This is the 6th & final post in a series on my reread of the Dune books. It became yet another lengthy text of about 10,700 words. I’ve also written long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune and Heretics 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 written 11,600 words on Heretics, among other things, the text looks at Herbert’s narrative bluff, and examines the Bene Gesserit’s motivations. It also discusses love, heresy and variation as themes in the novel, and looks at how the book’s characters are permutations of those in Dune. I try to explain why I liked this book best of the sequels so far, even with all its shortcomings. It ends with a section on a major shift in the series, as in Heretics, 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. I also look at an underlying principle Herbert uses: perception shaping reality.
I’ve tried to keep overlap between this final text and the previous ones to a minimum, so if you’re interested in a deep desert dive, please read those first.
People change. 10 years ago I read the Dune series for the first time, and it became my favorite series ever. In 2019 I started my reread of the series, and now I’ve finally come to the end of that project, finishing Chapterhouse: Dune, the 6th book. 10 years ago, I thought Chapterhouse was the pinnacle of the series – today, I think it is its nadir, and I would not call the series as a whole a favorite anymore.
In what follows, I will first try to explain why I think Chapterhouse: Dune is the weakest of the bunch. The bulk of this post will be an analysis of the book’s main themes, and their relation to the previous books.
For starters an examination of the Bene Gesserit. The main question I still had after reading Heretics was about their intentions, and I’ll check how Odrade’s emotions play out in Chapterhouse as well. I’ll also look into the question of free will again – the main issue of the first Dune. I’ve written shorter sections on change & creativity – change being the series overall constant, on Nietzschean morality – yet another recurring theme, on the obscure & conflicted nature of Mentats and, finally, on Herbert’s obsession with bureaucracy, something that popped up in Heretics already.
Before I wrote my actual analysis, I lined up 85 quotes with a total of 5500 words. Not all of those made the cut, but the text is quote heavy nonetheless. If you don’t want to read quotes, just skip them: in most cases, you should be able to follow my reasonings without them.
I’ll end with a short assessment of the series in general.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT?
My main issue with Chapterhouse: Dune is easily identified: I don’t think Herbert brings anything new to the table. While none of the sequels are as good as the first book, all of them had redeeming qualities: Dune Messiah offers emotions about Paul’s story, Children of Dune does the same with Alia’s tragedy, God Emperor is basically batshit crazy & has what must be one of the most tragic characters in all of literature, and Heretics doubles down on the pulp and simply offers a thrilling ride, starting with a fresh story as well.
Chapterhouse on the other hand felt like worn-out rehash. Thematically it just reiterates what was already there in the previous novels: the need for change, sex, some stuff about bureaucracy, the Bene Gesserit’s struggle with emotions, etc. It doesn’t really deepen these things, provides no new angles to look at, and it if tries to do so – like for the Mentats – it fails.
The strong theme of prescience up until God Emperor – a theme that provides much of the stories’ tragedy – is simply abandoned. The Siona gene & the no-ships fix it, and basically Chapterhouse just becomes a war story of the Honored Matres vs. the Bene Gesserit. Thematic depth about prescience was not strong in Heretics either, but in Chapterhouse it is limited to Odrade that can feel threats to the Sisterhood – something that’s not even used, and also Teg’s special powers on that front don’t play a role anymore. There are hints of Duncan Idaho becoming the new Kwisatz Haderach, but they are not explored and they surely don’t provide for tragedy: there’s only the embryonic mystery of Daniel and Marty.
It also hardly offers anything new in terms of mechanics or world building – even the Futars were already mentioned in Heretics. The only other exception is the introduction of a secret society of Jews that somehow has survived the eons, but both thematically and narratively this strand is severely underdeveloped. Basically Rebecca only serves to transfer Lucilla & the Lampadas school to the Sisterhood, and we will never know Herbert had planned something else for her or the Rabbi in Dune 7.
Herbert also attempts to shed light on how the Bene Gesserit are governed – some form of jury rule – but makes a giant mess out of it, as its practical political workings never become clear, and because of that the idea never gets enough clout to be a valuable addition to political philosophy. (See the section about bureaucracy for more on this.)
As for the plot, it’s fairly linear: we get to know the Honored Matres a bit better – but not really, things were already clear in Heretics – and we follow Odrade in her plot to better them. Annoyingly, Herbert never manages to make it fully clear why the Honored Matres are such a threat, especially as they are described as slacking and overconfident. The only answer is this:
Create or arouse such unbridled forces and you built carnal fantasies of enormous complexity. You could lead whole populations around by their desires, by their fantasy projections. There was the terrible power the Honored Matres dared use.
Sex, yes, but as I already talked about in my analysis of Heretics, what would the practical mechanics of such method be? In that sense, this book reminded me of Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, in which she also ascribes way too much political power to sex.
We do get to know Murbella a whole lot better in Chapterhouse, and she’s an interesting character for sure, but at the same time she’s just cardboard: at least three children are taken from her right after she gives birth, but that doesn’t seem to affect her psychologically at all. On top of that – especially in a reread – it is clear where she will end up, and this time I didn’t think Herbert provided enough thrills along the way.
On the contrary: certain things started to bug me: again there’s a ghola that needs its memories back, again there’s a lot of talk about how smart Mentats are, how bad/good the Tyrant was, how Scytale waits for the final reckoning, how worms transform a planet, how some character has supreme muscle control and a deadly left/right foot kick to the temple of an enemy, how the Siona gene shields from prescience and how no-ships do the same. Yada yada yada.
Especially the first half of the book is downright boring: slow moving, verbose, mainly characters having supposedly cunning and strategic conversations – plans within plans – but they didn’t engage me, because it felt old hat. Repetitive remarks about comeyes watching. Etc. Admittedly, the second half of the novel was better: the pacing increased and the plot picks up a little steam, but not once did I feel tragedy or great action or some philosophical challenge.
Herbert does try to fix two things from Heretics: there was the giant plot hole about ghola Duncan Idaho’s memories, which is now explained by the fact that this latest version was made using mixed cells from multiple previous gholas – even though that implies that the Tleilaxu should always have had access to most of their corpses, which seems unlikely given Leto II’s nature. What also bugged me in Heretics was the fact that Master Scytale was such a pushover – he now claims he knew the Bene Gesserit were false believers all the way, even though that’s not really in line with how it is written in Heretics. Oh well, let’s just ascribe that to Scytale being self-delusional rather than Herbert being inconsistent.
Herbert was 65 when the book was published. His wife struggled with cancer for years and died in february 1984, medical bills must have been steep. He had already published 20 novels. It’s understandable he wrote this in a sloppy, automatic mode. It’s of note that in between every other Dune novel 3 to 7 years pass: Messiah was published 4 years after Dune, in 1969, Children in 1976, God Emperor in 1981 and Heretics in 1984. For Chapterhouse, Herbert took only one year: it was published in 1985. It’s no surprise it doesn’t feel as accomplished.
Writers that keep on churning out masterpieces their full career are scarce. So let’s not be too harsh on Herbert: writers that wrote a book of the stature of Dune are scarce as well.
Let’s also not forget that when I first read this, I thought Chapterhouse: Dune was brilliant. Admittedly, I had read a whole lot less speculative fiction, I was a decade younger, and I was much more easy to impress. So my assessment today, in 2022, is what it is: a critical rereader – not a first time acolyte.
The troubles I identified will also dominate the analysis that will follow. If you have read my previous posts on the series, you’ve already noticed that lots of the themes sound familiar. I will try to avoid repeating myself, and offer a few fresh perspectives on familiar stuff nonetheless.
THE BENE GESSERIT EXAMINED AGAIN
When I finished Heretics, it dawned on me Herbert had always been unclear about what the Bene Gesserit’s actual goal is. I examined that at length in my analysis of Heretics. After I posted my analysis, some readers pointed me to a few other passages, and I also found some discussion online with quotes from Chapterhouse. I already updated the Heretics post with that new information in August last year, but you might have missed that if you were an early reader.
Be that as it may, the two quotes from Chapterhouse I found online on the Jacurutu forum both stated that the Bene Gesserit wanted “the maturing of humankind.”
“(…) What is it the lady says they seek?” “Influence on the maturing of humankind.” [Rebecca/Lucilla & the Rabbi]
There were indeed things a Reverend Mother would not do to save the Sisterhood. We would not block the Tyrant’s Golden Path. Survival of humankind took precedence over survival of the Sisterhood. Else our grail of human maturity is meaningless.
It turns out there are six more quotes in the book that confirm this idea:
“It is difficult for us to let you make your own mistakes. Teachers always find this hard. Yes, we consider ourselves teachers. We do not so much teach individuals as the species. We provide lessons for all. If you see the Tyrant in us, you are right.” [Odrade to an imaginary Honored Matre]
“Grow up, humans!” “What?” “That’s their dream. Start acting like adults and not like angry children in a schoolyard.” [Idaho to Murbella]
“Rabbi, you misjudge the Sisterhood. They wish only to perfect humans and their governments.”
