Hereditary Revisited

I understand why Hereditary went straight to Amazon Prime. It doesn’t earn its critical praise, though many disagree with me, and in the last two days I was made aware/reminded of such disagreements by three different friends. Since I never actually reviewed Hereditary I will now by way of reply.

It could have been a good film, I’ll grant it that. Up until you start to realize what’s really going on, the film shows promise, depicting a family tragedy that turns into a nightmare, involving the grisly decapitation of a child who was socially awkward from the day she was born. The child’s spirit seems to haunt the family members and their home afterwards, with a deft blurring of the psychological and supernatural. The parents and older brother rage at at each other, and inwardly at themselves. They retreat into silence, unable to bridge the chasms of grief. Then, in the third act, the film switches gears; the supernatural becomes overt; and the drama devolves into, well, a crock to say the least.

This devolution is all the more frustrating since Hereditary is that rare horror film that has the balls to end on a note of pure hopelessness. Every member of the family is killed. The forces of evil have their ways with this family, just as those forces have planned all along. I love that premise of inevitable despair which mocks free will. But when the scares aren’t that scary, when the themes clash, and when the plot somersaults on its ass, there’s kind of a problem. Here, specifically, is how the third act torpedoes the film:

1. From the subtle to the cliche. The final act robs shamelessly from countless classics: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Exorcist III: Legion, The Omen, The Amityville Horror, The Wicker Man, The Witch, and still more. One critic has amusingly suggested that the title “Hereditary” could just as well refer to all these blatant rip-offs. (To say “homages” would be too polite and conciliatory.) And these rip-offs, in context, aren’t very scary — considerably less so than the subtle moves of the first act.

2. From psychosis to the occult. The film begins by exploring (or at least seeming to explore) the hereditary angle of mental health — that people inherit psychosis and neurosis from their alienated sires. But when the third act takes a hard left into the occult, the mental health angle is either dropped or wedged into a Satanic theme (which effectively trivializes or demonizes those with mental health issues), resulting in a clash of subgenres.

3. From Annie to Peter. Annie is the main character — and played very convincingly by Toni Collette — but it turns out that Hereditary isn’t her story. It’s Peter’s story, and when the focus switches to him, his “ascension” feels wholly unearned. Not to mention confusing: we are to understand that he is the male vessel needed for the Devil-King Paimon. But if Paimon has been liberated from the female host (Charlie) that confined him, then why does Joan address Peter as Charlie? Does she now reside within Peter as well? For that matter, it’s not even clear why Paimon needed a male to manifest, as he had been possessing Charlie (and doing creepy things through her) since she was born.

The final act in the treehouse — despite the wonderfully grotesque imagery of decapitated worshipers — fell flat for me, because the whole concept felt intrusive. It evokes Rosemary’s Baby and The Witch, but Hereditary doesn’t earn its stripes as an occult film. It should have been what it began as, and I wish Director Ari Aster had had the courage of his convictions to play out a psycho-horror story to an organic conclusion. There’s certainly nothing wrong with occult/supernatural films (I love them, believe me), only that the transition to that material doesn’t work in Hereditary.

Aster is at his best in the early part of the film, when he mines the family for despair and dysfunctional dynamics. I was pumped for Ordinary People meets Twin Peaks meets something original. Instead I got muddled & murky meets every supernatural classic I’ve seen.

I know I’m in the minority here. So have at me and say why I’m so wrong.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5.

The Seven’s Members Ranked

I recommend Amazon Prime’s TV series The Boys, provided that you’re okay with ultraviolent and sexually perverse scenarios, and superheroes that are so reprehensibly evil that it sets a new bar. I’m not a fan of superhero dramas unless they subvert the genre in some way — like Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy; Ang Lee’s Hulk; the X-Men franchise (for the most part), especially the most recent Logan; and the brutal comedy-satire Super. The Boys is more subversive than all of those combined. It’s about team of desperate vigilantes who go up against The Seven, a team of superheroes who work for a private company (Vought) to combat crime and terrorism, though many of them are worse than bad guys. They’re worshiped by the American people who have no idea what a pack of flaming murderous selfish assholes these “heroes” really are.

But if the Seven are assholes, they are fun assholes, and a couple of them even decent at heart. Here’s how I rank them. There are eight in this ranking, since season 1’s Translucent was replaced by season 2’s Stormfront.

1. Black Noir. He never says a word and that silence is golden, enhancing his badass image. He’s pretty much an unstoppable killing machine, taking bullets fired point-blank into his hand; effectively a super-ninja. He seems to unnerve even Homelander. In one of their team meetings Homelander castigates the group for lousy performances except for Black Noir who gets a pass. One of his best scenes is decapitating a terrorist, but oddly, his very best comes at the Vought dinner party, where he sits down next to a pianist, glares at him, and then takes over playing the piano with an elegance that belies his creepy persona. That’s the moment I fell in love with Black Noir. Inspiration: Batman. Powers: Some super strength, heightened agility and speed, immune to pain, regeneration (moderate healing). Rating: 4 ½.

2. Queen Maeve. She’s pretty powerful and her heart’s in the right place. She joined the Seven because she actually wanted to help people. But as she climbed the ranks to become Number 2, she had little choice but to let Homelander bully her and to go along with acts of atrocity. In the end she finds herself and does the right thing, by saving Billy Butcher and blackmailing Homelander, and teaming up with Starlight against Stormfront. The side-plot with her lesbian girlfriend Elena (Maeve is bisexual) is a good one, that shows Vought able to capitalize on anything for money, even when it serves progressive causes like LGBT. I like Maeve because she’s the most conscientious of the Seven and tormented relentlessly by it until she’s able to do right. Inspiration: Wonder Woman. Powers: Super strength, some degree of invulnerability, can stop rifle bullets. Rating: 4.

3. A-Train. Inwardly weak and selfish, he’s the catalyst for all the events that follow at the start of season 1, and comes off really bad in killing Hughie’s girlfriend. It’s an accident that he writes off as “shit happens”. Still, he’s not an asshole by nature. He’s an addict who improves on himself throughout the two seasons, eventually helping Hughie and Starlight in the end, though even here serving himself just as much as them: as an African American he wants to bring down the racist Stormfront and get back into the Seven, from which he has been temporarily banned for his addiction problems. For whatever reason, I found myself liking this guy far more than he deserves, and that’s why I put him at #3. And love his supersonic speed. Inspiration: Flash. Powers: Supersonic speed, some super strength, regeneration (can heal fast), and some level of resistance to injury. Rating: 4.

4. Translucent. He gets killed early in the first season — hilariously, by a bomb jammed up his ass — and so he doesn’t really deserve a place on this list, but I’m tickled pink by a hero who uses his invisibility to spy on people in restrooms like a goddamn pervert. He’s basically the vehicle by which Hughie loses his innocence and becomes one of the Boys, when Hughie is forced to murder Translucent by triggering the bomb up his ass — the only way the Boys could figure out how to kill him, since all of his surface skin is as hard as diamonds. And what a coup to bring in the real Jimmy Fallon to play himself interviewing Translucent on the Tonight Show. Inspiration: Martian Manhunter. Powers: Invisibility, skin as hard as diamonds though vulnerable to electricity. Rating: 3 ½.

