I’ve finally finished this monster of a trilogy. Yes, I know there are more books but I think I’ll stop here with Frank Herbert and go back to Asimov. There was a seven-year gap between the publication of ‘Dune Messiah’ (1969) and ‘Children of Dune’ (1976), which is notable for being the first hardcover bestseller in the genre. Either readers did not know what they were in for, or they were much weirder than they are today.
Book three in Frank Herbert’s magnificent Dune Chronicles–one of the most significant sagas in the history of literary science fiction.
The Children of Dune are twin siblings Leto and Ghanima Atreides, whose father, the Emperor Paul Muad’Dib, disappeared in the desert wastelands of Arrakis nine years ago. Like their father, the twins possess supernormal abilities–making them valuable to their manipulative aunt Alia, who rules the Empire in the name of House Atreides.
Facing treason and rebellion on two fronts, Alia’s rule is not absolute. The displaced House Corrino is plotting to regain the throne while the fanatical Fremen are being provoked into open revolt by the enigmatic figure known only as The Preacher. Alia believes that by obtaining the secrets of the twins’ prophetic visions, she can maintain control over her dynasty.
But Leto and Ghanima have their own plans for their visions–and their destinies….
If you were to ask me what I loved about this book, I’d say it was that nobody, including the twins that Paul had fathered wanted to rule the empire of Muad’dib. Plans and machinations are always in place but there seems to be a general dislike of what the legacy given to them had become. A religious cult spread across multiple planets, all based on the trade of spice, trade which is now in peril due to the diminishing dunes.
We see a green world emerging, with Fremen no longer following the custom of water as they used to. Moisture is in the air and it rains! People have houses with windows and they actually leave them open.
Arts and crafts appear with people selling sand-blasted marble to visitors. Arts can only thrive when the people are no longer struggling to survive from one day to another.
And Lady Jessica returns nearly after 20 years to see how her daughter and her grandchildren are faring – but it might be just a big plot by the Bene Gesserits to further their breeding program again.
The bad: Little justification is given for Jessica’s return. Alia gives power to one of the voices in her head – that of her ancestor the Baron and goes mad with power and plots to destroy Arrakis. Why choose the Baron? Why not any of the others? Why not silence him forever with the help of the twins? Her only destiny is death and even that has to be done quickly so she won’t be trialled for Possession by the people.
I really didn’t care one way or another about what happened to any of the characters. The twins are both unlikeable little abominations which reminded me more of the Children of Corn rather than the Children of Dune. You can’t root for a 10 year old girl looking at her new appointed lover who’s already dreaming of mating and having kids herself.
And a wee spoiler: Leto II plans to marry his own sister Ghanima and rule together for 4000 years in a new pharaoh-like dynasty. He’s become un-killable and has no flaws – like a Superman without the kryptonite.
Quality wise, this book is better than the second but waaay worse than the first.
‘Children of Dune’ can only be described as a gibbering hot mess of a novel, making mistakes in not only revealing too much detail, but focusing on so much extraneous minutiae that the overall story is completely lost in a maelstrom of granularity.
A tiny example is the mythical sietch of Jacurutu, and the inordinate number of pages that Leto agonises over whether it even exists or not. When he actually arrives on its dusty, forgotten doorstep, he spends even more pages agonising over the actual reality of what he is seeing…
Well, of course ‘real’ Jacurutu turns out to be a sand-screen for the ‘mythical’ Jacurutu, which does exist, in fact, but is shrouded in even deeper mystery and obfuscation by yet another (mythical) name. It is this kind of unnecessary navel-gazing that turns ‘Children of Dune’ into an exceptionally tedious rabbit-hole of a novel that wallows in its own inflated sense of self-importance.
In a short but revealing note at the end of the book, Herbert weirdly states that portions of ‘Children of Dune’ were completed before the first two novels. And it does, indeed, read like a series of outtakes or discarded ideas strung together to make up a semblance of a plot.
Sadly, ‘Children of Dune’ struggles with way too many moving parts to gain any coherence, let alone narrative urgency. For example, the culmination of Leto’s conversion process, which drives perhaps the last third of the novel, is completely botched and butchered by Herbert.
He is way too busy keeping his characters speechifying preposterously and sententiously than to pay attention to the specific narrative mechanics of such a crucial and deeply weird scene. It is one of many such missed opportunities in the book, which rattles along as mindlessly as a sandworm in the great bled.
Herbert has always been thought of as representing a ‘colonial’ approach to SF in that he portrays the terraforming of Arrakis as the end result of a just process of civilising the natives and uplifting them (more like bringing them to their senses from their barbaric ways.)
In ‘Children of Dune’, however, Herbert completely subverts his colonial label by introducing the jaw-dropping idea that the sand trout are not endemic to Arrakis, but are essentially an alien lifeform (where they came from and who introduced them is another story.)
Which makes the Fremen themselves a parasitic entity feeding off the lifecycle of Shai Hulud, instead of the noble oppressed savages and ‘desert power’ they were always thought to be. This plot strand is supposed to culminate in the transformation of Leto, but it peters out quite frustratingly rather than achieve the narrative crescendo it deserves.
Seeing that so much of the book is about the consequences, shortfalls and perceived pitfalls of prescience, it is perhaps fitting that chunks were completed even before the first opening salvos of the trilogy (well, it started out as a trilogy.) And while on that subject, the whole bloody Golden Path gibberish makes no sense whatsoever.
Leto is determined to remove Paul’s stranglehold on humanity by effectively un-deifying his own father. But ends up following the very ‘path’ that Paul expressly chose not to follow, thereby promising to become an even bigger monster (literally) than Paul had ever been!?
Just as Paul felt himself increasingly trapped by his own prescient visions, so does Herbert seem unable to break free from the plot cycle of the first two books. You thought Paul walked off bravely into the sunset at the end of ‘Dune Messiah’? Up pops the mysterious Preacher, decrying the empty religion of Alia. And where is a good villain when you need one … up pops the Baron (literally) in Alia’s mind to pollute her consciousness with his conniving perversity.
And forget about any tender Paul/Chani moments here either. Herbert is all matter-of-fact business, describing Leto’s attraction to Sabiha (which does indeed mirror the Paul/Chani relationship) in the following totally romantic manner:
‘There was an adult beefswelling in his loins …’
Another problem is that ‘Children of Dune’ veers rather determinedly away from SF into much choppier and murkier waters. The long (and I mean long) digressions on politics, governance and the philosophy of morality (or is it the morality of philosophy?) are simply stuffed into the mouths of characters who, ironically, increasingly come across as robotic in a universe where the very notion of AI is anathema and deemed to be anti-human.
As with ‘Dune Messiah’, there are some passages of nature writing where Herbert’s singular passion for the raw environment, and his technical proficiency as a writer, combine to create such haunting passages as the below:
It was difficult to take his gaze away from the sands, the dunes—the great emptiness. Here at the edge of the sand lay a few rocks, but they led the imagination outward into the winds, the dust, the sparse and lonely plants and animals, dune merging into dune, desert into desert.
But it is too little, too late. The worm has, indeed, turned for this ambitious saga, which cannot escape its own Golden Path into repetitive dissolution.