GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1981)

This is the 4th post in a series on my reread of the Dune books, and it became yet another lengthy text of about 8,720 words. I’ve also written long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune.

My text on Dune itself 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. The article on Children is over 10,000 words long and deals with the tragedy of Alia, change as a key concept in the series, a Nietzschean morality beyond good & evil, and Amor Fati, among other things.

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.



God Emperor of Dune (Brad Holland)Before I’ll zoom in on Leto’s conceptual character, and questions about prescience, the nature of the Golden Path and the question whether the world portrayed in this book is mystic or mechanical, I’ll try to write a proper review of sorts. If you’re also interested in the more philosophical matters, or in the various inconsistencies introduced in this novel, read on afterwards.


How to assess God Emperor of Dune in the series? In my recollection I thought Dune was by far superior to the 2nd and the 3rd book, but when I finished the series, I thought book 5 and 6 were the best. God Emperor is the only book I don’t have specific memories about anymore.

So far, my rereads have more or less confirmed my feelings: Messiah is dumbed down to the point it became bothersome – even though the emotions saved it in the end; the intrigues and Alia’s character make Children an above average read, even though conceptually it is a bit of a mess, and Herbert didn’t achieve the same purity of message as he did with Dune itself.

Similarly, after rereading God Emperor, I simply don’t have very outspoken feelings about it. It was an okay read, and by any standards Leto is a remarkable character – maybe the strangest character I have ever encountered in fiction. That by itself is an achievement.

The novel is often portrayed as heavy on philosophy, and I can understand what people mean by that, but I’d rather say it is sprinkled with tidbits that make you think, instead of calling this a philosophical book. Often these passages are mildly intellectually stimulating, but at the same time, taken at face value, generally take the form of sweeping generalizations about humanity. Because they often lack nuance they more than once made me shrug – Herbert’s attempt at Nietzschean aphorisms do succeed once in a while, but they don’t fully compensate for the main structural weakness of this book.

That weakness is that Leto carries the entire narrative – originally, Herbert even wrote this fully as only Leto’s journal entries. I’ve written about the tragedy of Paul and Alia in my previous texts, but Leto is the undisputed champion of tragedy: he is by far the most tragic character in the entire series. I will examine that aspect more in depth in the next section of this article, but I think the book suffers a bit because the other characters don’t offer enough balance to Leto’s weight. That might be conceptually apt, as Leto also dominates his entire Empire, but for the narrative experience itself it is a missed opportunity: I felt and Siona and the Duncan ghola and Hwi Noree were severely underdeveloped.

We don’t learn much about Siona Atreides nor her feelings. It seems she remains stuck in a caricatural youthful rebellion. For that matter, it’s also telling we never learn who her mother is.

Also unclear is the value of Duncan Idaho to Leto – it is even shown that he is in fact an older, outdated form of human being, as Leto has bred far superior warriors over the 3500 years he has been in power – humans that don’t blush anymore, to illustrate the level of change. Okay, the Fish Speakers fall for his manly charms, but but they are fiercely loyal without him too. Duncan’s loyalty doesn’t seem that important in that light. Leto is emotionally fond of Duncan, but by ordering a ghola again and again, he also exposes himself to feelings of loss whenever the ghola needs to be killed. He’s not even needed in the finale: Nayla could have climbed that wall – better even, as Duncan is physically inferior to the Fish Speakers.

The most important question is why Leto would want to breed Duncan again into the Atreides bloodline with Siona – him being outdated physically, an “older model”? The book doesn’t offer a justification. On top of that, the Duncan in this book is portrayed as a sulking child and a reactionary homophobic man – a far cry from the Duncan in the first book, even though his thoughts and behavior here might be explained because of his ghola nature and the conflicting emotions that results in. When he – at the very end – is surprised of Hwi’s fate, it makes him look like a fool, and not the master tactician he is supposed to be.

Finally, Leto’s bride, Hwi Noree, is as underdeveloped as Siona. She is supposed to be “intelligence built on profound sensitivity”, without any “hedonistic weaknesses”, even “frightening in her perfection.” But when she gives into to Duncan’s temptation, that’s exactly what I would call hedonistic weakness. Herbert tries to portray her intelligence and sensitivity in a few conversations with Leto, in which she is able to guess his thoughts easily indeed, but as the reader understands Leto’s motivation too, this doesn’t come across as something profound or extremely smart.

She stared at him, nothing the intensity of his regard, a hungry emptiness in his expression which filled her with sadness.

I think the early meetings between Hwi and Leto are quite emotional, but as the novel progresses, Herbert forgets to build and expand on these emotions, and as a result, by the end of the book Hwi is just another prop, and what could have been a tragic love story loses any emotions related to their liaison. Granted, Herbert manages to keep Leto tragic throughout the final pages, but it lacks the connected emotion of Chani or the first child Paul lost or Alia’s slow downfall in previous installments. And again, this may be fitting as well, as Leto is supremely lonely, but in representation meaning hinges on contrast, and in my opinion Herbert doesn’t offer enough contrast around Leto.

The only character that was painted with sufficient detail is Moneo: maybe Herbert had better given the other characters as much page time as the majordomo, even if that would have made the book longer. It would have also provided welcome distractions from the rather heavy philosophical musings, and made for a more varied read.

There are a few formal attempts to break the dominance of Leto’s perspective, but those are few, and I think it is safe to say maybe the best word to describe God Emperor of Dune is ‘monotonous’. Again, not necessarily a negative, given the book’s subject matter, but if I had to rate it, I would give it 3 or 3.5 stars out of 5, even if I need to admit that Leto’s character and the specific ways in which he ties into all the series’ themes is masterful – more on all that in the next sections.

