Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert

Life after Leto II
Heretics of Dune,
the fifth book in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, was published in 1984, three years after the previous Dune novel. That fourth volume, God Emperor of Dune, was very much the culmination of the epic saga that began with 1965’s original Dune novel. God Emperor ended with a finality that brought closure to so many of the plot threads and grand schemes that Herbert conceived in the first four novels. As a result, Heretics of Dune often feels more like a spin-off than a sequel. When reading it, one gets the impression that Heretics is to the Dune universe what Rogue One is to the Star Wars universe: a stand-alone story with all new characters, surprisingly different in tone (somewhat of a spy thriller) and only tenuously related to the Duniverse timeline. By the time one finishes with the novel, however, it is clear that Heretics is only the beginning of a much grander narrative to come. It was, in fact, the beginning of a new trilogy envisioned by Herbert, but he died after having only completed two of the three novels.

Heretics of Dune takes place about 1500 years after God Emperor, or roughly 30,000 years in our future. The death of Leto II and the chaotic power vacuum that followed led to the Scattering, a tremendous diaspora of humanity to unknown stars and planets. What has taken place on those myriad far-flung worlds remains a mystery, but now descendants of those long-lost peoples, some with sinister intent, are beginning to return to the core planets of the former Imperium. While the first three novels of the Dune saga centered around a game of thrones between aristocratic houses, those dynasties disbanded during Leto II’s marathon reign. The Atreides and other noble families live on as DNA in the gene pool, but they no longer exist as political powers. The power struggle in Heretics of Dune takes place not between families but between bureaucracies: the religious/political sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, the genetic manipulators of the Bene Tleilax, the technological wizards of Ix, and the priests of Rakis (the planet formerly known as Arrakis). From the Scattering, a new and terrifying faction enters the mix: the Honored Matres, an order of warrior women armed with supreme skills in both physical combat and sexual conquest.

The plot of Heretics of Dune is basically a strategic chess game among these various players, and like a chess game, it is sometimes thrilling, often intellectually stimulating, but occasionally just plain boring. While the story may not live up to Dune books past, Herbert still enchants Dune fans with the Byzantine ingenuity of his Dune universe. The action takes place on three planets: Rakis, Gammu (formerly Geidi Prime) and the Bene Gesserit’s Chapterhouse planet. While the earlier Dune books mostly focused on emperors, aristocrats, and their retinues (the Fremen excepted), Heretics gives the reader a broader glimpse into the lives of the common residents of Gammu and Rakis and the rank and file of the Bene Gesserit and Tleilaxu.

Heretics of Dune is not as strong as the four books that preceded it. Nevertheless, don’t believe those Dune fans who complain that everything sucked after God Emperor. It’s still Frank Herbert’s work, and he still manages to deliver gripping suspense, philosophical food for thought, and beautiful richness of detail. As a whole, Herbert’s six canon Dune books stand as a literary masterpiece. His fictional universe is more intricately complex and intelligently conceptualized than those of Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or any other multi-volume sci-fi/fantasy narrative. While the foundation of the Duniverse was laid by earlier novels, Heretics of Dune does add a few more fascinating levels to Herbert’s monumental vision.
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