Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Dune Sequels - Safe to Skip

***This review has spoilers for Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune.***

When I was in high school, I read two of the great works of SF: The Lord of the Rings and Dune. I recently re-read The Lord of the Rings and Dune, so I decided to continue on with the sequels to Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. I loved Dune: the characters, the setting, the mix of technology and superstition. I had heard that the sequels were not as good as the original, and that the books after the first three got really weird. Plus, there were books written by Frank Herbert's son Brian and coauthored by Kevin J. Anderson. Based on their reputation, it sounds like Brian Herbert totally pulled a Christopher Tolkien, if you know what I mean.

Dune Messiah picks up shortly after the events of Dune. The main plot deals with a conspiracy by the Tleilaxu (technology masters who can grow people in vats) the Spacing Guild (who transport people and goods through space with the aid of their mutant, prophetic Navigators), and the Bene Gesserit (a sisterhood who master control of their own bodies and who have a centuries-long breeding program of the ruling houses of the galaxy). Meanwhile, the jihad that Paul had so feared in Dune has become a reality, and the fanatical armies of Fremen have spread the religion of Paul Muad'Dib through the galaxy. Paul's sister Alia has become a sort of living saint, a position that she does not relish.

The novel is mainly concerned with the varying benefits, dangers and limits of prescience. As such, a lot of the book is meditative. Paul's internal struggle with his prescience is foremost in the novel, as he realizes that the more you see of your future, the less you control your destiny. The book also investigates the idea that you cannot see the future as it will be, only many possible futures and the paths that will lead you to them.

The plot surrounding the conspirators keeps the novel moving along, though none of the villains are as memorable as the Baron Harkonnen from the first novel. One of the disadvantages of Dune Messiah is that a lot of the interesting characters died in the first novel: the Baron, his nephews, and the mentat Piter de Vries were great villains, and Duncan Idaho and Thufir Hawat were extremely interesting heroes. The novel also marginalizes Gurney Halleck and the Lady Jessica, who are both mentioned as being on Caldan but never seen.

Strangely enough, the novel's solution to having killed so many of the characters in the the previous novel is to bring one back: we learn that Duncan Idaho's body was taken to the Tleilaxu by the Sardaukar forces who killed him, and they re-build him as a ghola. A ghola is a vat-grown human with the same abilities as the original whose body was used in the creation of the ghola. Idaho's ghola, who goes by the name Hayt, has an interesting character arc where he struggles with interacting with the people he knew in his past life while being painfully aware that he is not the same man whose appearance he so closely mimics. I found Idaho's story to be the most interesting in the novel.

Stilgar shows up too, though he exists mostly to provide a dash of Fremen color to the novel and to serve as a confidante to Paul so that Paul can tell Stilgar about his thoughts and fears.

The novel ends with the death of Paul's beloved Chani and the birth of their children, the twins Leto II and Ghanima. Duncan Idaho becomes the first ghola in history to reclaim his original identity, and in doing so he foils the conspiracy against Paul's life. Paul is no longer able to see the future at the end of the novel and, having been physically blinded in an attack on his life, he goes into the desert in the ritual Fremen way, where blind Fremen are sent into the desert to die.

Dune Messiah was actually pretty good, though not as good as Dune. Its characters were not as interesting, there was hardly any action, and even the awe-inspiring world of Arrakis had become somewhat passe, with the mighty sandworms of Dune being treated as nothing more than mounts and spice-factories. Duncan Idaho's story arc and the conspiracy against Paul made it readable, but Children of Dune does not even have that much.

The main plot of Children of Dune focuses on Paul's children (go figure). Leto and Ghanima are nine years old, but they have the wisdom, intelligence, and memories of every ancestor who went before them. This basically means that they spend large sections of the book contemplating their place in the universe, their fate, and how to deal with that stock of past lives. They face the danger of Abomination, which is when a "pre-born" is taken over by a past personality.

Alia turns out to be the main villain of Children of Dune. She has become Abomination, taken over by the memory of none other than the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Harkonnen makes a deal with her that he will keep the voices of the other past lives at bay so long as she allows him to surface from time to time to taste the pleasures of the flesh once more. I think that the relationship between Alia and the Baron in her head is potentially very interesting, but we hardly get to see any of it. Mostly Alia hunts her nephew and schemes against her family.

Alia is now married to Duncan Idaho, though Duncan does not have much to do in the novel. For all the effort that Herbert went through to bring Idaho back in the second novel, he does not seem to know what to do with the swordmaster in the third novel. Duncan is torn between his love for Alia and the horror at what she has become, but mostly he serves as a background character.

Children of Dune sees the reappearance of Lady Jessica and Gurney Halleck, who return to Arrakis at the start of the novel. Halleck was one of my favorite characters in the first novel, and I was very happy to see his return. Unfortunately, he hardly shows up in the story. He almost immediately goes off to make contact with a secret group of smugglers, and he only shows up near the end to test Leto Atreides in a scene whose conclusion is never in doubt.

The reason Halleck's test seems so unnecessary is that the children of Paul Atreides can do no wrong. The twins, especially Leto, are preternaturally intelligent and capable of understanding both the motivations of everyone around them and their own unique mind powers. I would call them "precocious," but the novel repeatedly points out that, though they look like children, they should never be treated as such.

One of my big complaints about both of these novels is that the characters are following along with plot events that have left me behind. For instance, a character might wonder, based on another character's reaction, whether that other character could really not know what is going on. That other character notwithstanding, I certainly had no idea what was going on. Similarly, I remember that at one point Leto has a realization about his prescient powers and the past lives in his memory that replaces his previous understanding, but I did not really understand what that previous understanding had been, what his new understanding was, or how he had gone from one to the other.

I know it is something of a copout, but I believe that Frank Herbert must have been on some sort of drugs when he was writing these novels.

As the final straw, Leto bonds his skin to sand-trout at the end of the novel, becoming an unstoppable superhero in the process. Whereas he could already out-think and out-plan every other character in the novel, he ends the novel with super-strength, super-speed, and invulnerability to boot. No wonder the next novel in the series is called God Emperor of Dune!

Children of Dune introduces two potentially interesting characters, the young Corinno prince Farad'n and his aide, the Sardaukar Tyekanik. They have an interesting place in the galaxy, as they both feel wounded pride at the loss the Sardaukar suffered at the hands of Paul Muad'Dib's Fremen at the end of Dune. Farad'n meets with Lady Jessica and she teaches him some Bene Gesserit techniques. Nothing ever really comes of this, though. Farad'n and Tyekanik show up for the climax of the novel, where Leto confronts Alia and she throws herself to her death, but Farad'n simply becomes Leto's scribe. This was typical of the Dune sequels: there was clearly room for compelling drama, but the story deflates these opportunities more often than not.

What bothers me most is that Dune clearly showed that Herbert could write action-packed stories with grand scope and interesting characters. The sequels, sadly, devolve into philosophy and metaphysics. As a fan of Dune, I am glad to know what happens after the events of the novels, if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity. That said, the warnings I have heard that the later books are weirder still make me doubt that I will continue the series.

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