Our grail requires us to persist together. Humans need us! Sometimes, they need religions. Sometimes, they need merely know their beliefs are as empty as their hopes for nobility. We are their source. After the masks are removed, that remains: Our Niche. [Odrade]
“They see themselves as teachers.” When he [Skytale] expressed doubt of this claim, she said, “Naturally we build up pressures in societies we influence. We do it that we may direct those pressures.” (…) “We follow the lesson of the Great Messenger,” she said, using the Islamiyat for the Prophet Leto II. (…) “Was it not His goal to divert violence, producing a lesson of value to all?” (…) “That is why we accepted him,” she said. “He did not play by our rules but he played for our goal.”
Our household god is this thing we carry forward generation after generation: our message for humankind if it matures. The closest thing we have to a household goddess is a failed Reverend Mother – Chenoeh there in her niche. – Darwi Odrade
That last quote, an epitaph, is a bit of a puzzle, because it is unclear why Chenoeh would be a household goddess, and how that ties into human maturity. Wikipedia has an entry about Chenoeh, who appears in God Emperor:
(…) Quintinius Violet Chenoeh, specially trained as an oral recorder, is sent (…) to Arrakis on a fact-gathering mission in 13,725 A.G. She is invited to converse with the God Emperor himself, and he is uncharacteristically indulgent of her questions and somewhat generous with his own information, however cryptic. Emperor Leto tells Chenoeh that he plans to restore “outward spiritual freedom” for mankind, and then refers to Siona Atreides as his “achievement” (…). Leto then says, “You will return to your Superiors with my message, but these words keep secret for now. I will visit my rage upon your Sisterhood if you fail.” Chenoeh complies, following Syaksa’s own warning: “You must do nothing which will bring down his wrath upon us.” (…) Leto tells Chenoeh that by virtue of his taking her into his confidence, “You will become here an integral part of my myth. Our distant cousins will pray to you for intercession with me!” He also foretells her later death during her attempt at becoming a Reverend Mother through the spice agony. Chenoeh’s account of their secret conversation is found after her death, and it is later noted that “the persistent Cult of Sister Chenoeh assumes new significance because of the journals’ disclosures.”
If you have any idea how to interpret all this, please do not hesitate to comment.
Anyhow, I think it’s safe to close this part of the investigation: in Chapterhouse Herbert indeed finally makes clear what the Bene Gesserit want – to the extent that us readers are obviously still left holding the bag, because we never get an answer to the question what “human maturity” actually means.
The rabbi also asks another question: what are the Bene Gesserit’s motives for wanting a mature humanity? Are they purely altruistic?
“Mature humanity? That is their grail? Is it not the mature fruit that is plucked and eaten?”
This next passage, from Tleilaxu Master Scytale’s thoughts, might provide a glimpse of an answer:
The bargaining chips were large – no less than survival for each of them and always in the pot that tenuous thing: ascendancy, control of the human universe, perpetuation of your own ways as the dominant pattern.
Chapterhouse also fleshes out a few other aspects of the Bene Gesserit society, and sketches a bit more clearly their workings in a practical manner – something that has never occurred in the series before in such detail. For starters, they appear to control a lot of planets:
Odrade knew it was wrong to think of those planets as Bene Gesserit possessions. The loosely organized confederation of planetary governments assembled after the Famine Times and the Scattering depended heavily on the Sisterhood for vital services and reliable communications (…).
The resources at a Mother Superior’s command were formidable: profound loyalty in those who served here, a military arm under a Teg-trained Bashar (far away now with a large portion of their troops guarding the school planet, Lampadas), artisans and technicians, spies and agents throughout the Old Empire, countless workers who looked to the Sisterhood to protect them from Honored Matres, and all the Reverend Mothers with Other Memories reaching into the dawn of life.
And while the Bene Gesserit resemble a religious order, and can manipulate religious feelings of entire planets to their own needs, their own metaphysical thinking seems surprisingly primitive. I’d say that Herbert leaves a lot to be desired in the next passage. The Bene Gesserit seem to take two more or less conflicting positions: an agnostic one, but they also ascribe anthropocentric teleology to evolution – surely something frowned upon by biologists in the 1980ies too, let alone by people millennia from now.
Indeed, it was the Bene Gesserit view that humans were life designed by evolution to create order. (…) Is evolution just another name for God? Her sisters would sneer at such “bootless speculation.” [Odrade]
Another aspect that’s briefly touched upon, is the Bene Gesserit origin. In Dune, there are two relevant quotes in the appendixes:
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 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 Butlerian Jihad]
Chapterhouse adds this:
Simulflow intruded with an image of a long-ago sign arching over a narrow entry to a pink brick building. HOSPITAL INCURABLE DISEASES. Was that where the Sisterhood found itself? Or was it that they tolerated too many failures?
This quote isn’t necessarily in contrast with the ones from Dune, but I’m truly baffled how Odrade doesn’t seem to know how and when the Bene Gesserit where founded. Doesn’t she have access to that kind of information via Other Memory? It’s especially baffling, as Herbert provides fairly detailed back history in those appendix quotes, even though admits to obscurity.
Herbert also writes some more about the Bene Gesserit emotional ascetic side in Chapterhouse. The Bene Gesserit are portrayed as devoid of emotions, to protect themselves from possible harm resulting from emotional attachments.
The Sisterhood said emotional attachment were ancient detritus – important for human survival in their day but no longer required in the Bene Gesserit plan. Instincts. Things that came with egg and sperm. Often vital and loud: “This is the species talking to you, dolt!” Loves . . . offspring . . . hungers . . . All of those unconscious motives to compel specific behavior. It was dangerous to meddle in such matters. The Breeding Mistresses knew this even while they did it. The Council debated it periodically and ordered a careful watch on consequences.
“(…) There’s the danger they perceive in love. Perilous intimacies. The deepest sensitivities blunted. Do not give someone a stick with which to beat you.” [Murbella]
There was a hard shell Reverend Mothers put around themselves against which all things from the outside (including emotions) played like projections. Murbella was right and the Sisterhood had to relearn emotions. If they were only observers, they were doomed. [Odrade’s thoughts]
It’s hard not to see a possible rumination of Herbert here on the death of his wife, something that occurs elsewhere in the novel too – see the last but one quote in the section about free will.
I can understand a caste of women that are also warriors to shun love, and, like monks, they go farther than that. They avoid friendship as well (“love of companions”), and sensual pleasures too. No good meals with drink pairing. Not even casual sex – a “warm bed with a gentle companion sensitive to her needs as she was sensitive to his.”
Odrade is portrayed as missing all this, wanting to break the mold, even though she at the same times subscribes to it too. She says feelings of disgust about the Tleilaxu Axlotl tanks are “juvenile”, and a reproach from Duncan “for the way Reverend Mothers removed themselves from “the common stream of human emotions,”” got an “identical answer.” Be that is it may, I will get back to her impulse to change the Bene Gesserit on this front in the section on change & creativity.
The Bene Gesserit’s difficult relationship with emotions goes back to Lady Jessica in the first book, and also Heretics had sections about love & emotions as Bene Gesserit heresy – as I examined at length in my text on that book. I felt then that this idea of love as heresy was just a setup, without any pay-off in Heretics at all.
I have to say Chapterhouse doesn’t deliver on that front at all. Yes, Odrada manages to make a creative decision to defeat the Honored Matres, but as far as I’m concerned it does not have anything to do with love or heresy at all. I can just quote one of my own sentences again: “while her emotions might set her apart, they don’t seem to cause or influence anything”.
Let me end this Bene Gesserit section with three quotes that also tie into other themes I’ll write about.
First, there’s a link between teaching and change, and Herbert even manages to slip in a rant about bureaucracy:
“Educational bureaucracies dull a child’s questing sensitivity.” Odrade explaining. “The young must be damped down. Never let them know how good they can be. That brings change. Spend lots of committee time talking about how to deal with exceptional students. Don’t spend any time dealing with how the conventional teacher feels threatened by emerging talents and squelches them because of a deep-seated desire to feel superior and safe in a safe environment. (…) There it was: Behind that façade of wisdom, the Bene Gesserit were unconventional. They often did not think about teaching: they just did it. Gods! I want to be like them! [Murbella’s thoughts]
In this next quote, Herbert again warns against fixed patterns, advocates change.
Pride, that was what Odrade saw when she looked at her Sisters and their places. Dignity was only a mask. No real humility. Instead there was this visible conformity, a true Bene Gesserit pattern that, in a society aware of the peril in patterns, sounded a warning klaxon.