5. Starlight. The secret hero of the Seven is incorruptible, but I do find her annoying at times, and her evangelical Christian baggage somehow leaves its mark even as she breaks free of it. She has a problem with shitting or getting off the pot — between her on-and-off love affair with Hughie, and hating herself for staying in the Seven. Forced to give Deep a blowjob her first day on the job, she begins a pattern of perseverance in the face of how awful her “heroic” colleagues prove themselves time and again. It is a bit hard to believe that she stays with them at the end of season 2, but then maybe not; as she explains to Hughie: “If you jump ship and let the assholes steer, you’re part of the problem.” And we do need enough juice in the Seven for season 3. Inspiration: Supergirl & Stargirl. Powers: Some super strength, some degree of invulnerability, blinding eye blasts, electric beams. Rating: 3 ½.

6. Stormfront. Many people would place this racist bitch at rock bottom, even under Homelander. She’s a former member of the German Nazi party (very old despite her appearance) and still believes in old-fashioned Nazism. But her relentless undermining and thwarting of Homelander shoots her way up in my estimation. She’s a master manipulator, eventually able to make Homelander do exactly as she desires, and for this I can forgive some of her evil, since I despise Homelander with every fiber of my being. Watching her pull his strings and use him to her purpose made me feel warm inside. She loves killing people — savors it — and is quite the psychopath, and very entertaining. She was Translucent’s replacement, but she doesn’t do much better, as she is killed at the end of season 2… or is she? Inspiration: Thor. Powers: Supersonic flight, electric bolts, super strength, invulnerability. Rating: 2.

7. The Deep. More a joke than anything else, the Deep has made a career of sexually assaulting women while complaining how demeaned he is by the thankless shit jobs assigned to him in the Seven. When Starlight calls him out in public for making her give him a blowjob, the execs of Vought waste no time cleaning up their image by banishing him from the Seven and forcing him into the rehabilitation provided by an L-Ron-Hubbard church equivalent — which demeans him far more than anything he ever had to do as a superhero. He is forced to marry a goody-two-shoes woman and publicly profess the bullshit saving power of the Church of the Collective. The Deep is so pathetic and full of self-loathing — a rather embarrassing side show. Inspiration: Aqua-Man. Powers: Moderate super strength, high-speed swimming, underwater breathing, can speak with sea life. Rating: 1.

8. Homelander. He’s modeled on Superman (strike 1), as well as Captain America (strike 2), and he’s a despicable asshole in every single solitary way (strike 3). Praised by society for boundless heroism, those actions mask a burning contempt for human life and concern for one thing only: himself and his savior reputation. He mass murders people, including kids, to cover up Vought’s dirty secrets. And if he is inconvenienced by a rescue operation gone bad, then he callously lets people die and tells them to fuck off. He nauseates every moment he’s on screen. But he desperately wants to be loved and worshiped — which is precisely his weakness, as Queen Maeve is able to blackmail him in the end, making him publicly denounce Stormfront and leave the Boys (and Starlight) alone. Inspiration: Superman & Captain America. Powers: Supersonic flight, laser eyes, invulnerability, super strength. Rating: 0.

Retrospective: Heretics of Dune

You could drag humankind almost anywhere by manipulating the energies of procreation. You could goad people into actions they would never have believed possible. Sexual energy must have an outlet. Bottle it up and it becomes monstrously dangerous. Redirect it and it will sweep over anything in its path.

I was sure that I’d read the whole Dune series as a teenager. I still have all the books, worn and torn, and remember reading well beyond the first volume. But unlike Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune, nothing in my “reread” of Heretics of Dune came back to me, and I wondered if I’d originally stopped after God Emperor. I was certain of this once I hit the sex scenes. Even before Duncan Idaho gets down and dirty with Murbella, there is this entertaining exchange as Lucilla — a Reverend Mother and Imprinter (seducer) of the Bene Gesserit — explains her sexual abilities to Sirafa:

“Do I presume that you need no explanation of sexual variations?” asked Sirafa.

“A safe assumption,” Lucilla said.

“Very good,” Sirafa said. “And you can administer vaginal pulsing?”

“I can.”

“From any position?”

“I can control any muscle in my body. And lest you get the wrong idea, the abilities I was taught are not usually marketed. They have another purpose.”

“Oh, I’m sure they do,” Sirafa said. “But sexual agility is a –”

“Agility!” Lucilla allowed her tone to convey the full weight of a Reverend Mother’s outrage. No matter that this might be what Sirafa hoped to achieve, she had to be put in her place. “Agility, you say? I can control genital temperature. I know and can arouse the fifty-one excitation points. I –”

“Fifty-one? But there are only –”

“Fifty-one!” Lucilla snapped. “And the sequencing plus the combinations number two thousand eight. Furthermore, in combination with the two hundred and five sexual positions –”

“Two hundred and five?” Sirafa was clearly startled. “Surely you don’t mean –”

“More, actually, if you count minor variations. I am an Imprinter, which means I have mastered the three hundred steps of orgasmic amplification!”

There’s no way I would have forgotten a passage like this if I’d read it as a hormonal teenager. To say nothing of the later sex scene between Duncan Idaho and Murbella: Idaho dominates the Honored Matre, who is horrified at being rendered powerless under sexual ecstasy. In the Dune universe it’s supposed to be women who wield sexual power, and men who are subjugated by it.

Heretics of Dune is largely about sex, and the clash between two opposing matriarchal forces who use sex to manipulate humankind as they see fit. It’s the raciest and most action-packed of the six novels, and the opposite in every way of its predecessor God Emperor of Dune, which had little very plot. In Heretics there’s always something happening — a lot of things happening — though this yields its own problems when crises tend to be resolved in the blink of an eye. Quick-and-dirty rescue operations make things too easy on the protagonists. If I were judging the book purely as an adventure thriller, I’d give it three stars. It gets four because as a Dune novel it’s more than an adventure; it’s an arms race and power play that interrogates the species.

A Tale of Two Sisterhoods

But first the background: It’s been 1500 years since God Emperor Leto died, which triggered the Scattering and allowed humanity to spread out and diversify, fulfilling the Golden Path. Leto’s consciousness is now trapped inside the sandworms of Rakis (formerly Arrakis or Dune), which is once again a desert planet and controlled by a priesthood; they worship the worms, not really knowing jack shit about them. The Ixians have broken the Spacing Guild’s monopoly on space travel with their navigation machines (and so spice is no longer essential to travel between the stars), while the Bene Tleilaxu have broken the Dune-planet’s monopoly on spice itself, by growing melange in their axlotl tanks (the incubation vessels which also produce the gholas). The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood is the major power, having moved their base to the Chapterhouse Planet, which is shielded from prescient spies by Ixian no-ships. No longer willing to work in the background, the Sisterhood believes the only way to avoid another Leto-Tyrant is to be directly involved in human affairs. Their rivals are the Bene Tleilaxu, who emerge as far more diabolical than suggested in the previous novels; they want to conquer humanity and convert it to the “Great Belief” — an Islamic offshoot religion teaching that Leto was the prophet (not divine emperor) of the true God. Their Face Dancers have become more advanced and harder to spot; their ghola technology dramatically improved. And now they are considering an alliance with those nasty bitches from the Scattering: the Honored Matres.

