It is possible to know so much about a subject that you become totally ignorant.
— Mentat Text Turo (dicto), Chapterhouse: Dune
(good advice for any academic)

Despite my reference at one point that certain authors would have done well to learn from the phrase “Brevity is the soul of wit,” I have not myself excised much excess from this reflection. Hopefully I will take my own advice in the future.


I first encountered the Dune universe in middle school when my father took my brother and me to see David Lynch’s film adaptation. I was twelve or thirteen years old and adored it. I came home and told my mother that “it was better than Star Wars!” — and I meant it. I checked out Herbert’s novel from the local library and set about reading it in my manner, plowing through the book and enjoying it despite understanding little of it.

I didn’t realize how little I understood, but I found it engrossing. A future high school friend of mine first met me in those days, at All-City Band. He would later remind me that I didn’t really talk to anyone during breaks; I would simply reach under the chair, where I had lain the book, and pull it out to steal another page or two while waiting for practice to resume.

I subsequently made my way slowly through all six of Herbert’s books. Another high school friend who shared my love of the books espied me reading the sixth and advised,

“You’ll regret reading that.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“You’ll get to the end,” he said, “you’ll turn the last page, and you’ll scream, ‘No!’ as you realize that he’s set up for a great sequel, which he can’t write because he’s dead.”

I did not heed my friend. I read the book, turned the last page, saw a blank page, and exclaimed, “No!” as I realized that Herbert had set up for a great conclusion, which he can’t write because he’s dead.

But my friend was wrong, because I don’t regret reading it.

Re-reading Dune and its sequels

First attempt

The summer between my two years of seminary, I decided to re-read Dune. It had been little more than a decade since my previous experience.

The pastor of the parish where I was interning noticed and asked me if I had read the famous dinner scene. “I read that it took him several years to write that scene,” he remarked, “but it really shows when you read it.”

I don’t know if that’s true, in part because my memory says that he cited something like 14 years, perhaps 7. Either way, I later learned that Herbert didn’t take that long to write the entire novel, never mind the scene. Perhaps his memory deceived him the way mine does, but let’s assume that Herbert did indeed work on that scene longer than any other. It shows. In a novel where just about every word seems perfectly crafted, that chapter excels in subtle exposition.

I made it no farther through the series at the time; I don’t recall why. Seminary kept me fairly busy, and I grew increasingly discouraged that fall, and that probably distracted me from my distraction, which was a shame. I did read other science fiction books that year, so perhaps I couldn’t secure the later books from a library. Either way, I didn’t try again for more than 20 years.

Second attempt

When I read Dune the third time, this time as a middle-aged man, I understood it much more deeply. I know not whether it was my naïveté or my half-wittedness, or perhaps my having read it through the lens of Lynch’s work, but as a middle-schooler I had really misunderstood a few things. My main misconception was that Paul Atreides was not in fact a divine being, as Lynch implies; he is, instead, a man with highly trained and carefully honed intellect and physique, with the further advantage of a weapon that no man is supposed to know — only women. In other words, I finally caught up with an observation made by Herbert himself:

I have my quibbles about the film, of course. Paul was a man playing god, not a god who could make it rain.

Paul’s mind has been trained in the ways of the mentats. In the Dune universe, thinking machines are forbidden, on account of a so-called Butlerian Jihad many centuries prior (perhaps millennia prior; it matters not). Instead, a school of human called the mentats trains to use their minds, enhanced by a drug called sappho, if memory serves, to use both deduction but also intuition to make highly sophisticated decisions quickly.

Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.
— Reverend Gaius Helen Mohiam, Dune

(This is a great line to read and reflect on when you’re enrolled in a class on Artificial Intelligence.)

Paul’s body has likewise been trained according to the best techniques of his age. However, his mother has also trained him in certain techniques of a female order called the Bene Gesserit, of whom I’ll write more below. The Weirding Way is a martial art, while Voice is a method of modulating one’s voice so as to compel one’s listeners to execute the speaker’s will.

Over the course of the novel, Paul uses: …and combines these skills to successfully lead that uprising to overthrow his father’s enemies and avenge his death.

