This is the 5th post in a series on my reread of the Dune books. It became yet another lengthy text of about 11,600 words, the longest in the series so far. I’ve also written long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune and God Emperor 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 looks at its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and at 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. My text on God Emperor is nearly 9,000 words and examines Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot. It also examines the nature of the supposed cautionary tale Herbert meant to write, and the introduction of non-mechanical world building in the series – contrasting with its prior central theme of the absence of free will. There’s also bits on the mechanics of no-room shielded prescience, the Golden Path, change & creativity, and various inconsistencies in the novel.
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.
A view that’s pretty pervasive is that the first three books are the best, and that Herbert kinda lost it afterwards. I don’t buy into this narrative. While I enjoyed Messiah, I also thought it was a dumbed down version of what Herbert did with Dune itself. Children had a great story, but also felt a bit convoluted and unclear. The overarching plot in the first two sequels is straightforward however, with a time frame that’s united, and characters that easily tie into the first book. As such it is fairly easy to grasp. It is only with the unplanned fourth book, God Emperor, that Herbert truly takes another canvas and paints something new, 3500 years after the original trilogy, and in the process he puffs up the attempts at philosophy. I think that book fails as philosophy, but at the same time it is a testament to an outrageous imagination. It’s understandable that readers who read Dune mainly for the action and sensawunda got bogged down in God Emperor, and cut their losses. But it’s also shortsighted, as Herbert picked up the pace again with Heretics.
Word has it Herbert planned another trilogy to finish the entire series after the pivotal God Emperor, and indeed, the story of Heretics of Dune is immediately continued in Chapterhouse: Dune. Frank Herbert died in 1986, but it’s not that hard to imagine he had indeed one final volume outlined – something his son Brian and Kevin Anderson tried to cash in with Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. And cash there was, as Herbert “received what was said to be the biggest contract ever for a science fiction novel” for Heretics of Dune. It came out in March 1984, right after his wife Beverly died of lung cancer on February 7th. She had been battling the disease for 10 years.
Now that I’ve reread it, I feel that Heretics resembles Dune most of all the sequels. It’s not dumbed down nor convoluted, it’s fairly clear, and it again has the right mixture of imagination, action and political scheming. But while Dune for me was a straight 10 that even got better when I reread it, Heretics doesn’t even come close, even though it is the best of the sequels I’ve reread yet.
In what follows, I’ll first dissect some of the novel’s problems. At the end of that section is my overall appraisal of Heretics, and an examination of certain parallels qua plot & personnel with the first Dune, so this first part of the analysis doubles as a review of sorts. As the dissection will deal with the pulpy plot, I will have to spoil some of it.
Afterwards, I’ll examine some of the book’s core concepts. As Heretics puts the Bene Gesserit front and center, I will try to gauge their motives first, however murky they are. Also heresy, variation & love get a section, and the final focus will be a major shift in the series, as this time, under the influence of Einstein and quantum theory, Herbert casts prescience not as something passive, but as an active, shaping force. This sea change alters the ontology underlying the series drastically, in the sense that they might even be incompatible. This is no fault per se: about 20 years have passed between writing Dune and Heretics, and it would be odd for a writer to still hold the exact same beliefs after two decades. As change was such an important concept of the series so far, it is also fitting.
1a. SUPERPULP POWERS
Dune always had a pulpy component, but Heretics is the one where the amount of hard to believe stuff is the highest. Maybe that explains why some people don’t like it as much as what came before? Okay, we had giant worms, adult children and a prescient superhuman-worm hybrid in the previous books, but the list of special powers in Heretics is pretty impressive. The fact that Heretics is also the installment where sligs and chairdogs are introduced gives away that Herbert was still in for a joke too.
Here’s that list: all Bene Gesserit have full ancestral memory & can transfer their minds (more on the inconsistencies with the previous novels here), Darwi Odrade possesses “a prescient instinct for detecting threats to the Sisterhood” and she also gets warnings via Other Memory. Lucilla can control her genital temperature. Certain algae can make a room a no-room. Tleilaxu Face Dancers can copy people and their memories just by touching them. The Duncan Idaho ghola not only has access to the memories of the original Idaho, but somehow also to those of all the other, preceding gholas, including memories of how each of them died – did the Tleilaxu harvest cells from each and every ghola corpse? Most strikingly, Supreme Bashar & Mentat Miles Teg becomes a superman with a food craving like Obelix – he has both superhuman speed (“the blurring responses that flesh should not be able to accommodate”) and a “second vision”, a kind of The Matrix time freeze ability that enables him to predict near future movements. He is also able to detect poison in food just by looking at it, and he can see the position of no-ships!
Herbert doesn’t even try to explain why the agony of the T-probe had such an effect on Teg, and takes the easy way out: “Reason could not explain the thing. (…) Try as he might, he could not resolve what had happened to him under the T-probe.”
The only thing approximating an explanation is the supernatural itself, something I will write about in depth in the second half of this text.
Teg’s Mentat teachers had always assured him there was a form of living-truth not susceptible to proof by the marshaling of ordinary facts. It was carried sometimes in fables and poetry and often went contrary to desires, so he had been told. “The most difficult experience for a Mentat to accept,” they said. Teg had always reserved judgment on this pronouncement but now he was forced to accept it. The T-probe had thrust him over a threshold into a new reality.
The success of most speculative fiction depends partly on suspension of disbelief, but somehow Herbert manages to get away with all this. I think that might be explained by the gradual nature of the series: Dune was believable to an extent if you could accept the worms and the power of spice. If you buy into a deterministic universe, being able to predict the future isn’t that magical. The only thing that was out of place happened at the very end: Paul Atreides could suddenly & inexplicably see through the eyes of his son, but that happens in a flash, and is quickly forgotten. Throughout the series, things were added: Face Dancers, gholas, enhanced powers of Other Memory and genes, resulting in things like no-ships and Siona Atreides and the transformed Leto II – in a way the ultimate batshit speculative character. Once you’ve accepted an immortal giant man-worm ruling the universe, the jumps Herbert takes in Heretics maybe aren’t that farfetched – and besides, wasn’t it rooted in pulp anyway? So if Heretics had been a book by an author I didn’t know, the first in a series, I think I might have cried foul fairly quickly, and probably panned it for too much handwavium and bullshit. But at this stage of the series, it gets a pass for all of the above.
That doesn’t mean Herbert gets a pass for everything else: I do think there’s some other stuff that’s pretty objectionable, and what follows will be much more structural matters.
Magic powers I can abide, but I have more trouble with characters behaving unrealistically. What bugged me the most was Tylwyth Waff, the Tleilaxu Master. He is supposed to be thousands of years old, very experienced, one of the masterminds of a very long con, leading a faction that at least rivals the Bene Gesserit in influence and powers, yet he behaves like a naive, at times even sulking child. One could argue that his zealotry causes his downfall, but to me the entire way he is duped by Odrade and the Bene Gesserit seems totally unbelievable.
The story would have benefited tremendously from a true clash of equals, but Herbert decided to make a supposed immortal mastermind a cartoonish, naive buffoon. Waff decides to take the bluff of a Bene Gesserit speaking Islamiyat via her Other Memory at face value, risking a scheme millennia in the making on very shoddy data – he should know that the BG have this linguistic ability. It is clear Herbert wants to tackle religion here, but it could have been done in a way that’s more internally consistent.
Odrade shifted into the language of the Islamiyat. “Then perhaps we should speak another tongue, one known only to us.” Waff’s eyes glittered. In the same tongue, he said: “Very well! I will gamble on it. (…)”
That takes me to a second problem: the Atreides Manifesto, written by Odrade. Not only does Herbert totally fails to make clear what the Bene Gesserit intend to do with the document, he also ascribes it silver bullet powers that seem impossible. Are we really to believe that in a society, roughly set in 27,000 AD (3500 + 1500 years after the original Dune trilogy), one text would be able to subvert all religions? The only glimpses we get from it don’t amount to much more than things Ludwig Feuerbach could have written in the 19th century, and even hark back to something as basic as Plato’s cave.