The Honored Matres are the Big Bad of the novel, just as the Bene Gesserit are the collective “protagonists” (if there are any in the Dune universe). The Matres are a twisted version of the Sisterhood, bent on enslaving mankind under sexual subservience. While the Sisterhood manipulates men under a policy of systematic rape (what they do is the equivalent of people drugging others into “consent”), for reasons good and bad, they do not turn men into sex addicts enslaved to the woman’s every cruel whim. Men who are bedded by Reverend Mothers are permanently affected (“imprinted”) and will act favorably to the Sisterhood afterwards, whether consciously or not; but they aren’t robbed of their will. Men who are raped by the Honored Matres become owned, in thrall to sadistic ecstasy. While the Honored Matres don’t have ancestral memories to draw on like the Sisterhood, their skills at imprinting (seduction) are far superior and certainly more devastating. The Sisterhood calls them “the whores”, and I’ll use that term for them as well.

The plot of Heretics is convoluted, and only by the end do we make sense of who has been doing what to whom for what reason. It turns out that Mother Superior Taraza has been manipulating her subordinates Odrade (on planet Rakis) and Lucilla (on planet Gammu) to produce counter-intuitive results. She wants to provoke an all-out attack by the whores so they will wipe out Rakis altogether. So she leaks word to the whores that the Tleilaxu have built dangerous sexual abilities into the ghola Duncan Idaho (the zillionth incarnation by this point in the series), abilities that can turn Idaho into a male equivalent of an Honored Matre. Sure enough, Idaho learns that he can dominate women when an Honored Matre (Murbella) tries to seduce him, and it is he who ends up turning her inside out — in a sex scene right out of Fifty Shades of Grey. This prompts the whores to furiously launch a two-pronged attack, on the planet Gammu (where Idaho is being raised), and on Rakis (after the whores fail in abducting the girl Sheeana who can speak to the worms and ride them). The whores had wanted Rakis for their own (for the prize of spice), but when their abduction of Sheeana failed and the Bene Tleilaxu quickly allied with the Sisterhood, destruction of the planet was the only remaining option. This turns out to be exactly what Taraza wanted all along, as the sandworms of Dune have been a force holding the Sisterhood in hostage. Whether the gambit pays off will be seen in Chapterhouse Dune.

It all makes for thrilling plots and counterplots, but as I said before, some things slide into place too easily. The Tleilaxu are quickly won over by the Sisterhood, when Odrade pretends to follow the “Great Belief”, speaking the Islamiyat language to the Tleliaxu Master and citing the Shariat. In no time at all the Tleilaxu are reduced from being a major diabolical threat to a petty annoyance. Hebert also seems to have become fatigued by the end, when the action becomes rushed and fast-forwarded. After his torture by a Matre-led inquisition on Gammu, Miles Teg is able to use his pain to achieve new heights of mentalist power, and turns into a sudden superhero — able to move and attack at supersonic speeds, like Quicksilver from the X-Men — which allows him to go on a killing spree across Gammu, rescue Lucilla and Idaho from captivity, and steal a no-ship. In the blink of an eye they are all on Rakis to collect the characters from that story arc (Odrade and Sheeana), plus a sandworm, before the planet’s destruction by the whores.

The girl Sheeana

The most interesting character of Heretics is underdeveloped, though I’m guessing she’ll get more screen time in Chapterhouse: the twelve-year old Sheeana, who can stop sandworms in their tracks and order them this way and that. The Rakian priests adopted her when she was eight and have since obeyed her every whim, but now Taraza wants her for the Sisterhood, as part of her plan to propagate the worms on Chapterhouse, after she manipulates the whores to destroy Rakis.

Sheeana is almost certainly a descendent of Siona Atriedes and the Duncan Idaho ghola that accompanied Siona in the final days of Leto. This will presumably be revealed in Chapterhouse, but it’s not a hard guess, and explains why the worms obey her, as Siona was specially favored by the God Emperor Sandworm. Siona hated Leto to the end (she was his assassin) but remained his prime instrument in carrying out his fate and the Golden Path.

Overall, Heretics of Dune is a solid counterpoint to God Emperor of Dune. After dense politics and insulting conversations that explain nothing, we’re back to traditional storytelling, and with some juicy sex as a bonus. Those who hate God Emperor may love Heretics for that reason alone. Even those who are fond of God Emperor (I enjoyed it) will probably welcome the return to form. Frankly I like that each of the Dune books is so different in style and tone, crafted to fit the needs of the narrative.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The Past Five Decades Ranked

In ranking the decades I have lived through (not counting the 60s, for which I was an infant at the tail end), it became clear that each era had its strengths. It’s not so easy to say which is best and worst — or at least not as easy as I used to think before working it through. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the 80s; though it ranks last, I’m glad I grew up in that period. Here’s how they line up.

The 70s: Rank #1

This was a gloomy and nihilistic decade, so it’s no surprise it’s my favorite. But I was too young to take it all in as it deserved.

It was the Golden Age of cinema, giving us masterpieces like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Alien. Even when a film wasn’t great, chances are that it was at least good. Blockbusters weren’t a thing yet, and scriptwriters actually had to come up with good stories; and they weren’t afraid to go dark. No decade has celebrated pushing the boundaries of free expression to its uttermost limit, thanks mostly to the consequences of ’60s liberation and outrage over the Vietnam War. Thus horror films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left.

These were the days when liberals stood for free speech, and when leftists were conversationalists, not snowflakes. Transgressive TV shows like All in the Family and films like The Exorcist could only have been made in the 70s — and will never, ever, be made again, let alone deemed acceptable in the mainstream. All in the Family‘s comedy reached many people and turned them away from their prejudices; it worked precisely because the comedy was so offensive. It remains the best comedy of all time, a withering social satire, but try posting clips of it on Youtube today, and they’ll be removed, by thought police who are catering to the feelings of the very people All in the Family was defending.

For music, the 70s was the best decade by far. It was the time of progressive rock — Genesis, before they sold out in the mid-80s; Led Zeppelin; Pink Floyd; Rush; Fleetwood Mac; and David Bowie. The music of this era was cerebral and not the most accessible, but it sure grew on you when you gave it half a chance, and it has aged better than any rock music in history, going back to the 50s.

Other stuff: Dungeons & Dragons was born in the 70s, ushering in D&D’s Golden Age (74-82) — the age of pulp fantasy involving morally ambiguous heroes like Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd & Grey Mouser. Parenting was hands-off, and kids had their independence. The only thing really bad about the 70s was fashion, and it was admittedly quite bad: the hair and dress styles were ghastly.

On the downside, it certainly wasn’t the decade of peace and prosperity. This was thanks to Vietnam and the economic purgatory left in its wake. Nixon was a beast in Southeast Asia, and when he left office, his sins (and those of his predecessor Johnson) caught up and pummeled the American people with stagflation — something never seen before or since — as unemployment, stagnant growth, and inflation came together at once, and contradicted what everyone believed: that inflation correlated with growth, and that unemployment led to less inflation. Economics 101 went out the window, and no one knew what to do.

No wonder the 70s saw so much artistic creativity. It was the era of disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage. Thus the existential tone of so much of the entertainment. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. In sum, the decade was about ruined innocence — and while many people find that despairing, I believe it sourced a boundless creativity.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 70s: The Ice Storm, Ang Lee, 1997.