And finally, a longer section, the full passage of one of the quotes above – a conversation between the Rabbi and Rebecca. While it again casts the Bene Gesserit as teachers, it also talks a bit about their metaphysics, and hints at a certain pessimism in Herbert, who might feel that humanity is held back by a “leveling drift”. Herbert manages to end this section with a rant against taxes – I’m sure the result of American propaganda during the Cold War.
“Rabbi, you misjudge the Sisterhood. They wish only to perfect humans and their governments.” “So they say.” “So I say. Government, to them, is an art form. You find that amusing?” “You arouse my curiosity. Are these women self-deluded by dreams of their own importance?” “They think of themselves as watchdogs.” “Dogs?” “Watchdogs, alert to when a lesson may be taught. That is what they seek. Never try to teach someone a lesson he cannot absorb.” “Always these bits of wisdom.” He sounded sad. “And they govern themselves artistically?” “They think of themselves as a jury with absolute powers that no law can veto.” He waved the scroll in front of her nose. “I thought so!” “No human law, Rabbi.” “You tell me these women who make religions to suit themselves believe in a . . . in a power greater than themselves.” “Their belief would not accord with ours, Rabbi, but I do no think it evil.” “What is this . . . this belief?” “They call it the ‘leveling drift’ They see it genetically and as instinct. Brilliant parents are likely to have children closer to the average, for example.” “A drift. This is a belief?” “That is why they avoid prominence. They are advisors, even king-makers on occasion, but they do not want to be in the target foreground.” “This drift . . . do they believe there is a Drift-Maker?” “They don’t assume there is. Only that there is this observable movement.” “So what do they do in this drift?” “They take precautions.” “In the presence of Satan, I should think to!” “They don’t oppose the current but seem only to move across it, making it work for them, using the back eddies.” “Oyyy!” “Ancient sailing masters understood this quite well, Rabbi. The Sisterhood has what amounts to current charts telling them places to avoid and where to make their greatest efforts.” Again, he waved the scroll. “This is no current chart.” “You misinterpret, Rabbi. They know the fallacies about overwhelming machines.” She glanced at the laboring machinery. “They see us in currents machinery cannot breast.” (…) “A leveling drift, Rabbi. Mass influence on brilliant innovators who move out of the pack and produce new things. Even when the new helps us, the drift catches the innovator.” “Who is to say what helps, Rebecca?” “I merely tell that they believe. They see taxation as evidence of the drift, taking away free energy that might create more new things. A sensitized person detects it, they say.” “And these . . . these Honored Matres?” “They fit the pattern. Power-closed government intent on making all potential challengers ineffectual. Screen out the bright ones. Blunt intelligence.”
The passage is especially puzzling, as the Bene Gesserit are generally portrayed as a rather conservative society throughout the series (see also the quote above this one, and a few in the section on change & creativity below), and the Honored Matres’ internal power dynamics is based on potential new Great Honored Matres challenging their leader via lethal force – so does he mean that these new H.M. leaders manage to grab power despite of the fact that they blunt intelligence? If so, I want to reiterate a question I already asked: how come they’ve managed to become such a threat in the universe? (Oh, yes, I forgot, brainless sex.)
ILLUSIONS OF CONTROL: THE HUMAN MIND IN A MECHANIC WORLD, MADE SIMPLE AGAIN
I’ve written a lot about free will and these books already, and I won’t reiterate my own thoughts about free will again – there’s also plenty of discussion about that in the comments to some of the reviews.
In Chapterhouse, Herbert abandons all the complexity and murkiness of the previous books. While Dune was pretty straightforward in it’s treatment of free will, it seems as if Herbert wrote himself into a mess with each additional volume, as the intricacies of having and prescience and prophecy and agency and quantum physics and determinism and no-ships in your story seems to be too complex to parse, ultimately leading Herbert to resort to that ultimate philosophical & scientific cop out: paradox.
So, gone is all that. No more prophecy actively shaping the future. No more talk of tragedy. There’s just that minor power Odrade has: she feels a future threat against the Sisterhood. Not that she needs that. The Honored Matres have already destroyed a bunch of Sisterhood planets, so the threat is plain for all to see. Herbert doesn’t to a thing with Odrade’s ability. And yes, the Duncan Idaho ghola might be a new Kwisatz Haderach, but what the Tachyon net actually is is never made clear, let alone the metaphysical nature of his visions of Daniel and Marty. And based on what Brian Herbert concocted – supposedly based on his father’s notes for Dune 7 – it’s totally unclear Herbert Senior knew himself.
I have to say the number of quotes – there’s about 20 – that explicitly & straightforwardly talk about aspects of being determined is notably much higher than in the previous novels. Part of that is because he seemed to let go of the complexity surrounding it. Could it be that Herbert’s experience with the ultimate determination – his wife’s long struggle with death – strengthened his views?
I will provide a full list below, but there are a few quotes I do want to look at in a bit more detail.
For starters, there’s this one were Seeana seems to think she has free agency, trying to create her own life. It is also tied to being artistic and creative – the “black paz form” referred to is a form of sculpture. But even there, at the end, it is clear she is governed by internal forces she herself cannot control.
What was Murbella as a child? What pressures shaped her? Life was always a reaction to pressures. Some gave in to easy distractions and were shaped by them: pores bloated and reddened by excesses. Bacchus leering at them. Lust fixing its shape on their features. (…) We are shaped by pressures whether we resist them or not. Pressures and shapings – that was life. And I create new pressures by my secret defiance. (…) Sheena tipped her head and looked at the black blog on the sculpting stand. But I will persist. I will create my own statement of my life. I will create my own life! Damn the Bene Gesserit! (…) There was something antique about the way respectful conformity was forced upon them. They had preserved this thing from their most ancient past, taking it out regularly to polish and make the necessary repairs that time required of all human creations. (…) Sheena knew then that she would be forced to test that antique thing to its limits, probably breaking it. And that black plaz form seeking outlet from the wild place within her was only one element of what she knew she had to do. Call it rebellion, call it by any other name, the force she felt in her breast could not be denied.
I want to reiterate a common misunderstanding that arises when people debate the existence of free will. It is not because free will doesn’t exist, that people aren’t factors in their own lives. So indeed: you can create some of your own luck. But that does not mean you can create your own luck free of determination.
Confine yourself to observing and you always miss the point of your own life. The object can be stated this way: Live the best life you can. Life is a game whose rules you learn if you leap into it and play it to the hilt. Otherwise, you are caught off balance, continually surprised by the shifting play. Non-players often whine and complain that luck always passes them by. They refuse to see that they can create some of their own luck. – Darwi Odrade
There is one small instance Herbert does again hint at the paradox of prescience, in the conversation between the Rabbi and Rebecca about Leto II, but the thought is not further developed and doesn’t return in the book. Either way, it doesn’t chip away at my thoughts on free will: obviously Leto was a factor in how human society evolved, and as such he cemented his views indeed. But he did so because he had to, not because he was free or could transcend determinism.
“He had Satan’s own powers. I share their fear of that. He was not so much prescient as he was a cement. He fixed the shape of what he saw.” “That is what the lady says. But she says it is their grail that he preserved.”
One character does seem to experience freedom at a certain moment. But subjectively experiencing freedom is not the same as having objective free will. Moreover, it seems that Murbella in this passage mainly talks about becoming free of her mental bonds to the Honored Matres, not about her mental bonds at large.
She was filled with special relish for the experience, willingness to laugh at herself. As she exorcised the nightmare, it occurred to her that she had never seen an Honored Matre laugh at herself. Holding his hand, she stared down at Duncan. Did he realize what she had just experienced? Freedom! It no longer was a question of how she had been confined and driven into inevitable channels by her past. For the first time since accepting the possibility that she could become a Reverend Mother, she glimpsed what it might mean. She felt awe and shock. (…) Futile to worry about oaths. Far more important to find that place in herself where freedom lived. It was a place where something always listened.
That leaves me with just one job in this section: present you the full list of other quotes that illustrate there is no free will in Chapterhouse: Dune – its universe again seems deterministic.
I’ve written a few thoughts between square brackets about a few of those, but feel free to skip this long list. As proof, and for the sake of completion, in the spirit of my other Dune posts, I decided to include them. (If you’re interested in a similar exercise, I went through Lord of the Rings with the same aim, finding that Tolkien also only wrote characters enslaved to their impulses and surroundings.)
Without further ado, the remaining quotes that deal with determined will:
You had to pick and choose, discreetly animating the past. And was that not the purpose of consciousness, the very essence of being alive? Select from the past and match it against the present: Learn consequences.
All around here, clowns, wild animals and puppets reacted to the pull of hidden strings. She sensed the strings that jerked her into movement. [Odrade]
But oh, the perils of leadership in a species so anxious to be told what to do. (…) Leaders make mistakes. And those mistakes, amplified by the numbers who followed without questioning, moved inevitably toward great disasters. Lemming behavior.