So it is Leto’s outrageously grotesque and extreme nature – both in his form as in his character as in his conceptual ties – that saved the book for me, and it is truly a creative tour de force from Herbert – it is not easy to write such character convincingly. (I wrote a bit on the grotesque as a literary form in my analysis of Children.)

I would definitely recommend this for anybody who enjoyed the previous 3 books, and it is to Herbert’s credit that this is something else indeed, not a copy of what came before.

This is where the general review part ends. Up next is an examination of Leto’s character, and the paradoxical problems he offers the reader – what was Herbert thinking? After that, sections on free will, the ostensible introduction of the magical, non-mechanical universe into the series, the messy way Herbert uses prescience, and finally some thoughts about The Golden Path & change.


METAMORPHOSIS + HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN = LETO THE WORM AS A CAUTIONARY TALE?

Herbert spells out the tragedy of Leto II loud and clear throughout the book. His two main issues are boredom and loneliness. That doesn’t need much proof, there’s easily a dozen quotes that confirm this. It’s also clear his loneliness is the main narrative drive of the story, resulting in his decision to marry Hwi, leading to his downfall. Similarly, boredom is the opposite of a concept that was central to Children of Dune – change, to which I will return in a section below. In the following passage, boredom is further tied to the Golden Path as well, to which I will return too.

But even while Siona surprises me, she reminds me of what I fear most – the sameness and boredom which could break the Golden Path. Look at how boredom put me temporarily in the Duncan’s power! Siona is the contrast by which I know my deepest fears.

What is also of interest to me is his double dual nature. First there is the fact that the worm and Leto “are two separate beings – Leto the Emperor and The Worm Who Is God.” And second, there is the question of Leto’s own (in)humanity.

The fact that Leto doesn’t really control the worm ties in to the absence of free will, central to Dune, and a concept I will return to later in this text.

The question of Leto’s humanity is a conceptual knot that ties lots of threads together. Let me try to untangle those, by starting with a focus on his inhumanity. Leto is a grotesque character, and the descriptions of his physique don’t leave much room for doubt on that.

My body is about seven meters long and somewhat more than two meters in diameter, ribbed for most of its lenght, with my Atreides face positioned man-height at one end, the arms and hands (still quite recognizable as human) just below. My legs and feet? Well, they are mostly atrophied. Just flippers, really, and they have wandered back along my body. The whole of me weighs approximately five tons.

&

I feel the vanished parts of myself. I can feel my legs, quite unremarkable and so real to my senses. I can feel the pumping of my human glands, some of which no longer exist. I can even feel genitalia which I know, intellectually, vanished centuries ago.” “But surely if you know…” “Knowledge does not suppress such feelings. The vanished parts of myself are still there in my personal memories and in the multiple identity of all my ancestors.” As Leto looked at Hwi standing in front of him, it helped not one whit to know he had no skull and that what once had been his brain was now a massive web of ganglia spread through his pre-worm flesh. Nothing helped. He could still feel his brain aching where it once had reposed: he could still feel his skull throbbing. By just standing there in front of him. Hwi cried out to his lost humanity. It was too much for him and he moaned in despair: “Why do your masters torture me? “

Maybe the most telling transformation is that even Leto’s brain doesn’t exist anymore – it doesn’t get more radical than that. But while Gregor Samsa in Franz Kakfa’s seminal The Metamorphosis becomes less and less human throughout the story, in God Emperor Leto seems to regain some of his humanity near the end of his life.

But the closer he came to being a sandworm, the harder he found it to make decisions which others would call inhuman. Once, he had done it with ease. As his humanity slipped away, though, he found himself filled with more and more human concerns.

Maybe this is the result of the fact that his work is nearing completion, and as such his previous cruel, oppressive, inhuman demeanor isn’t necessary anymore. His Messianic sacrifice will be completed shortly, and in a few passages the link with Christ is made quite clear.

At the portal, one Fish Speaker guard whispered to another: “Is God troubled?” And her companion replied: “The sins of this universe would trouble anyone.” Leto heard them and wept silently.

His lost humanity is the main reason for his loneliness, and the main source of his suffering. He is “the loneliest person this universe has ever seen”.

“You think the most terrible thing I gave up was sex? No, the greatest loss was something far different.” (…) “I cannot walk among my fellows without their special notice. I am no longer one of you. I am alone. Love? Many people love me, but my shape keeps us apart. We are separated, Siona, by a gulf that no other human dares to bridge.”

&

“The stomach hunger was a black feeling, a pain I could not relieve,” he said. “I would run then, run like an insane creature across the dunes.” “You . . . ran?” “My legs were longer in proportion to my body in those days. (…) But the hungry pain has never left me. I think it’s hunger for my lost humanity.”

But this loneliness is also the main condition for the Golden Path to succeed.

“I rule by the right of loneliness, Siona. My loneliness is part-freedom and part-slavery. It says I cannot be bought by any human group. My slavery to you says that I will serve all of you to the best of my lordly abilities.”


Leto is the center of one of the book’s most important paradoxes. In interviews, Herbert has indicated that the series, and maybe especially this book, is a cautionary tale against tyrants and oppressive governments. The fact that there are some quotes throughout the book that seem to advocate the typical American ideology of small government and rant at bureaucracy and the likes. Yet if we have to believe Leto – and there is nothing in the book that points to his vision being wrong, except for Siona that expresses doubt about it one time, before she has seen the Golden Path herself – when we take the long view, he does the sensible thing. So if Leto is right, do we have to conclude that Herbert would rather have the extinction of the human race instead of the temporary brutality of Leto’s rule?

