggests a rational basis for how evil comes to exist in the Dune universe: Leto II and Paul both understand that evil must exist in order for good to be defined against it, but only Leto embraces it. Moreover, the shocking cost of Leto’s Golden Path indicate a keen reversal of Nietzsche’s skeptical treatment of evil as a thing. Even after reaching the end of CoD, we do not know whether the Nietzschean ideal outcome, when interpreted in this nuanced context of the Dune universe, would actually be any good for us.

I’m not sure if I fully agree. For starters, Herbert seems a pragmatic: the overall story of the full series is indeed this: the terror of the Golden Path is needed as otherwise humanity would disappear from the universe. Granted, maybe the obliteration of humanity is not as bad as the totallity of the terror – but Herbert doesn’t seem to give any hints that he thinks the latter is the case. Maybe I’ll find some in the following books – we’ll see about that.

I do agree that the character of The Preacher calls for a return to morality, and a dismissal of the Golden Path – and it seems clear Herbert opposes dictatorship in real life. But in the end The Preacher submits to Leto, he is killed, and used as prop to further cement Leto’s power. And while Herbert definitely sympathises with Paul and with his incarnation as The Preacher, I would not go as far and dare claim that The Preacher is the voice of Frank Herbert himself throughout the book on all things. For me, the overall storyline, including the final three books, takes dominance over the episodic nature of The Preacher in just one book of the series.

And if you look at the rest of Children of Dune, the invalidity of duality seems to be a recurring theme. As such, I would think the overal message is indeed a call for a Nietzschean morality beyond good and evil. I will leave it to the next few quotes to speak for themselves.

He taught that there are no intransigent opposites except in the beliefs of men, and sometimes, in their dreams. One discovers the future in the past, and both are part of a whole. (The Preacher talks about Muad’dib to Farad’n, and this is later repeated in an Harq al-Ada epigraph)

&

My warning to you, Stilgar: The most dangerous of all creations is a rigid code of ethics. It will turn upon you and drive you into exile!

&

There is no guilt or innocence in you. All of that is past. Guilt belabors the dead and I am not the Iron Hammer. You multitude of the dead are merely people who have done certain things, and the memory of those things illuminates my path. -Leto II to His Memory-Lives, After Harq al-Ada

I must be honest, and also quote the two counter examples I found, the first also dealing indirectly with another problem for a 100% consistent beyond good and evil interpretation: the Evil nature of the Baron – maybe the fact that he has always been a charicature can absolve my line of reasoning?

“Abomination;” the Lady Jessica had said, “our term for the pre-born, has a long history of bitter experiences behind it. The way of it seems to be that the inner lives divide. They split into the benign and the malignant. The benign remain tractable, useful. The malignant appear to unite in one powerful psyche, trying to take over the living flesh and its consciousness. The process is known to take considerable time, but its signs are well known.”

&

Muad’Dib gave us a particular kind of knowledge about prophetic insight (…). As has been noted elsewhere, such insight operates as a peculiar trap for the prophet himself. He can become the victim of what he knows – which is a relatively common human failing. The danger is that those who predict real events may overtook the polarizing effect brought about by overindulgence in their own truth. They tend to forget that nothing in a polarized universe can exist without its opposite being present. -The Prescient Vision, by Harq al-Ada

That final quote isn’t necessarilly a clear counter example – as it also seems to indicate polarization stems from overindulgence, and as such having two poles is not the basic setup of the universe, or at least, a trap to avoid, created by overindulgence.

(Again, it would be great to hear from you in the comments if you have any thoughts about this, especially so if you totally disagree or see things slightly differently.)


Backbone 4 – ILLUSIONS OF CONTROL: THE HUMAN MIND IN A MECHANIC WORLD pt. 3 – the Leto-does-prescience-edition

I will try to keep this section as brief as possible, as I’ve talked about the illusion of free will in literature countless of times on this blog – I wrote a long read on The Lord Of The Rings and the same theme, if you want, with further interesting discussion in the comments. But since I promised that I would track the development of the theme throughout the Dune series, what’s due is due.

Let me start by saying I didn’t find passages contradicting what I wrote in my text on Messiah on the matter, because for the few that at first glance seem contradictory, similar logics like what I wrote on Messiah could apply, so I will not bother with those here. On the supporting side, there’s again a lot of passages that show a deterministic view, but I’ll just provide four short ones – there’s a least an extra 10 longer ones that I won’t use to spare you further bloat.

Stilgar knew his thoughts and emotions were like the light. He could not still a restless inner projection. Some greater power controlled that movement.

&

He [Stilgar] was aware now of many things—of statecraft and profound consequences in the smallest decisions. Yet he felt this knowledge and subtlety as a thin veneer covering an iron core of simpler, more deterministic awareness. And that older core called out to him, pleaded with him for a return to cleaner values.

