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.