“(…) But melange is narcotic and we are addicted.”
(…) there was no doubt that all of the pieces were connected – the past with this room, this room with her projections of the consequences. And that was a great gift from the Bene Gesserit. Do not think of “The Future.” Predestination? Then what happens to the freedom you are given at birth? [This is a conversation between Rebecca & her Other Memory. Again, like I talked about in my other texts, it is not because certain characters have trouble thinking straight about free will, that what Herbert describes – or our own reality for that matter – is not deterministic.]
Idaho & Murbella tied to eachother. Not the master of their selves.
“(…) She says making determined choices firms up the psyche and gives you a sense of identity you can rely on under stress. (…)” [Murbella]
“Moral decisions are always easy to recognize,” Odrade said. “They are where you abandon self-interest.” Streggi looked at Odrade with awe. “The courage it must take!” “Not courage! Not even desperation. What we do is, in its most basic sense, natural. Things done because there is no other choice.”
She was forced to answer in the affirmative. [About saving Clairby by turning him into a cyborg.] There it was then – decision not entirely out of her hands, but the ready excuse at hand. Necessity dictates it.
We walk a delicate line, perpetuating Atreides (Siona) genes in our population because that hides us from prescience. We carry the Kwisatz Haderach in that bag! Willfulness created Muad’Dib. Prophets make predictions come true! Will we ever again dare ignore our Tao sense and cater to a culture that hates chance and begs for prophecy? – Archival Summary (adixto) [Chance is not the same as freedom or undermined processes.]
“Each of us is constrained by a past. I make my choices, do what I must because my past is different from yours.” [Odrade to Murbella]
“Your habits always come hunting you. The self you construct will haunt you. A ghost wandering around in search of your body, eager to possess you. We are addicted to the self we construct. Slaves to what we have done. We are addicted to the Honored Matres and they to us!” [Odrade to Sheeana]
Religion must be accepted as a source of energy. It can be directed for our purposes, but only within limits that experience reveals. Here is the secret meaning of Free Will. – Missionaria Protectiva, Primary Teaching [I’m at a loss of how to interpret this, drop a note in the comments if you have an idea. Maybe the Missionaria Protective tries to say there is freedom within certain limits? Again, as I wrote elsewhere, some people have more factors determining their lives than others, e.g. drug addicts. But that doesn’t make non-addicts free, it only makes the addicts even more unfree.]
Did I create this terrible threat by my fears? Surely not! Still, she felt she had stared at Time in that ancient Fremen stronghold as though all past and all future were frozen into a tableau that could not be changed. I must break free of you utterly, Muad’Dib! [Odrade] [Again, it is not because we at times are aware of determining factors and try to escape from them, that we become completely free if we manage this escape: there will always be other factors, both old and new.]
“It’s not so much that men who follow my former Sisters are fanatics, but they’re made incapable of self-determination by their addiction.” [Murbella about the H.M.]
Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty. – The Coda [Here one determining factor is simply replaced by another: desire by discipline, providing nothing more than an illusion of liberty, reinforced by a meritocratic idea: I worked to be come ‘free’.]
Looked at one way, the universe is Brownian movement, nothing predictable at the elemental level. Muad’Dib and his Tyrant son closed the cloud chamber where movement occurred. – Stories from Gammu [Unclear how to interpret the last sentence, again, drop me a note in the comments if you have an idea about it. Brownian movement is interesting, but randomness in a particular medium at a particular level doesn’t negate determination.]
When you think to take determination of your fate into your own hands, that is the moment you can be crushed. Be cautious. Allow for suprises. When we create, there are always other forces at work. – Darwi Odrade
Paired opposites define your longings and those longings imprison you – The Zensunni Whip [Is this a reference to Beverly Herbert? Or to Theresa Diane Shackelford? Or both?]
“It’s personas we take, Marty.” “Whatever. The Masters should’ve known we would gather enough of them one day to make our own decisions about our own future.” [Again, that humans make decisions is not the issue. We clearly do. This fragment shows those decisions are determined, as is the ability to make them.]
CHANGE, CREATIVITY, COTTAGES AT CORDEVILLE
I wrote about change as a key concept in my analyses of Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune, and the theme was again present in Heretics, in the form of heresy and, more general, the need for variation.
In Chapterhouse we get a few quotes on the need for change again, and Herbert focuses on human creativity as a driver for change, and more specifically the artist. After five books where art was lacking in the world building – except music in the first book, and maybe some architecture – there’s all of a sudden Sheeana that makes art. The theme is most notable in the form of a Van Gogh painting that has survived the eons, and is in the possession of Odrade.
I don’t think it is a stretch to see Herbert trying to insert himself in the series via this theme, as writing novels is an art form, and Herbert was heralded as a revolutionary writer. I’m sure he thought himself and his ilk important for humanity, it’s an all too human thought, and also today’s writers like Richard Powers keep falling for the idea.
Anyhow, I think it is safe to say that ‘change’ is probably the key concept of the entire series.
The person who takes the banal and ordinary and illuminates it in a new way can terrify. We do not want our ideas changed. We feel threatened by such demands. “I already know the important things!” we say. Then Changer comes and throws our old ideas away. – The Zensufi Master
“Enclosed,” she said. “How tempting it is the raise high walls and keep out change. Rot here in our own self-satisfied comfort.” (…) “Enclosures of any kind are a fertile breeding ground for hatred of outsiders,” she said. “That produces a bitter harvest.”
“Honored Matres have forgotten that clinging to any form of conservatism can be dangerous,” Odrade said. “Have we forgotten it as well?” [Odrade, late in the novel]
In the previous book Mother Superior Taraza expected Odrade and Miles Teg to do something unexpected in order to survive the Honored Matre crisis. Doing something unexpected seems to have become a rare skill – even with prescience out of the window because of the Siona Atreides genes – and so it seems the Bene Gesserit indeed have become conservative. This quote is proof of that too:
“You have other supporters. When the Proctors voted, it was your creativity that worked for you. ‘Inspired’ is the way one of your defenders put it.” “Then you know I’ll have Sheeana on the coals quite thoroughly before I make one of my inspired decisions.” (…) Creative imagination. She knew the mixed feelings of her associates. Creativity. Always dangerous to entrenched power. Always coming up with something new. New things could destroy the grip of authority. Even the Bene Gesserit approached creativity with misgivings. Maintaining an even keel inspired some to shunt boat-rockers aside. That was an element behind Dortujla’s posting [= a banishment as punishment]. The trouble was that creative ones tended to welcome backwaters. [Bellonda and Odrade]
Odrade also ties this to bureaucracy, on which I’ll write a few sections below.
Give me judgment of balanced minds in preference to laws every time. Codes and manuals create patterned behavior. All patterned behavior tends to go unquestioned, gathering destructive momentum. – Darwi Odrade
Somehow this lack of creativity is linked to their dismissal of emotions, and in Chapterhouse Herbert repeatedly writes about the fact that because Odrade reconnects with her emotions: she is also able to act creatively. I don’t really see that connection as absolute however. I don’t think you need emotions to be creative. Psychopaths can be creative. Mathematicians can be creative with abstract matter. I think this connection between emotion, creativity and art is just a stereotype that confirms a sloppy dichotomy between art and science, and emotion and intelligence. But let’s get back to Van Gogh first.
The painting is portrayed as a reminder: a reminder of what it means to be human, Odrade’s “hold on her humanity.”
Cottages at Cordeville. A better map than the one marking the growth of the desert, she thought. Remind me, Vincent, of where I came from and what I yet may do.
“That was a human being as ultimate recorder,” Odrade said. “The human hand, the human eye, the human essence brought to focus in the awareness of one person who tested the limits.”
It is also seen as the ultimate symbol of wildness – and the concept of wildness is also tied to chance and being creative:
“That painting says you cannot suppress the wild thing, the uniqueness that will occur among humans no matter how much we try to avoid it.”
I have two problems with this quote: for one, do we, as a society, actually try to avoid this wildness? I would argue no: artists are celebrated and catered to, we stimulate creativity in schools. Granted, when artists go too far left field, they aren’t generally picked up, if they are lucky they will be generations later, if at all, but overall I think in general our society welcomes creativity – so much that “thinking outside the box” has become standard manager speak.
My second problem is Herbert’s portrayal of Van Gogh as “wild”. There’s a popular conception of Vincnet van Gogh as a madman, but if you look closely at his paintings, there is a very clear method, and a very clear formal rigidity even. His paintings might seem wild at first glance, but they are anything but. At the level of the brush stroke, Van Gogh was very, very aware of what he was doing. The incredible variation in how he solves formal problems with paint betrays a very deliberate mind: he could not have painted what he painted if he just had thrown some paint at the canvas as a wild nutter.
