Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

children of duneJust say no…

😀 😀 🙂

(This is the third book in the Dune series and therefore the review will contain spoilers for the first two, Dune and Dune Messiah. And maybe even some for this one. You have been warned!)

It is 9 years since the blinded and heartbroken Paul Muad’dib walked off into the desert of Dune to die. His weird little children, Leto and Ghanima, take after their Auntie Alia in so many ways – prescient, gifted or cursed with the memories of all their ancestors, nuts. Until now I thought the horrid little kids who sing the duet in Polar Express were the creepiest children ever, but Leto and Ghani have them beat hands down! Alia, meantime, has overindulged so much in the spice drug melange that she has become what the Bene Gesserit feared – an Abomination! No longer able to control all the voices of her ancestors inside her head, she has fallen under the influence of the strongest of them – the evil Baron Harkonen. Leto and Ghani look on this as a warning and are assiduously avoiding doing the spice drug conversion thingy that Rev Mothers do, as they think this is what caused Alia to become Abominable.

Alia and the Baron Harkonnen from the 2003 TV Mini Series - imagine having him inside your head!
Abominable Alia and Baron Harkonnen from the 2003 TV Mini Series – imagine having him inside your head!

Meantime Jessica has returned to the folds of the Bene Gesserit and has now been sent back to Arrakis (Dune) for reasons that remain somewhat hazy. Basically she appears to be trying to protect the genetic line by persuading Leto and Ghani (9-year-old twins, remember) to mate and breed. It’s always good to have a supportive granny, isn’t it? And has Paul really died in the desert? Who is the mysterious Preacher who keeps popping up and calling Alia names? If he is Paul, why is he trying to undermine his family’s rule? Why do Leto and Ghani want to get to Jacurutu? How come Leto is having prescient dreams if he’s not taking spice? What is the Golden Path that Leto keeps banging on about as the way to save something? Save what? Or who? Seriously – if you know the answers, do tell – personally I’m baffled!

Leto and Ghanima from the 2003 TV Mini Series, which clearly decided to age the 9-year-old twins considerably...
Leto and Ghanima from the 2003 TV Mini Series, which clearly decided to age the 9-year-old twins considerably…

By all the descriptions this had to be Fondak, and no other place could be Jacurutu. He felt a strange resonant relationship with the tabu of this place. In the Bene Gesserit Way, he opened his mind to Jacurutu, seeking to know nothing about it. Knowing was a barrier which prevented learning. For a few moments he allowed himself merely to resonate, making no demands, asking no questions.

The book starts off well, getting straight into the story. I was about to say that it’s important to read these in order or you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on but… I did read them in order and I still found this one almost completely incomprehensible! I can only assume that Mr Herbert too may have been sampling the delights of mind-altering substances while writing, and I wondered if perhaps it’s necessary to be doped up to the eyeballs to follow the ‘plot’. Unfortunately, having no illicit drugs to hand, I was forced to attempt it on wine only and that clearly wasn’t strong enough. (I also tried sobriety – but that was so much worse!)

wine bottles

The thing is it seems as if it’s going to be good. The writing is as good as usual and Herbert creates a nicely chilling atmosphere. The description of all the personalities within Alia trying to take control of her mind is brilliantly done, and Leto and Ghani channelling the thoughts of their dead parents is incredibly creepy. Herbert uses Leto’s mullings on what he should do as a vehicle to indulge in a bit of philosophising about the Cold War concerns of his own time, concluding unsurprisingly that the American Way of Life is best. There are loads of conspiracies going on with everyone scheming against everyone else, and Herbert makes this a fascinating look at the loneliness and ultimate fragility of power.

But… Herbert forgets to tell us what’s actually going on! Having a rotten memory, I usually jot down brief notes for review purposes – here’s one of my notes… “About 2/3 now – haven’t a clue what’s going on, don’t like anybody, don’t care who wins (wins what?) and thoroughly bored with the psychedelic drugs, man! Lots of pseudo profundity that’s supposed to be taken seriously and sooooo repetitive. Just want it to be over now.” You can tell I was really enjoying it!

