Friday, August 25, 2017

Rediscovering Humanity: Chapterhouse: Dune by Frank Herbert

This is my third time through the original Dune series.  I always enjoy a visit to the Dune universe, but it's not because I'd actually want to live in that universe.  It's all too intense for me.  I love the books but I have to admit they're pretty bleak with all those "plans within plans within plans" in service of the raw pursuit of power.  Dramatized with internal asides in italics!

For all their machinations and glorious battle, nobody in the Dune books really seems to be enjoying themselves in anything approaching a healthy way.  At least until Chapterhouse: Dune, the sixth volume in the series and the last Frank Herbert wrote before his death in 1986.

In my review of Heretics of Dune, I said that a big theme of the series is expanding humanity -- pushing human nature to new heights of abilities and forms from the Guild Navigators, Bene Gesserit, Mentats, Tleilaxu, Face Dancers, Honored Matres, and more.  A bit part of Herbert's genius is the idea that if we eschew technology in something like the Butlerian Jihad, we might radically remake ourselves (with some help from the Spice, of course).

That's all fascinating stuff, but what makes Chapterhouse: Dune my third favorite in the series (after Dune and God-Emperor of Dune) is that it is about rediscovering humanity.  In particular, it's about remembering that being human is also about things that many Dune characters find sentimental and inessential: love and laughter.  This may be the only Dune book where anybody laughs out of amusement rather than rapturous revenge.  The relationship between Duncan and Murbella is probably the first time people have really loved each other in the books since Leto I and Jessica.  I'd like to think Herbert is consciously returning to this theme he basically left behind in the first book.  Perhaps he was prompted by thinking about his own marriage.  There's a touching dedication to his recently deceased wife, Bev, at the end of the novel.

Some contemporary philosophers have discussed an objective list theory of meaning, well-being, or happiness (while these notions are different, I'll concentrate on meaning here, because I think meaning is an essential component of well-being and happiness -- a necessary but not sufficient condition for the philosophers out there).  According to some versions of objective list theories, it's not that meaning is entirely subjective, but it's also not easy to say that one or two things are meaningful for everybody.  Perhaps instead there's a long list of meaningful activities, and a life could be meaningful insofar as it includes at least some items on that list (the list itself need not be set or entirely agreed upon by everyone; like humanity, it could expand as new candidates are discovered, elaborated, and argued for).

The pursuit of plans within plans within plans is meaningful, but so is enjoying a meal or a walk, laughing, and loving.  I'd like to think that the more we remember the meaningfulness of the little things, the less we'll sweat the big stuff.  Not that we'll give up the big projects (and the Dune universe contains some big projects indeed), but they're not the only thing that makes life meaningful.

Darwi Odrade is one of my favorite characters in the Dune series, because I think she understands the importance of rediscovering humanity in the wild expansion and remembering the meaning of the smaller things in life.  It's why she fights the power-mad, humorless Honored Matres.  It's why she occasionally indulges in delicious meals and takes walks in the orchards just for fun.  It's not that Chapterhouse is a feel-good, sappy Dune book.  Such a thing would hardly be a Dune book at all.  There are plenty of Machiavellian plans within plans within plans, but unlike most of the other books, there are hints that there's more to life than that.

I'd like to think this was part of Leto II's Golden Path all along.  Maybe part of his mysterious lesson to humanity was that there's more to life than the pursuit of raw power, that love and laughter and talking leisurely strolls are as important as developing fantastic abilities.  And perhaps he saw that Odrade or someone like her would someday lead the Bene Gesserit against the Honored Matres and their ilk.  Or maybe Odrade came up with the idea on her own.  Another mystery added to the heap of Dune mysteries.

Is this mission to rediscover humanity successful?  I'll have to go into full spoiler mode to discuss this question.  Skip past the italicized text if you don't want spoilers.


At the end of the book, it turns out Odrade and Murbella's plan was to infiltrate the Honored Matres (Murbella is still technically an Honored Matre even though she's also training to be a Bene Gesserit).  Murbella becomes the head of the Honored Matres by killing the former head, and then she is also voted Mother Superior of the Bene Gesserit.  Will she try to turn the Matres in the Bene Gesserit direction or vice versa?  Has she been an Honored Matre double agent all along or is she a true Bene Gesserit?  Neither?  Both?  This is left unresolved.  

Also, a no-ship escapes with our latest Duncan ghola, who is also a Mentat, a ghola of Miles Teg (from the previous book), Sheeana (who can control the sand worms), Scytale (a Tleilaxu master), a Rabbi and his wife ... and a baby worm.  So basically it's a Dune civilization starter kit headed out into the Scattering.

Of course, there is also the matter of the last few, controversial pages.  What the hell is that?  Who/what is this couple, Marty and Daniel?  Why could Duncan see visions of them earlier?  Are they hyper-evolved Face Dancers (as they seem to imply)?  Are they fully controlling the events in the books like weird cosmic puppet masters, are they partly controlling things through psychic means, or are they merely observing everything?  Toward what end?  And why are they gardening while they do all this?  Is Herbert just having a bit of a laugh with us?  I wouldn't be disappointed if he were as a final way to remind us of our humanity!


So this book -- and the series -- ends with plenty of unanswered questions, which I think is fitting for a philosophical science fiction saga.  What fun would it be to see the end of the Golden Path?

Sure, there are those direct sequels from Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune).  I might read them, especially since they're allegedly based directly on Frank Herbert's notes.  I never like their Dune prequel books much, although I've read several; when you need to spend time in the Dune universe, sometimes a mediocre trip is better than none at all.

Luckily, I think the books Frank Herbert actually wrote during his lifetime stand up fine on their own.  And I continue to love the sixth book as a bit of a correction to and complication of the earlier books.  As we expand humanity it's good not to forget all the other things that make human life meaningful.

Rating: 95/100

See also my Goodreads review.


  1. I am Dune freak, read the series twice a year for decades, (it's an issue I wish not to explore) and it is nice to finally see a positive review for Chapterhouse: Dune. I agree with you, there is something quite balanced and light that comes from the 6th book. For me, it was always intriguing to slip behind the velvet ropes, delve into the secrets of the Bene Gesserit, explore humanities expansions through the female perspective. While I abhore the new series, Hunters of Dune, Sandworms of Dune is more in-tune, worth a read simply to answer those nagging questions.

    1. Thanks! I love all the later books: God-Emperor, Heretics, and Chapterhouse. I think one of the things I've always found hard to swallow about the Dune series is how there's relatively little change in institutions over thousands and thousands of years, which is probably a big part of why I enjoy seeing some interesting changes in the Bene Gesserit in Heretics and Chapterhouse.

      I'm glad to hear Hunters and Sandworms aren't too bad. I somewhat enjoyed the origin stories of the Mentats and Bene Gesserit that came out in the last few years, although they're not the same as Frank Herbert's originals, of course.