The 80s: Rank #4

I came of age in this era, so it’s “my” decade, but it ranks last. On the plus side, kids still had their independence; I never had to deal with helicopter parenting. There was no social media or internet, and while I enjoy online activities as an adult, I’m glad I didn’t have them growing up. It made me get outside. I played at the sand dunes, biked in the woods, and roamed the wilderness. I would have turned out a very different person (and not for the better) had I been micromanaged by a parent and stayed at home all day surfing the web. It’s true that as a D&D addict I spent a lot of time playing inside too, but it was old-school tabletop and fostered imagination and creativity. All that was the good part of the ’80s.

The bad was almost everything else. Aside from a few exceptions — and ’70s-styled layovers released during the early years of ’80-’82, like Road Warrior, Blade Runner, and Conan — film was awful. TV shows were even worse, Miami Vice being the singular exception. The music of the 80s was painful to the ear, and it’s aged even worse, aside from timeless bands like U2 and Peter Gabriel, and the more gothic artists like The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Mission UK. As for hair and dress, it’s embarrassing to look back on, and everyone makes fun of it today, though to be fair, anything after the ’70s was a fashion improvement. At the time, I admit I loved the light-colored pastels, and even bought a couple of Miami-Vice style suits.

It was a socially conservative decade to say the least — the era of Reaganomics, homophobia, the religious right, the cold war, the drug war (D&D players like me recall the fundamentalist war on D&D with particular disgust) and a “family-friendly” outlook that harked back to the ’50s. We almost lost the right to burn the American flag. All of this was opposite the transgressive ’70s, which the Reagan era “corrected” by resurrecting ’50s mores: the importance of the nuclear family, and a collective spirit to oppose the individualism that encouraged thinking too deeply for oneself. The 80s was also the “be all you can be” decade, promoting a naive optimism that being the lowest underdog was no obstacle to achieving your dreams no matter the odds. (How else could films like Karate Kid be all the rage and taken so seriously?) The despairing cynicism of the previous decade required medicine, and the 80s had an endless artificial supply.

And though I rank it last, I’m actually glad that I grew up in the 80s. I was able to come of age without the helicopter parenting and social media, and then live long enough to appreciate, as an adult, the results of the tech and artistry booms when they arrived in the 21st century.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the ’80s: Stranger Things, The Duffer Brothers, 2016-17-19.

The 90s: Rank #2

The era of good feelings and abundance, and also the tech boom. It didn’t start so well, with the Gulf War and the recession of 90-92, but soon after Clinton took office, times were grand.

Film started getting good again: gone was the corny humor that suffused so many ’80s dramas; filmmakers went dark, and turned out instant classics like Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and Bound. Quentin Tarantino became a thing, and indie films became a viable alternative to the mainstream. TV wasn’t great, but it was an improvement over the ’80s. There was the brilliant Twin Peaks, the hilariously anti-PC South Park, and other game changers that showed thinking outside the box. For fashion, the 90s was basically an anti-fashion decade, with comfort trumping style: ripped jeans, bike shorts even for walking, windbreakers, bandannas, etc. Still, the anti-fashion of the 90s was an improvement on what passed for fashion in the 70s and 80s.

It was the absolute worst decade for D&D. Modules were railroady and uninspired. The best efforts came in recapitulations of products from the 70s and 80s — desperate attempts to relive the old glory. TSR died at the end of the decade, and by then I had lost interest in D&D to the extent I almost trashed all my rule books and modules. (Thankfully I didn’t.) As for music, the popular stuff was an improvement over the 80s, the good stuff about equal. The highlights were Pearl Jam, Radiohead, The Cranberries, and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Thanks to Clinton, the mid- and late 90s were some of the best years of American existence, full of peace, prosperity, and good will. It was the start of the tech boom, before technology enslaved people in the 21st century. The handwriting was on the wall for helicopter parenting — as parents become more territorial and paranoid about letting their kids explore and play on their own — but there remained a semblance of childhood independence.

The 90s saw many people shed prejudices without regressing into social justice warriors. When people were called bigots, it’s often because they really were bigots. The idea was that everyone should be treated the same regardless of sex and ethnicity, but you didn’t have to be hyper-aware of these issues at every moment, nor have everything traced back to male white privilege. Gay marriage was still in the future, and homophobia still a big problem, but the conversation was open; it was becoming increasingly uncool to be a homophobe. There was an LGB community, at least.

I can understand why those who grew up in the 90s defend the era so passionately. It was a time you could think life was great even when it threw its worst at you.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 90s: Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky, 2012.

The 00s-10s: Rank #3

I’m sure there’s a school of thought that insists on major differences between the aughts and the tens, but whoever says that is spitballing. The aughts never ended; we’re still living them. (Though I suspect the impact of Covid will bring about a genuinely new era.) The present era has been going on for 20 years, shaped by a gaudy media landscape that has radically altered how we get and process information. 9/11 was the catalyst, and technology made it all possible, but these were just the ingredients that gave release to intense tribal feelings that had been building on both sides of the left-right divide. It’s been the age of echo chambers, alternate facts, walls of intolerance… and the blurring and utter failure of the two-party political system.

Make no mistake: There was no substantial difference between the Bush (2001-08) and Obama (2009-16) eras, despite that one wore the Republican label and the other Democrat. This was a first in American history, when a changing of the party guard amounted to no real change at all. Obama was a slight improvement granted (he did some good for the environment), but certainly not much. Under both presidents, peace was elusive; both waged war and got people killed for no good reason; they toppled dictators and made things worse, leaving the Mid-East in shambles; both used the failed Keynesian methods of bailouts and stimulus packages to “jumpstart” the economy, and analysts (well before Covid) had been predicting the bursting of another housing bubble with another recession; both Bush and Obama infringed on civil liberties, especially the 4th Amendment. Then came Donald Trump (2017-2020), a demagogue whose success owed largely to Obama’s failure in helping the middle class, but also as a fed-up reaction to the woke left that has become as puritanical as the religious right was in the 80s. Trump stopped us from waging war but otherwise served us disaster. To put it mildly, we haven’t had a halfway decent president since Clinton in the 90s, nor a good president since Carter in the 70s. The 21st century has been an uninterrupted steamroll of shitty politics, with still no relief in sight.

Artists, on the other hand, have pushed themselves to new heights in the past 20 years, almost as if to prove that artistry can atone for political sins. Right out the gate came Lord of the Rings, which single-handedly redeemed the fantasy genre that had made a laughing stock of itself in the 80s. More gritty and dark fantasies would follow, including Pan’s Labyrinth. Westerns were also revived in the 20th century, with results just as marvelous. In fact, every single genre has shined in the theaters, whether drama, romance, mysteries, or thrillers. Acting standards have come a long way; special effects are staggering; narrative plotting and storytelling techniques are now very sophisticated. There are way too many good films to name from the last 20 years; both mainstream and independent films have had plenty to offer.

As for television, who could have predicted that TV drama would ever be as good (and often better) than film itself? It’s been nothing less than a 20-year golden age of TV, which began with The Sopranos in 1999, and since then has cranked a stream of top-notch series, like Breaking Bad, Hannibal, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Twin Peaks: The Return, Tales from the Loop, Channel Zero, Dexter, Regenesis, The Fall, The Man in the High Castle, The Wire, and many others. TV now holds its own with cinema, and in some ways even outshines it.