“Forces that we cannot understand permeate our universe. We see the shadows of those forces when they are projected upon a screen available to our senses, but understand them we do not.”
While religion has evolved from our current state in Dune, it is unbelievable the thinking about it seems to have remained stuck in the kind of high-school level atheism that is displayed in Heretics. Granted, the Bene Gesserit have been busy with social & religious engineering for many millennia, and I guess Leto II kept the universe dumb, but it still doesn’t ring plausible to me – don’t forget that in the Dune universe humanity has evolved a lot physically, technologically and scientifically: it’s completely unlikely it wouldn’t have evolved more philosophically. It bugged me at times in the previous books, but as it takes center stage here, it’s more troubling.
This also ties into a third problem: the magic of sex. With the introduction of the Honored Matres and the Bene Gesserit Imprinters, sex gets an even more important role as before. But as with the Atreides Manifesto, in the end, I was left with ‘was that all?’ Plotwise, Herbert stacks a lot on sexual subjugation. The Tleilaxu have given the ghola sexual prowess of his own, and the entire plot of the book hinges on this secret: its possible danger causes a rift among the Bene Gesserit. It is the Honored Matres’ most important power, allowing them to conquer planets easily, and the “whore” Murbella will prove crucial in Chapterhouse. But when we get to the sexual climax of the story, it turns out the sexual knowledge the Honored Matres posses is something others can learn easily, just by observing Murbella and Duncan having sex once. My my, is that the mystical tantric code that has taken centuries to develop in the Scattering? What exactly binds people to each other? Twisting the right nipple 3 times coupled with a subsequent 2 second tickle on the left calf? Or what should we have to imagine about these new abilities in practice? The way Herbert presents it suggests something mechanistic: be subject to the right sequence of sexual actions and lifelong servitude to the person who gave you mega-ecstasy automatically follows.
1b. NARRATIVE BLUFF
Both the Atreides Manifesto as the sex are examples of a trick Herbert used elsewhere to, as in the subpar The Dosadi Experiment: he hints at deep and clever things, but never shows them.
Consider this fragment:
How was I made so vulnerable? The answer leaped into her awareness: The Atreides Manifesto! Composing those words under Taraza’s watchful guidance opened a flaw within me. Could that have been Taraza’s purpose: to make Odrade vulnerable?
Sadly Herbert never explains or even hints at how Odrada was made vulnerable by writing the Manifesto. How would that work? We’re talking about a full Bene Gesserit here, with Atreides genes, the daughter of Miles Teg, somebody who has born 19 children of 19 different fathers. Elsewhere in Heretics Herbert reveals that a Bene Gesserit training takes up to 50 years. And composing some standard atheist text would make Odrade weak??
Or consider this fragment:
“Major punishments are painful, nonetheless,” she said. “They are also emotionally painful. Emotion evoked by punishment is always that emotion we judge to be the penitent’s greatest weakness and thus we strengthen the punished.” Her words filled Duncan with unfocused dread. (…) “The punishment always ends with a dessert,” she said and she clapped her hands against her knees. Duncan frowned. Dessert? That was part of a banquet. How could a banquet be punishment? “It is not really a banquet but the idea of a banquet,” Tamalane said. (…) “The dessert comes something totally unexpected. The penitent thinks: Ahhh, I have been forgiven at last! You understand?” Duncan shook his head from side to side. No, he did not understand. “It is the sweetness of the moment,” she said. “You have been through every course of a painful banquet and come out at the end to something you can savor. But! As you savor it, then comes the most painful moment of all, the recognition, the understanding that this is not pleasure-at-the-end. No, indeed. This is the ultimate pain of the major punishment. It locks in the Bene Gesserit lesson.”
Cool, for sure. But I’m left very, very hungry without a concrete example. It’s easy to concoct such a punishment in theory, but what could such a thing mean in practice? Herbert never tells nor shows. He cops out, and leaves his readers with hot air: merely a mirage.
This narrative trick is not new in the Dune series either. Especially Mentat powers have followed a similar pattern: Herbert hints at reasoning that is supposed to be genius and clever, but doesn’t provide enough details, so we can’t judge it, nor do we get the intellectual pleasure of partaking in such reasonings.
So not new, and not necessarily problematic, but I have to say Heretics seems to have more of these instances, to the extent it started bugging me when they occurred. A final example is how Taraza and Odrada somehow guess Waff & the Tleilaxu’s true religious ideology, and how they work him “precisely according to Missionaria Protectiva teachings.” There might be happening more off-page, but what Herbert presents us is guesswork based on one line only:
Waff clapped his hands once without thinking. “The gift of surprises is the greatest gift of all!” he said. Not just Zensunni, Taraza thought. Sufi also. Sufi! She began to readjust her perspective on the Tleilaxu. How long have they been holding this close to their breasts?
Let’s not forget the Tleilaxu have been able to keep theirs a secret for thousands of years, and now it is out in the open because of one line? Come on.
A final, minor nuisance was the importance Herbert put on the need to be “born out of a woman” to be counted as a real human, ultimately preventing humans to be copied as machines, and revealing to Teg the fact that the Tleilaxu axlotl thanks are not things, but females.
The whole spectrum of his senses could be copied into this T-probe and identified, tagged for Yar to call up when needed. An organic chain of responses existed within Teg. The machine could trace those out as though it made a duplicate of him. The shere and his Mentat resistance shunted the searchers away from his memories but everything else could be copied. It will not think like me, he reassured himself. The machine would not be the same as his nerves and flesh. It would not have Teg-memories or Teg-experiences. It had not been born of a woman. It had never traveled down a birth canal and emerged into this astonishing universe.
I can follow the handwavium of the shere (a drug that prevents others access to your mind): without memories a copy of a person indeed would not be the same. Mentat mental resistance preventing memories to be copied while all organic (nerve) chains are, is more problematic, but okay, let’s chalk that up to the old Mentat narrative trick, and leave it be. But why the sudden addition of vaginal travel? Might this be an attempt of Herbert to revert Shakespeare’s Macbeth? Or is it nothing more than another stage in the slow reveal about the axlotl thanks? However it may be, it is slipshod thinking and crappy ontogenetic world building. Quid C-sections? And more importantly – especially in a series that has the Butlerian Jihad as one of its foundations – also an AI consciousness whose machinations are eventually switched ‘on’, emerges into the universe.
It’s all even more confusing as the majority of Mother Superior Taraza’s advisors agree that a Face Dancer flesh copy (consisting of “surface memories” and “the deepest thoughts and identity”, achieved just by touching their victims) “would become the copied person.” I fail to see the difference with a T-probe making a duplicate of somebody without shere or Mentat resistance. The whole birth canal thing just seems silly, and while Herbert is often credited with being a philosophical writer, his conception of what personhood consists of is inconsistent at the very least – especially as Taraza’s advisers probably are mentats, just like Teg, and their conclusions are supposed to border on irrefutable logic.
That leads me to the conclusion of this subsection of this text: while Dune itself was well thought out, down the road the series became less and less about ideas, even though Herbert keeps up the pretense – amongst other things via the epigraphs. I’ve already tried to convince readers of God Emperor‘s futility as a philosophical text in my analysis of that book, and while I will look at some of the themes and ideas of Heretics further down in this text, none are actually that interesting by themselves anymore – or if they are, Herbert doesn’t actually use them in the plot’s blueprint.