Paul’s failures

Yet this “Messiah” experiences multiple tragedies, and fails in his main goal: preventing the Fremen Jihad, which spells the deaths of billions of lives (and is confirmed in the sequel).

This latter failure is what surprised me most about my third reading of the novel. Somehow, in my previous readings I had not noticed Herbert’s repeated allusions to Paul’s desire to prevent the jihad, and his attempt to direct the uprising through the very narrow gates of probability that would emerge into a peaceful reign.

Paul failed.

This, I think, is one of my favorite parts of the novel after my third reading, and it’s certainly not something you’ll get from Lynch’s film, which is still not a bad thing in my opinion — though when I viewed it again last year, I understood why it failed. I no longer think it’s better than Star Wars, though Herbert’s novel certainly is.

The Kwisatz Haderach

While the Bene Gesserit have no religion, they are not above using the religious impulse to their own ends. One of their branches, the Missionaria Protectiva, has seeded more primitive planets with myths so that a member of the order who finds herself unexpectedly among them can manipulate the local populace.

Dune is one such planet, and the Missionaria Protectiva seeded Dune’s Fremen tribes with the myth of a messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach. Paul’s mother, Jessica, herself trained by the Bene Gesserit, finds herself and Paul in such a situation, and comes to realize that the Fremen have been so brainwashed. How I missed this as well on my first two readings baffles me.

Jessica exploits this myth to help Paul and herself survive among the initially hostile Fremen. This is not a “get out of jail free” card; among other trials, Paul undergoes the Water of Life, which like the Gom Jabbar is a Bene Gesserit device that only women have previously survived; it will enhance his intellectual and physical gifts and training even further, making him a fearsome force. Indeed, the Bene Gesserit had a breeding program that was supposed to produce a Kwisatz Haderach, and Paul was part of this breeding program — but out of love for Paul’s father, Lady Jessica disobeyed her superiors and gave her consort a son. (Apparently the Bene Gesserit gifts of self-control extend to determining which cell fertilizes the egg.) Paul’s training helps him survive the ordeal, though only barely; he spends many days unconscious and is nearly killed and rendered for his water. (The novel is set in a desert, after all.) Overcoming this ideal helps elevate him to the status of a god in the Fremen’s eyes.

The sequels

I hardly remember the sequels from my first time through them. I reread them after my recent, third reading of Dune, so most of what follows consists of my memories from second trip through the sequels.

Dune Messiah and Children of Dune

The first sequel considers the later years of Paul’s short reign, followed by his sister’s regency during his children’s minority. Both have subplots that involve treachery, but Dune Messiah’s subplot of treachery is more interesting if only because it begins to introduce the Tleilaxu, to whom I’ll return shortly. Children of Dune’s subplot, however, is rather unimaginative and seems like standard sci-fi fare. If Herbert intended to go somewhere with it, he seems to have changed his mind and held on to it as a plot device.

The Tleilaxu

I don’t speak. I operate a machine called language. It creaks and groans, but is mine own.
Dune Messiah

Several nations or races of the Dune universe push the boundaries of what is forbidden after the Butlerian Jihad. Ixians push the boundaries of mechanical and computational technology, while the Bene Tleilax push the boundaries of biological engineering. While their products are highly sought after, they typically include a certain revulsion which other humans then extend to their race, often calling them the dirty Tleilaxu.

One of the Tleilaxu’s most prized inventions is the ghola, something akin to a clone. At the beginning of Dune Messiah, the Tleilaxu do not yet have the means to restore a ghola’s memories, but a significant fulcrum of the plot involves their attempt to combine treachery with testing a hypothesis on how to restore memories.

Dune Messiah’s biggest strength lies in its subversion of the prescience that Paul’s mentat abilities, abetted by the Water of Life, have given him. Prescience might seem a gift to be envied, but already in Dune Herbert shows that Paul’s foreseeing the Fremen Jihad’s inevitability causes him misery. In Dune Messiah and Children of Dune prescience becomes more of a curse: not so much knowledge of the future as knowledge of the future’s possibilities — along with the consequences of each, both good and ill. Nor is it a perfect knowledge, but rather “the ability to see farther than others, like one who stands atop a sand dune while others are still below.” (Not an exact quote.)