Music has been a mixed bag. The popular stuff is bad as pop music has ever been, but alongside this, indie artists have exploded everywhere. Thanks to social media their music is easily accessible, and this makes music about an even wash for the 00s-10s. The highlights of this era are The Killers, The Walkmen, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Taylor Swift (her post-country stuff anyway), and Arcade Fire. But there are many, many great indie bands, some that are almost never heard of: Old Abram Brown, Tan Vampires, Mines Falls, to name a few. This has been the major boon of social media: musical talent that would otherwise go unnoticed.

On the D&D front: At first the game saw an impressive revival, the Gilded Age of 00-02, as Wizards of the Coast launched the 3rd edition that harked back to the Golden Age of 74-82. It rekindled interests in those who had given up on D&D in disgust in the 90s, including myself. However, this was followed by a downward spiral: first with the release of 3.5 in 2003, which injected more rule complexities than necessary; then with 4.0 in 2008, which was so combat focused it drowned the role-playing experience; and most recently with 5.0 in 2014, which millennials and the Gen-Z’ers love but I despise for (a) making things ridiculously easy on PCs (giving them almost limitless hit points), (b) leaning on a high-fantasy approach and none of the pulp influences that made 1e so good, (c) pandering to the generations which have grown up on video games and cheesy superhero films, and (d) allowing woke revisionists to kill the spirit of the game.

I’m glad I didn’t come of age in the 21st century; I would have killed myself under suffocating parents who never let me out of sight. I’m also grateful that I was schooled to learn from those I disagree with. The 00s-10s has been the era of conversational retreat from anyone having rival opinions. Tribalism is found everywhere, but especially on the left I’m sad to say. For the last 20 years I’ve felt increasingly alien among my own liberal-leaning associates. The cultural scene is simply a travesty: between the woke left and a Trump-loving right, I wonder if America can ever be great again. One can hardly differentiate between satire and real news (see here for example). Which pretty much mirrors the political canvass of the 00s-10s: there wasn’t much to distinguish a Bush from an Obama, any more than real facts from the “facts” we prefer.

The Score Chart

70s (30 pts)
80s (22 pts)
90s (26 pts)
00s-10s (23 pts)
Hair/Dress
        0         2         3             4
Film
        5         2         4             5
TV
        3         1         3             5
Tabletop D&D
        5         4         1             2
Music
        5         3         3             4
Parenting/Childhood
        5         5         3             1
Cultural Mores         5         2         4             1
Peace/Prosperity         2         3         5             1

#1: 70s
#2: 90s
#3: 00s-10s
#4: 80s

Pastor Anderson and the Historical Jesus

For fifteen years I wondered if Steven Anderson would sermonize on the historical Jesus, and he finally got around to it.

The good:

  • He admits there is zero archaeological evidence for Jesus and no first-century writings about him (outside the bible). He accepts the Josephus passage as a forgery.
  • He slams the criteria — multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment — as useless, especially the latter two, oddly echoing the opinions of scholars he disdains (Allison, Goodacre, etc).
  • He ridicules the scholarly love-affair with Lukan stories like the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan, which not only fail the criteria but are a projection of modern liberal values.

The bad:

  • He says the lack of evidence for Jesus outside the bible is according to God’s plan: God wanted it this way, so that the only record of Jesus in the first century was the divine record. If people want to learn about Jesus, God wants them to learn from the proper holy source and none other.
  • His overview of the three quests is horrible.
  • He believes that Thomas Jefferson is burning in hell for his Jefferson Bible, since Jefferson “removed God’s words” (Rev 22:19); for that matter, hellfire awaits those who have served on translation committees for anything other than the King James Bible.

The humorous:

  • He makes fun of the Mandela Effect (shooting fish in a barrel), since human memory is fallible. But he is unwilling to extend the principle of fallible memory to the gospel writers.

In a nutshell:

  • There is only one Jesus — the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and it’s a package deal. That’s the true historical Jesus, according to King James fundamentalism.

Retrospective: God Emperor of Dune

“I have been forming this human society, shaping it for more than three thousand years, opening a door out of adolescence for the entire species.”

I was expecting to love or hate God Emperor of Dune, but that’s not how it went down. It’s neither masterpiece nor misfire; I enjoyed it well enough but wasn’t awed by it, and am left a bit puzzled as to why it’s so polarizing.

It could have been called God Emperor Leto’s Insulting Verbosity. The “narrative” consists of the sandworm Leto (displayed on the book cover) denigrating his favorite retainers, taking turns with them, never answering their questions, and making them feel like clueless idiots. His majordomo Moneo struggles to remain loyal throughout this treatment; his ghola Duncan Idaho seethes at being used as a sperm bank, to father kids on various women; the rebel Siona is tested and groomed by Leto for the Golden Path, but his vacuous aphorisms fuel her hatred for him; the Ixian ambassador Hwi Noree agrees to marry him (a sandworm!), despite the extreme physiological barriers, and the fact that he deflects her concerns with the usual non-sequiturs. To say the least, Leto is an unrewarding conversation partner. He parries questions with counter-questions, insults, and obnoxious bits of wisdom, and these “discussions” fill about 80% of the novel. While I can understand the frustration of readers who don’t go for this sort of thing, I have to admit that it gratifies me on a weirdly sick level.

But it’s heavy-handed, no question. With no major threat or antagonist to drive the plot, verbal repartee is basically all that remains in God Emperor of Dune. When rebels strike at Leto, he squashes them with little effort, since he’s virtually omniscient and sees the dangers in advance. He doesn’t need spies or agents — his prescient vision is so terrifyingly accurate that his strongest adversaries, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, actually beg him: “Tell us if we threaten you that we may desist.”

Interesting is that Leto describes himself as a predator, the role he has crafted for himself on the Golden Path. In the earlier years of his reign, for example, he burned nine historians on pyres of their published works. Addressing a crowd of other historians worried about execution, Leto is recorded as saying:

“These scholars were destroyed because they lied pretentiously. Have no fear that my wrath will fall upon you because of your innocent mistakes. I am not overly fond of creating martyrs. Martyrs tend to set dramatic events adrift in human affairs. Drama is one of the targets of my predation. Tremble only if you build false accounts and stand pridefully on them. Go now and do not speak of this.”

And what does Leto have to show for his predatory agenda? A universe of backwater societies, where crime is virtually non-existent — but at the price of stasis, oppression, and repression. Leto is an anti-savior like his father Paul, and even more tragic. Having sacrificed his humanity to become a sandworm destined to live 4000 years (he still has 500 to go), he retains a vestige of human emotions (not least his love for Hwi Noree), knowing how gross he looks and evil he seems. Though he is careful not to show it, he is tormented by his fascist mission to oppress societies for their own good. That mission is to instill in humanity a genetic and cultural hatred of authoritarian rulers, so as to ensure that people will never suffer under tyrants like himself and his father again. When they reach their breaking point they will be liberated and scattered throughout the universe, to become diverse and strong and truly free. A brilliant political concept in sci-fic drama… but utter balls in our real world.

