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

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