The two books also introduce a device I do not care for, the idea of genetic memory, that our memories are embedded in our genetic material, and they can be unlocked under the right circumstances. It is an important device throughout the novels, and Herbert uses it well; I just find it a step too far — more than a step, really, the one place in the novels where I had to work hard to suspend disbelief.

Children of Dune wraps up the first three books in a tidy trilogy. Paul Atreides is dead (yes, really); his son, Leto II, sits on the throne. Besides Paul’s enhanced faculties, he has merged with Dune’s sandworm into a hybrid with indefinite lifespan and superior strength. His sister has married his primary rival to the throne, ensuring a peace and stability that will last for millennia.

God Emperor of Dune

Much like Dune Messiah, God Emperor focuses on the last few months of Leto II’s reign. Most readers find this novel the hardest to complete, and my younger self was no exception. My older self didn’t find it quite that hard, but while I appreciated it more, I’m still not sure it pulls off whatever Herbert wanted.

One reason I enjoyed this much more as an adult is that I have experienced forty-plus years of politics and bureaucracy. The novel also contains character development of a sort, though less of human characters and more of organizations. The Tleilaxu and the Bene Gesserit take more prominence, and we learn a little more about Ix.

One of the Tleilaxu’s inventions is the wonderfully named Face Dancer, who disguise themselves by changing their physical appearance. This makes them natural tools for treachery. First appearing in Dune Messiah, they play an increasingly large role in God Emperor.

Two drawbacks to Face Dancers are lack of independence and sterility. The Tleilaxu control them easily, but otherwise come across as stupid bunglers, would-be traitors whose only true competence lies in their biotechnical expertise. In particular, the Tleilaxu re-manufacturing both for Paul in Dune Messiah and for Leto II in God Emperor of Dune (and in every subsequent novel besides) the same beloved servant who played a minor role in Dune.

Face Dancers play into an above-average Tleilaxu attempt to assassinate Leto — mind you, it’s a low bar&mdqash; but this provokes Leto’s amusement, for someone has finally produced an event his prescience did not foresee. This surprises and therefore pleases him. It does not succeed, and eventually it angers Leto immensely because, being more worm than human (his words!), he is in love, and the attempt endangers his beloved’s life.

“I will arrange a performance in the plaza tomorrow,” Leto said. “It will be a performance of the surviving Face Dancers.”

Leto thought the Face Dancers performed well despite their obvious terror.
God Emperor of Dune

The Bene Gesserit, meanwhile, seem to have grown wiser over the millennia of Leto’s reign, and even manage to win his favor by warning him of a Tleilaxu plot. From this point on, the Bene Gesserit change from an antagonistic role to that of protagonists, or at least of catalysts for a sort of positive change.

On my second reading, I noticed a few flairs in God Emperor that I doubt I missed the first time. One I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is the objectification of the gholas. They don’t quite attain to a full human dignity, but are referred to as products to be manufactured, bought, used, and discarded: Leto refers to his line of gholas as “the Duncans”, and to individuals as “the Duncan”.

Heretics of Dune

Heretics re-introduces multi-layered plots to the Dune series, but abandons several threads without unsatisfactorily. Set thousands of years after God Emperor, which itself was set thousands of years after Children of Dune, it introduces more fascinating inventions of Ix and Tleilax: no-ships, chairdogs, and shigawire. It also indicates that language has changed over time: the Atreides are now the Odrade, or at least some of them are; the planet Arrakis is now Rakis; and so forth. Gone also is any hint of an empire or even of feudal houses; the only powerful organizations I remember reading about are the Guild, the Bene Gesserit, the Bene Tleilax, Ix, and a new enemy, described below.

The novel opens with one of the most intriguing beginnings of the series, if not the most intriguing beginning: we finally glimpse the Tleilaxu Masters unmasked. We learn that they have been plotting for millennia to rule the galaxy, feigning their previous stupidity. Now their true plans will move into action! Ghola technology made this possible: the Masters reproduced themselves and thus were able to acquire wisdom as well as knowledge, devising the perfect plan.