The Emperor’s Politics

Fans of God Emperor love the corollaries to the Golden Path, but the political theories are a mixed bag. Some are interesting, others frankly banal. An example of the latter comes when the newly created Duncan Idaho (the upteenth ghola by this point) questions Leto about revolutionaries:

“Aren’t the radicals shaking things up so they can grab control?” asked Idaho.

“That’s what they think they’re doing,” said Leto. “Actually they’re creating new extremists and continuing the old process.”

“What about messiahs?” asked Idaho.

“Like my father?”

Idaho does not like this question. He knows that in a very special way I am my father. He knows I can speak with my father’s voice and persona, that the memories are precise, never edited and inescapable.

Relucantantly, Idaho says: “Well… if you want.”

“Duncan, I am all of them and I know. There has never been a truly selfless rebel, just hypocrites — conscious hypocrites or unconscious hypocrites, it’s all the same.”

So we learn here that revolutionaries would only become like the tyrants they supplant. We already saw that happen in Dune and Dune Messiah, and most 21st-century readers would consider this an elementary observation. Maybe in the year 1981 (when God Emperor of Dune was published), basic lessons seemed more profound.

But then there are more intriguing ideas, like Leto’s view of the sexes. He keeps an all-female army, for the following reasons:

  • Loyalty in a male army fastens onto the army itself rather than onto the civilization which fosters the army. Loyalty in a female army fastens onto the leader.
  • Men are susceptible to class fixations. They create layered societies. The layered society is an ultimate invitation to violence. It does not fall apart, it explodes. Women make common cause based on their sex, a cause which transcends class and caste. That is why I let my women hold the reins.
  • The male army always turns against its own population.
  • The male army is a rapist institution. Rape is the pay-off in male military conquest. For women rape is an alien motive.
  • Females have stronger connections to the civil world, since they bear children, and thus have a clearer sense of who they are protecting.

A lot of this may sound alluringly wise, but the next book Heretics of Dune shows that Leto wasn’t always so wise. When the planets are colonized by his female warriors during The Scattering, some of Leto’s feminist ideas become the foundations of the Honored Matres’ sexual enslavement of men. Still, the idea that men are more class-oriented and women more gender-focused is interesting, and it’s too bad our real world lacks for matriarchal societal examples that would test Leto’s theory.

The Emperor’s Women

The novel’s midpoint delivers a socking piece of theater, with action to match the dialogue for a change. Leto and his entourage make their procession to the festival city of Onn, so that Leto can be worshiped by hordes of ecstatic women. (En route he is attacked by fifty Duncan Idahos – a priceless scene.) The Siaynoq Festival is celebrated every ten years, involving the female army (Leto’s Fish Speakers), priests, and women from everywhere in the Imperium who gather in a huge amphitheater and chant praises to their god as he pours his love over them, driving them wild with orgasmic devotion. Here’s a clip:

Idaho looked out over the massed Fish Speakers. The adulation in their eyes! The awe! How had Leto done this? Why?

“My beloveds,” said Leto. His voice boomed out over the upturned faces. The steaming images of the women’s faces filled Idaho with memory of Leto’s warning: Incur their wrath at your mortal peril! It was easy to believe that warning in this place. One word from Leto and these women would tear an offender to pieces. They would not question. Idaho began to feel a new appreciation of these women as an army. Personal peril would not stop them. They served God.

Leto arched his front segments upward, lifting his head. “You are keepers of the faith!” he said.

They replied as one voice: “Lord, we obey!”

“In me you live without end!” Leto said.

“We are the infinite!” they shouted.

“I love you as I love no others!” Leto said.

“Love!” they screamed.

Idaho shuddered.

“I give you my beloved Duncan!” Leto said.

“Love!” they screamed.

The women filled the space below the ledge for at least five hundred meters in both directions. Some of them lifted their children toward Leto. The awe and submission was something absolute. If Leto ordered it, these women would smash their babies to death against the ledge. They would so anything.

Recall the Water of Life ritual from Dune, when Jessica, as a Reverend Mother, converted the poisonous sandworm water into something safe, though highly narcotic from the spice. Drinking it released a flood of repressed emotions (and no human being was ever more repressed than a Fremen) expressed in dance and sex. The Siaynoq Festival reminds me of the ancient Fremen orgies, though men do not participate, suggesting they never obtain outlet (nor deserve to), for their pent-up furies.

Duncan Idaho is the one man allowed to participate in the ritual — he’s appalled by every bit of it — and it triggers a memory of Leto explaining to him his monstrous ambitions: “I have been forming this human society, shaping it for more than three thousand years, opening a door out of adolescence for the entire species.” (Cited at top of this review.) The excesses of Siaynoq are a brilliantly conceived microcosm of those ambitions.

The Emperor’s Clothes

Leto sheds his skin in the end, falling to his death in a river where the water dissolves him — either deliberately walking into a trap set for him by Siona and Idaho, or genuinely ensnared by something his prescience couldn’t foresee; I’m not sure which. If the former, I suspect he couldn’t go through with his marriage to Hwi Noree, and decided it was time for the Golden Path’s seminal moment. He had signed on for a 4000-year reign and made it to 3500. Long enough.

Leto is a more tragic figure than even Paul, but less sympathetic. Paul Muad’Dib hated the horrors committed in his name, and so he rejected his messiahship, and walked into the desert as a blind man to return as the apocalyptic preacher. Leto embraced his godhood, donning the skin of the sandtrout, and didn’t shy away from abusing his power, abusing his subjects. By rights Dune Messiah should have been the better book, but God Emperor carries more conviction.

Those who revere God Emperor of Dune say there’s never been a book like it. That may be true, but uniqueness doesn’t equate to greatness. Those who hate it say the philosophical musings are forced and the dialogue self-indulgent. There’s truth there too, though as I said, a lot of the indulgence works for me. The problem is that Herbert is too good a storyteller to waste on condescending chat. The novel is a meditation on Leto’s empire and Paul’s legacy, and in that sense a fine bridge between two trilogies — the one Herbert finished, and the one he left hanging on a cliff. I’ll review the two books in that intended second trilogy (Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune) next.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

Retrospective: Children of Dune

If Dune Messiah hasn’t aged well, Children of Dune has appreciated in value dramatically, or at least for me. I wasn’t wowed by it when I read the series in the ’80s, but this time around I couldn’t put it down. It puts Paul’s children on a path to hell, a long-lasting “peace” that is destined crush the human spirit even worse than Paul’s jihad did. It features mythical desert sites that host terrible miracles. It even brings back Paul in a way that doesn’t cheat, and compounds his tragedy. It has possession scenes worthy of the scariest horror novels. I don’t know why Children of Dune didn’t impress me much as a kid; maybe it was Leto’s prolonged spice trances that went over my head. Now I’ve seen the light of the Golden Path.

The narrative begins nine years after Paul walked into the desert to die at the end of Dune Messiah. Chani had just perished in childbirth giving birth to their twins, Leto and Ghanima, and now Paul’s sister Alia is ruling Arrakis as Regent. She’s making a bloody wreck, and the Lady Jessica suspects that her daughter has become possessed, and so returns to Arrakis after being on Caladan for twenty-three years. The terraformation of Arrakis is well under way; the planet is becoming greener and water less scarce, fulfilling the Fremen dream. But shrinking deserts are also a problem, threatening the existence of the sandworms and thus the priceless commodity of spice: if they go extinct, space travel would become virtually impossible, and the universe would plunge into a dark age — darker than the current one brought on by Paul’s jihad. Humanity is, in a word, fucked, unless someone can obtain a better vision than Paul’s.