As a small example, take this passage from Miles Teg’s thoughts about the difference between justice and fairness. Herbert never makes his definitions clear, and one could just as easily ask of justice that it has “predictable constancy”, “agreement” and loyalty for a hierarchy. These thoughts of Miles Teg obviously don’t need to dovetail with Herbert’s own thoughts, but is again an example of something that seems serious and deep if you read it superficially, but quickly falls flat when you think about it some more. The link it tries to make between fairness and absolute hierarchical obedience is totally underdeveloped.
It was never a question of justice. Justice required one to resort to law and that could be a fickle mistress, subject always to the whims and prejudices of those who administered the laws. No, it was a question of fairness, a concept that went much deeper. The people upon whom judgment was passed must feel the fairness of it. To Teg, statements such as “the letter of the law must be observed” were dangerous to his guiding principles. Being fair required agreement, predictable constancy and, above all else, loyalty upward and downward in the hierarchy. Leadership guided by such principles required no outside controls. You did your duty because it was right. And you did not obey because that was predictably correct. You did it because the rightness was a thing of this moment. Prediction and prescience had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Teg knew the Atreides reputation for reliable prescience, but gnomic utterances had no place in his universe. You took the universe as you found it and applied your principles where you could. Absolute commands in the hierarchy were always obeyed.
It could be that Herbert meant this as a form of critique, as Dune was a critique of the hero-leader, but it’s hard to know what is being criticized if the arguments aren’t well developed, and Miles Teg and his actions aren’t objectionable in Heretics like Paul Muad’Dib’s Jihad was questionable.
As a part of the evolution of the series, some themes and ideas remain interesting to examine, but in my opinion the overall quality of Herbert’s thinking deteriorated. The problems listed so far in this text are a testament to that, and I’ll add things down the line.
It is something of a paradox then that I still liked Heretics most of all the sequels. On an emotional level Messiah and Children worked much better, and in a way God Emperor too – it’s hard to beat the tragedy of Leto. While I rooted for Miles Teg and Odrade in this book, I never felt the same emotional connection as I did with Paul, Chani, Alia, Leto or even Ghanima. As for the themes and ideas, those of Messiah and Children were more interesting and generally more consistent than those of Heretics and the bloated mess that is God Emperor. Part of all that is taste obviously, but still, I hope you see some objectivity in my analysis of the problems above.
So: I don’t like this sequel most because of the emotions, nor for the ideas. What is left? Simply put: action and scheming. A Rambo like veteran called out of retirement, a secret society of superhuman witches, shapeshifters, new orange-eyed baddies returning from the depths of outer space, fugitives staking out in unexpected places, planets destroyed, giant worms stolen. In the end, Heretics of Dune is just a thrillingly cool space opera fantasy romp. Herbert’s prose is solid, there are a few awesome scenes, his pacing is good – even relentless in the second half, and right up unto the end, it still is impossible to figure out what will be the end game. This isn’t some predictable run-of-the-mill story. It’s wild and fun, even if it’s bonkers and unbelievable and a bit superficial.
Another part of its success might be the fact that Heretics structurally resembles Dune most of all the sequels so far: certain plot & personnel elements work in a similar way, albeit shifted somewhat and redistributed among the cast:
- Duncan Idaho functions more or less as a Paul Atreides: he holds the promise of a (wild) talent, bred by others for his powers, trapped in a keep & a planet he didn’t choose himself, surrounded by Bene Gesserit scheming, and he turns out to be a superman/superstud when he reaches puberty/adulthood.
- Sheeana has parallels with the wildness of Alia: also a dangerous child that finds herself in a tragic position, possessing powers a child shouldn’t have, bossing around her surroundings and being something of a brat.
- Miles Teg has elements of both the first Leto as of Paul, a pawn in the Bene Gesserit’s scheming. He’s finally put on the board at the end of his life, and was the result of a breeding scheme probably millennia in the making, just as the Kwisatz Haderach. At the end of the story, he, like Paul, gains a form of prescience and becomes a nearly invincible badass fighter. He doesn’t only resemble the Duke physically, but like him, he is also the father of the central hero – Odrade in Heretics. His mother resembles Jessica, and just as Paul he received Bene Gesserit training. On top of all that, he also functions as the original supportive triumvirate: Duncan Idaho (both in the role as Paul’s training master and as fiercely loyal military dude, in Heretics Teg trains the ghola, and is fiercely loyal to the Bene Gesserit), Thufir Hawat (Mentat, strategist and security buff) and Gurney Halleck (also Paul’s teacher & a phenomenal warmaster). If you would condense Dune‘s characters, you would get Miles Teg.
- Darwi Odrade has a “bitter jealousy that she had not been permitted” a life like Jessica, as part of a long, loving relationship. But at the same time she does operate like Jessica, being a rebellious Bene Gesserit that drives much of the story. She has Corino blood too, which implies a power hunger not unlike to the status Jessica strives for among the Fremen.
- The Bene Tleilaxu take up the role of Islamist inspired exotic faction, like the Fremen were. They also control part of the spice production, and with the Face Dancers have warriors to be feared. The Fremen were underestimated and misjudged by the Harkonnens and the Emperor, just like the Tleilaxu in Heretics are shown to be misjudged by everybody else, as a result of their reclusive secrecy.
- The Bene Gesserit function as a faction situated on another planet, Chapterhouse, and seem to have taken over the role of the Emperor and House Corrino on Kaitan as the most important political power.
- And finally, the Honored Matres function both as the Harkonnens (being a political & sexual threat) and Dune‘s Bene Gesserit (a dangerous women sect with awesome powers the readers aren’t familiar with).
I’m not claiming Heretics is a copy of Dune, not at all, but it is clear that Herbert took bits and pieces of what made Dune tick, and fashioned a new story with it. It’s well worth reading if you’ve read all the previous books with some pleasure. Part of that pleasure is expectation management: after reading a bunch of his non-Dune novels, and at this stage of my rereading of the Dune series, it is very clear to me that Dune was a singular event in Herbert’s writing life. Nothing else he wrote comes close to its perfection – not conceptually, nor as a consistent, balanced, imaginative and exciting story.
This is were the review section ends. In what follows I will look more closely at a few things.
First a question that goes for the entire series, but occurred to me only when rereading Heretics: what do the Bene Geserit actually want? It turns out Herbert has put this question central in Heretics, fully in line with the critique of religious & political institutions in the previous books.
After that, I’ll look at heresy and love, and I’ll end with Herbert’s new ontological outlook on a universe that has prescience, changing the role that concept plays in the series – inspired by Einstein & quantum physics.
2a. THE BENE GESSERIT’S NOBLE PURPOSE
(This next bit is rather quote-heavy, but if you are in a hurry, you should be able to follow most of my reasoning without reading the quotes.)
Of all books, Heretics is the one where the Bene Gesserit are most central. But what is their mission?
Taraza did not believe there was any such thing as a beneficent power guarding humankind. The Missionaria Protectiva and the intentions of the Sisterhood counted for everything in Taraza’s universe. Whatever served those intentions, even the machinations of the long-dead Tyrant, could be judged good. All else was evil.
The Missionaria Protectiva is “responsible for sowing the seeds of superstition in primitive cultures, so that the Sisterhood could take advantage of them when those seeds grew to full-fledged legends”, according to the Fandom Dune Wiki. But what are the actual intentions of the Sisterhood? To what advantage do they use this religious engeneering?
The people at the top of the Sisterhood do examine the order’s motivations and workings critically, like in the following conversation between Taraza and Odrade, but again, what these “very highest principles” or “the things to which we have dedicated our lives” are is never made clear.