&

He felt his choice as an obvious necessity. (Leto’s thoughts on how to deal with the inner voices: “He waved a hand to encompass total acceptance.”)

&

Alia chewed the back of her right hand. Horns! She wanted to reach out and press the button which would summon guards, but her hand refused to move.


If you just look at the story itself, it’s again clear most pivotal things happen to characters, or are done out of necessity. Ghanima learns to manage her Other Memory accidentaly, because she needed to self-hypnotize. Leto is forced to undergo the spice agony while being a prisoner. Alia’s only choice to remain sane a bit longer is to cooperate with the Baron, and in the end her only way out is suicide. The only way for Leto to start the Golden Path is doing what he does, etc., etc. The final line of the book is loud and clear as well: “One of us had to accept the agony,” she said, “and he was always the stronger.”

It’s interesting that Herbert even uses the classic device of a play withing the story once, to forshadow what Idaho & Jessica will also confirm later on. The next inserted quote is a fragment from the mummur play “Disputation of Armistead and Leandgrah”, witnessed by The Preacher, who doesn’t really seem to like it – and again, as I hinted at in the backbone on good vs. evil, I think The Preacher to be somewhat naive, just as there were characters in Messiah – including Paul – that at times fell victim to the illusion of free choice, while knowing better. Moreover: “It was the old polarities which taunted The Preacher now. He had fled from paradox into paradox.”

Bah! The universe can be grasped only by the sentient hand. That hand is what drives your precious brain, and it drives everything else that derives from the brain. You see what you have created, you become sentient, only after the hand has done its work!

Most other important characters seem to understand determinism too. Stilgar sees the twins are not really responsible for their actions:

Were Muad’Dib’s twins responsible for the reality which obliterated the dreams of others? No. They were merely the lens through which light poured to reveal new shapes in the universe.

And obviously Duncan Idaho as a mentat – what better symbol for determinism than a human machine/computer assembled in a Tleilaxan ghola tank? – understands that he is his brain, and that he cannot control it. The only paradoxical control is via amor fati: accept that you don’t have control.

“When I was trained as a mentat … It is very difficult, Alia, to learn how to work your own mind. You learn first that the mind must be allowed to work itself. That’s very strange. You can work your own muscles, exercise them, strengthen them, but the mind acts of itself. Sometimes, when you have learned this about the mind, it shows you things you do not want to see.”

Also Jessica understands the consequential nature of how our mind reaches decisions:

“The human mind, as is the case with the mind of any animal, is a resonator. It responds to resonances in the environment. The mentat has learned to extend his awareness across many parallel loops of causality and to proceed along those loops for long chains of consequences.”

Herbert underscores that ratio is overrated – and it is exactly rational decision making that people point at when they insist that they have free will. Leto says this to Namri:

“There’s no mighty seat of reason which dwells within the brain. Creation is discovery. (…)”

He also underscores consciousness is overrated, for similar reasons.

The assumption that a whole system can be made to work better through an assault on its conscious elements betrays a dangerous ignorance. This has often been the ignorant approach of those who call themselves scientists and technologists. -The Butlerian Jihad, by Harq al-Ada

Earlier, Farad’n experiences being determined by others as well:

This new living history which he felt gathering around him possessed a sense of plunging into an irreversible future. Farad’n could feel himself driven now by the desires of all those whose fortunes rode with him. He found it strange that he could not pin down his own desires in this.

It’s of note Herbert repeats a line I also highlighted in my text on Dune. It was said by planetary ecologist Liet-Kynes in the first book. In Children of Dune it is repeated verbatim – without giving credit to Liet-Kynes – by Ghadhean Al-Fali, a Fedaykin naib:

“When God hath ordained a creature to die in a particular place, He causeth that creature’s wants to direct him to that place.”


All that is nothing new. What I do want to discuss a bit deeper, is hinted at in this quote:

Paul’s final vision had shown the precarious way out of that trap, and Leto knew now that he had no other choice but to follow that way.

My own interpretation of the trap of total prescience is that because of total prescience one risks to become paralysed by the realisation that one is fully determined, but that’s not really supported by any textual fragments. There are other, pretty clear explanations in Children of Dune, and luckily they don’t conflict with my more liberal interpretation.

“Once your father confided in me that knowing the future too well was to be locked into that future to the exclusion of any freedom to change.” “The paradox which is our problem,” Leto said. “It’s a subtle and powerful thing, prescience. The future becomes now. To be sighted in the land of the blind carries its own perils. If you try to interpret what you see for the blind, you tend to forget that the blind possess an inherent movement conditioned by their blindness. They are like a monstrous machine moving along its own path. They have their own momentum, their own fixations. I fear the blind, Stil. I fear them. They can so easily crush anything in their path.”