The last third shows some brilliant imagination even if it’s frankly weird to the point of laughable. I have to mention the sandtrouts…

(Spoiler!!! Spoiler!!! Spoiler!!!)

Dune Leto II - The Tyrant by andrewryanart who seems also to have decided to age him.
Dune Leto II – The Tyrant by andrewryanart who seems also to have decided to age him.

The bit where Leto and the sandtrouts merge is without a doubt one of the most inspired pieces of lunacy I’ve ever read, made beautifully squirmily disgusting by the quality of the writing. But when the process turns Leto into some kind of pint-sized superhero who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and destroy hardened warriors with one punch, I began to giggle. And, during the big dramatic finale, that giggling turned into uncontrollable, tears-running-down-the-face, hysteria when he picked up his Abominable Auntie Alia and swung her around his head! I’m not altogether convinced that was the effect Herbert was aiming for…

Alia feinted to the left but her right shoulder came up and her right foot shot out in a toe-pointing kick which could disembowel a man if it struck precisely.

Leto caught the blow on his arm, grabbed the foot, and picked her up by it, swinging her around his head. The speed with which he swung her sent a flapping, hissing sound through the room as her robe beat against her body…Alia screamed and screamed, but still she continued to swing around and around and around.

(End of spoiler)

Great start, incomprehensible middle, unintentionally hysterical end. The last sentence of my notes reads “Right load of old tosh!” and I stand by that! Will I be reading more of the Dune books? Not for the foreseeable future… see? I’m prescient too…

…though…

God Emperor of Dune by BlazenMonk Apparently this is what happens to Leto in the next book. Seriously, just say no to drugs... before it's too late! I'm almost tempted to read it now...
God Emperor of Dune by BlazenMonk
Apparently this is what happens to Leto in the next book. I’m almost tempted to read it now…

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Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

dune messiahPower corrupts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(This is the second book in the Dune series, and therefore the review will contain spoilers for the first book, Dune. You have been warned!)

It’s twelve years since we left Paul Muad’dib at the end of Dune – twelve years in which his war against the Harkonnen and the Emperor has grown into a jihad resulting in the deaths of tens of billions and the destruction of several planets. Paul’s beginning to wonder if perhaps things might have gone a little too far. His power of prescience has made him an unwilling Messiah to his people, but the ability to see so many possible futures, none of them good, has left him desperate to find a way out that will stop the killing. Now married to the old Emperor’s daughter, poor Princess Irulan, Paul’s heart still belongs to his concubine, the Fremen woman Chani, and he is denying Irulan the child that she and the Bene Gesserit want to continue the bloodlines of these two important families. Driven to desperation by his cruelty, poor Irulan has reluctantly joined a conspiracy against him…

Art by Henrik Sahlstrom
Art by Henrik Sahlstrom

In contrast to the first book which took a bit of time to get going, Dune Messiah leaps straight into the plot with a great introductory chapter, giving a brief summary of how the war went after the end of Dune and foreshadowing what’s to come – Paul’s downfall. It’s very definitely a sequel – all the world-building was done in Dune, so anyone trying to read this as a standalone would be totally lost. To my disappointment, Lady Jessica doesn’t put in an appearance, but Alia is now fifteen and plays a major role. Stilgar is still there as Paul’s loyal right-hand man, and Duncan Idaho makes a distinctly creepy return. And the Reverend Mother Gaius Mohiam is back in all her Bene Gesserit single-mindedness.

New characters are also introduced – Edric, the fish-like Guild Merchant, floating around in a tank filled with melange gas – the spice drug, and Scytale, the Face Dancer, able to change his appearance and even gender at will. Dune has now become the centre of Paul’s Empire, and the hub of the conspiracies that are going on around him. But what the conspirators don’t know, though the reader does, is that Paul has a plan of his own to bring an end to the jihad – a plan so complex and obscure that I’m still not sure what it was, but whatever it was, it was a bad one!!