Which readers don’t actually root for Leto? Wouldn’t most people want humanity to survive? Including Herbert himself, as he inserts a few laudations on humanity throughout this book – I don’t even remember him doing that in the first three books. He does this via Leto’s thoughts, “the most ardent people-watcher who ever lived.” Leto watches “them inside me and outside.”

The Lord Leto delights in the surprising genius and diversity of humankind.

&

I tell you we are a marvel and my memories leave no doubt of this.

So the paradox of the book is one between a utilitarian, pragmatic calculus, and inexorable moral principles. Leto expresses it to Hwi as follows:

“All gods have this problem, Hwi. In the perception of deeper needs, I must often ignore immediate ones. Not addressing immediate needs is an offense to the young.”

But as Nietzschean beyond-good-and-evil thoughts are echoed again in this book (they were central to Children of Dune) I’m having trouble in squaring these two. Why would Herbert claim he warns against the cult of the tyrant or the hero and at the same time write a book that more or less justifies such a tyrant’s actions? When all is said and done – especially if you take the following books into account – Herbert acknowledges the validity of the Golden Path, and he portrays Leto as a sympathetic character, because of his tragic loneliness and more than human, selfless sacrifice.

“See the lesson in my life, Moneo.” “Lord?” It was only a whisper. “They tempt me first with evil, then with good. Each temptation is fashioned with exquisite attention to my susceptibilities. Tell me, Moneo, if I choose the good, does that make me good?” “Of course it does, Lord.” “Perhaps you will never lose the habit of judgment,” Leto said.

We don’t see a lot of the cruel or oppressive Leto in this book, and his 3500 years of tyranny isn’t very clearly illustrated. What is illustrated is him taking on other (unsympathetic) powers, like the Bene Gesserit or the Tleilaxu, and his worm body taking over in moments of self-defense. The only real cruelty lies in the opening scene, where he lets the wolves kill Siona’s rebel friends, and maybe in the punishment of the Face Dancers after their attack.

Again: where is the caution in all this? Is it a double bluff from Herbert? Or is this the paradox that should make the reader think: how come we readers root for such a monster as Leto? Is the parable simply that readers easily fall for his reasoning? That it is all too human to idolize an alpha-male?

Is that the genetic past we can’t seem to escape – a thought that is so often hinted at throughout this novel? But even so, if it works, if it saves humanity in the end, what’s the problem? Suffering of completely nameless Face Dancers? Because the paradox is never solved in the series, my guess is Herbert struggled with these questions himself.

To me, this question or paradox isn’t even that interesting, especially since free will doesn’t exist. What works, works, and as any form of government will have to make pragmatic decisions there simply is no way escaping them. What obviously is interesting are concrete cases of real world governmental dilemmas, but posed as a general problem it is unworkable.

With all that in mind, the ultimate question God Emperor asks becomes this one: is humanity worth saving, and at what cost? That’s a more interesting question than questions about fictional well-meaning tyrants, but again, in a way, the question is moot, and has no real, practical value. It’s armchair philosophy, to put it bluntly. Fun maybe, but also too serious for its own good.


Even my formal and conceptual criticism does not detract from Herbert’s achievement to write “the loneliest person this universe has ever seen”. Leto’s character works, and Herbert’s vision is a daring one. Throughout the book is becomes clear Leto has suffered a lot, loved many of his staff, seen them die again and again, and hasn’t lost his sensitivity or become a cynic. Even though he has supreme powers and the gift of ancestral memories, all that ultimately is a curse and a cross.

It was possible for him to create only in his imagination an entire human lifetime with Hwi. Enough examples lay in the welter of his memories upon which to build a fantasy of wedded life. It gathered nuances in his fancy – small details of mutual experience, a touch, a kiss, all of the sweet sharings upon which arose something of painful beauty. He ached with it, a pain far deeper than the physical reminders of his violence at the Embassy.

To end this section on Leto, first a quote that exemplifies the fundamental, good-hearted nature of Paul Atreides’ second son. Leto II suffers because of love. Don’t we all?

“You live where the fear of being and the love of being are combined, all in one person,” she said. He could not blink. “You are a mystic,” she said, “gentle to yourself only because you are in the middle of that universe looking outward, looking in ways that others cannot. You fear to share this, yet you want to share it more than anything else.” “What have you seen?” he whispered. “I have no inner eye, no inner voices,” she said. “But I have seen my Lord Leto, whose soul I love, and I know the only thing that you truly understand.” He broke from her gaze, fearful of what she might say. The trembling of his hands could be felt all through his front segment. “Love, that is what you understand,” she said. “Love, and that is all of it.” His hands stopped trembling. A tear rolled down each of his cheeks. When the tears touched his cowl, wisps of blue smoke erupted. He sensed the burning and was thankful for the pain.

As I remarked in the first paragraph of this section, it is his love for Hwi that will prompt his downfall. As his downfall was necessary for the Golden Path, it isn’t a sacrifice in the way we usually think of it – freely chosen. And as such, also the notion of love (and loneliness and ruin) ties in to the concept probably most central to the entire series: the absence of free will.

I truly love you. I cannot help it.

God Emperor of Dune


THE ABSENCE OF FREE WILL IN A NON-MECHANICAL, MAGICAL UNIVERSE

What is significantly new in God Emperor of Dune is the fact that Herbert, via Leto, ruminates on the universe and/or humans being not mechanical, or at least something more than mechanical. This obviously has consequences for the debate about free will.

Whatever the nature of the universe, the absence of free will remains a core to the narrative, with multiple instances of things happening that show the characters don’t have free will, and also Leto explicitly stating free will does not exist. How to square this with a non-mechanical view is another matter, and I will return to that question after a bit of discussion to illustrate that the absence of free will remains a clear and dominant theme.