&

“Why has another Leto been taken from us?” The Preacher demanded. There was real pain in his voice. “Answer me if you can! Ahhhh, their message is clear: abandon certainty.” He repeated it in a rolling stentorian shout: “Abandon certainty! That’s life’s deepest command. That’s what life’s all about. We’re a probe into the unknown, into the uncertain. Why can’t you hear Muad’Dib? If certainty is knowing absolutely an absolute future, then that’s only death disguised! Such a future becomes now! He showed you this!”

Leto avoids this trap by shielding himself from the details of his near future, and explicitly does things he hasn’t envisioned because of that. Leto looks at the future, but no fully. He knows the end, but not the full path towards that end.

The thing had the deceptive appearance of simplicity to Leto: avoiding the vision, do that which has not been seen. He knew the trap in his thought, how the casual threads of a locked future twisted themselves together until they held you fast, but he had a new grip on those threads.

It is a way not disimilar to the way described by Slavoj Žižek in Looking Awry, his 1996 book on Lacan – just as Herbert, Jacques Lacan had a keen interest in Freud and Jung. It is the way of the detour, aiming for the goal by not aiming, looking at a weak star by looking aside the star and by doing that letting the weak light fall on the more sensitive rim of the retina.

But whatever came, it would be visionless. Every step left farther behind him the spice-induced dhyana, that spreading awareness of his intuitive-creative nature with its unfolding to the motionless chain of causality. For every hundred steps he took now, there must be at least one step aside, beyond words and into communion with his newly grasped internal reality.

The way Leto navigates the future resembles the way Fremen cross the desert: with an atypical rythm & creative sidesteps.


Leto confirms what I wrote in my Messiah text. Because of the giant complexity of the universe, prescience is not perfect. But as I already argued, that is no argument against determinism.

In an old voice, Leto said: “There’s no single set of limits for all men. Universal prescience is an empty myth. Only the most powerful local currents of Time may be foretold. But in an infinite universe, local can be so gigantic that your mind shrinks from it.”

&

“Every judgment teeters on the brink of error,” Leto explained. “To claim absolute knowledge is to become monstrous. Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

This is in line with what his father already said, repeating it here as The Preacher:

“Muad’Dib showed you two things: a certain future and an uncertain future. With full awareness, he confronted the ultimate uncertainty of the larger universe. He stepped off blindly from his position on this world. He showed us that men must do this always, choosing the uncertain instead of the certain.”

Let me end this section with a quote from Frank Herbert, from a long, 46-page 1969 interview between him, his wife and professor Willis McNelly that only surfaced a few years ago.

And of course we’re … each of us, individually, is the product of everything that has happen to us, and this happened to me and hit me, and so I used it, because, as far as I was concerned, one of the purposes of this story was to delineate consequences of inflicting yourself upon a planet, upon your environment.


However, to fully finish the discussion of determinism in Children of Dune, there is one passage where Herbert introduces a tad of doubt on the whole matter. It’s in an epigraph ascribed to Leto.

We can still remember the golden days before Heisenberg, who showed humans the
walls enclosing our predestined arguments. The lives within me find this
amusing. Knowledge, you see, has no uses without purpose, but purpose is what
builds enclosing walls. -Leto Atreides II, His Voice

Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is obviously popular with believers in free will. Quantum magic makes our brain free! Q puts us 100% in the driver’s seat inside our skull. Something like that. But given the nature of the decision making process in the brain – pretty convicingly described by Nobel Prize winners, Eric Kandel, John O’Keefe and May-Britt Moser along with Edvard Moser – there does not seem room for quantum events on the bio-molecular level of our collected neurons. (If you’re interested, Alex Rosenberg does a great job explaining it in his 2018 book, and a heap of other things too.)

So while Heisenberg’s paper from 1927 and everything that followed after it might have seem still relevant in 1976, it seems less so today.

Complicating things further, Herbert published his novel The Eyes of Heisenberg in 1966, and in it he applied the principle “both on the molecular (genetic) level (producing the atypical embryo the story hinges on) and on a macroscopic, societal level.”

I can only speculate. My guess is that Herbert was still realist enough to be a determinist, but had the vague hope that Heisenberg could save us all. It is probably no coincidence that in the final three novels, concepts as the no-ship and the no-chamber, and a character like Sonia Atreides, make an appearance – as an utterance of that hope.

More on that when I have reread those books, but for now it is safe to conclude that it seems Herbert in Children of Dune did try his first steps to find a way out of determinism – maybe because ultimatly he lacked amor fati too? Nobody is perfect!



