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Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert

Published by Ace Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Readers of the Dune series have long debated the exact point at which the series began to seriously go downhill. Certainly none of the sequels ever were able to match the sheer magnitude and power of the original, but at least some of the early ones were still good, while the posthumous ones are at best light entertainment, enjoyable only if you disengage all your critical faculties. However, the exact point in the middle in which the real decline began is a matter of serious debate.

Although some people excoriate God Emperor of Dune as the first of the really bad ones, I found it to be an illuminating meditation on the Actonian dictum that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In my own personal opinion, this volume marks the point at which Frank Herbert left behind his philosophical exploration of the power and the peril of the Hero and instead started merely writing adventures that happened to be set in the Dune universe.

This novel is set during or shortly after the time of the frame story to God Emperor of Dune, of the discovery of the horde of hidden records at Dar-es-Balat. The name Arrakis has already been elided to Rakis by generations of careless speakers, and it is a semi-arid world on which dwell sandworms that each contain a bit of the consciousness of the long-dead Tyrant Leto II. In the first chapter one of the characters gives us a specific time period -- fifteen hundred years since his death -- for the setting of this book.

The nature of the government by this time period is never really discussed, nor is leadership a serious issue in this book. The Bene Gesserit appear to have an army, but they don't seem to actually be in the business of governing planets, other than the ones where their bases of operations are located. There is a priesthood that centers around the preservation of the religion Leto II created around himself, now embodied in the sandworms that live in the desert zones of Rakis, but while they may have magisterial authority over doctrine, they don't seem to have much in the way of civil administrative authority beyond Rakis itself

Instead, the principal condition of the planets that once made up Leto's Imperium is one of chaos and confusion. A millennium and a half earlier humanity had burst forth with pent-up energy after being hemmed in so long by Leto's Tyranny to colonize untold numbers of systems, galaxies, perhaps even parallel universes. This Scattering and the resultant social dislocations that were known as the Famine Times spread humanity so far and wide that no single disaster could destroy everyone. Or so Leto had hoped when he set up his Golden Path.

But something has gone wrong, for the Scattered humans are coming back, many of them strangely changed. The Honored Matres are clearly an organization descended from the Bene Gesserit, but their philosophies and methods of operation are so extensively changed as to be repugnant to the Bene Gesserit who remained on the old worlds. And there are Tlielaxu as well, even more disgusting than those meddlers in forbidden science who had always lurked just along the edges of the old Imperium.

For the first time in this book Frank Herbert takes us to the actual homeworlds of the Tlielaxu and allows us to actually see their society at work instead of merely glimpsing it through the actions of its various instruments, particularly the Face Dancers who were such favored weapons of Tlielaxu plots against the Tyrant Leto II. However, I am not entirely confident that this choice gains us that much, for at times the Tlielaxu Master Waff seems almost like a caricature rather than the sort of subtly defined character that we saw so many times in the earlier books. Even the revelation that they have deliberately made themselves unusually small seems more reminiscent of the Palachs, the leaders of the Parahuans in James H. Schmitz's Demon Breed. In fact, I might argue that the sense of peril that formerly surrounded the Tlielaxu has been lessened by actually getting to see the inner workings of their society. So long as they were mysterious lurkers around the edges, glimpsed but never fully seen, one's imagination could fill in all sorts of things -- and imagination is always better than reality.

And speaking of the reality being somehow less than what imagination has led us to expect, there is the matter of the axolotl tanks. Ever since their existence was first referred to in Dune Messiah, it was simply assumed that they were a mechanical device, rather like the womb tanks of C. J. Cherry's Cyteen. But in this volume we discover that they are not mechanical at all, but are in fact the mysterious Tlielaxu women who are never seen by outsiders. While it is shocking, it is in more in the manner of a horror story than of a mind-expanding revelation. We don't feel enlightened by the discovery, just disgusted.

Even the whole thread with Sheeana and her mysterious ability to control the sandworms of Rakis seems as much an attempt to come up with a Cool New Idea as anything firmly integrated into the overall story. What new development of humanity does Sheeana represent? Siona's invisibility to prescience made sense, because it was part of Leto's long-term program to ensure humanity's survival by scattering it so widely that no one, no matter how brilliant or powerful, could ever locate everyone and kill them all. But Sheeana's ability to command worms just seems weird. Perhaps it was meant to represent some form of communion with the fragments of Leto's awareness that are implanted into each of the revenant worms, giving them more intelligence and making them less vulnerable than the worms of old.

Then there are the elements that seem to have crept in from Frank Herbert's other books through carelessness, such as the chairdogs and bedogs, living furniture that originally appeared in his ConSentiency universe. But while there were thematic overlaps in those novels, they are clearly a completely different universe from that of the Dune series. The ConSentiency is characterized by the large number of intelligent species co-existing within it, while in the Dune universe humanity is unique. And there is not even the possibility that the ConSentiency lies in the far future of the Dune universe, since Earth is still well-known and remembered, but there are no hints of any of the characteristic elements of the Dune universe.

On the whole, Heretics of Dune is an interesting read, but it really doesn't hit those same high points as the earlier books in the series. I've felt little or no desire to re-read it, and repeated re-reading is for me one of the marks of a really great book.

Review posted February 18, 2009

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