“We think we make decisions of the greatest moment and out of the very highest principles.” (…) [Odrade] said: “Does the Mother Superior doubt the rightness of the Bene Gesserit?” “Doubt? Oh, no. But I do experience frustration. We work all of our lives for these highly refined goals and in the end, what do we find? We find that many of the things to which we have dedicated our lives came from petty decisions. They can be traced to desires for personal comfort or convenience and had nothing at all to do with our high ideals. What really was at stake was some worldly working agreement that satisfied the needs of those who could make the decisions.” “I’ve heard you call that political necessity,” Odrade said. (…) “If we become institutionalized in our judgements, that’s a sure way to extinguish the Bene Gesserit.”
And again, like in the previous section, Herbert mentions lots of things, but never makes them concrete. What is that “admirable constancy of purpose”? “Moral purpose”, even, and a purpose that also seems to be fully in line with rational thought: what the BG do is what every perfectly rational human being should do, Mentat Teg implies.
Whatever else you might say about the Sisterhood, they displayed an admirable constancy of purpose. Moral purpose, Teg labeled it. The Bene Gesserit moral purpose agreed completely with Teg’s principles. That those principles were Bene Gesserit – conditioned in him did not enter into the question. Rational thought, especially Mentat rationality, could make no other judgment. Teg boiled it down to an essence: If only one person followed such guiding principles, this was a better universe.
There’s a glimpse of a goal in the next passage: the Sisterhood are “arbiters” of some sort – a ruling class that is necessary according to Teg, and being a ruling class is in the BG’s nature.
In a multisociety universe whose major binding forces interacted with complexity despite the simplicity of labels, reliable military commanders were worth their weight in melange many times over. Religions and the common memory of imperial tyrannies always figured in the negotiations but it was economic forces that eventually carried the day and the military coin could be entered on anybody’s adding machine. It was there in every negotiation and would be for as long as necessity drove the trading system – the need for particular things (such as spice or the technoproducts of Ix), the need for specialists (such as Mentats or Suk doctors), and all of the other mundane needs for which there were markets: for labor forces, for builders, for designers, for planiformed life, for artists, for exotic pleasures… No legal system could bind such complexity into a whole and this fact quite obviously brought up another necessity – the constant need for arbiters with clout. Reverend Mothers had naturally fallen into this role within the economic web and Miles Teg knew this. He also knew that he was once more being brought out as a bargaining chip. Whether he enjoyed that role did not figure in the negotiations.
In the next quote, Teg even sees the BG as being outside humankind, manipulating – but again, it is unclear why they manipulate. Arbiters yes, but so often in the series this arbitrating seems to be self-serving: punishing CHOAM or Ix or Tleilax or the Spacing Guild for intrusions in the Sisterhood’s schemes.
Observing her now, the way she waited so patiently for his thoughts to resolve, Teg reflected that it often was said with truth that Reverend Mothers no longer were completely members of the human race. They moved somehow outside the main flow, perhaps parallel to it, perhaps diving into it occasionally for their own purposes, but always removed from humankind. They removed themselves. It was an identifying mark of the Reverend Mother, a sense of extra identity that made them closer to the long-dead Tyrant than to the human stock from which they sprang. Manipulation. That was their mark. They manipulated everyone and everything. “I am to be the Bene Gesserit eyes,” Teg said. “Taraza wants me to make a human decision for all of you.”
The BG do seem to operate out of an ideal though. The next quote isn’t fully clear, but that ideal to me seems to be making humans physically better to achieve a kind of equilibrium as fighters. It is also striking that Lucilla, being a Bene Gesserit herself, doesn’t have a full view of the project she partakes in. Not informing every Sister about everything is done out of tactical reasons, but the bigger question might be whether anybody still has a clear view on the Sisterhood’s ultimate goals or moral purpose?
The ghola was developing a nerve-muscle equilibrium that, given time, might be matched to a psychological equilibrium at least equal to Teg’s. The cultural impact of such an achievement would be awesome. Look at all those who gave instinctive allegiance to Teg and, through Teg, to the Sisterhood. We have the Tyrant to thank for much of that, she thought. Before Leto II, no widespread system of cultural adjustments had ever endured long enough to approach the balance that the Bene Gesserit held as an ideal. It was this equilibrium – “flowing along the blade of a sword” – that fascinated Lucilla. It was why she lent herself so unreservedly to a project whose total design she did not know (…).
When I tried to recollect the role of the Bene Gesserit in the previous novels, I similarly didn’t come up with clear goals. Yes, they tried to make a Kwisatz Haderach, but why? For their own power? Yes, they tried to keep an influence on Arrakis to guarantee a spice supply, but why, except for their own needs & power broking? In the previous books the Sisterhood seems to be mainly concerned with its own power and survival. It is only in Heretics that their moral purpose and intentions are discussed, but what those are isn’t made clear.
I did some research online, and found two clear things. The first is a quote from Children of Dune, in which Ghanima recites the Credo of the Bene Gesserit:
Religion is the emulation of the adult by the child. Religion is the encystment of past beliefs: mythology, which is guesswork, the hidden assumptions of trust in the universe, those pronouncements which men have made in search of personal power, all of it mingled with shreds of enlightenment. And always the ultimate unspoken commandment is ‘Thou shall not question!’ But we question. 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.
I found a second, even more clear goal on the Fandom Dune Wiki’s Bene Gesserit page, but it is given without justification. I don’t remember any quotes from the previous books that support this – even though it’s plausible those exist. Don’t hesitate to comment if you know of passages from the rest of the series that support this passage on the Fandom Wiki.
The Bene Gesserit schools were designed to maximize the physical and mental potential of humanity, especially females.
This uncertainty isn’t a negative per se. Herbert’s lack of clarity makes the Bene Gesserit elusive and mysterious, and also versatile as an element in the various books’ plots. It is also fairly clear that Herbert uses the BG to criticize institutions, institutionalized morals and the evolution of moral organizations like organized religions – or power for the sake of power as Ethan Mills puts it. Here is Teg again:
There was a fundamentalist, dogmatic and ritualistic essence apparent in all Bene Gesserit training despite every effort to prevent this.
The questions that Herbert’s writing evoked in me throughout the book, also echo the questions of Leto II, who, from beyond the grave, asks the BG basically the same questions: what is your goal?
“WHAT IS SURVIVAL IF YOU DO NOT SURVIVE WHOLE? ASK THE BENE TLEILAX THAT! WHAT IF YOU NO LONGER HEAR THE MUSIC OF LIFE? MEMORIES ARE NOT ENOUGH UNLESS THEY CALL YOU TO NOBLE PURPOSE!”
“MY WORDS ARE YOUR PAST, / “MY QUESTIONS ARE SIMPLE: / “WITH WHOM DO YOU ALLY? / “WITH THE SELF-IDOLATORS OF TLEILAX? / “WITH MY FISH SPEAKER BUREAUCRACY? / “WITH THE COSMOS-WANDERING GUILD? / “WITH HARKONNEN BLOOD SACRIFICERS? / “WITH A DOGMATIC SINK OF YOUR OWN CREATION? / “HOW WILL YOU MEET YOUR END? / “AS NO MORE THAN A SECRET SOCIETY?”
Odrade is shaken by these words, and starts asking questions too:
The Tyrant’s words had been burned into her consciousness. Where was the “noble purpose” in what the Sisterhood did? Odrade could almost hear Taraza’s sneering response to such a question. “Survival, Dar! That’s all the noble purpose we need. Survival! Even the Tyrant knew that!”
Near the end, Odrade realizes the BG probably are corrupted by power itself, and tell themselves a typical self-justification logic of corrupted regimes: the future will be different.
“We have a good base of information upon which to build a better understanding of our past,” Odrade had argued. “We’ve always known that what was at stake in conflicts was the determination of who would control the wealth or its equivalent.” Maybe it was not a real “noble purpose” but it would do for the time being.
Also Bellonda realizes they have become an aristocratic institution:
“We never completely escape the teachers of our childhood nor any of the patterns that formed us, do we?” That was an argument peculiar to Bene Gesserit disputes. It reminded them of their own particular susceptibility. We are the secret aristocrats and it is our offspring who inherit the power. Yes, we are susceptible to that and Miles Teg is a superb example.
