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God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert

Published by Ace Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The fourth volume of the Dune saga is striking not merely in the enormous jump forward in time from the previous one, but in that it is the only volume to be written within a frame narrative that is set even more millenia in the future, a time so distant that the very name Arrakis has been worn down to Raikis. Instead of beginning with the actual action of the story, it begins with the report of an archeologist to a conference of scholars called together to discuss the proper disposition of a storehouse of records of enormous antiquity, records that are known to have belonged to Leto II and that may be related to the enormous social upheavals that followed his reign.

The effect of this framing story is to give us some idea of where the history of the Dune universe will go, so that we instead end up wondering how exactly it will happen, and how much of it will unfold in the volume we hold in our hands. In addition, the reference to the Stolen Journals and their decipherment by the Spacing Guild is a clue that will become important when we are dropped into the first chapter of actual narrative, of the young rebels fleeing through the Forbidden Forest with the D-wolves at their heels.

Bits of information are dropped one by one which tell us the world that Leto has created. The Museum Fremen, reciting the old rituals by rote without really understanding them. The Oral History with its legendarium that stands in opposition to what is officially promulgated. The citadel of the Emperor Leto II, who has set himself up as a god, and the mysterious cyphers that the rebels discovered during their incursion into it searching for plans that would reveal to them the location of his secret spice hoard. And most of all Siona, the young Atreides woman who will be the principal protagonist of this novel.

And then, just to remind us we are looking back at these events from the far future time of the discovery of Leto's hoard of documents, we get extracts from two documents. One, from Leto's hoard, is an autobiographical one in which he describes his transformation from human to something half sandworm, along with his justifications for what he has done to himself and to humanity. The second is supposed to be part of the "Wellbeck fragment," a document that survived by unknown means to the present and is a dialog of Siona with her father Moneo, Leto's major-domo.

Finally we return to the actual narrative, with Leto talking with the latest of his series of gholas of Duncan Idaho, reflecting upon various aspects of his rule and the philosophy of governance. It culminates in the Duncan's attempt on his life, which he crushes with a ruthlessness that is not only his own. There is something horrifying about that image of the worm taking over, the sheer animal power suppressing his rational self and destroying a threat to it. No, Leto is no longer human, although whether he is truly a god is quite another matter. So we're left to plumb just the exact nature of his being, and his moral status. Is he simply a Tyrant that revels in tyranny as Siona damns him, or is he truly accomplishing a fundamental transformation in human nature as he claims in his rather self-justificatory writings?

On the surface the story is that of the conspiracy to overthrow the tyrant, but at its heart it is Frank Herbert's ultimate meditation on the nature of Power, and particularly the power of leadership and government. Lord Acton's famous dictum that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" comes immediately to mind, and there's definite evidence that Leto has become drunk upon his absolute power over all humanity and it has turned him into an obscene parody of the Atreides values, prating about service to humanity as justification for his oppressions, his harshness toward every organization that could even possibly oppose him -- the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, the Ixians, the Tlielaxu. At times we as readers want to see these organizations defeat him, for all that not a one of them exactly has any great track record of democratic governance themselves.

God Emperor of Dune is probably one of the less innovative of the original Dune books, concentrating more on the development of ideas introduced in the earlier volumes to their logical conclusions rather than attempting to top them with new gosh-wow mind-expanding ideas. However, in some ways this is also its strength because it doesn't feel like the author's trying to top himself. Instead the logical development of those ideas seems to proceed naturally from the story.

Review posted Februrary 18, 2009.

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