Either way, this wild thing seems to be unavoidable if only humanity is big enough. Herbert also ties the result of Leto’s Golden Path to this notion of creativity:
“They have done things out there are are doing things we cannot imagine. Wild things! The explosive size of the Scattered population insures it.”
Odrade also seems to learn from Van Gogh’s life, not only his painting:
She focused on the Van Gogh painting. My choice. It put tensions on the long span of human history that Other Memory could not. You sent me a message, Vincent. And because of you, I will not cut off my ear . . . or send useless love messages to ones who do not care.
Not sure what to think of this next quote. If Herbert considers his own books as art, do we have to see the Dune saga as mimesis?
The best art imitates life in a compelling way. If it imitates a dream, it must be a dream of life. Otherwise, there is no place where we can connect. Our plugs don’t fit. – Darwi Odrade
A final quote is this, echoing the typical idea of creativity being messy.
What would Van Gogh have been without impurities?
This is everything Herbert has to offer on creativity, art and the Van Gogh painting – one of the few new things in Chapterhouse. I quoted all the relevant passages. All things considered, a meager affair.
AGAIN, A NIETZSCHEAN BEYOND GOOD & EVIL
In my review of Children of Dune I examined the Nietzschean underpinnings of that book, and I stated that “the invalidity of duality seems to be a recurring theme. As such, I would think the overall message is indeed a call for a Nietzschean morality beyond good and evil.” However, it might be a bit more complex than that, and for a full discussion I gladly refer you to that previous review.
Either way, the outstanding question was whether Herbert would uphold that idea in the rest of the series. There were a few echoes of the idea in God Emperor, but not a lot, and I hardly wrote about it in my analysis of that book. Heretics talked a lot about Bene Gesserit morals, but in such a vague manner that is was hard to say much about it, and again, it seems as if the Bene Gesserit did embrace a pragmatic approach, and in the end supported the ‘evil’ of the Golden Path, necessary for humanity’s survival and their “grail” of a mature humanity.
Chapterhouse simply ties into the Nietzschean matter again more explicitly, providing 4 relevant quotes that seem to cement my idea of what I wrote earlier. Sadly, Herbert doesn’t offer any new insights or thoughts for those familiar with ethics 101. The moral conundrums that dominated the discussion between the Preacher and Leto II, or The Tyrant’s later thoughts in God Emperor have dispersed into rather superficial observations.
“Don’t make excuses about ‘necessities of the times’! You, a Rabbi, know better. When are we without a moral sense? It’s just that sometimes we don’t listen.” (…) “Out of all these realizations, Rabbi, the thing I must deal with most immediately and without respite is that there are no innocents.” “Rebecca!” “Guilty may not be the right word, Rabbi, but our ancestors did things for which payment must be made.” (…) “It’s not a balance book that you set aright. How far would you go?” (…) “The farther back you go, Rabbi, the worse the evil atrocities and higher the price. You cannot go back that far but I am forced to it.”
“Were you thinking to debate morality with me?” (…) “Not even ethics. We work by different rules.” “Rules are often an excuse to ignore compassion.” “Do I hear a faint echo of conscience in a Reverend Mother?” “Deplorable. My Sisters would exile me if they thought conscience ruled me.” “You can be prodded, but not ruled.” [Odrade & Duncan Idaho]
“There’s no such thing as a social code to meet all necessities. A crime in one society can be a moral requirement in another society.” [Lucilla]
Even a quote where it seems Odrade is advocating a certain morality, doesn’t contradict the Nietzschean idea. One of the hallmarks of morality is conscious deliberation: automatic acts without an intention might have an ethic result, but an automatic act itself isn’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘moral’: it just is.
It is here we see the close – and for some problematic – link between living in a universe that is determined on the level of molecules, and most traditional conceptions of morality. It is also exactly on this crossroad that many people have trouble grasping free will doesn’t exist, because of the possible results to their preconceived notions of justice, morality, etc.
Odrade looked sideways at the pensive acolyte. Long ago, the Sisterhood had ruled that each Sister must make her own moral decisions. Never follow a leader without asking your own questions. That was why moral conditioning of the young took such high priority. That is why we like to get our prospective Sisters so young. And it may be why a moral flaw has crept into Sheena. We got her too late. What do she and Duncan talk about so secretly with their hands? “Moral decisions are always easy to recognize,” Odrade said. “They are where you abandon self-interest.” Streggi looked at Odrade with awe. “The courage it must take!” “Not courage! Not even desperation. What we do is, in its most basic sense, natural. Things done because there is no other choice.”
There’s one quote that departs from this general line, and it is uttered by Lucilla in a sophistic game with the Great Honored Matre Dama. My interpretation would be that this “morality” Lucilla speaks of is the survival of humanity. Taken that way, it is not an argument for a clear separation between good and evil, but rather of a morality that is not fully nihilistic, a morality that values life – just as Nietzsche was not a full-on nihilist either, and was known to occasionally affirm life.
“Yet we believe there’s a morality above any law, which must stand watchdog on all attempts at unchanging regulation.”
THE MENTAT METHOD DISSECTED
Mentats have always played an important part in the series. Chapterhouse is the first book that actually goes deeper into the mechanics of Mentat reasoning. Before this, I just assumed Mentats were very smart people, possibly of the savant type. Herbert tries to flesh it out more in this book, but ultimately, there’s not that much to show for. It’s yet another example of what I called “narrative bluff” in my review of Heretics: “a trick Herbert used elsewhere too, as in the subpar The Dosadi Experiment: he hints at deep and clever things, but never shows them.”
Consider this long fragment:
It was a typical Mentat approach: concentrate on the questions. Mentats accumulated questions the way others accumulated answers. Questions created their own patterns and systems. This produced the most important shapes. You looked at your universe through self-created patterns – all composed of images, words, and labels (everything temporary), all mingled in sensory impulses, that reflected off his internal constructs the way light bounced from bright surfaces. Idaho’s original Mentat instructor had formed the temporary words for that first tentative construct: “Watch for consistent movements against your internal screen.” From that first hesitant dip into Mentat powers, Idaho could trace the growth of a sensitivity to changes in his own observations, always becoming Mentat. (…) A Mentat’s real skills lay in that mental construct they called “the great synthesis.” It required a patience that non-Mentats did not even imagine possible. You were a primitive tracker, able to read minuscule signs, tiny disturbances in the environment, and follow where these led. At the same time, you remained open to broad motions all around and within. This produced naivete, the basic Mentat posture, akin to that of Truthsayers but far more sweeping. “You are open to whatever the universe may do,” his first instructor had said. “Your mind is not a computer; it is a response-tool keyed to whatever your senses display.” (…) I seek the questions that form the best images. Doing this, you never thought of yourself as clever, that you had the formula to provide the solution. You remained as responsive to new questions as you did to new patterns. Testing, re-testing, shaping and re-shaping. A constant process, never stopping, never satisfied. It was your own private pavane, similar to that of other Mentats but it carried always your own unique posture and steps.
It is just a lot of words saying Mentats are somehow trained to be intuitive about intellectual things. It has no practical value, you could not become smarter or more insightful using these guidelines. It just seems deep, but it’s bullshit.
A bit like this passage:
Drama? Romance? The body got in the way of Mentat performance. Mentats must use the body, not let it interfere.
That first quote isn’t really about logic either, is it? Mentat minds are not computers. So why do Odrade and Bellonda (a Mentat herself) think of Mentats as relying mainly on logic?
Once more, Odrade voiced the oft-repeated Bene Gesserit warning to limit their reliance on Mentats. “Logic is blind and often knows only its own past.” (…) Sheeana spoke more softly. “I’ve heard you say, Bell, that logic is good for playing pyramid chess but often too slow for needs of survival.”
But what are we to make of this next quote:
Here were essentials Mentats employed: patterns, movements of currents and what those currents carried, where they were going. Consequences. Not maps but the flowings.
Patterns. Is where “currents” are “going” akin to cause-result? Aren’t consequences a result of causes? Isn’t that logic? Is understanding that just a matter of what your “senses display”? And why not map them out? What’s the difference with pointing out “flowings”?
There’s also a possible other contradiction. First consider this fragment, and remember the first Duncan Idaho ghola (Hayt) was a Mentat.
“You need my imagination, my inventiveness, things that kept me alive in the face of Leto’s wrath.” [Idaho]
Yet, Odrada doesn’t consider Mentats inventive.
“I don’t need another Mentat,” Odrade said. “I need an inventor!” (…) No more damned analysis sessions. She really needed access to something better than Archives, better than anything they had eve used before. Inspiration.