And also Miles Teg observes the Bene Gesserit have drifted from their original causes, even though they tell themselves there is still worth in what they are doing.
The workings of the Bene Gesserit social structure appeared so complicated until you saw through to the necessities: food, clothing, warmth, communication, learning, protection from enemies (a subset of the survival drive). Bene Gesserit survival took some adjustments before it could be understood. They did not procreate for the sake of humankind in general. No unmonitored racial involvement! They procreated to extend their own powers, to continue the Bene Gesserit, deeming that a sufficient service to humankind. Perhaps it was. Procreative motivation went deep and the Sisterhood was so thorough.
Is this character development, or a small inconsistency with the Teg that earlier thought that the “Bene Gesserit moral purpose agreed completely with [his] principles”? I’d vote for the latter, as until the very end of the book, Teg remains a loyal soldier, obedient to the BG hierarchy. If their moral principles aligned, a conclusion supported by Mentat rational thought, why all of a sudden doubt the Bene Gesserit’s self-serving power plays are sufficient service to humankind?
Anyhow: Leto, Odrade, Bellonda, Miles Teg: all heretic doubters. By the end of the book, is becomes crystal clear Herbert wanted to question the Bene Gesserit – and more generally pursuing power for the sake of power – in this book. It’s one of the central themes indeed. The build-up to this realization is well-done, and Herbert deserves credit for it.
Kathrine Beck recently wrote that Herbert “expected to earn millions from the [David Lynch] film, and wanted to spend a few of them setting up a foundation for a “study of social systems.” Herbert was concerned about governmental overreach and had come up with a system in which citizens could overturn decisions made by bureaucrats, and the U.S. House and Senate would be eliminated.” His sentiment is echoed in the next quote, and ties into the theme of the BG becoming an institution itself, and into Mother Superior Taraza realizing she has need for the individuality and independence of Miles Teg and Odrade to survive the Honored Matres crisis.
Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys appearing inept? -A Guide to Trial and Error in Government, Bene Gesserit Archives
So again – except for the Teg inconsistency – all this isn’t a negative at all, but I would have still liked some more backstory. And more importantly, I think Heretics – and the entire series – would have been stronger if the original motivations of its main faction had been worked out with more depth, as that would provide clearer contrast with what it has become. That doesn’t mean I’m going to try Sisterhood of Dune though.
One more loose end. According to the Chakobska carvings of Leto II that Odrade discovers in the remnants of Sietch Tabr, the Bene Gesserit also knew the necessity of the Golden Path. Why didn’t they try building it? Or did they try, but failed? Did they decide to just ride along with Leto doing it? Was it part of their Noble Purpose?
“WHY DID YOUR SISTERHOOD NOT BUILD THE GOLDEN PATH? YOU KNEW THE NECESSITY. YOUR FAILURE CONDEMNED ME, THE GOD EMPEROR, TO MILLENNIA OF PERSONAL DESPAIR.”
– Update August, 8th 2021 –
As for textual evidence about the Bene Gesserit’s original goals, a bit more turned up. For starters I’ll quote some of text I also wrote in the comments below after Ola of the blog Re-enchantment Of The World pointed me to the appendixes of Dune. I’ve decided to include it here as some might not read the comments.
The “Terminology of the imperium” has this entry for the BG, but it doesn’t say a lot:
the ancient school of mental and physical training established primarily for female students after the Butlerian Jihad destroyed the so-called ‘thinking machines’ and robots.
The “The Religion of Dune” appendix has this, but it doesn’t explain a lot either:
“The Bene Gesserit, who privately denied they were a religious order, but who operate behind an almost impenetrable screen of ritual mysticism, and whose training, whose symbolism, organization and internal teaching methods were almost wholly religious”
Another section of that appendix talks a bit about the fact that the BG “were banding the sorceresses”. These sorceresses existed before the Butlerian Jihad and before the ecumenical developments, but after the rise of space travel, which had profound impacts on religion. It also has this:
“The major dams against anarchy in these times were the embryo Guild, the Bene Gesserit, and the Landsraad” (…) The role of the Bene Gesserit is more obscure. Certainly, this is the time in which they consolidated their hold upon the sorceresses, explored the subtle narcotics, developed prana-bindu training and conceived the Missionaria Protectiva, that black arm of superstition. But it is also the period that saw the composing of the Litany against Fear and the assembly of the Azhar Book, that bibliographic marvel that preserves the great secrets of the most ancient faiths.” [“these times” refer to the period in which ecumenism took shape, after the rise of space travel and the BJ]
I’ve also found an entire thread with 3 pages of posts on the subject on the Jacurutu forum, which sadly isn’t very active anymore. The thread doesn’t offer a definite answer, and there are some different opinions, but I think it’s nevertheless interesting to look at the quotes for the novels it provides.
First up is a quote found by forum member cafihapa from Chapterhouse: Dune in which Lucilla speaks via Rebecca’s other memory to a man.
He turned and looked at her, his face falling into shadows. “What is it this one inside you says? This one you think of as Lucilla?” Rebecca could see it pleased him to say Lucilla’s name. If Lucilla could speak through a daughter of Secret Israel, then she still lived and had not been betrayed. (….) “That is wisdom. What is it the lady says they seek?” “Influence on the maturing of humankind.” (…) “Perhaps they have been too long on the road to Damascus without a blinding flash of illumination, Rebecca. I hear them say they act for the benefit of humankind. Somehow, I cannot see this in them, nor do I believe the Tyrant saw it.” When Rebecca started to reply, he stopped her with an upraised hand. “Mature humanity? That is their grail? Is it not the mature fruit that is plucked and eaten?”
Chapterhouse also has this quote that ties into the above: “Survival of humankind took precedence over survival of the Sisterhood. Else our grail of human maturity is meaningless.”
To gain “influence on the maturing of humankind” dovetails with Leto’s goal:
“I have been forming this human society, shaping it for more than three thousand years, opening a door out of adolescence for the entire species,” Leto had said.
Cafihapa also points out this corresponds to what Mohian told Paul at the onset of Dune:
The Reverend Mother returned her attention to Paul. “You did that on remarkably few clues,” she said. “Politics indeed. The original Bene Gesserit school was directed by those who saw the need of a thread of continuity in human affairs. They saw there could be no such continuity without separating human stock from animal stock — for breeding purposes.”
Cafihapa also points at the BG motto. Some Googling revealed that is quoted by Jessica in Dune:
“Only to serve,” Jessica whispered, clinging to the Bene Gesserit motto. “We exist only to serve.”
As the Jacurutu forum was populated by hardcore fans who have read the series multiple times, I think it is fair to assume that by now we have gathered most, if not all, of the textual evidence about the goal of the Bene Gesserit in the entire series.
My conclusion is this:
The BG started out as a training school that along the way incorporated sorceresses, and indeed set themselves the goal to “serve” humanity (amongst other things by trying to help them reach maturity, whatever that means). They gained influence on politics, and in some way they did indeed contribute to order, like they were that “[dam] against anarchy” in the early days, and also tried to help humanity survive (which wasn’t necessarily pure altruism by the time we get to Heretics and Chapterhouse).
It’s possible their goal might have mutated towards power for power’s sake, with service to humanity as a kind of (possibly self-delusional) alibi. If their goal would truly be “to maximize the physical and mental potential of humanity, especially females” as the Fandom Wiki had it, they failed spectacularly after all those millennia, as they seem only intend to maximize their own potentials, not of humanity as a whole, and neither of all females.
The same goes for that last part of the BG credo (“the liberating of the imagination, the harnessing of imagination to humankind’s deepest sense of creativity”) or the “maturation of humanity” as Lucilla claims. Again, their definition of humankind seems limited to the Bene Gesserit themselves.