What can I say to end this monster? My favorite words by KSR? “Enough is as good as a feast”? This thing is finished. Thanks for sticking through to the end, and do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments.

Let’s have Leto one more time: “There’s no mystery about a human life. It’s not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Mutatis mutandis this book indeed?

Frank Herbert


Click here for my other Herbert reviews: Dune, Dune Messiah, Destination: Void, The Santaroga Barrier, Whipping Star, Soul Catcher & The Dosadi Experiment. I’ve also tackled Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune.

Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists – including a non-fiction list.

38 responses to “CHILDREN OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1976)

  1. I’ll be frank (no pun intended): when I read it ages ago I thought Leto was just another dictator who used determinism as an excuse for his chosen way. I was much more on the side of The Preacher then, and it seems I’m still on his side now ;).

    As I haven’t read Rosenberg yet, I cannot fully comment on Heisenberg here – but in our ongoing discussion about determinism/free will (apart from the fact that we keep on understanding the concept a bit differently) I can say that I don’t see how we could from the inside of our brains understand processes that might be beyond our limited perception. So my argument is still thus: we cannot confirm the absence of free will through simply not being able to confirm its presence.

    Great mammoth of a post, Bart! I enjoyed it very much, and now I’m very keen to start my Dune reread 😀

    Like

    • Thanks!! Would love to hear your thoughts on it. And if you reread, try to keep that question on Paul foreseeing the full deal or not in mind!

      Viz. Heisenberg: I do agree we don’t understand reality or our brains fully, so ultimately, the jury is still out. I also agree we cannot confirm the absence of free will just on the basis of not being able to confirm it.

      But I do think that numerous experiments & findings – and not only in brain science, but also in behavioral economics – show that what we usually refer to as ‘free will’, namely ‘rational decision making’ based on independent conscious process, does not exist.

      I also think that – even with full knowledge of brain/reality – I see no alternative for chain-of-events-determinism. Even if chance and accident would play a role on a quantum level in our brains, that stlll does not mean that we would not be determined. We would just be determined – additionally to physical laws on or above the molecular level – by other processes outside of our own control as well, namely (quantum) chance processes. There doesn’t seem to be anything ‘free’ about that.

      So as for your first remark: I think Leto had no other choice than to chose his way. In that sense he doesn’t need excuses – he made a choice, yes, but that word is treacherous, as we usually mean that choice implies freedom 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I will definitely reread it at some point and will come back to you on these issues 😀

        As for free will, I don’t equate it with rational decision making, as no decision can be fully rational unless one’s an omniscient being. The chance/accident elements of our mental makeup are important but not decisive; and yet I choose to see us as more than biological machines designed to propagate genes – we do it no more successfully than viruses or cockroaches, so clearly consciousness/ sentience is not a key element to evolutionary success.

        And as for free choice – as this remains at the crux of our discussion – I seem to remember we have agreed that “free” is a matter of gradation and not absolutes 🙂 and if that’s so, the amount of freedom of choice we have is relative, but does not amount to zero. Might be something cumulative, and not simply rooted in one thing. We still make choices and we differ in them – as evidenced by this discussion, or, to come back to Dune, by the conflict between Leto and Paul. I keep thinking that their conflict shows the conquering arrogance of youth versus the defeated humility of old age. But your line of reasoning gets close to absolving Leto of responsibility – since his choice was the only possible (though I don’t agree as Paul is the evidence that other choices are possible) he becomes just a cog in the machine, his actions foreseen and unavoidable. To me, it seems like a perfect line of reasoning for all genocidal tyrants who talk about the inevitability of history, progress and survival of their race 😉 Having said that, I speak so far removed from reading CoD that by now I only have a vague memory of my impressions of this book – which means it all might be totally off! 😁

        Liked by 1 person

        • We are indeed much more than machines in the sense that we have consciousness, experience emotions, etc., but I do not think that we differ from machines or other animals in that everything in the universe is bound by physical laws, and believe that every biological law can be reduced to physics & chemistry. I guess there’s never one aspect that is decisive in itself, it is always clusters of causality, so to say. But I don’t see how complexity in itself can escape causality. (The old ‘the sum is bigger than the parts’ argument concerning our brains e.g.)

          I very much agree that it is all a matter of gradation. But, instead of saying some people are more free in their choices than others (non-addicts vs. addicts, free people vs. prisoners, rich vs. poor, smart vs. mentally impaired etc.) I would rather say that some people have a few less determining/limiting factors than others, but nobody ever makes a choice that is undetermined by phenomena outside of their control.

          As for responsibility: it’s a tricky term. Of course everybody is responsible for their actions, in the sense that they are the fulcrum of whatever set of consequences that results from their actions. A murderer is responsible for the death of its victim indeed.