Unfortunatel, the plan doesn’t fail so much as wither away. Like the authors of the Sci-Fi re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, Herbert seems to have realized he didn’t have a good plan all along, and abandoned it. Or, if he did have a good one, it somehow never came into being. Maybe that was supposed to be part of the seventh novel, but considering the catastrophes that occur at Heretics of Dune’s end, I can’t possibly see how. Perhaps the point was simply that the Tleilaxu were deluding themselves, but it is by now perfectly clear that if Herbert had some coherent idea here, I am too thick to have picked up on it.

Heretics of Dune introduces a new enemy, the Honored Matres. An organization much like the Bene Gesserit, they reverse what the Bene Gesserit consider virtues (self-control, patience, ruling from the shadows, etc.) and embrace the corresponding vices. They rule directly rather than from the shadows; they use sex to control rather than to direct evolution; they rule their order by tyranny rather than consensus; they have no patience, no sense of long-term strategy.

No one is sure of the Honored Matres’ origin, but it occurred during a human diaspora that followed the dead of Leto II. Humanity dispersed beyond the control of existing power structures with the help of Ixian ships that mitigated the need for Guild Navigators. Somewhere in that diaspora, the Honored Matres were born, and they were returning, driving refugees before them. An important question is whether they return merely out of a lust for power or out of a fear of an Enemy they discovered and disturbed and now flee.

Within this context, most of the novel follows the Bene Gesserit’s point of view as for some reason I can’t quite recall they raise up Yet Another Duncan Idaho Ghola.

On the planet Dune, once officially Arrakis, now Rakis, the cult of the God Emperor persists. Leto’s death brought back the sandworms, that source of the spice the regent’s poor choices on climate manipulation had doomed to extinction in Children of Dune. This cult demands the worship of sandworms, but is otherwise even more incompetent than the Tleilaxu, and in fact ends up subverted by them.

Several threads of an intricate and interesting plot lead us to several worlds, a first for the Dune series, where no previous novel saw any serious action on more than two worlds. Many of the worlds we return to exhibit the effects of decisions from previous millennia. In a curious twist, a Jewish people persists in one novel, and their precautions against potential persecution constitute a clever crux of the novel.

The novel ends with multiple catastrophes, setting up for the sequel.

Chapterhouse: Dune

Those who would repeat the past must control the teaching of history.
— Bene Gesserit Coda, Chapterhouse: Dune

While not as action-oriented as Heretics, Chapterhouse mixes God Emperor’s thoughtful reflections on bureaucracy and human fallibility with significantly more plot. I find it rather quotable, and found myself routinely compelled to write down some nugget that appealed to me.

We tend to become like the worst in those we oppose.
—Bene Gesserit Coda, Chapterhouse: Dune

I have the impression that Herbert experienced a lot of frustration with bureaucracy over the years, as well as disgust with politics, and so dedicated a significant amount of attention to that in the characters’ reflections.

Show me a completely smooth operation and I'll show you someone who's covering mistakes. Real boats rock.
Bene Gesserit watchdog, Chapterhouse: Dune

I so enjoy quoting the novel that I’m not sure I care to write much about the rest of it.

The basic idea is that after the catastrophe that ends Heretics of Dune, Darwi Odrade rises to lead the Bene Gesserit. The novel is told almost entirely from their point of view, as I recall; it’s certainly the only point of view I remember. (I count the male protagonists as Bene Gesserit. The reader would understand.)

Odrade has to build on her predecessor’s work to maintain a fragile alliance against the Honored Matres, who have now erupted into the galaxy and seek in particular the Bene Gesserit homeworld of Chapterhouse, in order to destroy it. It becomes clear that the Honored Matres seek not only power but also knowledge. They fear someone or something, an Enemy that pursues them from the diaspora, and one reason for their return is to reacquire knowledge that could assist them against that enemy, — but so far it has proved impossible to inflict a significant defeat.

On Chapterhouse, the Bene Gesserit attempt to grow sandworms of their own, and to that end have transformed most of their world into a desert. Much of the novel includes reflections on the sacrifice of good things for the sake of something greater, and the effects it has on those who trust us.