The Golden Path

In my unpopular opinion, Paul Atreides gets his best outing in Children of Dune. In Dune he was a naive hero on the make, and in Dune Messiah way too paralyzed by his disastrous impact. Here he atones for his mess under a lonely prophetic anonymity, hurling screeds of doom against his sister and the priesthood that once served him. “The Preacher” is a genuinely heartbreaking figure, especially since we have a good idea that it is Paul, though that’s not confirmed until late in the story. He’s my favorite character of the whole Dune series, stripped down and hardly recognizable (his eyes are still gone, the biggest tip-off), hating himself for everything done in his name, and thoroughly unable (at first) to give his blessing to the terrible road that his son intends to take: the Golden Path.

The full plan of the Golden Path is revealed in the fourth book, God Emperor of Dune, and a first-time reader of Children of Dune may get frustrated by the vague hints that are continually teased but never made clear. What exactly does Leto intend that has the Preacher so appalled? All we learn is that whatever this Golden Path is, it will be a 4000-year period of tyrannical peace even worse than Paul’s 12-year campaign of war and genocide. Toward the end of the book, when the Preacher (Paul) confronts his son in the desert, they argue about their respective roles:

“I’ll take the vision away from you if I can,” said Paul.

“Thousands of peaceful years,” Leto said. “That’s what I’ll give them.”

“Dormancy! Stagnation!”

“Of course. And those forms of violence which I permit. It’ll be a lesson which humankind will never forget.”

“I spit on your lesson!” Paul said. “Is your vision any better than mine?”

“Not one whit better. Worse, perhaps,” Leto said.

Absolutely worse. The next book will show how the Golden Path is basically a last-resort plan for humanity’s long term survival. As God Emperor, Leto will keep humanity bottled up for centuries under his oppressive rule (think Islamic sharia x 5), so that once people finally break free they will scatter throughout the universe and become more diverse — stronger than ever before imaginable. The purpose of the Golden Path is thus to instill in humanity a genetic and cultural hatred of oppressive rulers, so as to ensure that humanity will never, ever, suffer under tyrants like Paul and Leto again. That’s one hell of a blueprint for liberty. It just takes thousands of years to get there, and the suffering of billions in the interim.

Why Paul finally relents and accepts the necessity of the Golden Path is left unstated. The way I read it, he’s reached the end of despair where only the most nihilistic solution offers any hope.

Twin Paradises: Jacurutu and Shuloch

But how does Leto get to this point? How does he become the deified tyrant who will live and reign for thousands of years? His journey is the heart of the novel, beginning with his trance states (at home with his sister in Sietch Tabr), to more intense trances that test and prepare him (at the hidden sietch of Jacurutu), and then finally to a process that begins his biological transformation into the human-sandworm hybrid (at the hideaway of Shuloch).

Jacurutu and Shuloch are legendary sites that most Fremen don’t believe exist anymore, if they ever did. Leto finds them, and they are not friendly places. At Jacurutu he is monitored by Namri and a reluctant Gurney Halleck, both of whom are under strict orders to kill him if he shows any signs of Abomination (possession). Leto is found clean, but we later learn that he has drastically fooled his testers. For indeed he is possessed, by an autocrat named Harum, from whom he will take ruthless lessons when he comes into his reign.

Escaping Jacurutu he flees south on the back of a worm and comes to Shuloch; there he defuses the murderous intentions of its steward Muriz, and engages the ritual he was born for. A sand trout infects his body, igniting a slow and gradual metamorphosis. It will be years before he becomes the colossal sandworm depicted on the cover of the fourth book, but he immediately acquires a near-invincible strength and endurance — able to leap and bound across the sand dunes of Arrakis as if he were Ang Lee’s Hulk. For some people this is where the series jumps the shark, and they stop reading. Not me: I like everything about Leto’s transformation, both in concept and execution.

Islamic/Arabic Overtones

Even more so than Dune, Children of Dune evokes the Islamic religion and Arabic honor-shame culture. At one point Leto even prays an “Allahu Akbar”, when he arrives in Shuloch with Muzir:

Everything went on trust now and the narrow thread of his vision to which he clung. If that failed, Allahu akbar. Sometimes one had to submit to a greater order.

I somehow doubt that Denis Villeneuve is going to insert any “God is Greatest” prayers in the upcoming film (for fear of offending the woke crowd), but downplaying the Islamic influences is a failure to respect Herbert’s world-building. The Fremen descend from Zensunni warriors, who practiced Sunni Islam with a spattering of Sufi mysticism; Paul’s Fremen name is Muad’Dib, and “mu’adibs” means “teacher” in Arabic; the sandworms are called Shai-Hulud, which is Arabic for “immortal thing”. The ties to our Middle-Eastern world are as appropriately crafted as the ties to the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon worlds in Lord of the Rings.

One of the novel’s most powerful scenes evokes the shame-based Middle-East culture, when Duncan Idaho provokes his friend Stilgar to slay him. Idaho (who can no longer bear the treacheries and adulteries of his wife Alia) orchestrates a crisis at Sietch Tabr by killing Javid (who was banging Alia and openly smug about it), thus violating the sanctity of guest rights guaranteed by Stilgar. Idaho then baits Stilgar outrageously, using the three deepest insults in Fremen culture:

“You have defiled my honor!” Stilgar cried. “This is neutral ground –”

“Shut up!” Idaho glared at the shocked Naib. “You wear a collar, Stilgar!”

It was one of the three most deadly insults which could be directed at a Fremen. Stilgar’s face went pale.

“You are a servant,” Idaho said. “You’ve sold Fremen for their water.”

This was the second most deadly insult, the one which had destroyed the original Jacurutu.

Stilgar ground his teeth, put a hand on his crysknife.

Turning his back on the Naib, Idaho stepped into the door, taking the narrow opening beside Javid’s body and speaking without turning, delivered the third insult. “You have no immortality, Stilgar. None of your descendants carry your blood!”

Stilgar drew his knife.

Without stopping, Idaho said: “If you’d help me with your knife, water-thief, please do it in my back. That’s the fitting way for one who wears the collar of a demon.”

Stilgar is so enraged at this point that he slays his good friend, as Idaho intended. As a result of her husband’s slaying, Alia will be forced to respond publicly in revenge (even though she has privately wished for Idaho’s death for some time). She may be the ruling regent, but she is still Fremen, and a slain husband demands the satisfaction of honor.

Memory Lives of the Preborn

Some readers may find Leto’s trance states (and Ghanima’s) too drawn out, and it’s true they could use some editing, but I like them so much I don’t care. Some of Herbert’s strongest writing is on display in portraying the nine-year old psyches. Like their aunt Alia, Leto and Ghanima are pre-born; they had awakened to full adult consciousness in their mother’s womb, and received all genetic memories of their ancestors. They can slip into the persona-memories of these ancestors, and access the data of their experiences; it’s literally as if they have the lived the full lives of many different people.

