Another giant leap into the future; another 1500 years. The Worm may be long gone, but his impact upon the universe still reverberates through the ages. The Tyrant is still a daily topic of conversation; at least among the Bene Gesserit, who have been sidelined for all those millennia but still exist as one of the most sturdy, enduring societies. With the Worm gone, they see themselves as the only protectors left of humanity’s future.
Two Sisters of the old BG, Lucilla and Odrade, are ordered to accompany a new Duncan Idaho ghola to the planet Rakis, which used to be called Arrakis. On Rakis, it is said, giant worms live again and they carry the pearl of the God Emperor’s consciousness in them, and, what’s more, someone learned how to ride them. How the Duncan ghola will feature in this scheme, is a mystery to himself too.
What I find strange is how in 1500 years, so little has in fact changed in Herbert’s universe. The previous novel God Emperor of Dune ended with the promise of a great flowering, a great diaspora of humanity, which I suppose happened, yet here we are 1500 years later and Herbert still talks of Bene Gesserit, Tleilaxu, Suk doctors, Mentats and more Duncan Idaho clones. Either the societies of the future are extraordinarily sluggish, or Herbert didn’t want to change his universe so much that it wouldn’t feel like a Dune novel anymore.
In Heretics of Dune we see, like the turning of a wheel, old things happening again, such as the worms on Arrakis, which again turned into a desert. This time the threat comes from far away, in the form of the Honored Matres, some kind of wayward Reverent Mothers who rely on sex to achieve dominance. This is an odd point in the novel. Herbert suddenly talks a lot about sex, especially since in both the Bene Gesserit and the Honored Matres, the women all use sex for manipulation, and these are incidentally the only societies in the semi-feudal Dune universe in which women seem to have any political power and they are all inhuman schemers. I found all the sex talk an unexpected, unwelcome addition to the Dune universe and it took me out of the story. It didn’t seem part of the same spirit of the rest of the series.
The main characters are Bene Gesserit and they are portrayed as some kind of superhuman Jedi nuns. They are always smarter than everyone else and beating everyone, and I’m not sure how to feel about it. They are a bit repulsive. Every power in the Dune universe is a bit repulsive in fact. Herbert wants to make some argument about love, because the Bene Gesserit do not allow themselves to feel it, and neither do the Bene Tleilax. They cut off part of their humanity and it is, in the end, their great flaw. Only Leto II embarked on the Golden Path.
The whole Dune series up to and including part 4, God Emperor of Dune, feels like a finished work that tried to explain a single vision – raised arguments and examples and then addressed them. With Heretics of Dune, at first I missed that feeling of continuity, of being part of that same vision. Only halfway into the book when more callbacks to God Emperor are made, did that feeling finally return. That’s because it takes a long while for the story to get going – around 150 pages if not more – and it left me floundering for a while. But this is no different from the other Dune novels and once it gets going, it’s actually quite good. Herbert knows how to construct memorable scenes and how to write characters – notably Miles Teg and Odrade.
Still, this felt like a novel in search of a point. Less focused than the previous novels and with some odd additions to the Dune universe, it is not as inspiring or as profound as what came before.