Edric by Mark Zug
Edric by Mark Zug

The odd thing about this second book is that I really disliked just about everybody (except poor badly-treated Princess Irulan) but loved the book. Paul has turned into some kind of manically depressed dictator – it really seems pointless being able to see lots of possible futures if you always end up picking the most miserable one. I can’t help feeling if he’d got off the spice drug and cleaned up his act, he might have found that as Emperor of Pretty-Much-Everything he could have insisted on peace. Given that the book was written in the ’60s, surely he must have known that there were alternative drugs readily available on any college campus that would have had him happily emblazoning ‘Make Love, Not War’ on his troops’ uniforms? And it was so incredibly mean of him to marry poor Princess Irulan and then to refuse to… well, you know… make a baby with her. No wonder she was slipping contraceptives into Chani’s food and conspiring against Paul – what red-blooded girl wouldn’t in these circumstances? Personally, I reckon they should have ditched Paul and made her Empress! She couldn’t feasibly have done a worse job.

Poor sweet Princess Irulan
Poor sweet Princess Irulan

Of course, then she’d have had to deal with Alia who, you will recall from Dune, at the age of four was cheerfully stabbing enemy prisoners to death to recover their water for the tribe. Imagine what a fun adolescent she has turned into! She has now become the religious figurehead for the regime, much to the annoyance of the displaced Bene Gesserit, and is just of the age to fall in love, which she promptly does with the most spectacularly freakish man in the universe. To be fair, she at least seems to have realised that Paul’s gone nuts, which is more than either Chani or Stilgar seem to have spotted, both of them remaining downtrodden sycophants.

Sycophantic concubine Chani
Downtrodden sycophantic concubine Chani

There is a sense of fatalism about the book. For all his mental powers, Paul is unable to see a future that will allow him to stop the jihad while protecting the people he most loves. In the end, he must decide whether to put the welfare of his family above the greater good, and Herbert does an excellent job of showing his struggle. To the outside world, he is either Messiah or dictator, or both, and is as hated and feared as he is loved. Conspiracy and mistrust are all around him, each faction with its own reasons for resentment and its own differing aims. And perhaps there are possible futures that are hidden even from Paul.

Cute little Alia aged 4
Cute little Alia aged 4

But the stand-out character in this one is Alia. With powers as great as Paul’s, perhaps greater, she hasn’t yet acquired his fatalism and is ready to fight against what he sees as inevitable. Blessed or cursed while yet in the womb with the knowledge and life experiences of the whole host of Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers who came before her, she still has the normal struggles and desires of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. The portrayal of the society and women’s subordinate place in it remains as curiously outdated as in the original, but Alia transcends this, becoming a major power player in her own right. Even in her romance she undoubtedly takes the lead. Having a female character of such strength makes the book feel more modern and better balanced than Dune itself.

It’s not often the sequel is better than the original, but in my opinion this one is, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether the high standard of this one will be maintained in the third in the series, Children of Dune.

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Dune by Frank Herbert

dune“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Duke Leto Atreides has been ordered by the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV, to give up his comfortable home planet of Caladan and take over the administration of the almost barren planet Arrakis, whose vast sandy deserts give it its other name – Dune. Harsh though the environment of Dune may be, it is the only planet in the Empire which can produce melange, the spice drug, which extends the life of those who use it. The financial rewards of controlling Dune are immense, so the previous rulers, the Harkonnens, don’t intend to give up their claim, and it appears the Emperor may be secretly supporting the Harkonnens in their campaign to destroy Duke Leto. But Duke Leto has a son, Paul, the offspring of Duke Leto’s concubine, Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Paul is the result of generations of selective breeding, carefully controlled by the Bene Gesserit to produce the Kwizatz Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit with unprecedented mental powers, including the ability to see possible futures. And the spice drug melange is a crucial part of the process of bringing those powers to their full potential…

Written in 1965, Dune was the first real fantasy saga set on other worlds, and has remained in the fantasy/sci-fi bestseller lists ever since. It’s often compared to The Lord of the Rings for the completeness of its world-building, but the tone of it is much more ambiguous – the dividing lines between good and evil aren’t quite so clearly drawn. It’s a grappling for power and control, set in a society that has aspects of the mediaeval – lordly families wielding ultimate power over their peoples, where marriages are made for political advantage rather than love, and where torture and death are accepted as the norm.

