Back in the early 2000’s, when miniseries appeared of Dune and Children of Dune, some whispering could be heard: “Will they do God Emperor as well? Will they?” But they didn’t. It was, perhaps, too strange a novel. Too outré to invest in. But it is a novel that left me dazed by its scope and by the audacity of Frank Herbert’s literary ambitions. He went were few authors dared to go, or could imagine to go.
In interviews, Herbert said that one of the underlying themes of his Dune series is that if you have a charismatic leader, even a leader who is charismatic for all the right reasons, then that leader can still make decisions that don’t work out so well.
In Dune and its two sequels, we see Paul Atreides become a leader because was so perfectly suited for it: a lifetime of mental and physical training, a human as a product of a centuries long genetic breeding program, and even the abilities to peer into the future. In Dune Messiah, Herbert showed that even a leader so perfected for the role ultimately created an oppressive Empire. Paul Atreides, the tyrant, was also a tragic figure, who foresaw all the suffering he created in the future and in the end removed himself for the sake of humanity. In Children of Dune, Paul’s son Leto had even greater oracular powers and saw a solution to strife and violence, a Golden Path, one which Paul never dared.
In God Emperor of Dune, we see what that Golden Path is, and what happened to Leto. It is, therefore, the culmination of Frank Herbert’s vision for his series.
God Emperor Leto II transformed into something inhuman, something so powerful and godlike, that he holds humanity in an iron grip, and no one has the intelligence or power to break it. Leto controls the spice that allows space travel and doles it out according to his own whims. We are now 3500 years farther into the future than the last books and eternal peace reigns, because humanity is reigned by something inhuman. That Golden Path is a kind of stasis for the human race.
Herbert set himself a challenge with the characterization of Leto. He is not even a single person but a collection of all his human ancestors, living in perpetual boredom for many centuries. He sees all the trends of human societies, understands every hidden motivation and has the memories of uncounted lifetimes to inform him. Nothing is new, everything is a repeat of what has happened throughout our history. Understandably, he sees everything from a philosophical distance, and sees patterns where we see randomness.
God Emperor tries to hammer home an inhuman point of view from some transcendent, godlike perspective. Chapters are prefaced by quotes from his journal and they may come across as Frank Herbert being pretentious. But Leto isn’t Herbert’s power fantasy as a superhero would be. The Worm is grotesque and frustratingly difficult to understand. Herbert deliberately made him mysterious and frightening as the pivot of a religion. What is quite impressive, though, is how Leto is now a means for Herbert to philosophize about the interplay between history, geography, societies, religion and humanity’s biological urges, combining all these topics in the prism of Leto outlook.
The plot moves very slowly, but that may also be a good reflection of the daily life of a godlike worm emperor. A second point of view is Siona Atreides, part of the rebels who don’t like Leto that much. Little does she know that she is actually the culmination of Leto’s own millennia-spanning breeding program. Seeing Leto go through the daily business of running his empire is sure to leave one with mixed feelings. His conversations leave everyone in doubt and confusion. His motives are unclear. And many aspects of his empire, like his Fish Speaker army and his suppression of technology, feel subtly, insidiously wrong. The only “normal” person here is Duncan Idaho, because he is from another time. He is both the person easiest to identify with and our measuring stick for the changes Leto made to humanity. There are reasons for all of this, but it makes God Emperor the hardest and most confusing novel to read of Herbert’s series.
I’ve never read another book quite like this one before, and I don’t think one exists. While most of the SF genre felt an intellectual high about the promises of technology, human agency and self-control and simultaneously dismissed sociology and religion in simplistic visions, such as in Arthur C. Clarke’s novels or in Star Trek, Frank Herbert did the opposite: he wrote a highly visionary series that was very pessimistic about technology and treated society, belief and biological urges with serious, scientific attention. Herbert’s ideas about politics and the sexes have never laid so much on the surface as in this novel, because it is the thematic crescendo of the series, and I don’t agree with all of his ideas, but tried not to let it influence my enjoyment too much.
Only towards the end did I feel what a tragic, lonely figure Leto is. I never imagined to personify with him. I suspect that this is a love it or hate it novel. I found it frustrating at times, but I am mostly just very impressed by the uniqueness of this novel and the emotions Herbert still managed to wring out of me. In writing this he had to balance on a tightrope between seriousness and the bizarre, and he definitely achieved something. The more I think about this novel, the more I admire it.