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God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert - Sci-Fi Classic Review

God Emperor of Dune
That doesn't look right

Legend has it that Frank Herbert's initial drafts of God Emperor of Dune, the fourth novel in his Dune saga, were written from a first person perspective, entirely from the point of view of the God Emperor. It shows in the published version, too, as this book is a long meditation with an almost singular focus on what has become of Leto II, now three and a half millenia removed from his transformation into the worm-like supreme ruler of the known universe. A very different style therefore dominates the narrative, coming across like an in-depth character study or thought experiment.

This is the novel's greatest strength. Herbert dives incredibly deep into Leto's head, into the mind and motivations of a being that has sacrificed its own humanity for the sake of the greater humanity. The novel pivots on the questions of why Leto chose the worm and how the universe has changed under his tyrannical rule. From a philosophical angle, this is a dense work filled with ruminations about the nature of power, of words, of history, and of free will. Herbert continues to explore these ideas with clever and astute language, and for readers who've signed on for that kind of a ride, God Emperor of Dune might just be the most rewarding book in the entire series.

Unfortunately, as a story, it is greatly lacking. There is barely a plot, and about three quarters of the book takes place in an enclosed room where one character is speaking to the God Emperor while nothing much happens. There are also fewer characters than we've come to expect from a Dune novel, with the main cast consisting of Leto, his majordomo Moneo, Moneo's rebellious daughter Siona, the Ix ambassador Hwi Noree, and the newly resurrected ghola of Duncan Idaho. There are a few crumbs of conflict centered around Siona's ineffective resistance to Leto's rule and a love triangle between Leto, Hwi, and Idaho, but for the most part, these plots develop at a snail's pace, often forgotten about for dozens of pages at a time.

God Emperor of Dune
This is pretty close, methinks

That's because Herbert is relying on exposition for almost everything, even if it's just the meandering thoughts of the God Emperor doing the expositing. While that is interesting for a while--and bringing in a new Idaho as a way to introduce the audience to the present state of the universe is pretty ingenious--it does get tiring when the book stretches toward its four-hundredth page of characters talking to one another, especially when their philosophical dialogues start to repeat themselves for the third or fourth time. Characters do develop, including the God Emperor, but we are told about these changes more than we are shown them.

The sexual politics also get pretty weird this time around, with a lot of ink wasted in trying to make it seem mysterious that Leto would recruit an all-female army even though the explanation for it is given to us almost immediately. Herbert also lets his characters espouse some firm beliefs about gender and sexuality that dance along the edge of being deeply problematic, even by the standards of 1981. He's handled these matters better and with more insight in previous books in the same series, so it's weird that he seems to have taken a step backwards here.

If you ask me, this novel needed to be even less from Leto's perspective, that it should have chosen as its protagonist either Siona or Duncan Idaho, with the God Emperor appearing less constantly. Herbert doesn't totally demystify his half-human creation, but spending so much time with Leto makes his bizarre nature less unsettling than it should be, especially in scenes where there is tension and the threat of violence.

God Emperor of Dune
It's a "sequel to the trilogy"?

In earlier Dune novels, the narrative can be expressed as a chess game between multiple combatants. It's fascinating to see the characters move their pieces around the board and gambit their way to advantage or catastrophic loss in preparation for the inevitable and exciting endgame. God Emperor of Dune, on the other hand, feels like watching one guy play chess with himself. Granted, it's a Bobby Fischer-level grandmaster, but it's still more difficult to be invested when the conflict is entirely self-inflicted and the outcome is inevitable: he will both lose and win.

Other forces are at work, but Leto knows all about them and dismisses them out of hand, with nobody ever getting the upper hand on him until the very end (although he probably foresaw even that). The God Emperor frequently bemoans the predictability of events--given his vast, intimate knowledge of human history and his own prescience--and we the readers learn to sympathize. Very little in this book comes as a surprise.

Still, it's a daring novel that charts a new, even-more-epic course for the series as a whole. It gives Herbert plenty of space to philosophize and espouse political theory, and its characters feel more fleshed out and memorable than some of his previous efforts. There's not much of an actual story, but what is there is an essential step along the Golden Path, a bold, new chapter in the sprawling magnum opus that is Dune.

-e. magill 1/23/2020

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