One cannot seriously claim a society that breeds people without smell to clean sewage is already mature. Maybe you can if you adhere to a strictly elitist, hierarchical worldview in which every human knows its place (like Miles Teg hints at), but even while Frank Herbert was more or less right wing, I cannot imagine him being in favor of such a society, nor the BG having that as an ideal, mature state. So either the BG failed and were still trying to achieve their goal, or did not really try. Again, the impression I get from the novels, is that the BG aren’t really working to the benefit of full humanity – although I have to admit it would be possible if their timeframe to achieve fullscale maturation and creativy would be centuries or millenia after what would have been Dune 7.
As for the more general goal of helping humanity survive in the long run (survive Arafel, survive the typhoon struggle, survive Kralizec) it seems that their genetic programs have helped indeed, as well as their military powers. Without their scheming both Paul and Leto II would have never been born (or possibly too late) and the Golden Path would have never been started, presumably resulting in humanity’s demise. And as the Honored Matres stem partly from the BG too, if they had not existed, their combined forces might not have been able to put up a fight in Dune 7. But I would not call this survival goal “noble purpose”, as it is not altruistic: if the BG want to survive and keep their power, they obviously need humanity to survive too.
2b. HERESY & VARIATION
I wrote about change as a key concept in my analyses of Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune, and the theme is again present in Heretics. This time it takes the specific forms of heresy and, more general, the need for variation. As I wrote a few lines above, a big part of Taraza’s tactics is that Odrade and Teg both need to do something unexpected in order to get out of their predicaments.
This is on top of the fact that both characters can’t be seen by prescient minds, as they carry Siona genes, so basically they are asked to be good strategists – big deal that. So this part of the plot isn’t a shocking philosophical insight: surprise has been a stalwart of military tactics forever, and it’s a bit silly that Herbert devotes so much sentences to the concept – as if it would be something new in the Bene Gesserit military playbook, a playbook that is millennia old. The fact that both surprise manoeuvres in the end aren’t that extraordinary again left me with the feeling: ‘is this it?’
And for all the talk about being an independent mind, the paradox that Odrade voices near the end only confirms my reading of Dune: in effect, free will seems a long way off. “”I think I had no choice,” Odrade said.” Is she really the “free agent” Taraza wants her to be? And what exactly is “human” about her decisions? (Again, don’t hesitate to comment if you have an answer to these questions.) The universe Herbert writes about remains firmly deterministic in practice, even though the nature of prescience changes, as I will explain later. The fact that Gammu has people specifically bred to clear sewage – so they don’t have smell – doesn’t advocate lots of free choice for individuals.
Herbert tries to evoke heresy in a number of ways in this book, beginning with the title. Throughout the narrative, various heretics are presented, but they have little to no baring on the plot.
A cynical man, Stiros. He represented a powerful faction in the priesthood, the so-called “scientific community,” whose influence was insidious and pervasive. They veered dangerously close to heresy.
Tuek [the Rakian High Priest] was thinking: I cannot discuss that terrible Manifesto with her! Not with a Tleilaxu Master and those Face Dancers listening in the other room. What ever possessed me to allow that? “It is heresy, pure and simple,” Tuek said.
Only the few immune heretics were to be feared now.
Science being problematic for many religions isn’t that much of a revelation, Tuek becomes irrelevant very quickly, and the heretics in that last quote are priests that – because of their heresy – are immune to the religious fear the Bene Gesserit planted, but Herbert does absolutely nothing with this sentence later in the story.
The image of the Bene Gesserit again becomes a bit more complicated in the next quote, as they might be “fundamentalist, dogmatic and ritualistic”, yet in effect they seem to churn out independent minds:
“Your mother taught you more than she was told to teach you,” Taraza said. “A wise woman but another heretic. That’s all we seem to be breeding nowadays.” “Heretic?” He [Teg] was caught by resentment. “That’s a private joke in the Sisterhood,” Taraza said. “We’re supposed to follow a Mother Superior’s orders with absolute devotion. And we do, except when we disagree.”
Teg’s mother going against the grain is repeated later:
All such women of the Sisterhood were sexual adepts. Teg’s own mother had educated him in the workings of that system, sending him to well-selected local women when he was quite young, sensitizing him to the signs he must observe within himself as well as in the women. It was a forbidden training outside of Chapter House surveillance, but Teg’s mother had been one of the Sisterhood’s heretics. “You will have a need for this, Miles.” No doubt there had been some prescience in her. She had armed him against the Imprinters who were trained in orgasmic amplification to fix the unconscious ties – male to female.
Herbert foreshadows the possible change in Miles Teg’s character that I talked about above, but it doesn’t solve the inconsistency. How would doing the unexpected be heretical if that is precisely what your superior wants of you? To me, Teg never becomes an heretic, as he continues to fight for the Bene Gesserit’s unclear ends, even though he starts doubting their service to humankind a bit.
“What is our relationship?” “You command and I obey.” Taraza looked at him over the lip of her glass. When she put down the glass, she said: “Yes, you’ve never really been a heretic, Miles. Perhaps… someday…”
When his daughter Odrade, Mother Superior by now, thinks the following, it seems odd, and much ado about nothing:
I will have another niche made, she thought. I will commission another bust: Miles Teg, the Great Heretic!
So aside from Herbert using it to critique bureaucratic, fundamentalist organizations like the Bene Gesserit, heresy as a theme feels very underdeveloped qua working in the plot itself. It gets an epigraph though!
Quite naturally, holders of power wish to suppress wild research. Unrestricted questing after knowledge has a long history of producing unwanted competition. The powerful want a “safe line of investigations,” which will develop only those products and ideas that can be controlled and, most important, that will allow the larger part of the benefits to be captured by inside investors. Unfortunately, a random universe full of relative variables does not insure such a “safe line of investigations.” -Assessment of Ix, Bene Gesserit Archives
That epigraph gets us to variables & variation, and Herbert includes another, similar Assessment of Ix as an epigraph:
Technology in common with many other activities; tends towards avoidance of risk by investors. Uncertainty is ruled out if possible. Capital investment follows this rule, since people generally prefer the predictable. Few recognize how destructive this can be, how it imposes severe limits on variability and thus makes whole populations fatally vulnerable to the shocking ways our universe can throw the dice. -Assessment of Ix, Bene Gesserit Archives
Also the Tleilaxu value surprise, and their angle is a religious one in the context of this quote:
Waff clapped his hands once without thinking. “The gift of surprises is the greatest gift of all!” he said.
Mentat Teg sees the variation in people, and even links this to his code of honor in a way I can’t really fathom – but then again, I’m not a Mentat.
Teg dashed dampness from his eyes with a quick shake of his head. Immediate necessity required that core of internal honesty which he could not avoid. Teg had never been a good liar, not even to himself. Quite early in his training, he had realized that his mother and the others involved in his upbringing had conditioned him to a deep sense of personal honesty. Adherence to a code of honor. The code itself, as he recognized its shape in him, attracted Teg’s fascinated attention. It began with recognition that humans were not created equal, that they possessed different inherited abilities and experienced different events in their lives. This produced people of different accomplishments and different worth.
To be complete, three final quotes, the first underscoring the evolutionary manner of all life, the second explicitly linking the Golden Path to change, and the final one might be Herbert patting himself – a philosophical writer – on the back.
In the way of all other life, the Sisterhood evolved and changed.
“The Scattering was his goal, Bell. That was his Golden Path, humankind’s survival!” “But we know how he felt about the Tleilaxu and yet he did not exterminate them. He could have and he did not!” “He wanted diversity.”
“Never underestimate the power of an idea,” Taraza said. “The Atreides were ever philosophers in their governance. Philosophy is always dangerous because it promotes the creation of new ideas.”