Moral decisions are always easy to recognize. They are where you abandon self-interest.
— Darwi Odrade, "Chapterhouse: Dune"

Summaries of the novel typically state that it ends with a cliffhanger, but that’s not correct. A “cliffhanger” occurs when the resolution of an episode of immediate importance goes unresolved. Chapterhouse ends with no such unresolved dilemma, and with no surprising revelation that demands further investigation. Rather, it ends with several significant and unresolved plot threads: the last of the Tleilaxu and his gholas; the mysterious Marty and Daniel; the Bene Gesserit schism; the stolen no-ship; the Chapterhouse sandworms. None of these difficulties demands immediate resolution, but leaving the story here certainly leaves the reader unsatisfied.

The nerve Herbert had, to die after writing it!

Religion in Dune

Many reviewers praise Dune for its use of religion, and what Herbert executes, he executes well, but in my opinion this is one of its weaker aspects. With rare exception, Dune’s view of divinity is tantamount to supermen, the heroes of Greek mythology with a pseudo-scientific rationalization. I think Herbert himself came to see this weakness later on, and attempted to redress it, as I explain below.

A digression due to Cardinal George

The use of religion in Dune reminds me of a speech that Francis Cardinal George once gave at Mundelein Seminary. In it, he made the distinction between a seminary and a department of religion. A department of religion studies and teaches about religion, but you don’t have to believe in the religion to teach about it. Indeed, many argue that sincere faith is an impediment to good scholarship on religion, while having no belief positions one to teach about it better.

Cardinal George pointed out that this is antithetical to the purpose of a seminary, which is not to teach about religion in a sterile fashion, but, from the word’s roots, to nourish through learning a seed of faith (“seminare” = “to seed”) that already exists. Students’ and faculty’s lived experience of God necessarily excludes a certain sterile, skeptical point of view, but likewise opens up completely different possibilities for learning that are impossible to pursue at a mere “department of religion”. The seminary’s duty is not merely to teach but to form; the seminarian isn’t there merely to learn but to be formed. For this reason, a Catholic seminary (at least) includes daily Mass, communal prayer several times a day, being “set apart” from the world, pastoral assignments, and so forth.

How this relates to Dune

Herbert’s use of religion in most of the novels is impressive from a department of religion’s point of view. Is there superstition? yes. Cynical manipulation? yes. Vague spiritualism in place of doctrine and devotion? yes.

But faith? true faith? no.

The major terms expressed by most of Dune’s characters are an amalgamation of terms taken from south Asian religions. A number of adherents are Zensunni (“Zen” from Buddhism, “Sunni” from Islam). In Heretics we learn that the Tleilaxu have held to an extreme Islamic belief, one I think that even extremist Muslims would find repugnant. Herbert seems to have had a particular fascination with Islam; the “Butlerian Jihad” was a past even that set the stage for Mentats and Guild; later reading had made me aware of Islamic terms that are used by the Fremen, like “Fedaykin”.

Herbert seems to have avoided Christian terminology. The closest reference I recall to any sort of Christianity lies in “the Orange Catholic Bible”, a term with double meanings: The Bene Gesserit are intriguing as an all-female society with religious overtones, including the afore-mentioned Missionaria Protectiva, but they have no religious faith and are in many other ways the very opposite of a Catholic religious order. Where a Catholic religious order prizes virginity and chastity, and many of them withdraw from the world to live in a religious society parallel to mainstream human cultures, the Bene Gesserit are experts in the arts of seduction and manipulation of breeding lines, and embed themselves within the world to manipulate it. The Honored Matres are not so much an “opposite” of the Bene Gesserit but a reduction ad absurdum of their principles when left unchecked.

This is one reason I found both the Jews and the Tleilaxu so compelling: in Heretics of Dune: they had the appearances of a genuine faith as opposed to deified nationalism, superstition, or rationalized powerlust. Alas, Herbert’s desire to explore this seems to have been minimal — or perhaps that was a goal of the final novel he never wrote.