For starters, the Duncan Idaho gholas follow a predictable pattern. Obviously they don’t fully copy each other’s behavior, as the context is always slightly different. The marriage with Hwi – something obscene according to the main Duncan in this book – is what triggers his ‘new’ behavior. As such, that is not proof of free will, only the illustration that we are determined by more than just our genes. This is illustrated as well by the transformation of the Fremen to Museum Fremen, because the fact that the desert has disappeared has profound influence on them.

“It’s because there’s no more Dune that there are no more Fremen,” Leto said.

Again most characters, like the Duncan gholas, are bred with a purpose in mind. There’s Moneo, and Siona, and Hwi – maybe the most clear example.

(…) there is a small body of evidence that this Hwi Noree was bred for a specific purpose, possibly as the Ixian representative at the Court. We have reason to believe that Malky also was genetically designed with that official context in mind.

And also her purpose shows determinism clearly, as even Leto cannot escape it:

“She is the essential god-trap. Even the victim cannot reject here.”

It’s repeated a few times that Leto – like Paul before him – has to do what he has to do, just as in the previous volumes.

To those who dare ask why I behave as I do, I say: With my memories, I can do nothing else. I am not a coward and once I was human.

&

“It is difficult to be born an Atreides,” he said. “Believe me, I know.” “You don’t have to do it this way,” she said. “And there you are wrong.”

&

He felt himself impaled on a thorn of chance with irritating forces pecking at him from all sides.

It’s also striking that what was a very dominant theme in Children of Dune, namely the nature of Abomination and the danger of preborn ancesteral memories, seems to be fully resolved in God Emperor, and it is explicitly tied to the absence of free will as well. Leto’s ancestral memories keep themselves in check in order for Leto to execute the Golden Path, and he doesn’t have a choice on the matter.

When I made this choice, what were my expectations? How the mob within laughed at that question! Did he not have a task to complete? Was that not the very essence of the agreement which kept the mob in check? “You have a task to complete,” they said. “You have but one purpose.”

This quote is in striking contrast to a later part in the novel, where at least the Atreides memories seem to object to his task – or at least seem to think it ‘wrong’. I leave it up to you, reader, to decide whether this is an inconsistency.

“(…) the Duncans tend to believe that this universe is hostage to my will. And they know that you cannot do wrong in the name of right.” “Is that what he says you…” “It is what I say, what all of the Atreides in me say. This universe will not permit it. The things you attempt will not endure if you…” “But, Lord! You do no wrong!” “Poor Moneo. You cannot see that I have created a vehicle of injustice.” 

Something that is a bit of a newer angle in God Emperor is the equation of ancestral memories and our social past with genetic determination. We are determined by are (biological) past, by how we evolved as humans. Herbert repeats this sentiment a few times.

“The insect has no more freedom from its hive than we have freedom from our past,” he said.

&

It’s these ancestral memories. Mine come at me in the full glare of awareness. Yours work from your blind side. Some call it instinct or fate. The memories apply their leverages to each of us – on what we think and what we do. You think you are immune to such influences?

Also the theme of boredom is tied to the free will theme. As people are predicable, Leto is bored after 3500 years of observation.

All rebellions are ordinary and an ultimate bore. They are copied out of the same pattern, one much like the other. The driving force is adrenaline addiction and the desire to gain personal power. All rebels are closet aristocrats. That’s why I can convert them so easily.

In the following quote, boredom is tied to both prescience & free will:

I assure you that the ability to view our futures can become a bore. Even to be thought of as a god, as I certainly was, can become ultimately boring. It has occurred to me more than once that holy boredom is good and sufficient reason for the invention of free will. – Inscription on the storehouse at bar-es-Balat


As the absence of free will is so clearly established in the book, what to make of the parts were Leto talks about the universe being not mechanical, or at least more than mechanical?

Things move. It is an ultimate pragmatism in the midst of Infinity, a demanding consciousness where you come at last into the unbroken awareness that the universe moves of itself, that it changes, that its rules change, that nothing remains permanent or absolute throughout all such movement, that mechanical explanations for anything can work only within precise confinements and, once the walls are broken down, the old explanations shatter and dissolve, blown away by new movements. 

One could argue that the passage doesn’t apply to the confinements of our own, human reality, but that would be to easy, especially in the context of a few other quotes below. How to tackle it, then? In my text about Children of Dune I wrote the following:

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 ultimately he lacked amor fati too? Nobody is perfect!

It seems like Herbert continued this path in God Emperor, this time taking a kind of mystical approach, never really explaining how reality would be able to escape the cause and effect-rule. 

I, on the other hand, feel that words are mostly useful if they open for me a glimpse of attractive and undiscovered places. But the use of words is so little understood by a civilization which still believes unquestioningly in a mechanical universe of absolute cause and effect – obviously reducible to one single root-cause and one primary seminal-effect.

&

With a mind informed by artist-giants who came afterward, I peer at handprints and flowing muscles drawn upon the rock with charcoal and vegetable dyes. How much more we are than mechanical events!

In this quote somehow creativity seems to be important in all this – a concept I will return to in the final section about change.

Also in the character of Hwi – ironically, as she is bred and designed genetically – this non-mechanical sentiment comes to the fore, and ‘being human’ is somehow equaled to be more than guided by a mechanical cause and event logic.

“She makes me recall the Butlerian Jihad in a poignant way. She is the antithesis of all that’s mechanical and non-human. How odd it is, Moneo, that the Ixians, of all people, should produce this one person who so perfectly embodies those qualities which I hold most dear.”