And since they’re kids, they each have the psychology of an adult (or actually many adults), while their bodies aren’t equipped for what their minds expect from their bodies, not least sex. This results in some amusing dialogue between them and their grandmother, Jessica, especially when Ghanima candidly tells her that she knows exactly what it was like to get fucked by her grandfather Leto I, because Ghanima remembers Jessica’s sexual acts as if they were her own. Is there nothing these twins cannot profane? Jessica wonders.

This business isn’t funny though. In tapping into their ancestral data, the kids create incarnations of the personas within their minds, leaving themselves dangerously open to possession. It almost happens one night when Ghanima’s memories of her mother create the Chani-within, and Leto’s of his father create the Paul-within. Their psychic struggles are harrowing, and they barely keep the within-personas from taking over.

I can hardly imagine what it would be like to live in a web of such scrambled memories, unable to retreat into a mental space where everything is my own — but I guess I’d probably feel like this:

Ghanima felt trapped within a construction of many walls. She knew this with a certainty reinforced by the data garnered from those other memory-lives, but now she feared the strength which she gave those other psyches by using the data of their own experiences. They lurked like harpies within her, shadow-demons waiting in ambush.

And if a memory-life takes hold — if it succeeds in possession — it makes an Abomination. This is Alia’s fate, and her story in Children of Dune is the deepest tragedy to afflict the Atreides dynasty. It’s even deeper than Paul’s, who at least finds a measure of peace in the end.

Alia Possessed

Some fans say that Alia is the major villain of Children of Dune, but that’s not precise. She’s possessed and so technically innocent. The novel’s villain is the same as the big-bad of the first book: the Baron Harkonnnen. By now Alia is in her mid-20s, and the strain of dealing with her inner personas (on top of ruling Arrakis) had become too great. To avoid a mental breakdown, she desperately makes a deal with her grandfather, the Baron Harkonnen — whom she killed (with poison) at the end of Dune when she was four years old.

This pleases the Baron greatly as he exacts revenge from the grave. He wreaks havoc through Alia, who plots treachery after treachery — trying to twist Leto and Ghanima to vile purposes, treating her husband like shit through adultery, trying have Gurney Halleck killed, trying to have the Preacher killed (whom she knows is her brother Paul), and (going for broke) trying to have her own mother killed.

That last comes at the novel’s midpoint, and it’s a riveting scene to say the least. Jessica is attacked in the audience hall by the priesthood, but is saved by Ghadhean al-Fali, one of Paul’s former death commandos. Alia tries to save face but makes a train wreck of the proceedings for everyone to witness, and the Baron Harkonnen manifests openly to gloat:

“Be silent, you murderous Abomination!” Jessica snapped. “You tried to have me killed, daughter! I say it for all here to know. You can’t have everyone in this hall killed to silence them — as that priest was silenced. Spray your protests upon us if you will, your guilt is written in your actions!”

Alia sat in frozen silence, her face pale. And Jessica, watching the play of emotions across her daughter’s face, saw a terrifyingly familiar movement of Alia’s hands, an unconscious response which once had identified a deadly enemy of the Atreides. Alia’s fingers moved in a tapping rhythm — little finger twice, index finger three times, ring finger twice, little finger once, ring finger twice… and back through the tapping in the same order.

The old Baron!

The focus of Jessica’s eyes caught Alia’s attention and she glanced down at her hand, held it still, looked back at her mother to see the terrible recognition. A gloating smile locked Alia’s mouth.

“So you have your revenge upon us,” Jessica whispered.

Arguing continues, and Al-Fali presses his complaint about the ecological transformation of Dune, “plants spreading like lice upon a wound”, and rain that will be the death of the sandworms and the spice. Alia insists that there will always be some desert, that the worms will survive, but Jessica knows she is lying. She denounces her daughter for mismanaging the planet’s terraforming, and the Baron again speaks overtly through Alia:

“Look at her!” Jessica pointed at Alia. “She laughs alone at night in contemplation of her own evil! Spice production will fall to nothing, or at best a fraction of its former level! And when word of that gets out –”

“We’ll have a corner on the most priceless product in the universe!” Alia shouted.

“We’ll have a corner on hell!” Jessica raged.

And Alia lapsed into the Atreides private language with its difficult glottal stops and clicks: “Now, you know, mother! Did you think a granddaughter of Baron Harkonnen would not appreciate all of the life-times you crushed into my awareness before I was even born? When I raged against what you’d done to me, I had only to ask myself what the Baron would’ve done. And he answered! Understand me, Atreides bitch! He answered me!”

Jessica heard the venom and the confirmation of her guess. Abomination! Alia had been overwhelmed within, possessed by that cahueit of evil, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The Baron himself spoke from her mouth now, uncaring of what was revealed. He wanted her to see his revenge, wanted her to know that he could not be cast out.

The other dramatic piece comes at the tail end, again in the city of Arrakeen, and this time it’s Alia’s entire family confronting her, not just Jessica. What Leto does is hilarious; he doesn’t mess around:

Leto picked Alia up by [her foot], swinging her around his head. The speed with which he swung her sent a flapping, hissing sound through the room as her robe beat against her body. Alia screamed and screamed, but she still continued to swing around and around and around. Slowly Leto reduced the speed of her whirling, dropped her gently to the floor. She lay in a panting bundle.

Leto bent over her. “I couldn’t thrown you through a wall,” he said. “Perhaps that would’ve been best, but we’re now at the center of the struggle. You deserve your chance.”

Alia’s eyes darted wildly from side to side.

“Alia,” said Ghanima, “I can show you –”

“No!” The word was wrenched from Alia. Her chest heaved and voices began to pour from her mouth. They were disconnected, cursing, pleading. “You see! Why didn’t you listen?” And again: “Why’re you doing this? What’s happening?” And another voice: “Stop them! Make them stop!”

Jessica covered her eyes, felt Farad’n’s hand steady her.

Still Alia raved: “I’ll kill you!” Hideous curses erupted from her. “I’ll drink your blood!” The sounds of many languages began to pour from her, all jumbled and confused.

Note that Children of Dune was published in 1976, three years after The Exorcist hit theaters, and Herbert would have been writing most of his novel in the aftermath of that film. As an Exorcist fan I see the homages in here as fairly blatant rip-offs. The alternating personas speaking through Alia, one of them pleading in little-girl tones to “make them stop”, a chorus of voices speaking many languages, and the main possessor (the Baron Harkonnen) leveling curses and terrifying commands. The possession is finally stopped by the victim’s suicide: Alia, like The Exorcist‘s Father Karras, throws herself out a high-story window. And there’s a sweet symmetry here. Just as the Baron was slain by the four-year old Alia at end of Dune, so now his memory-life is destroyed by Alia at the end of this novel.

Of course, Paul is also killed at this climax, by his sister’s priesthood — the very priests who once served him — which brings his generation of Atreides to a close. His children set the Golden Path in play: Leto is crowned emperor, and will become a giant worm and reign for millennia; Ghanima will marry him (violating the core Fremen taboo against incest) though she will have children with Farad’n, since Leto’s change makes him unable to reproduce. What follows in Leto’s “benign” reign is chronicled in God Emperor of Dune, and I will review that one next. It’s the most divisive book in the series, either loved or despised, and delves deep into the politics of the Golden Path.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5