So are we to assume Duncan is the only inventive Mentat? But why then Mentats seem to be able to provide surprising answers to difficult questions? Isn’t that a form of inventiveness/imagination? Or is Odrada simply mistaken in her conception of Mentats? Is that believable for a Mother Superior well acquainted with these matters? Someone whose father, Miles Teg, is also a Mentat, a guy who also shows imagination/creativity – even more so, Mother Superior Taraza expects him to do the unexpected in Heretics.
Never once in Heretics – and for that matter, the entire series I think – has a Mentat shown truly keen insight, with which I mean an insight a contemporary reader – a mere mortal from the 21st century – couldn’t have come up with. The best example in Chapterhouse is the sudden question that arises from a Mentat mind: where are the Scattered Sisters? Are we truly to believe that never in all those years since the Scattering, not one single non-Mentat has asked that question??
So while Herbert tries to flesh out Mentats a bit more in Chapterhouse, I think he fails doing so – probably because there simply was not much conceptually to begin with: Dune started with Mentats as replacements for the computers that were destroyed in the Butlerian Jihad. Back then, they were simply very fast thinkers, being able to remember and process lots of data.
There is a certain parallel to the Bene Gesserit, who have evolved abilities and muscle control and what have you to a level that is unimaginable for our norms. But it is this parallel that is also its weakness. Mentat brainpower should be analogous to Bene Gesserit physical power: Mentats should be smarter and more evolved than contemporary smart humans. But while it is easy to write a character that can use Voice, or change her body chemistry, or simply is a kick ass fighting machine, it is much, much harder to write about a truly smart character showing out-of-this world reasoning. The end result is Herbert writing about Mentats that aren’t really smarter than he himself is.
JURY-MONITORED DEMOCRACY VS. BUREAUCRACY
There are at least 13 separate instances in Chapterhouse where Herbert has a character express a negative opinion about bureaucracy. To me, this felt like Herbert beating the same drum again, as this sentiment was also expressed in previously in the series. In my review of God Emperor I already wrote that Herbert has indicated in interviews that the series is a cautionary tale against tyrants and oppressive governments. These rants about bureaucracy to me seem to advocate the typical American ideology of small government, and as such this aspect of Herbert’s thinking is – ironically – rather conformist.
In my review of Heretics, where the theme also pops up, I wrote the following: “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.””
It is obviously such a system that is reflected in the Proctor/Jury system of the Bene Gesserit, an addition to their political structure Herbert only makes in this last book. Lucilla says the Bene Gesserit practice a form of democracy with “an alertness you cannot imagine.” Odrade en Murbella talk a bit more explicitly about this citizen system, which takes the form of some kind of “jury”.
At least, I have preserved key elements of our jury-monitored democracy in original form. [Odrade]
“The Bene Gesserit may be the only ones ever to create the all-powerful jury,” Murbella said. “Juries are not popular with legalists. Juries oppose the law. They can ignore judges.”
There’s also this exchange between Lucilla and Dama, the Great Honored Matre:
“I knew you didn’t allow a democracy!” “Why won’t you believe me?” You’re tempting fate! “Because you’d have to permit open voting, juries and judges and…” “We call them Proctors. A sort of jury of the Whole.” Now you’ve confused her. “And no laws… regulations, whatever you want to call them?” “Didn’t I say we defined them separately? Regulation-past. Law-future.” “You limit these… these Proctors, somehow!” “They can arrive at any decision they desire, the way a jury should function. The law be damned!” “That’s a very disturbing idea.” She’s disturbed all right. Look at how dull her eyes are. “The first rule of our democracy: no laws restricting juries. Such laws are stupid. It’s astonishing how stupid humans can be when acting in small, self-serving groups.” “You’re calling me stupid, aren’t you!” Beware the orange. “There appears to be a rule of nature that says it’s almost impossible for self-serving groups to act enlightened.”
It might be more clear to Kathrine Beck how this system would work, but I myself have not read any secondary sources about this system Herbert had come up with. Either way, in Chapterhouse, he fails to explain how it would work practically, and as I already wrote at the beginning of this review, the idea remains too embryonic to be a valuable addition to political philosophy: the above quotes, plus the one right below the Van Gogh painting, are the only ones to be found on the matter.
Solving a problem is harder than identifying it, and there are at least 11 more quotes that explain why Herbert thought Big Government is a problem. They offer a familiar mix of warning against communism, too much taxes, too rigid laws and giving unelected officials too much power. I’m not going to list them, this text has become long enough as is.
The jury-monitored system is one of the very few new things Herbert introduces in Chapterhouse: Dune, but it’s hardly worked out, and it is strongly tied with a theme that was already present in the previous books. Herbert’s beef with bureaucracy also ties in with the theme of change, as Herbert’s caricature bureaucracies oppose change.
I know I’m repeating myself by now, but to my taste there simply isn’t enough of interest in this final book to be enthusiastic about: it feels like reheated leftovers. The taste lingers, the chef’s the same, but the freshness and spunk are gone.
THE SERIES AS A WHOLE
I will keep it short, and I’m happy this project is finally over. If you have read everything I’ve written about the series, I’m sure my position is clear. Without a doubt, the six Dune novels are a testament to human imagination.
The first Dune is a masterpiece that hasn’t lost any of its power more than 50 years after it was first published, and I will reread it again in a few years. But I will never reread the other books again. While the first four sequels all have merit, they all have significant troubles, and while this final one is okay, I hesitate to say it has merit.
But it is not so much shortcomings in the writing that ultimately hold me back to revisit Messiah through Chapterhouse for a third time. It is the underlying blueprint: Herbert simply didn’t care about a consistent fictional universe. Part of the fun of this series is interpretation, and it is clear to me Herbert made that impossible as he changed the rules of the game again and again. It’s clear from interviews Herbert does want to add his two cents about politics and the likes, but as a series that tries to teach humanity, its lessons are too out of focus because of its inconsistencies. What’s left are scattered aphorisms & often puffy epitaphs.
That’s not to say I have trouble with an author changing his mind over the years, but it does expose all the pomp and seriousness about prescience and Other Memory as a story device first, and philosophy and metaphor second. And it is only the first Dune that grips me fully as a story – from the first page to the last one. It is only in Dune Frank Herbert wasn’t yet sucked into his own quagmire.
While I have read Dune for the first time only 10 years ago, I have lived with its lore for much longer, starting in my early teens, with the 1992 Westwood computer game Dune II: Battle for Arrakis – one of the most influential RTS games ever. So its fitting my exposure to the Dune universe for the next few years will be an occasional game of Dune: Imperium, the 2020 boardgame by Dire Wolfe. If you are into boardgames of that type: the hype is justified, it’s tense and tight.
I guess what that screenshot says is that Odrade was right all along: “Then the afternoon session with Murbella – words, words, words. Murbella was tangled in questions of philosophy. A dead end if Odrade had ever encountered one.”
Or maybe I simply missed Paul?
Click for my other Herbert reviews:
Dune (1965) – Dune Messiah (1969) – Children of Dune (1976) – God Emperor of Dune (1981) – Heretics of Dune (1984) // Destination: Void (1965) – The Santaroga Barrier (1968) – Whipping Star (1970) – Soul Catcher (1972) – The Dosadi Experiment (1977)
I’ve also tackled Hunters of Dune (2006) & Sandworms of Dune (2007) and wrote about Villeneuve’s 2021 film Dune: Part One.
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.
2 tabbing it here.
1) Another 10K word post? Gotta admit I almost gave up before even starting. If it wasn’t a Dune post, I certainly would have. How do you even keep track of what you’re thinking and the various paths you go down? Do you have an outline?
2) Been There Done That
2A) After God-Emperor I always thought the series had run out of originality. Specifics might have changed, but in terms of of new ideas, it was all same-same. Did you really feel heretics was that different? And that Chapterhouse wasn’t?
2B) The whole lost Jews felt extremely throw-away to me. I wish he’d made up a group, or synthesized a new group like he had with christianity, islam and I think hinduism?
2C) Dune was an exceptional classic and I’m just as glad the follow up books were as good as they were and not in the vein of what Baby Herbert and Jackass Anderson wrote 😦
3) Free will, etc. I can understand why Herbert took the path he did. It’s a complex idea and it’s easy to write yourself into a corner. Plus, with people having ideas from one extreme to the other, you’re sure to find people who disagree with what you’ve written.
4) Series as a whole. You are way overthinking this series. It is just a series of fiction and despite what Herbert may have said, the fact remains that you are interjecting a lot yourself into this and making it “mean” more than it possibly could. I’m not slamming you, as half the world seems to review books that way. But fiction, even message fiction, is still fiction. Save your effort for the real stuff 😀
4A) Have you tried this Dune boardgame?