In another instance, Herbert pulls another mystical card, and tries to use both the mystery of time to pry at the mechanical nature of nature, and sticks it to language being confusing.

The prophet is not diverted by illusions of past, present and future. The fixity of language determines such linear distinctions. Prophets hold a key to the lock in a language. The mechanical image remains only an image to them. This is not a mechanical universe. The linear progression of events is imposed by the observer. Cause and effect? That’s not it at all. The prophet utters fateful words. You glimpse a thing “destined to occur.” But the prophetic instant releases something of infinite portent and power. The universe undergoes a ghostly shift. Thus, the wise prophet conceals actuality behind shimmering labels. The uninitiated then believe the prophetic language is ambiguous. The listener distrusts the prophetic messenger. Instinct tells you how the utterance blunts the power of such words. The best prophets lead you up to the curtain and let you peer through for yourself. – The Stolen Journals

This quote may seem deep at first, but careful consideration has made me concluded it is not much more than mumbo jumbo. I’m sorry to take out such a big gun, but in the light of the philosophical pomp, it feels justified.

It seems that Herbert tries to eat his cake and have it. There’s the numerous instances that illustrate the absence of free will I already talked about, and there is also the matter of Siona. If humans do already escape mechanical determinism, why on earth would he need to breed somebody like Siona?

My interpretation of Siona is that she represents a human that does have free will, and as such escapes the possibility of being predicted. But if – somehow – being human is more than being mechanical, she would be redundant, and all humans would be able to escape prescient vision.

It’s very telling that the ‘mechanics’ of Siona, so to say, are never explained, at all. How does she escape prescient vision precisely? She is the result of 3500 years of breeding, and that’s all the explanation we get. This is pure handwavium of Herbert, and it shows that the absence of free will may be a wish or a dream, but if you try to get people to explain how that would work, you run into magical thinking very, very soon. The same goes for the concept of the no-room, by the way: magic with a technological veneer.

Tellingly, Leto actually calls Siona what she is, a miracle. Magic.

“There is the difference between us,” he said. “You are God embodied. You walk around within the greatest miracle of this universe, yet you refuse to touch or see or feel or believe in it.”

So: Herbert is inconsistent. There, I’ve said it. To his defense, Herbert struggles with these notions, like so many of us do. When Hwi claims of herself that she doesn’t adhere to a mechanical vision, she is angrily reprimanded by Leto, who accuses here of inventing her own truth.

“I was born an Ixian, Love,” she said. “Why don’t I share their mechanical view of our universe? Do you know my view, Leto my love?” He could only stare at her. “I sense the supernatural at every turning,” she said. Leto’s voice rasped, sounding angry even to him: “Each person creates his own supernatural.”

Herbert takes the easy way out. Consider this observation by Leto:

“I did what I always hope to do. I produced an effect.”

I already wrote about paradox in my text on Children of Dune, and that card is pulled here too, as Malky, the previous Ixian ambassador and uncle of Hwi, says:

“Leto likes to play with paradox. (…)”

Or Leto himself:

“Paradox is a pointer telling you to look beyond it. If paradoxes bother you, that betrays your deep desire for absolutes. The relativist treats a paradox merely as interesting, perhaps amusing or even, dreadful thought, educational.”


WHAT’S THE MECHANICS OF NO-ROOM SHIELDED PRESCIENCE?

I talked about the mechanics of prescience in my other texts as well, and I questioned the handwavium of Siona in the previous section, but I have three additional questions to ask.

First, the Tleilaxu attack was planned in the no-chamber, and as such Leto couldn’t have anticipated this. I can follow this to a certain extent, but as the attackers were outside to no-chamber, wouldn’t their actions outside the no-chamber be visible to Leto? Or does the no-chamber continue to cast a veil on all further actions that stem from things planned inside? Seems shaky to me, but it was a mechanism with the Guild steersman in Messiah too. Alternatively, maybe the participating Face Dancers only got last minute commands from somebody inside the no-chamber?

Be that as it may, this part of the narrative becomes more and more problematic with each book. We’ll see how things work out in Heretics & Chapterhouse, as the descendants of Siona and no-ships and no-chambers will play an increasingly important role.

Second question: how come Leto all of a sudden is able to see Guild steersmen? One of the important plot mechanics of Messiah gets upended by this, and also the main explanation to a crucial possible inconsistency in Children (the Preacher’s problem with Leto’s choices, see my text for much more on that).

A Guild steersman was advising the lxians and he obviously had detected Siona’s disturbance in the temporal fabric. Did the steersman really believe he could provide security against the God Emperor’s detection?

Anybody that can offer a good explanation, do not hesitate to comment.

The final, maybe most important question about prescience in God Emperor, concerns the following quote:

He probed the time ahead of them. Yes, she would survive his desert because her tracks were in the sand beside him… but he saw no sign of her flesh in those tracks. Just beyond her tracks, though, he saw a sudden opening where things had been concealed.

So, what do we have to conclude from this? Siona’s body is invisible to prescience, but the results of her actions aren’t? What’s the difference?

Again, we’ll see how it is developed in the following books, but for a book that is supposed to be cerebral, this again feels very inconsistent.

So let’s call bullshit when we see it: this entire component of the series is beginning to look like hogwash, and that’s a crying shame, as it is so important to the central theme of non-existent free will. As such, it diminishes the series’ conceptual powers.


DOUBLE THREATS: THE GOLDEN PATH: LETO’S 3500 YEAR RULE & THE SCATTERING

There is some mystery surrounding the exact nature of the Golden Path, but the consensus online seems to be that in order to be able to withstand the apocalyptic Kralizec – which is never mentioned in God Emperor – Leto needed to force humanity out of its complacency, increase its fitness and genetic diversity.