          But when you inflate the term responsibility with morality, it gets complicated very soon to the point that is unworkable if you really think things through. In that sense, nobody is ‘responsible’. I think categories like ‘guilt’ or words like ‘absolving’ are actually meaningless, or at least, can’t uphold thorough scrutiny. We obviously use them in society and in regular conversation, and people ‘get’ what we mean, but are they really ‘fair’? Most people in our prisons have severe mental problems, just to pick one example. If you have an aggression problem: is that your own doing? That fact that you can’t seem to find help for it, or even don’t want to get help for it because you’re own perspective on the problem is different than that from most of society: is that your own doing?

          Lets reduce it to Hitler. Obviously he played a role in a regrettable, terrible genocide & violent war – suffering so vast it’s impossible to imagine even, so in the easy, non-philosophical, practical sense of the word, he was guilty/responsible indeed – not solely of course, but lets leave others out of the equation. But that is only if we judge by the result of his actions. If we take motivations into account (and I believe one should if you talk about moral guilt), he clearly thought he was doing the right thing. Most people (including myself) would say you can (more or less) objectively say his reasonings were faulty. But even if that is true: can we hold Hitler morally accountable because his reasoning was off? Could’ve Hitler helped himself to become a better (in our perspective) thinker, and as a result, a better do-er? The other possibility is that Hitler knew that what he did was wrong. In that case, he’s could be absolved too, because people that know they do something wrong, and still do it, clearly have mental problems. It’s the very essence of Christianity for me: forgive them father, because they don’t know what they are doing.

          Long story short: Leto, just as anybody else, is absolved indeed.

          And just to be clear: by all that I don’t want to imply ethics do not matter, or that everything is relative or that what Hitler did is negligible. I do think we should strive towards a fair society with as little suffering as possible.

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          • Wow, that’s a big comment – I’m afraid I’ll have to divide it into smaller bits and keep returning to it, one bit at a time 😉

            First, what you’re saying about physical laws – agreed in general. But it’s the details that seem to matter the most here, and I’m afraid that your approach leads to simple reductionism: everything can be reduced to atoms, or quarks and leptons, but that doesn’t explain the variety inherent in the universe. So I wouldn’t discount the old synergy argument just yet. I believe that in reductionism we lose so much information that at some point it becomes countereffective and explains less than more complex explanations.

            As for less/more freedom of choice – that is mostly a matter of terminology, I believe. I think we agree on this point, more or less 🙂 In short, absolute free will is most probably only an idea, and not a natural phenomenon (though again, its existence hasn’t been disproved! 😀 Joke.)

            On responsibility though, I will have to get back to you later. I want to make my argument clear, and to do that, I need to dissect your line of reasoning. In short, I don’t think you can remove morality from responsibility in social environment. What you’re trying to do is to limit the definition of responsibility to causality – and I don’t agree with this approach. Guilt or absolution have certain religious connotations, which makes them uwieldy within the field of non-denominational ethics. But responsibility doesn’t have to be linked to them to retain its moral dimension. Okay, enough of this for now 🙂

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            • I’m indeed a reductionist, but there is nothing “simple” about it. Molecular biology, and on a bigger level, neurology (and for humans and some other animals consciousness), and on an even bigger level ecology, are such complex phenomena, with a complex interplay & synergies, that it’s actually very easy to explain the extremely rich variety on our planet (and in the universe). The term ‘reductionist’ doesn’t do the stance justice, as it stresses a kind of negative side of the viewpoint. What more would you want by the way – why don’t the molecules, quarks, leptons, and their synergetic interactions full of feedback loops suffice?

              Agreed 100% much of the debate in free will is centered on terminology – as your remarks about guilt & religion & responsibility illustrate. I guess the most basic question is: in a given instance, could a human have acted otherwise than he/she acted? I would say no, because the human would always be determined by its context, its history and its brain impulses (that are also determined by its context & history), and the human doesn’t have rational/conscious/… control about either of those.

              As for responsibility, it boils down to how far you can reduce your moral axioms. I’m with Rorty here, and the only thing most humans can agree on is that it’s fair to assume we want to reduce suffering. But on how you should do that, and what counts as suffering, opinions start to diverge. Objective morality as such does not exist. As for responsibility, I only see 2 possible interpretations: a causal interpretation (and that exists indeed), or an interpretation that takes guilt into account (as in: the human could have acted otherwise, but chose not to do so).

              I do agree a society needs laws, and acts should have consequences, so people should be ‘punished’ or at least held accountable when they do things that society deems ‘bad’. As such, society and laws becomes part of the causal chain. But it is pretty clear to most social scientists that prisons, harsh sentencing, etc. don’t work as deterrent, so you see in progressive countries judges are steering away from punishment (and as such ‘guilt’), and more towards education & reparation (and as such to an amoral approach that just looks at the causal paths) as verdicts.