Neither of these deepens the theme in the book much more, not in the way it was part of the backbone of Children or God Emperor. It feels as if ‘change’ is a motif Herbert picks up from the previous novels, and as such it provides for a bit of continuity, but when he tries to work that motive into something new thematically – heresy – it is not strong enough to provide interesting plot, and does not transcend the superficial.
2c. THE ULTIMATE BENE GESSERIT HERESY: LOVE?
I have no idea of Herbert’s degree of involvement in blurbs, but the back cover of my Ace edition, first published in 1987 after his death, ends with this: “And the children of Dune’s children awaken from empire as from a dream, wielding the new power of a heresy called love…” That’s much more than a stretch, but it is no denying Herbert indeed tries to make ‘love’ a theme as well.
Regrettably, it’s also underdeveloped. There are quite a few quotes that tell us the Bene Gesserit consider feelings as dangerous, and love as the most dangerous feeling of all – “only one small aspect” of procreation, the Bene Gesserit specialty. For a Sisterhood full of utilitarian power politicians, that is not out of character at all. This lack of emotions is one of the reasons Teg sees the BG as being outside of humanity. Also the Tleilaxu masters seem to have erased “all weakening emotions”.
So far, so good, and I won’t bother you with the relevant quotes as they all tell the same thing: love is pain. I’m sure Herbert felt this himself, as his wife had been struggling with cancer for years while he wrote Heretics.
It’s also clear Darwi Odrade does allow her feelings at least partially – early in the novel she remembers her foster parents fondly, and it is suggested that she is different from the other Bene Gesserit precisely because her foster mother did something she was not supposed to do: love her foster child.
Problems arose from the fact that the foster mother gave Odrade that thing which most mothers give their children, that thing which the Sisterhood so distrusted – love.
Odrade even rationally justifies her emotions, not unlike American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, by pointing out that emotions provide us with knowledge.
Odrade, who allowed certain limited affections, “a mild warmth,” she called them, argued that emotions provided valuable insights if you did not let them govern you.
And the Honored Matres provide us with a stark warning of what the Bene Gesserit might eventually become if they keep on pushing emotions out.
Teg took some reassurance from the realization that neither of these two really enjoyed life. He could see that in them clearly with eyes the Sisterhood had educated. The Honored Matre and Muzzafar had forgotten or, most likely, abandoned everything that supported the survival of joyous humans. He thought they probably no longer were capable of finding a real wellspring of joy in their own flesh. Theirs would have to be mostly a voyeur’s existence, the eternal observer, always remembering what it had been like before they had taken the turning into whatever it was they had become. Even when they wallowed in the performance of something that once had meant gratification, they would have to reach for new extremes each time just to touch the edges of their own memories.
But all this talk about emotions and love in relation to Odrade seems to be set-up only. Okay, it deepens her character a bit, and she tries not to love Sheeana, whom she must protect, but the plot doesn’t do anything with Odrade’s emotions, let alone with love. Taraza asks her to make a “human” decision, kinda admitting Teg’s idea that the BG are removed from humanity. But what this human decision is, is unclear. Odrade just comes across as yet another Bene Gesserit individual, like Taraza, Schwangyu, Jessica or Janet Roxbrough, the mother of Miles Teg. And while her emotions might set her apart, they don’t seem to cause or influence anything – her individual, independent decision in her dealings with the Tleilaxu had nothing to do with emotions. Maybe I missed it – do let me know in the comments – or maybe the pay-off of this particular narrative thread only happens in Chapterhouse: Dune.
I hope I missed it or that I’ll have to wait for my reread of Chapterhouse, because otherwise, it’s yet another case of Herbert putting a piece on the board without any internal necessity. Later he forgets he put it there, seemingly making things up along the way, without the carefull planning of the first Dune. (It’s maybe worthwhile to stress and repeat I did like rereading this book quite a lot.)
2d. MYSTIC QONTOLOGICS: PRESCIENCE 2.0 ?
While I tried to show that Dune and Dune Messiah firmly adhere to a mechanistic worldview, devoid of free will, in Children of Dune Herbert starts chipping away from this in one specific passage on Heisenberg, and in God Emperor he goes even further: 15 years after Dune, he introduces full on magical thinking in the series. I’ve discussed all that thoroughly in my previous reviews.
Heretics again changes the concepts of prescience in a major way, as I will explain in a bit. The novel is noticeably less about prescience than it is about no-ships and descendants of Siona. To me it seems like Herbert wanted to get out of the whole deterministic thing with Paul & Leto’s powers of perfect prediction. Having a hero that can do these things takes a certain tension out of the story, and moreover, yet another book about such a hero might become repetitive and boring. (Similarly, also Other Memory takes a back seat.)
So it’s perfectly understandable Herbert changed tack. Already early in the series he introduced the idea that prescient characters can’t see each other, and later he added no-ships, no-chambers and Siona to work around this narrative problem. In Heretics, prescience isn’t really an issue, and Herbert doesn’t even try to come up with coherence when it does occur. Instead of full-blown prescience, it is now reduced to a few hunches, the occasional warning from other memory and, at the end only, Teg’s double vision about the very near future during combat.
But Herbert’s changes aren’t limited to this. The opening epigraph of the book sets the tone:
Do not ask Why? Be cautious with How? Why? leads inexorably to paradox. How? traps you in a universe of cause and effect. Both deny the infinite. -The Apocrypha of Arrakis
Do not expect explanations, dear reader! That ship has sailed long ago. Moreover, ultimately, words hinder insight:
The Atreides Manifesto had been almost a gamble. Odrade, the obvious person to produce the Manifesto, could only achieve a deeper insight as she wrote the document, but the words themselves were the ultimate barrier to revelation.
“Understanding requires words. Some things cannot be reduced to words. There are things that can only be experienced wordlessly.”
The easy way out, if you ask me, for a writer whose main business are words.
Anyhow, it’s clear pretty soon the mystic magic of God Emperor is again the default in Heretics. Herbert was no stranger to magical thinking, like many other science fiction writers of his generation. In a 1969 interview there’s a remarkable passage about Herbert being able to predict cards, and Kathrine Beck wrote on HistoryLink that on “the plane from Los Angeles back to Seattle, Herbert believed he was picking up data from Theresa’s brain as she thought of him. Simultaneously, he had “received a message” from his dead wife: “It’s all right. She’s the one. You’re still alive Frank! Live your life!””
“This says our universe is magical. It says all arbitrary forms are transient and subject to magical changes. Science has led us to this interpretation as though it placed us on a track from which we cannot deviate.” [Waff]
But as said, all that isn’t new for those who’ve read God Emperor. Heretics does introduce another idea however: beliefs structure the perception of reality. (On a side note, this quote also has the first and only mention of the word “quantum” in the series so far, even though Herbert referred to Werner Heisenberg in Children once.)
At the quantum level our universe can be seen as an indeterminate place, predictable in a statistical way only when you employ large enough numbers. Between that universe and a relatively predictable one where the passage of a single planet can be timed to a picosecond, other forces come into play. For the in-between universe where we find our daily lives, that which you believe is a dominant force. Your beliefs order the unfolding of daily events. If enough of us believe, a new thing can be made to exist. Belief structure creates a filter through which chaos is sifted into order. -Analysis of the Tyrant, the Taraza File: BG Archive
The Manifesto repeats this idea:
[Odrade] paraphrased from the Manifesto: “Your will and your faith – your belief system – dominate your universe.”
This, obviously, is true. It is true in a political sense, like in Louis Althusser’s “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”. It is true to such an extent that pointing out bias often enhances it.