This results in two things: Siona and her descendants, humans that aren’t susceptible to prescience and as such protected, and the scattering, in which humanity spreads so far in the universe it becomes impossible to wipe them out.

There’s tons of quotes about this in God Emperor, and it is the first book that is so explicit about it.

And what is the Golden Path? you ask. It is the survival of humankind, nothing more nor less. We who have prescience, we who know the pitfall in our human futures, this has always been our responsibility. Survival.

&

“The predator improves the stock.”

&

“For what do you hunger, Lord?” Moneo ventured. “For a humankind which can make truly long-term decisions. Do you know the key to that ability, Moneo?” “You have said it many times, Lord. It is the ability to change your mind.” “Change, yes. And do you know what I mean by longterm?” “For you, it must be measured in millennia, Lord.” “Moneo, even my thousands of years are but a puny blip against Infinity.”

&

He said: “As the land refuses to support the people, the survivors will crown into smaller and smaller refuges. A terrible selection process will be repeated on may worlds – explosive birthrates and dwindling food.”

&

Leto’s voice came in wheezing gasps: “Let them scatter, Duncan. Let them run and hide anywhere they want in any universe they choose.” “My gift,” Leto said. “Nobody will find the descendants of Siona. The Oracle cannot see her.” “What?” They spoke in unison, leaning close to hear his fading voice. “I give you a new kind of time without parallels,” he said. “It will always diverge. There will be no concurrent points on its curves. I give you the Golden Path. That is my gift. Never again will you have the kinds of concurrence that once you had.”

&

What am I eliminating? The bourgeois infatuation with peaceful conservation of the past. This is a binding force, a thing which holds humankind into one vulnerable unit in spite of illusionary separations across parsecs of space. If I can find the scattered bits, others can find them. When you are together, you can share a common catastrophe. You can be exterminated together. Thus, I demonstrate the terrible danger of a gliding, passionless mediocrity, a movement without ambitions or aims. I show you that entire civilizations can do this thing. I give you eons of life which slips gently toward death without fuss or stirring, without even asking ‘Why?’ I show you the false happiness and the shadow-catastrophe called Leto, the God Emperor. Now, will you learn the real happiness?

The Fish Speakers also seem to play a role in this survival, as the descendants of their genetic superior bodies will be able to withstand future pressures.

At times it also seems to imply that humanity will be able to overcome its primal, unconscious urges – and as such gain free will (as I explained in a previous section).

I pray, therefore, that when you have traversed my portion of the Golden Path you no longer will be innocent children dancing to music you cannot hear.

&

Memory has a curious meaning to me, a meaning I have hoped others might share. It continually astonished me how people hide from their ancestral memories, shielding themselves behind a thick barrier of mythos. Ohhh, I do not expect them to seek the terrible immediacy of every living moment which I must experience. I can understand that they might not wanted to be submerged in a mush of petty ancestral details. You have reason to fear that your living moments might be taken over by others. Yet, the meaning is there within those memories. We carry all of our ancestry forward like a living wave, all of the hopes and joys and griefs, the agonies and exultations of our past. Nothing within those memories remains completely without meaning or influence, not as long as there is a humankind somewhere. We have that bright Infinity all around us, that Golden Path of forever to which we can continually pledge our puny but inspired allegiance.

Obviously the Golden Path also ties into the pragmatic questions I already discussed.

It has not occurred to you that your ancestors were survivors and that the survival itself sometimes involved savage decisions, a kind of wanton brutality which civilized humankind works very hard to suppress. What price will you pay for that suppression? Will you accept your own extinction?

The Golden Path will also offer a solution to humanity’s addiction to spice, and wean humanity from it.

“(…) It will be a new kind of sandworm, I promise you.” (…) “It will have animal awareness and a new cunning. The spice will be more dangerous to seek and far more perilous to keep.”

As this short overview shows, the Golden Path is a murky concept, with lots of ins and outs. It is understandable readers can’t put their finger on it.


Remarkable, in one passage of God Emperor, the Golden Path seems to be about more than just avoiding Kralizec – which might very well be the violent return of the thinking machines that fled the Butlerian Jihad, as Brian Herbert claims his father intended. This passage adds something else:

“Without me there would have been by now no people anywhere, none whatsoever. And the path to that extinction was more hideous than your wildest imaginings.” “Your supposed prescience,” she sneered. “The Golden Path still stands open,” he said.

So apparently, there were at least two threats. A threat that would have brought humanity to extinction somewhere in the 3500 years before the actual events of God Emperor, and a threat much later on, Kralizec, for which Siona’s descendants and the Scattering is needed. Sadly, there is nothing in the book on the nature of this first threat, nor about how Leto managed to avoid it. Maybe it’s just a mind game he played while testing Siona?


During Siona’s test in the desert, she goes through the spice agony, and sees the Golden Path too. It is again unclear how this works: as far as I can recall, the spice agony isn’t about seeing the future, but experiencing ancestral Other Memory.

In the passage below, she indeed sees a violent encounter with “seeking machines”. This passage might support Brian Herbert’s claim.

He saw the milky distances enter her eyes. (…) Siona’s eyes remained opened, but they no longer saw this place. She jerked abruptly and began to tremble like a small creature dying. He knew this experience, but could not change the smallest part of it. No ancestral presences would remain in her consciousness, but she would carry with her forever afterward the clear sights and sounds and smells. The seeking machines would be there, the smell of blood and entrails, the cowering humans in their burrows aware only that they could not escape… while all the time the mechanical movement approached, nearer and nearer and nearer…louder…louder! 