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              • Yea, but synergy actually plays a role in it, as you wrote above. And so by writing about “simple” reductionism I don’t mean to belittle your stance but only to indicate by it the form of reductionism going as far as to dissect everything to its building blocks, without taking into account how they work together and sometimes are more than the sum of their parts 🙂

                And if we get to the most basic question – could someone act differently than they did? – my answer will be more often yes than no, because the human has at least partial control over their impulses through the understanding of their context and workings of their brain. And yes, there is a gradation of that control and understanding among humans.

                I don’t think Rorty would absolve Hitler who not only was aware of his actions but also clearly incredibly increased the amount of suffering. And while I can agree that objectivity in social environment is non-existent, due to a range of factors we had discussed before, we can at least aim at intersubjectivity, or universality, of our concepts and ideas. Rorty’s attempt is an example of that. And still, I don’t think guilt is the opposite of causality here.

                As for punishment, we are in agreement. There is a fascinating book by Foucault about it, showing how attitudes have changed over the centuries, and why. But I don’t see societies steering away from guilt, or from moral approach to crime – the word ‘reparation’ you use is also morally weighted and goes beyond simple causality. The problem with punishment in our modern society is that it is not effective – not for individual, not for the society as a whole.

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              • I’ve read that Foucault, great book. The small drawing of the tree at the beginning is actually my prefered visual metaphor for humanity 🙂

                I don’t think reductionism aims to neglect how things work together, on the contrary even. My feeling is that reductionism is often misunderstood.

                Having control – and to what degree – is determined too, I think that is our basic difference here. And maybe its not even a difference per se, but one of perspective. It does, however, change our views on guilt.

                I think Rorty would say the concept of ‘absolvement’ is unclear, unworkable, etc.

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              • Here’s Sam Harris on the matter in his response to Dennett:
                “For instance, ordinary people want to feel philosophically justified in hating evildoers and viewing them as the ultimate cause of their evil. This moral attitude is always vulnerable to our getting more information about causation—and in situations where the underlying causes of a person’s behavior become too clear, our feelings about their responsibility begin to shift. This is why I wrote that fully understanding the brain of a normal person would be analogous to finding an exculpatory tumor in it. I am not claiming that there is no difference between a normal person and one with impaired self-control. The former will be responsive to certain incentives and punishments, and the latter won’t. (And that is all the justification we need to resort to carrots and sticks or to lock incorrigibly dangerous people away forever.) But something in our moral attitude does change when we catch sight of these antecedent causes—and it should change. We should admit that a person is unlucky to be given the genes and life experience that doom him to psychopathy. Again, that doesn’t mean we can’t lock him up. But hating him is not rational, given a complete understanding of how he came to be who he is. Natural, yes; rational, no. Feeling compassion for him could be rational, however—in the same way that we could feel compassion for the six-year-old boy who was destined to become Jeffrey Dahmer. And while you scoff at “medicalizing” human evil, a complete understanding of the brain would do just that. Punishment is an extraordinarily blunt instrument. We need it because we understand so little about the brain, and our ability to influence it is limited. However, imagine that two hundred years in the future we really know what makes a person tick; Procrustean punishments won’t make practical sense, and they won’t make moral sense either. But you seem committed to the idea that certain people might actually deserve to be punished—if not precisely for the reasons that common folk imagine, nevertheless for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the good consequences that such punishments might have, all things considered. In other words, your compatibilism seems an attempt to justify the conventional notion of blame, which my view denies. This is a difference worth focusing on.”

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              • Interesting! Though I believe that “fully understanding human brain” is exactly as idealistic as the belief in free will – for the reasons we’ve discussed before. And yes, seems to me that discussion between Harris and Dennet is similar to ours, with your stance closer to Harris and mine – to Dennet. I think this approach absolutizes biological underpinnings of the workings of human brain, underestimating the social factors. I do agree, however, that punishment is not effective for the one to whom it’s meted out; it was always a measure directed towards the rest of the society, as Foucault suggests. But I am closer to Dennet insofar as I can infer his stance from the above; I think there’s more to moral stance and existence of responsibility and blame than just biological/genetic factors or unfortunate experience in life. And I’d point out that Harris’s stance is not new either – before, it had influenced eugenics, among other things. Lastly, I’d argue that social norms and the concept of normality itself are flexible; what we call norm or sociopathy or psychopathy might well change more than once again, as it had before.

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              • Yes indeed. I think we agree, except that my one basic question remains: how would social factors escape causality?

