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

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