On the other hand, this passage clearly refers to “ancestral presences”, so is it about the future? If not, she might just have recollections of the Butlerian Jihad. Even so, as she later claims to have seen the Golden Path, the most logical interpretation would be that she has seen the future too. This might be inconsistent from Herbert’s part.

We know Siona is somehow special, but maybe past and future visions don’t need to be mutually exclusive. I’ve come up with one possible explanation for Siona seeing the future Golden Path that is consistent with the spice agony being about memories. In that explanation Siona sees the Golden Path via the memories of Paul, which she might have access to, as she is a descendant of Ghanima, the sister of Leto, and daughter of Paul Muad’Dib Atreides. Still, this explanation is very shaky as Paul’s vision of the future wasn’t exactly the same as Leto’s, as my lengthy discussion about that in my text on Children illustrates, and so it would be highly unlike that Siona would be able to see Leto’s Golden Path in this way.

The fact that Siona has seen the Golden Path also makes her motivations to kill Leto more understandable. While she still feels hate towards Leto and his rule, she also sees what needs to be done in order to jumpstart the next phase of Leto’s plan. By killing him, she becomes an accomplice to the Golden Path.


There’s also a curious passage that sheds more light on the conflict between The Preacher and Leto in Children of Dune.

“Think of the price I pay,” he said. “Every descendant part of me will carry some of my awareness locked away within it, lost and helpless.” (…) “This is the horror which my father could not face and which he tried to prevent: the infinite division and subdivision of blind identity.” (…) “You will be conscious?” “In a way . . .  but mute. A little pearl of my awareness will go with every sandworm and every sandtrout – knowing yet unable to move a single cell, aware in an endless dream.”

I’ve gone over that conflict at length in my text about Children, but here all of a sudden Paul/The Preacher didn’t seem to have wanted to prevent the Golden Path as such, but his own fate should he have taken it. It makes him more human, as his motivations were not to avoid more human suffering, but to avoid himself becoming an eternal, multiple divided patient with locked-in syndrome.

It seems to me that Herbert didn’t intend this in Children, as there is absolutely no sign or hint about this in the previous book. It is again a testament to Herbert’s creative liberty/failure at consistency over the length of the series.


CHANGE & CREATIVITY

I could do another long section on change, like I did in my analysis of Children, but this text is getting long enough as is. Suffice to say that also in God Emperor change is crucial, it is what Leto aims for. Change is what alleviates his boredom, and change is what Siona will bring. The Golden Path is change.

Change is also brought by human creativity, and as such the strong admiration for humans and humanity in this book is tied do change as well. This aspect of creativity is new to God Emperor, and doesn’t feature explicitly in the previous books.

A few quotes will suffice, and you’ll see most of these quotes tie into the various themes I discussed throughout this text as well.

How can we turn our backs on our most important inheritance? As the poet, Lon Bramlis, has said: “We are the fountain of surprises!”

&

“Moneo! Here, in its mysterious capsule is one of life’s great secrets. To be surprised, to have a new thing occur, that is what I desire most.”

&

“There’s no reassuring ceiling over you, Moneo. Only an open sky full of changes. Welcome it. Every sense you possess is an instrument for reacting to change. Does that tell you nothing?”

&

And I must continue tolerating them, Leto thought. The lxians operated in the terra incognita of creative invention which had been outlawed by the Butlerian Jihad.

&

“How can it be good?” “This is something new. Our task has always been to bring the new into balance and, with it, modify behavior while not suppressing survival.”

&

“I do not know if you understand this, Duncan, but if there is a frontier, any kind of frontier, then what lies behind you cannot be more important than what lies ahead.”

&

“The surest sign that an aristocracy exists is the discovery of barriers against change, curtains of iron or steel or stone or any substance which excludes the new, the different.”

While the very first epitaph of God Emperor has to do with the lost vigor of humanity, the very last epitaph deals with change, almost in the metaphysical sense of the word. I guess it is fitting to close this final section with, before I will leave you with some concluding thoughts.

In all of my universe I have seen no law of nature, unchanging and inexorable. The universe presents only changing relationships which are sometimes seen as laws by short-lived awareness. These fleshy sensoria which we call self are ephemera withering in the blaze of infinity, fleetingly aware of temporary conditions which confine our activities and change as our activities change. If you must label the absolute, use its proper name: Temporary.  


CODA: THE WORM’S FIVE TONS WEIGHED

In my general review of the book at the start of this text, I rated the book 3 or 3.5 stars. But while writing all this, I have to say my appreciation for the intricate web Herbert has woven has grown. It is really something how Leto and the story and the concepts all tie into one another: the boredom, the loneliness, the love, the absence of free will, creativity, change, prescience, the Golden Path, Siona, Hwi – all these things feed into and reinforce each other. Based solely on all that, I’d have to rate the novel 5 stars.

But at the same time, God Emperor of Dune is also the book with the most inconsistencies so far. And while inconsistencies and unexplained magic were part of Dune too – remember Paul looking through the eyes of his son all of a sudden? – the magic of the first book could be forgiven, or even seen as a wink towards the genre’s pulp origins. As the series progressed, I have the feeling Herbert simply couldn’t hold all the narrative strands together anymore, and lost oversight, or simply stopped caring. I think that diminishes the overall power of the series as a narrative construction. It’s not fully a deal-breaker, but it muddies stuff. Maybe that even was Herbert’s intention: throw some more unsolvable puzzles to the reader to chew on. Who will say?

God Emperor is also the book that has aged least successfully of the four I reread so far. Some readers might have noticed I did not discuss the Fish Speakers and Herbert’s offerings on gender in this book. I didn’t do that for two reasons: I don’t think it’s a very interesting subject to begin with, as I don’t want to judge Herbert using our contemporary framework, but I must admit I was also reluctant to open that can of worms – pun not intended. Luckily, it’s not that central to the story.