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              • Social factors don’t escape causality, I think we agree on it – but they do introduce a whole new level of randomness, contradicting impulses and chains of actions-reactions, significantly modifying, altering, strengthening or negating the biological factors. I think, in short, social factors significantly change the levels of freedom stemming from purely biological sources.

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              • Yes, agreed again, social factors are another layer atop the biological, but this other layer doesn’t break the prison walls causality, it just makes it more complex.

                Also, it only struck me after reading Harris, introducing randomness doesn’t make anything more free.

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              • Randomness – not; conflicting factors – why not?

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              • I’m not sure I get the question, could you rephrase?

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              • I think that conflicting factors which even themselves out or at least enter into a form of entanglement or reaction make room for more unpredictability/less determinism/more choice. Randomness per se doesn’t give that, as it’s just a chaotic dispersion of factors which might be somehow determined anyway, at least when we think of scientific definition of randomness.

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              • Some more Harris: “But can we blame Austin for missing his putt? No. Can we blame him for not trying hard enough? Again, the answer is no—unless blaming him were just a way of admonishing him to try harder in the future. For us to consider him truly responsible for missing the putt or for failing to try, we would need to know that he could have acted other than he did. Yes, there are two readings of “could”—and you find only one of them interesting. But they are both interesting, and the one you ignore is morally consequential. One reading refers to a person’s (or a car’s, in your example) general capacities. Could Austin have sunk his putt, as a general matter, in similar situations? Yes. Could my car go 80 miles per hour, though I happen to be driving at 40? Yes. The other reading is one you consider to be a red herring. Could Austin have sunk that very putt, the one he missed? No. Could he have tried harder? No. His failure on both counts was determined by the state of the universe (especially his nervous system). Of course, it isn’t irrational to treat him as someone who has the general ability to make putts of that sort, and to urge him to try harder in the future—and it would be irrational to admonish a person who lacked such ability. You are right to believe that this distinction has important moral implications: Do we demand that mosquitoes and sharks behave better than they do? No. We simply take steps to protect ourselves from them. The same futility prevails with certain people—psychopaths and others whom we might deem morally insane. It makes sense to treat people who have the general capacity to behave well but occasionally lapse differently from those who have no such capacity and on whom any admonishment would be wasted. You are right to think that these distinctions do not depend on “absolute free will.” But this doesn’t mean nothing changes once we realize that a person could never have made the putt he just missed, or tried harder than he did, or refrained from killing his neighbor with a hammer.

                Holding people responsible for their past actions makes no sense apart from the effects that doing so will have on them and the rest of society in the future (e.g. deterrence, rehabilitation, keeping dangerous people off our streets). The notion of moral responsibility, therefore, is forward-looking. But it is also paradoxical. People who have the most ability (self-control, opportunity, knowledge, etc.) would seem to be the most blameworthy when they fail or misbehave. For instance, when Tiger Woods misses a three-foot putt, there is a much greater temptation to say that he really should have made it than there is in the case of an average golfer. But Woods’s failure is actually more anomalous. Something must have gone wrong if a person of his ability missed so easy a putt. And he wouldn’t stand to benefit (much) from being admonished to try harder in the future. So in some ways, holding a person responsible for his failures seems to make even less sense the more worthy of responsibility he becomes in the conventional sense.”

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    • I also agree that The Preacher is more sympathetic, as he advocates a governance that takes the well-being of the populace into account. But I guess it’s a false dichotomy: both Leto & The Preacher do, they only have a different time frame in mind.

      It’s an interesting philosophical question indeed: how to measure suffering? Can you justify millennia of oppression and violence for an outcome of full bliss in society afterwards? How would you balance it? 1000 years of suffering of 20 billion people for 10000 years of paradise for 200 billion people? What’s the trade off?

      That’s why I’m also reluctant to speak of progress today, like the Steven Pinkers & Hans Roslings so eagerly claim. The absolute number of people living in dire poverty today is bigger than the total number of people living at the end of the 19th century. How can you call that progress? Suffering has increased in absolute numbers.

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      • That’s an interesting conundrum! How do we measure and compare it all? But I think that should we try, we should take into account not only suffering but potential and achievement – and that cannot be measured in absolute numbers anyway. I’m a big advocate of ethics in general and human rights in particular, and to me one measure of progress is our constantly changing definition of human. And I think that we can argue that past suffering is not causally linked to future happiness… But yes, I agree that simple trade-offs are useless in analyzing such complex matters – think agriculture, for example! Compared to hunter-gatherers early agricultural societies might have been deeply unhappy places – and yet, without them, most probably we would not be able to have this discussion now 🙂

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        • It’s hard indeed. For me, a basic principle is that suffering & sorrow always outweighs happiness, but putting numbers on it is impossible I guess, except in its most radical form: as in essence, every unhappy, suffering person is one too many. As such, I’m actually inclined to think that a world with only rosebushes is a better world than the world we have now, to use that old image. On the other hand, most people that suffer want to keep on living anyhow, or have known/will know happy periods in their lives – so I shouldn’t be to paternalistic either.

