Given the coarse, operatic nature of Dune’s two sequels, I was reluctant to continue the series. I thought Leto II’s rise to power was an appropriate place to leave off in the cycle despite the three sequels Herbert penned. After reviewing Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, however, someone told me that the first three novels were in fact just stage-setting for the fourth, God Emperor of Dune, and if I was to truly appreciate the series I needed to continue. Continue I did, and though I still think Dune is slightly better, the fourth book is certainly a step above those between and does indeed seem a thematic pinnacle the first books were aiming at.
God Emperor of Dune is set roughly 3,500 years after the conclusion of events in Children of Dune. Leto II, now with arms and legs that are useless appendages on a huge worm body, uses his prescience and hyper-senses to maintain supreme power over the known universe, not to mention his inhuman appearance. Ruling from Arrakis where terraforming has nearly completed the change from inhospitable desert to verdant inhabited land, Leto’s Fish Speakers (an army of unfailingly loyal female soldiers) enforce his dominion: no technology, no interstellar travel, and complete obeisance to his rule, including its limited dispersal of the all-valuable spice. Proclaiming himself god and starting his own religion, Leto maintains his dominion through belief and fear in holding to the Golden Path.
The result of Leto’s program is pleasantly bucolic societies where crime is virtually non-existent. Humans, Tleilaxu, the Bene Gesserits, and the Ixians being what they are, however, hatch rebellions and assassination plots to break the chains of perceived oppression placed upon them by the God Emperor. And all is not well in Leto’s conscience, as well. Having sacrificed his mortality and body, he still experiences emotions that are all too human inside his worm visage. The pain of knowing he oppresses society for its own good (“A parent must be generous as well as severe.”) combined with a longing for love and acceptance despite his self-imposed alienation, bring his omniscient powers down to earth. But as events in the DUNE universe evolve, Leto’s personal suffering and the schemes plotted against him must come to a head.
It is perhaps these two premises which make God Emperor of Dune interesting. Firstly, how to topple a prescient, all knowing god-like leader, and secondly, is it possible people need such an omniscient “parent” to guide, limit, and control their otherwise all-too-human behavior? Are we truly a safe, benevolent society when things like destructive weapons and complete freedom — elements of our own creation and desire — exist? The first idea is obviously more entertaining, but the second provides excellent food for thought that flies in the face of much libertarian thinking these days. DUNE is a series of big ideas, and God Emperor of Dune may just contain the biggest.
Thus, from a thematic point of view, Herbert continues his exploration of power, politics, and the evolution of human social structures. Leto is a tyrant by choice rather than instinct, and his ability to see generations down the road as well as live that time, while isolating, puts him in the position to know what is best for humanity: the Golden Path. That humans can only see the decades rather than millennia in front of them creates a conflict of interest that Herbert explores in not perfect, but satisfying enough, fashion. There are no views into the “common citizen’s” mindset regarding Leto’s rule, but how the various rebels express their feelings about the Big Worm seems enough. The conclusion that humanity may not know what is best for itself, even when slapped in the face with it, seems a fair appraisal.
Unfortunately, Herbert continues to press his agenda with a ten-ton hammer: the diatribes on power and religion continue, including the chapter-opening epigraphs. For example:
Technology breeds anarchy. It distributes these tools at random. And with them goes the provocation for violence. The ability to make and use savage destroyers falls inevitably into the hands of smaller and smaller groups until at last the group is a single individual.
Those who’ve read the previous books are well familiar with such blunt, generalizing statements, and if you weren’t bothered before, you won’t be bothered now. Just be informed that it continues, though given the plot setup it does seem more fitting this time around; Leto II and his 3,500 years of life may actually be an experience which can make such statements.
Though the self-styled philosophizing carries on, Herbert nicely reins in the plot of God Emperor of Dune to a degree far more plausible than the two previous novels. The “new” setting and political arrangement puts a fresh face on the series and the story is able to focus on character issues within a story that is not unnecessarily complex. God Emperor of Dune avoids the problems with plot cohesion found in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune — events unfold at a natural, even pace, so the storyline of God Emperor of Dune is a more satisfying, enjoyable read. Thus, those who enjoyed the fast paced, multi-part interaction of those two novels may be disappointed by the “slow” pace of the fourth book in the series. It does, however, have fewer plot holes.
In the end, God Emperor of Dune is the strongest book in the series to date save the fresh, original power of Dune itself. Herbert throttles back on the number of interwoven storylines and focuses more on the personality and character conflicts innate to the setting the story finds itself in 3,500 years after the reign of Paul Mua’dib. The resulting novel is richer in personal reflection and the plot is more realistic. The over-handed philosophizing on realpolitik and religion continues, but does not have the same jarring qualities as Dune Messiah. I now know why some people feel that the first three books are just a build up to the fourth. I will someday continue to the fifth, Heretics of Dune.