Lovely Kyle MacLaclan as Paul-Muad'dib in the 1984 David Lynch film.
Lovely Kyle MacLachlan as Paul-Muad’dib in the 1984 David Lynch film.

The ecological themes in Dune reflect the beginnings of the anxieties over our own earth environment, which was just starting to become a matter of public concern in the ’60s. The importance of water on this desert planet is brilliantly portrayed, as Herbert shows how its scarcity has led to it becoming part of the mythology and even religion of the planet’s inhabitants. Everything revolves round water and customs reflect that – from water being the major currency to the ritual recovery of water from the bodies of the dead. The Fremen inhabitants of the planet are trying to make their planet more habitable by careful use and cultivation of what they already have, but Herbert, who had an interest in ecology in his real life, shows how changing one aspect of an environment must be carefully controlled to prevent the destruction of others.

Yes, that is Sting playing nasty Feyd-Rautha and look! Capt Jean-Luc Picard himself appearing as Gurney Halleck!  (I've really got to watch this film again...soon!)
Yes, that is Sting playing nasty Feyd-Rautha and look! Capt Jean-Luc Picard himself appearing as Gurney Halleck!
(I’ve really got to watch this film again…soon!)

Much of the language of Dune is based on real-life Arabic languages – there is much talk of jihad, for example, and many of the names are Arabic in origin. I suspect this, combined with the desert landscape, might make the modern reader read things into the story that probably weren’t intended and certainly weren’t obvious to this reader when I first read the book sometime in the ’70s or ’80s. Our familiarity with the Middle East is so much greater now than it was then. However it’s fun to draw comparisons between spice and oil, and to see the struggle between the Fremen and their imperial overlords as a reflection of the wars of the last few decades. But in truth, the reader can only go so far down this route before the comparison begins to fall apart.

Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert

The place of women in the Dune universe is not exactly a feminist’s delight, and seems pretty backwards looking even for the ’60s. Primarily breeding machines, even the Bene Gesserit wield their power through marriage and concubinage (yes, concubines!) and it’s a bit sad that their most urgent desire is to create a male, and therefore superior, Bene Gesserit. Often called witches by the men, and mistresses of the wierding ways, the Bene Gesserit nevertheless are feared and sometimes respected, so women do play an important, if not exactly heroic, role in the stories. And despite their inferior position in society, Herbert has created some memorable female characters, not least the Lady Jessica herself who gradually develops into something much more complex than simply the mother of the Kwizatz Haderach.

Gorgeous Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica.
Gorgeous Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica

Have I made this book sound impossibly boring? I hope not, because after a fairly slow start when the characters and worlds are introduced, there’s plenty of action. Treachery, intrigue, poisonings and battles, a little bit of romance, but not too much, the truly nasty Baron Harkonnen and his evil henchmen, and most of all Paul-Muad’dib and the heroic Fremen all make for a great adventure story. And the giant worms, the makers, are one of the all-time great creations of fantasy. Their role in the ecology of the planet and the way they are viewed by the Fremen, as something to be worshipped, feared and yet used, makes them central to the book. They are a force of nature that man, with all his technology, can’t defeat – indeed, mustn’t defeat, because without the worms Dune would lose the thing that gives it is unique importance. And they are terrifying in their destructive power, made worse somehow by the fact that they are driven by no intelligent purpose.

dune-sand-worm

There are several sequels to Dune, and while this one doesn’t quite end on a cliffhanger, the reader is left knowing there is much more to come. From memory the first couple of sequels are excellent, after which the series began to lose its edge somewhat – for me, at least. But I’m looking forward to re-reading the next one, Dune Messiah, in the not-too-distant future, and meantime would highly recommend Dune not just as an excellent read in itself, but as the book that has inspired so many of the later fantasy writers.

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