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

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