But it is also true in the scientific sense, as Einstein pointed out when he said that “We must remember that we do not observe nature as it actually exists, but nature exposed to our methods of perception. The theories determine what we can or cannot observe… Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.” Adam Becker’s excellent What Is Real? offers a brilliant illustration of this idea, in the form of a sociological history of quantum physics. It must be stressed Einstein in this quote wasn’t even talking about quantum physics’ measurement problem, which is another, more specific illustration of perception determining parts of reality.
Herbert clearly read that Einstein quote, and knew of the measurement problem too:
“Ixian beliefs are perfectly submissive to the choices they make on how they will look at their universe,” Taraza said. “Their universe does not act of itself but performs according to the kinds of experiments they choose.”
Herbert also ties fixed beliefs to the theme of change:
By your belief in granular singularities, you deny all movement – evolutionary or devolutionary. Belief fixes a granular universe and causes that universe to persist. Nothing can be allowed to change because that way your non-moving universe vanishes. But it moves of itself when you do not move. It evolves beyond you and is no longer accessible to you. “The oddest thing of all,” Taraza said, sinking into tune with this mood she had created, “is that the scientists of Ix cannot see how much their own beliefs dominate their universe.”
But Herbert doesn’t leave it at that. Not only does belief & perception structure our universe, also prescience does:
“Just as the universe is created by the participation of consciousness, the prescient human carries that creative faculty to its ultimate extreme. This was the profoundly misunderstood power of the Atreides bastard, the power that he transmitted to his son, the Tyrant.”
But this is a quote from the Atreides Manifesto, and as that’s an artificial text in the story, it’s not necessarily true in the fictional world Herbert created. Taraza echoes the thought however, in a conversation with Teg:
“I was thinking about Muad’dib,” he said. “You think he predicted the future,” she said. “That is the Mentat teaching.” “I hear the doubt in your voice, Miles. Did he predict or did he create? Prescience can be deadly. The people who demand that the oracle predict for them really want to know next year’s price on whalefur or something equally mundane. None of them wants an instant-by-instant prediction of his personal life.” “No surprises,” Teg said. “Exactly. If you possessed such fore-knowledge, your life would become an unutterable bore.” “You think Muad’dib life was a bore?” “And the Tyrant’s, too. We think their entire lives were devoted to trying to break out of chains they themselves created.” “But they believed…” “Remember your philosopher’s doubts, Miles. Beware! The mind of the believer stagnates. It fails to grow outward into an unlimited, infinite universe.”
Through Taraza’s words to Miles Teg, Herbert asks his readers to change their outlook, and drop our fixed mindset we might have created by reading the previous books.
Consequently, Teg has a kind of revelation, in which memory, change, perception, mysticism, creation and Plato’s cave are all united, and in which Herbert choses quantum waves over atoms.
The smell and taste of the drink Taraza had given him so long ago still tingled on his tongue and in his nostrils. A Mentat blink and he knew he could call up the scene entire once more – the low light of shaded glowglobes, the feeling of the chair beneath him, the sounds of their voices. It was all there for replay, frozen into a time-capsule of isolated memory. Calling up that old memory created a magical universe where his abilities were amplified beyond his wildest expectations. No atoms existed in that magical universe, only waves and awesome movements all around. He was forced there to discard all barriers built of belief and understanding. This universe was transparent. He could see through it without any interfering screens upon which to project its forms. The magical universe reduced him to a core of active imagination where his own image-making abilities were the only screen upon which any projection might be sensed. There, I am both the performer and the performed! The workroom around Teg wavered into and out of his sensory reality. He felt his awareness constricted to its tightest purpose and yet that purpose filled his universe. He was open to infinity. Taraza did this deliberately! he thought. She has amplified me! A feeling of awe threatened him. He recognized how his daughter, Odrade, had drawn upon such powers to create the Atreides Manifesto for Taraza. His own Mentat powers were submerged in that greater pattern. Taraza was demanding a fearful performance from him. The need for such a thing both challenged and terrified him. It could very well mean the end of the Sisterhood.
It is poetry, sure, but I wouldn’t call this deep thought of Herbert, just wishfull thinking.
And again, atoms are bad, waves are the new way, at least also according to what Teg’s daughter Odrade wrote in the Manifesto:
By your belief in singularities, in granular absolutes, you deny movement, even the movement of evolution! While you cause a granular universe to persist in your awareness, you are blind to movement. When things change, your absolute universe vanishes, no longer accessible to your self-limiting perceptions. The universe has moved beyond you. -First Draft, Atreides Manifesto, Bene Gesserit Archives
This is the awe-inspiring universe of magic: There are no atoms, only waves and motions all around. Here, you discard all belief in barriers to understanding. You put aside understanding itself. This universe cannot be seen, cannot be heard, cannot be detected in any way by fixed perceptions. It is the ultimate void where no preordained screens occur upon which forms may be projected. You have only one awareness here – the screen of the magi: Imagination! Here, you learn what it is to be human. You are a creator of order, of beautiful shapes and systems, an organizer of chaos. -The Atreides Manifesto, Bene Gesserit Archives
Herbert isn’t the only author to have fallen for the spell of quantum physics, and like so many others too easily applies concepts that still aren’t well understood as bad metaphors (as if atom really are something insular and static) or even as a full blown ontology – albeit sketchy.
But this isn’t just Herbert showing off his new quantum props. It has very important effects on the plot of Heretics, and retroactively alters the mechanics of God Emperor, as this new concept of an active, formative prescience is the reason why Taraza wanted Rakis destroyed and most of the worms killed:
“I thought you deserved an explanation of the Mother Superior’s design. It was aimed at the destruction of Rakis, you see. What she really wanted was the elimination of almost all of the worms.” “Great Gods below! Why?” “They were an oracular force holding us in bondage. Those pearls of the Tyrant’s awareness magnified that hold. He didn’t predict events, he created them.”
Fittingly, here at the end of this section, and very near the end of this entire text, let me leave you with the final epigraph of Heretics of Dune, in which Herbert again says there is no need to try and understand his creation, and hammers home this new idea of creative prescience in his latest iteration of the fictional reality that is the Dune universe.
We are not looking at a new state of matter but at a newly recognized relationship between consciousness and matter, which provides a more penetrating insight into the workings of prescience. The oracle shapes a projected inner universe to produce new external probabilities out of forces that are not understood. There is no need to understand these forces before using them to shape the physical universe. Ancient metal workers had no need to understand the molecular and submolecular complexities of their steel, bronze, copper, gold, and tin. They invented mystical powers to describe the unknown while they continued to operate their forges and wield their hammers. -Mother Superior Taraza, Argument in Council
As a short coda, the only mention of free will in this part of the series. If I interpret it correctly, Leto II, as he did in God Emperor, still doesn’t subscribe to free will, and says that the idea is the result of the reaction to oppression. That seems like a simplification, even if Leto acknowledges the complexity of the concepts involved. Didn’t he realize the active nature of his prescience? Either way, such an active prescience wouldn’t have set him free.
Liberty and Freedom are complex concepts. They go back to religious ideas of Free Will and are related to the Ruler Mystique implicit in absolute monarchs. Without absolute monarchs patterned after the Old Gods and ruling by the grace of a belief in religious indulgence, Liberty and Freedom would never have gained their present meaning. These ideals owe their very existence to past examples of oppression. And the forces that maintain such ideas will erode unless renewed by dramatic teaching or new oppressions. This is the most basic key to my life. -Leto II, God Emperor of Dune: Dar-es-Balat Records
All those dazzling new concepts of quantum and determining perception notwithstanding, let’s not forget that Frank Herbert at this stage in the series has become more an illusionist than a philosopher. Magic & simplifications suit such a character.
Click here for my other Herbert reviews: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Destination: Void, The Santaroga Barrier, Whipping Star, Soul Catcher & The Dosadi Experiment. I’ve also tackled Hunters of Dune & Sandworms of Dune, and wrote about Villeneuve’s 2021 film Dune: Part One.