4B) Paul and Leto II were interesting characters. I found that lacking in all the sequels 🙂
Hey, look, I made it through the whole thing 😀
LikeLiked by 2 people
1) I just takes write down quotes and some notes while reading, and doing so kinda makes clear what the themes etc will be. When I finish reading, I line up all the quotes and group them thematically, and basically start writing the introduction, and then every thematic chapter so to say, based on what the quotes provide as a picture, also going back to what I previously wrote and change some stuff or add stuff, if I notice some things tie into each other. But it’s a bit stressful to write indeed, keeping it all in mind. I do like doing these kind of posts, but not too many, and as I’ve did a long one on Ada Palmer’s Seven Surrenders just a few weeks ago, I don’t feel like doing one anytime soon, or I’d burn out. But it’s not something I fully control, I need to get a lot of my chest for some books, I don’t always know that before I start reading.
2A) I agree for the most part. Heretics simply worked well as a cool action/adventure story for me. Thematically etc it surely didn’t bring much new to the table indeed.
2B&C) Agreed 100%. Only the last one was a real disappointment for me, but still way better than Hunters & Sandworms.
3) Yes, I think he simply couldn’t follow it through himself anymore. It’s also conflicting matter, so he might not have had a good, fixed idea about it anymore either. I think the proliferation of quantum stuff in popular science changed a lot for a whole lot of people, giving them hope for the possibility of free will, and I think it wasn’t as well known in the 60ies. Heisenberg only gets mentioned in Children, and quantum theory only in Heretics.
4) Haha, I don’t think I’m overthinking it, or at least, Herbert did put in all that stuff. But I agree he kinda lost it down the way, and stopped being consistent. In that way I’m overthinking it, yes, but part of what I want to do here is offer a critique, and also a bit of a counterweight to a certain opinion that Herbert was a serious philosopher and that this is a “deep” series, etc. In that sense you are right. I also agree that part of my interpretation is indeed projection of my own ideas, but that’s why I try to offer the quotes, to try to be as objective as is possible, and provide readers enough textual material to make up their own minds, and possible discuss it in the comments.
4A) No I haven’t. I’d want to, but we’d need a gaming group of 4 or 5 people for that willing to commit enough time, and I don’t see that happening for the time being. Dune Imperium works well with 2 or 3 too and is less complex.
4B) Yes, agreed. See also my reply to Jeroen.
Thanks for reading & chiming in, really appreciated! These comments help me refine my thoughts, and in that way are an integral part of these posts.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Always glad to open my mouth and blab away 😀
LikeLiked by 1 person
You did it! It’s done! Yeah books 5 and 6 took a down turn for me. Heretics as much as Chapterhouse. I think that the series felt pretty complete after God Emperor and that, while even the first 4 books may not be completely consistent in all the underlying ideas, I was impressed by how Herbert kept diving deeper and kept adding complications to his universe.
LikeLiked by 2 people
You express my own sentiment well with those first 2 sentences. While I actually enjoyed reading & writing all these up unto Heretics, this last one was a bit of a chore. It really took me a long time to start it, and the first 200 pages or so I seriously considered DNFing. (I hope you don’t run into a similar sentiment for your Mazalan reread.) But I guess I’m a completionist, and these Dune posts draw in a lot of traffic, so I did want to finish them for my readers, as cheesy as that may sound. And also for myself: this series was so influential when I started reading speculative fiction, and I was so awed by it, I’m glad I’ve reassessed it in full. I’ve actually changed my mind a bit since I posted it: maybe I’ll reread Messiah and Children for a third time too someday, just to complete that first story cycle if when I’ll reread Dune again. (That’s not a definite yes, but not the definitive no I expressed above either.)
Anyhow, while I enjoyed Heretics, I do agree 100% that 1-4 feel complete. If Herbert would have quit the series after God Emperor, it might have been stronger overall. I do wonder if we would judge that differently if he had finished Dune 7 himself, but I doubt it. I think leaving the original characters in the new cycle starting Heretics does weaken the overall vibe, I don’t think there is a character in Heretics or Chapterhouse I feel as connected to as with some of the characters from 1-4. They simply aren’t as fleshed out, and don’t get enough time to grow.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yes. I’m glad I’ve read the whole series, but if I ever do reread it, I might quit after God Emperor. It’s strange how my Dune reviews are also some of the most popular on my blog. These books are crazy popular, or at least there is a lot of interests for them. Which is a bit unusual if you look at the approach that Herbert took. They are not written as very accessible pulp.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I thought Messiah was really really accessible, a kind of dumbed down version of Dune. But you are right, unusual you could say, depending in what you perceive general readership to be. I guess there are still quite a lot of people wanting to put in the effort, not everybody is in for easy peasy stuff. I’ve never read any of Song of Fire & Ice, but I assume those are fairly complex as well, and they also have a huge following. And there’s a big market for regular ‘difficult’ literature too. I’d like to see some numbers comparing Herbert’s sales and Pynchon’s, for instance.
But I also believe the series is popular because it strikes that balance between looking serious/philosophical and action/sensawunda/pulp/escapism, and as such it caters to lots of different people: both those looking for something serious to read, as those looking for space battles.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Your perseverance with this series and your ability to keep sifting meaning out of it are quite impressive. I loved Dune, admired Dune Messiah in a bit more reserved way, disliked Children of Dune, and only got part way through God Emperor of Dune, never finishing it in the decades since.
I enjoyed Herbert’s books for the most part when I read them in the 1960s and early 1970s, but I feel that he took on a view of evolution that was almost teleological, which by that time was (or should have been) passé, along with the Nietzschean belief in what does not kill us making us stronger, which I think is flat out wrong. This was combination was most evident to me in The Dosadi Experiment, if my recollection is not faulty, and to some extent in Hellstrom’s Hive and the Dune series. So far I have not been tempted to go back and finish the last three books in the series. Maybe someday.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks, much appreciated! If Dune wouldn’t be such a strong first entry, nobody would be reading the rest of this series anymore, it would have been forgotten, much like most of Herbert’s other work. Before my reread, I would have a strongly advised you to finish the series, but now, not so much. Time is limited and there’s so much else to read. God Emperor does have merit, sure, but it also has lots of shortcomings.
Good point on the teleological underpinnings of the series, passé indeed, but maybe not that easy to avoid in narrative altogether, especially in a narrative that spans eons with recurring characters, etc. As for that Nietzschean belief, I feel that Herbert – driven by his own success as an author – became more and more of a believer in meritocratic politics. Hard to square with the anti-free will sentiment of Dune (and of Chapterhouse too). I think that’s another reason why he lost consistency. The entire what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is self-delusional macho chest beating indeed.
My recollections about Dosadi have become vague too. The only non-Dune book I really liked was Soul Catcher. I still have some Herbert on my TBR: Hellstrom’s Hive, Eyes of Heisenberg, The Green Brain, The Godmakers and The White Plague, and the collection of his short stories. I’ll probably read them all, I guess at a rate of about 1 book a year, but I don’t expect anything from them, but I’m curious if they’ll influence my rereading of Dune 1 in a year of 5 or 10.
That meritocracy of violence is in some ways a hangover from the fantasy of the interwar period where civilization is portrayed as effete and corrupt, ready to be conquered or swept away by the vigorous barbarian warrior. Pretty goofy after the long run of the ultra-civilized British Empire murdering barbarians everywhere and sweeping away their cultures. Which sacred duty we in the US took over after World War II, although it took a few years for our military to institute the proper training regime (“shoot first and check what you hit later, because that water buffalo or peasant child might be an enemy in disguise”). Besides Tarzan, Conan and the various imitation Conans, I am wondering now if the Mule from Asimov’s series is another barbarian conqueror. Though I think that may have been somewhat influenced by Arnold Toynbee’s theories, which were popular among SF writers around the middle of the century. The dead hand of Historic Inevitability rather than the barbarian per se.
I know I read The Green Brain and Eyes of Heisenberg but I can’t remember the slightest thing about them now. Was quite keen on The Dragon in the Sea and Destination Void, because those small cast-in-constricted setting dramas appealed to my teenage self. And Soul Catcher was very good.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’m not American, but if I’m not mistaken this idea that the state won’t help you goes back further than the interwar period. I’ve read numerous stuff over the years dubbing it one of the foundational ideas of the USA. It’s also echoed in the American fascination for vigilantes, bounty hunters, etc., Batman being another archetype: the state can’t clean up Gotham city, but a rich dude can. Dirty Harry also springs to mind: do it your own way, the law isn’t apt enough. I hadn’t considered putting the fantasy barbarian warrior in this list too, but now that you mention it, it makes sense.
I’ve never read any Conan, only seen some movies. I’ve been tempted to read some of it, we’ll see. As for Asimov: Foundation 1 to 5 is one of my next reread projects, but it might take me a year before I’ll start that.
