Thursday, February 27, 2014

Review of Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert



Dune the hero’s tale; Dune Messiah the deconstruction of the hero; Children of Dune the emergence of a new hero and society; and GodEmperor of Dune reflection on the story thus far, Heretics of Dune describes what happened in the Duniverse after the fall of Leto II.  The most operatic of the series to date, plot complexity is ratcheted up numerous degrees as the saga expands.  New groups, new viewpoints, and a new set of characters (with extremely familiar pasts) crop up to tell a tale that extends the Dune storyline and increases the scope of the first four novel.  Given God Emperor of Dune was a point at which Herbert could have finished, choosing to continue the series inevitably entails doing precisely so.

Heretics of Dune opens on Chapterhouse, the home planet of the Bene Gesserit.  Having survived and developed in the 1,500 years that have passed since Leto II was assassinated, the sisterhood have been most responsible for keeping humanity on the Golden Path, and at the beginning of the story are training the latest Duncan Idaho ghola.  Another gift, the Tleilaxu Master of Masters Waff has planted the ghola as part of contrived assault on humanity with the ambition of wiping them from the universe.  Complicating his intentions, however, are the Honored Matres, a society of women who developed in secret in the aftermath of Leto II.  Intentions yet to be revealed to the universe, their appearance from the depths of space is topped by the emergence of a young woman named Sheanna on Arrakis (now called Rakis) with the ability to control sandworms.  The Bene Gesserit sending one of their most experienced sisters to investigate, the novel’s gears begin turning in the aftermath, protection of Sheeana anything but certain with the existence of the all powerful spice.

Of the Dune series, Heretics most closely resembles Children of Dune, though only partially.  At turns plausible and implausible (i.e. realist and operatic), plotting dances to the following rhythm: decisions are made on the turn of a dime behind others which have been millennia in the brewing, random secret powers suddenly appear as game changers, twists occur on top of double crosses, alliances that only half make sense are reasoned with the purest of logic, and evil with a big ‘E’ makes its appearance.   But despite this convolution, Heretics still does not possess a reveal on par with Leto II becoming a sandworm.  There is a major event which closes the novel, but it lacks impact given preceding events.  Thus, accepting what Herbert presents without questioning the logic behind it becomes a crucial point on which the success of the novel hinges, particularly ignoring the all too timely introduction of powers never-before-thought-possessed.

Like toys in a sand box, the manner in which Herbert plays with his characters and story in Heretics undermines the sincerity of the effort.  The Duniverse is losing its vigor.   This fact extends to the point this reviewer has questioned their initial opinion of Dune.  Did it contain as many cheesy twists?  Were there so many forced/contrived moments of plotting?  Did the fresh worldbuilding and gusto of the hero’s tale blind me to underlying issues?  While a re-read is necessary to answer these questions, it remains true that Heretics, with its near complete disconnection from the Atreides saga told to date, is a different beast than the previous four novels, and one that requires an open mind to the manner in which the original storyline is expanded.

Thus, if there is anything positive to say about the novel, it’s that the universe at large begins to take shape.  Instead of focusing solely on Arrakis, Heretics of Dune opens itself to interplanetary action, galactic cultures, and the setting at large, and in turn offers a more complete picture of the Duniverse.  The overly dramatic mode of characterization remains, but the background takes on more color.

Herbert’s style what it is, an improvement can be seen over the two decades between Dune and Heretics of Dune in terms of craft.  But innate to this remains the unforgiving approach and the (laudable) desire to present matters in less than straight-forward fashion.  Clipped dialogue and oblique, often harsh inner monologue leading character interaction, the characters remain comic book stock pieces; Waff proves no less subtle an evil than Baron von Harkonnen.  Herbert still unable to achieve a balance which couches philosophy in sci-fi realism (not an oxy-moron), the operatic elements continue to daunt grinding narrative.

In the end, Heretics of Dune is a plot heavy novel that evolves the overall Dune storyline in a new direction.  At times having a James Bond-ish premise motivating the storyline, and at others an all out attack of Pokemon (i.e. “your super-power defeats me, but wait, I pull out my mega-fireball card and defeat you, but wait…”), the novel is the most dynamically plotted thus far, and for that will come welcome to those who disliked the slower, more thoughtful pace of God Emperor of Dune.  For readers interested in the direction Herbert was taking some of the underlying ideas, Heretics may prove unsatisfactory for its differences to the first four books, particularly its (near) abandonment of the Atreides saga.  But for all diehard fans thus far, there will certainly be something to enjoy.

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