          Have you read Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit? It has only come to my attention today, and it intrigues me a lot. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I need to read another book on ethics.

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          • Oh man, how can you go on with such attitude? To me, if happiness didn’t outweigh suffering there would be no point of continuing 🙂

            I haven’t read Parfit, but thanks for the tip – I’ll take a look at it if I find it! It is a brick, though – over 500 pages of a philosophical text might be a bit much… 😉

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            • It’s actually very easy to continue with such an attitude: me and my significant others have been happy for most of our lives, and of the periods where I have been unhappy it was pretty clear at the time they would pass in a few months. However, it happens once in a while I get emotional about the state of the world & the unhappiness of people in wars, dire poverty, etc., but those moments usually pass after a few minutes.

              But I would never put my own happiness above the suffering of others. I don’t think mine outweighs that of others (not saying you imply so), and so if you look at the general tally of the world, I wouldn’t dare to go as far and claim happiness outweighs the rest.

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              • Well, ok, I see your point now, thanks for clarifying. I still wouldn’t dare to judge how others can/cannot be happy even amidst suffering – happiness isn’t an absolute either, at least for me. And it’s not constant, as you said – there are moments of happiness, there are moments of suffering. I guess everyone can weigh only their own lives. Still, I think it’s very difficult to keep on living without hope that things will get better.

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              • Yes I agree, as I said, if you ask most people, they would chose to continue to live, so maybe the only-rosebush-world isn’t better at all.

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  2. WOW indeed… What a deep and complex post: it will need a few re-reads to be appreciated as it deserves! There is one thing, however, that I perceived clearly, and it’s that I desperately NEED to re-read the whole saga because, apart from the first book, my memory of it has faded considerably, which prevents me from following many of your in-depth examinations of characters and situations. As Herbert’s characters often mentioned “plots within plots”, it’s clear that these novels sport layers upon layers that just beg to be explored… One of the elements that stayed with me, however, is Alia’s tragic journey and the fact that, with hindsight, she was doomed from the moment of her birth – or rather, even before…
    Thank you so much for sharing!!! 🙂

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    • Thanks a lot, much appreciate!d! It took me some time to write, but ultimately it was fun to do, so my pleasure. Yes, you should reread the series – especially Dune was even better the second time around, and I think I also appreciated Messiah & Children more the second time. We’ll see how it goes with the remaining three – I remember especially the last 2 to be my favorites.

      Yeah, Alia. One of the most tragic characters I’ve ever read about. Maybe the most tragic one even. Can’t think of anybody that’s more tragic at the moment. That would actually be a cool tag post. Maybe a bit short, but I’d love to read other bloggers’ opinion on that question: what’s the most tragic character you encountered in a story?

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  3. I have this waiting to read, so do forgive me to skipping this until I’ve completed it in the not too distant future, when I’ll definitely seek this out — I do enjoy your critical analyses, even of works I may never ever read!

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  4. I think this is the longest post I’ve read by you yet. I don’t really have anything to say, besides an acknowledgement of the effort you put into this. Great job.

    I’d like to say you’re WAY overthinking this, but having read enough Herbert, I seriously doubt you are. I wonder if a biography or 3 might enlighten you on what his thought processes were. I have zero interest in doing that myself, as I prefer my authors to remain anonymous, faceless and non-entities…

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    • Thanks! It took me a few days indeed 😉 I just checked and it’s indeed the longest, about 3000 words longer than my LOTR post, which surprises me a bit as I thought they were about as long.

      As for Herbert, that long interview I linked to shows the guy putting lots of theoretical foundational thought into Dune, so. Apparently parts of Messiah & Children were actually written before Dune itself so it’s safe to say he thought a lot about the sequels too. Still, I do think he also made stuff up along the way, not always being consistent.

      I’m not sure about a biography. There is Dreamer Of Dune, but it’s written by Brian, and aside from the fact that I don’t really want to give him my money before he just publishes Herbert’s original notes for Dune 7, I’d rather read something more independent, and I don’t think it exists.

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  5. Great review! And your exchange with Ola, extremely interesting. Now I know exactly, why I always liked Dennet more than Harris 😉 Just like Ola, I try to save a bit of freedom in my worldview. I’m not objective there, it’s sentimental and I’m a bit afraid of giving it up. I’ve re-read Dune not so long ago, when the time comes for volumes 2 and three I’ll keep your reviews in mind.

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