Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Expanding Humanity: Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert

"'Never underestimate the power of an idea,' Taraza said.  The Atreides were ever philosophers in their governance.  Philosophy is always dangerous because it promotes the creation of new ideas.'"  
- Heretics of Dune (p. 440)

This is my third time through the Dune series, which is one of my favorite science fiction series of all time.  The first time I read the fifth in the series, Heretics of Dune, I thought it was okay, but it was my second least favorite of the series after Dune Messiah, mainly because it seemed more action-oriented and less philosophical, especially compared to God Emperor of Dune (see my review here).

But after reading Heretics again I need to re-evaluate my previous opinion.  Sure, there's plenty of action (Bashar Miles Teg is 100% Pure Grade A Badass).  You also get the typical Dune universe political machinations between and within the Bene Gesserit, Tleilaxu, and the new Honored Matres.  Nonetheless, there's some heady stuff going on here.

As with most of Frank Herbert's Dune books, there's little sense in separating the philosophy from the rest of the book (plot, characters, themes, etc.), so I will abandon my usual book review practice of having a section called "The Philosophy Report."  (Those "McDune" cash-grabbing sequels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson are another matter, which I won't talk about in this review although I have briefly reviewed Sisterhood of Dune and Mentats of Dune).

Just what do you do with the human race?:  From Golden Path to noble purpose

In book four, God Emperor of Dune, we learn about the Golden Path of Leto II, which as I noted in my review of that book, involves an answer to the question, "Just what do you do with the human race?" (a question I've borrowed from the book, Dune and Philosophy: Weirding Way of the Mentat, which is required reading for any philosophically inclined Dune fan).  In Heretics we see that Path starting to come to fruition 1,500 years after Leto's death.  It turns out that Leto kept the Bene Gesserit around all those years because he needed them to continue his work, which the Reverend Mothers Taraza and Odrade start calling the "noble purpose."  Of course, we still don't entirely understand what that work is.  That's probably the point, or at least it makes for some fun reading.

If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say that Leto II saw that his lesson of tyranny may not be completely learned and that if humanity was to survive and thrive after his lesson, it would need the guidance of the only organization with the longevity, stability, and philosophical acumen needed to do the job.   Some of this comes out more clearly in the next book, Chapterhouse: Dune, so I'll wait until I re-read that one to say more.

Speaking of the Bene Gesserit, I've always thought it's odd how the later books show relatively little change (institutionally, linguistically, culturally, etc.) in the millennia since Dune.  After all, how much has our world changed in the last 5,000 years?  Maybe the stability of the Bene Gesserit, an organization with literal institutional memory, offers part of the explanation along with Leto II himself, of course (see this article, "Grandma's Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes," for a real-life theory of something not entirely unlike the Other Memories of the Dune universe).

The dangers of power

Of course there's more to Heretics.  We also learn more about the Tleilaxu and the remnants of Leto's religious followers (priests and Fish Speakers).  And then there are the Honored Matres, to whom we are introduced in this book (we get more of them in the next one).  The blurb on back of my book says they bring a "heresy called love."  It's a bit more complicated than that.  In fact, I'd say it's the Bene Gesserit, exemplified by Odrade, that truly understand love of one's fellow humans.

Part of the message is that the seeking of power for power's sake is ultimately a self-destructive endeavor, especially if one uses sexual energy or familial loyalty to do the job.  This initially seems like an odd message for a series that dwells on the humorless pursuit of power at all costs, but I've always thought that Herbert and his characters are more ambivalent about power than it appears to the casual reader.  Perhaps, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault might say, Herbert wants to remind us that power isn't always bad, but it is always dangerous.

Expanding humanity

The introduction of new groups and the continued development of the familiar Bene Gesserit also touches on one of the deepest themes of the Dune books: the expansion of humanity.  The Honored Matres come from the Scattering, a literal expansion of humanity, but I have in mind the idea that humans might radically remake themselves into something still human, but also new.

After the Butlerian Jihad, the humans of the Dune universe turned away from computer technology.  They turned to themselves to make Reverend Mothers, Guild Navigators, Mentats, Face Dancers, Honored Matres, and all the glorious weirdness that fans of the books have come to love.  It's not that there is no human nature, it's that this nature is capable of expansion.  A big part of the fun of the Dune universe is contemplating just what our descendants might become.  And it's a good thing we can expand, for a species that doesn't change in a changing universe won't be around forever.  A philosophically astute reader might then wonder what the point of survival is (especially given the horrors often entailed by survival in the Dune universe) and whether at some point extinction might not be a bad thing.

That readers are encouraged to dwell on these and many other issues without dogmatic resolution is part of what makes this one of the most philosophical science fiction series of all time.

Rating: 94/100

See also my Goodreads review.


  1. I still haven't read these books in English and it has been ages since I read them in translation. I really ought to do something about it.

    My girlfriend recently read Dune for the first time. She wasn't very impressed with the Bene Gesserit and his portrayal of women in particular. Her assessment was that they are either powerful and feared or relegated traditional roles in society. In the final two books in the series Herbert places the female characters in more central roles in the plot. Do you agree with her assessment? Do you think Herbert changed in this respect in the twenty or so years between Dune and Heretics/Chapterhouse?

    1. Thanks! I love these books more every time I read them.

      That's a good question about the Bene Gesserit. I think I agree with your girlfriend's assessment. I'm not sure it's Herbert's personal failing. Maybe he was trying to say something interesting about gender associations. It's not like he personally invented the tendency to fear and/or oppress women in human history. Or maybe he was a plain old misogynist (and homophobe, too, if you consider Baron Harkonnen). It's hard to say. I wouldn't have written the book that way, since I'd like to think we'd get over that kind of misogyny 25,000 years in the future, not to mention monarchical feudal systems, vicious warfare, holy wars, imperialism, vast economic inequality, etc. But in a world-building sense, Herbert's limitations (no computers, no democracy, weird gender roles, etc.) are what make his universe so interesting and deeply flawed (much like any real world).

      It may be that Herbert had a personal change of heart about women. The Bene Gesserit were always powerful, but they do become more human in Heretics and Chapterhouse. This is probably part of what I like so much about the later books. It feels like the Bene Gesserit finally get the respect and attention they deserve, although I do cringe when they keep insisting on calling the Honored Matres "whores" all the time. I'm not sure what the deal is with that.