The sequels

Many years after Herbert’s death, his son Brian announced the discovery of some notes the father had written towards a seventh novel, including a plot outline. Brian Herbert set about writing this novel with a better-established science fiction author, Kevin J. Anderson. They first wrote a significant number of prequels to try and clarify characters and events that would appear or be referenced in the sequels, though they claimed the sequels could be understood without reading the prequels. In addition, they claimed that once they started writing the sequels, it became clear to them that one book would not be enough to contain the ideas, so they wrote two: Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune.

The good

The one good thing about the sequels is the preface to book 7, where Anderson and the younger Herbert acknowledge the elder Herbert’s genius, and acknowledge frankly that they aren’t up to the task of replicating Herbert’s voice.

I hereby pause to recognize that humility on their part.

The bad

This admission cushions the disappointment one experiences from more or less the first page. It becomes immediately apparent that you have forsaken the high-quality, highly polished writing craft of the first six novels, with at least two arguably deserving of a place among the greatest works of fiction.

Oriana Fallaci once said that the key to good writing was to revise, to revise, to revise; Shakespeare observed that “brevity is the soul of wit,” and I believe (correctly, it turns out!) that Blaise Pascal apologized to a correspondent for the length of a letter, for “I haven’t had the time to make it shorter.” The elder Herbert clearly expended effort refining his writing; it becomes painfully clear that Anderson and the younger Herbert had no interest in that. The transition from Chapterhouse: Dune to Hunters of Dune is much like following up a high-quality cinematic film with a Saturday morning cartoon. Yes, it’s really that bad.

The ugly

Alas, this admission occurs at the same time as possibly the most impressive work of fiction in the Dune universe: Herbert and Anderson claim to follow the elder Herbert’s general outline. This claim grows increasingly unbelievable if only because the sequels’ plot is about at sophisticated as the writing that attempts to elaborate it.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the description Daniel and Marty give of themselves in Chapterhouse: Dune was in fact a poorly exected misdirection on Herbert’s part:

“That would’ve been funny. [The Tleilaxu Masters] have such a hard time accepting that Face Dancers can be independent of them.”

“I don’t see why. It’s a natural consequence. They gave us the power to absorb the memories and experiences of other people. Gather enough of those and…“

“It’s personas we take, Marty.”

Further suppose that Herbert and Anderson really are filling in an outline the elder Herbert had sketched, that he really planned to introduce the characters Omnius and Erasmus, who as it turns out are resurrected from an earlier age, of whom there has been no hint at all throughout the first six novels, not even in Heretics or Chapterhouse.

If so, it would count among the least satisfying misdirection I can imagine, much worse than those films that have one too many twist endings. It’s essentially the very opposite of Herbert’s very brand. It doesn’t stand to reason.

Again, we have to admit this merely for the sake of argument, because even if we admit that Herbert committed this to a plot outline, there’s no reason not to think that Herbert had a few thoughts, sketched them out before or during the writing of Chapterhouse: Dune, then changed his mind by the conclusion. The notes were just that: Notes. Thoughts. Ideas. Nothing more.

Personal observation

I have on several occasions written longer-form stories. I haven’t attempted to publish any since college, but I have on some of those occasions sketched out some ideas, at least in my head, but also on paper (or computer). They almost never turn out the way I first wrote, because I revise them, find weaknesses and contradictions that need fixing, rethink the flow and what the reader can take at a certain time, and so forth.

Suppose we grant this very questionable assumption that the great reveal at the end of Hunters of Dune is indeed what the elder Herbert committed to writing at one point. I can’t imagine how he would have seen that idea through to execution; it contradicts too much of what came before. The difference between an independent Face Dancer and a resurrected Artificial Intelligence is no small matter.

My advice to the potential reader is to read the first six novels… and stop. It is indeed disappointing to finish the sixth novel and to realize that Herbert is dead. It is worth reading the novel more than once; there’s just so much to like. Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune could well have stood with the unwritten seventh novel as their own story, even had the first four novels never been written.

I don’t exactly regret reading the sequels, but at the end, I could easily conclude that they weren’t worth the effort. I can’s say that about the original series.