I thought Destination Void was kind of good (I reread my review), but not without problems. I also want to read The Dragon and the Sea, but for some reason I didn’t buy the cheap second hand copy I came across years ago. It’ll cross my path again eventually.
Since the latest movie premiered I have been thinking about a re-read of the Dune series – or at least as far as God Emperor, since the following novels proved to be somewhat confusing to me (but it’s been a long time, and I might have “grown up” a bit since then…). Your in-depth analyses have encouraged me to give it a try, and that re-read might very well be my summer project: thank you so much for rekindling my love of this story! 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
You’re welcome! I’d say just take it one book at a time, and indeed, I guess you will find something of worth up unto and including God Emperor. I hope you write reviews too, you’ve even read them longer ago, so your perspective will again be a bit different. Curious what you’ll think of them.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Considering that it’s been at least 30 years since I last read anything Dune-related, I’m very curious to see how the changes in my tastes and perspective apply to the series – and particularly to the first book which remains for me the best of them. And given that I read them long before even *thinking* about blogging, I will certainly review them 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
I think maybe Herbert’s problem was that he wrote a book which straddled both fantasy and SF. So you have a hero, a saviour, foretold in prophecy – a typical fantasy trope. Transplanting him to an SF setting meant Herbert had to come up with a rational explanation as well. So we get all this stuff about a deterministic universe. Do we live in a deterministic universe? On a molecular level, maybe. But what about Schrodingers’s Cat?
It is here we see the close – and for some problematic – link between living in a universe that is determined on the level of molecules, and most traditional conceptions of morality.
I can see where you’re coming from – that our value system governs our behaviour in the same way that the material world is governed by the laws of physics – but I’m not sure you’re comparing like with like. The men who ran the concentration camps probably never anticipated doing so ten years earlier. Their behaviour was not due to an inherited set of values but to how their sense of right and wrong became distorted over time.
Just my two cents’ worth.
LikeLiked by 1 person
That’s an interesting take. Could be that the determinism was tacked on later in the first Dune’s genesis, but it is so interwoven with the story that it will have been fairly early if so. I also think Herbert didn’t really have problems with it at that time, it is only in the later books things become muddled, and imo not because of his waning belief in the non-existence of free will (the fact that it is such a strong strand in Chapterhouse still proves that) but because he had to find a way around the narrative deadlock that determinism provides: not that easy to write compelling hero stuff if all there actions are foreseeable and determined. Tolkien also had that problem, and so he wrote one thing, and said another, so to say.
As for Schrödinger & quantum, it is not because certain stuff on a submolecular level are difficult to predict or observe (according to our current understanding) that there is no causality chain anymore. Determinism is about causality first, predictability has more to do with our modeling.
With the passage you quote I meant that most people have trouble accepting the consequences of the lack of free will, because that would mean guilt as it is traditionally seen stops being a useful concept. Sorry if I wasn’t clear about that. That said, you sure are right that societal norms (and the societal norms of Nazis in concentration camps were also norms, even if they were distorted from our current perspective) are also part of what determines our behavior.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I haven’t visited your blog in a while, Bart – sorry! In my defense, your posts are a huge time investment and that’s the one commodity I recently have much less of 😉
I only ever read the first three books and from your reviews I can safely say I won’t be reading the last two anytime soon. I might go as far as God Emperor, this sounds quite trippy, but the last two seem honestly like a tired work for money. I’m surprised, tbh, that Herbert is considered a weighty philosopher. My take on Dune was always that he applied some chosen tidbits of philosophy, here and there a bit of Nietsche or nihilists, but was mostly focused on socio-economic elements, quite Marxist in fact :P, or maybe just Marvin Harris-like, in that the base determines superstructure.
We’re continually having our discussion about free will 😉 so I’ll just say I feel Eco was right in his novel The Open Work to say that we create meanings along with the authors, i.e. we imbue the works we read with our own worldviews and ideas and interpretations.
Glad you’re done with it! Sorry it wasn’t such a great re-read as you hoped for, but on the other hand, you can see how far you’ve come since the original reads – and that’s wonderful and fulfilling! 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
Time is precious indeed, no problem. You’ll be pleased to read that I don’t have any long posts planned for the foreseeable future – with this and the Palmer ones, I feel a bit burned out on longer posts, and indeed, I don’t want to tax my audience too much either.
I think your assessment is basically correct, even though I didn’t feel Heretics to be much work, it’s maybe the most regular SF book of the entire bunch, lots of action, lots of superpowers and pulpy stuff. It’s also basically a fresh world, with a full new cast, so in that sense I’d say give it a go, at least if God Emperor doesn’t burn you out. But Chapterhouse: pretty sure you won’t like that at all.
As for Herbert being a philosopher, I probably overstepped there, indeed, I don’t think he is considered as a true philosopher, what I meant is that according to some he wrote books with deep philosophical content, while indeed, like you, I think it’s not that much when taken at face value. But especially in Chapterhouse, he does try give the *serious* impression, with all the epigraphs and inner monologues of Leto, so he has some skin in the MESSAGE game nonetheless.
That base-superstructure remark is interesting, and ironic, given the small government/liberal inclinations of the later books.
As for Eco: obviously he is very right. But at the same time I feel that there is lots and lots of evidence in the books pointing at the fact that Herbert indeed didn’t believe in free will – or at least, wrote a world/characters without free will – and I think I tried to provide proof of that in an objective manner, with all the relevant quotes for my readers to imbue themselves. In all these reviews, I tried to be honest, and I also included the quotes that contradict it, and some of those don’t really contradict it when examined more closely, and a few others might point at Herbert being conflicted on certain points indeed, but they are few and far between, and the overall picture – for me – is quite clear.
Thanks for that last paragraph as well, you’re right, it was a very interesting personal experience, a bit frustrating at times, especially for this last book, but all and all fulfilling indeed, and I’m glad these reviews keep on finding an audience, as that doubles the pleasure.
With the passage you quote I meant that most people have trouble accepting the consequences of the lack of free will, because that would mean guilt as it is traditionally seen stops being a useful concept. Sorry if I wasn’t clear about that.
My bad! My impression – admittedly as an atheist – is that certain religious denominations already have this covered. You commit a sin, are wracked with guilt, then repent and find God – ie, salvation is as inevitable as damnation. In the latter case, you’re not sorry and so go to Hell, etc, etc.
In both cases, your behaviour is as preordained as your nature. Supposedly. I kind of like how this is impossible to prove or disprove. You could be making choices of your own free will. Or following a preordained path. The journey is always going to seem obvious in retrospect, right?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yes, definitely, there’s also lots of theory on predestination in certain strands of Protestantism. Some go as far and say that you can’t even influence whether you will be redeemed/saved & go to heaven – it is all god’s choice.
Agreed that it’s impossible to prove, but either you buy causality as a principle that governs our reality, or you don’t.
Dune does have a tendency to grab the imagination, doesn’t it? I know I read the first four, and then later this one, but I’m not sure about the fifth, Heretics?
My favorite is the first – isn’t everyone’s? The inventiveness and the world building were stunning.
I don’t tend to analyze as you have done, so thank you – I’ll get to your other ones. I refuse to read anything he didn’t write himself – I’m a pain that way (do NOT give me fiction using someone else’s characters!). But I can always reread Dune or even Dune Messiah or Children of Dune if I need a hit – something new in every reading. God Emperor was interesting, but I think that’s when the story started to lose me a bit. Me, not necessarily it. Still compared to most other universes, it is one of my favorites.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I’ve thought about it some more since I wrote these, and I think the later books, while they indeed aren’t as good as the first one (not in a a long shot), do add more depth to the first, and in that sense they make rereading the original one a better experience.
That said, as I wrote, I don’t think I will ever reread 2-6 again, only the first one in 5 or 10 years or so. But never say never, I can imagine tacking on Messiah & Children to complete that cycle.
I think it indeed is one of my favorite universes too, maybe together with the Urth of Wolfe’s BOTNS and Banks’ Culture universe.
LikeLiked by 1 person
If I ever expand – I’ll look at both of those.
Most of my time is currently spent writing – just finished a book tonight. Because of illness, I rarely have energy to do both, and my own universe is very important to me (mainstream, not fantasy) as I’m in the middle of a big fat trilogy. Maybe if I survive the third book!
LikeLiked by 2 people
So you just finished the second book? Congratulations – doing that right must take up lots of mental space indeed, and I hope your illness will allow more of that space in the future.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Literally just finished the second book. 186K. As pared down as I can possibly make it – there was a lot of necessary story.
Now to do the final pass – the last chapter will go to my beta reader.
Then all the cover/publishing/formatting stuff. It should be a bit easier for the second book – but it’s also been seven years since I’ve even looked at graphics or formatting.
I will be occupied for a while.
LikeLiked by 1 person