I’m eager to reread the final 2 books – somehow I fear that they will not keep their status as my favorites of the series. We’ll see. People change. Or not. I’ll keep you posted.

God Emperor of Dune (Marvin)


Click here for my other Herbert reviews: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, 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 my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews only, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

17 responses to “GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE – Frank Herbert (1981)

  1. Very good in dept review! It’s a bit too much for me to read in one go. I really liked this book for its originality and the character of Leto, but it is indeed monotonous. I’d still give it a high rating. One thing I never really understood was ancestral memory. I know the Atreides carry the memories of their ancestors through sf logic but I don’t know how to transplant that to our world.

    I always understood that Leto II sacrificed himself for the future of humanity by taking the golden path. It was a necessity to save humanity. But maybe he was born or bred to do this, so can we still speak of personal sacrifice in a deterministic universe?

    Books 5 and 6 have more philosophical mumbling that just sounds deep but isn’t that essential for the story. I thought they were a bit disappointing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, much appreciated!

      The way I read ancestral memories is as a metaphor for the fact that emotions etc can be ‘inherited’ via some kind of genetic process, but I don’t remember the exact mechanics anymore. It had to do with research on mouses in which mouses that were deliberately stressed apparently gave on features of that to their offspring. But that research was done only in the last 10 years or so, so it’s an anachronistic interpretation of mine – or Herbert was a visionary feeling that there was more to just genes at play in biological inheritance.

      Agreed on the sacrifice, I write a bit on that exact question. I guess it still is a sacrifice in the resulting consequences to his life, but not as we normally see it, as a voluntary act.

      I remember liking a lot of the characters in 5 & 6, we’ll see how Heretics upholds in a few months. Atm I also want to finish Chapterhouse before the year is over, these rereads and posts are fun to do, but they also take up quite a lot of mental energy, so I want to be done already.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Honestly, I think the whole concept of prescience and Herbert’s original determinism in the many forms present in the first books are handwavium and bullshit 😜 but we know our differences by now 😉
    I haven’t gotten that far in the series – finished it on Children, I believe. But I’m getting very curious after reading your in depth reviews, so I’ll probably read all of them in succession – I already started me Dune re-read 😁
    Great review! Looking forward to reading your thoughts on he next two novels! BTW, have you read Simmons’s Hyperion?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed that prescience is bullshit, it’s indeed handwavium in the previous novels too. I don’t agree on determinism being handwavium however, I still don’t see how anything could escape the cause-result chain, even with quantum effects added.

      I hope you’ll write a bit about your Dune reread too, would be interesting to learn some more of your thoughts on the matter.

      As for Hyperion, I’ve read that, a few weeks before I decided to review every book I read. I liked it. Why do you ask? I didn’t like the sequel though, I thought that was convoluted and pompous and the entire Keats thing felt very artificial.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I mean the biological determinism to produce a perfect human specimen capable of superhuman feats, a Nietzschean ideal above morality. That’s not at all different from Captain America, just even more outlandish 😉

        I didn’t consider it, but I might, actually – we’ll see how much time I’ll have for it!

        I’m asking about Hyperion (I despised Endymion) because of the machine dedication to destroy humanity which seems like a common theme to both Simmons and Herbert.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh yes agreed, that’s all baloney too. I just read it as a metaphor.

          I don’t even remember the machines in Simmons, to be honest.

          I think it’s interesting machines are an antogonist in the Dune universe, as they exemplify determinism.

          There’s a quote from Leto that I didn’t use that rants against the “machine-attitude”:

          “The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines,” Leto said. “Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgements. (…)”

          It again ties into the notion of humans being something more (via creativity? beauty? art?).

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ah, maybe the machines in Simmons were explained in the later installments – I read all 4 almost back to back 😉
            Yes, automatism vs creativity is a recurring concept – Simmons deals with it at length through the Keats character, which gets some depth later on; I’d liken Simmons’s vision to a cross between Matrix and Neuromancer, though it’s an incomplete comparison: there are layers to it, from the machine revolution to the AI dissidents hidden in their own realm – some pretty complex wordlbuilding 😀

            Like

  3. Are you going to read the Dune 7 duology that wraps the story up?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There i was happy with my 1200 word review of my first read of Dune last year, enter this guy… Well done mate, what another great post.

    Like

  5. I always believed the Dune series to be a trilogy, with the first one being the best, absolutely unique and containing within itself the most important concepts later expounded upon in volumes two and three. In this theory, there was no need for any further Dune novels, and I’ve never read any. You made me appreciate “Messiah” and “Children” more, and now I have to consider reading further parts… and probably will not, especially as I see the final duology mostly made you angry. But I’ll read your posts about books 5 and 6, maybe they will change my decision 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wouldn’t take into account my opinions on the 7th books by Brian/KJA in your decision whether to read 4-5-6.

      I’m very curious too how 5 and 6 will hold up to a reread by my current self, so to say. My hunch is that I’ll have to backpedal on my claim 5 & 6 are the best – I don’t see that happening atm, as Dune turned out so good upon rereading, I don’t see it topped, and especially not since my rereads of 2-3-4 have all been – when all is said and done – serious letdowns compared to 1, even if they all have redeeming qualities.

      I’ll try to tackle Heretics in a month or 3.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, the thing is – I’m still happy with books 1-3, but I’m also a completionist. If there’s no point reading all to get some kind of closure, I’m less likely to go through 4-6… but I’ll wait and see your reviews of 4-5 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s