People who like to go on and on dune often likes to remind casual fans (or just non-fans) that the ultimate message of Frank Herbert’s novels is that heroes are dangerous and often evil. Herbert said similar things throughout his life, including the idea that he distrusted “charismatic leaders”. In 2021, director Denis Villeneuve echoes this idea, saying“I think Herbert wrote it as a warning, [against] leaders who claim to know what is going to happen, who claim to know the truth, who perhaps lack humility. So, all of dune, even the first novel, is the journey of an anti-hero. Mostly. But just in case anyone is confused, in 1981 Frank Herbert dropped the book which made things much clearer – making everything much more confusing.
The fourth book of dune saga, God Emperor of Dune was published on May 28, 1981, five years after Children of Dune apparently ended the ‘dune trilogy’. Set 3,500 years after the previous book, God Emperor of Dune is the most ambitious of Herbert’s six dune novels for a precise reason: its story is almost autonomous, but paradoxically rests on all the continuity of the three previous books. It also has nothing to do structurally with the previous three and is presented, from the first page, as a reconstruction of the diaries of Leto II, the titular God Emperor. Although Dune, Dune Messiah, And Children of Dune contain various epigraphs from future historians (notably, Princess Irulan), God Emperor takes the futuristic narrative framing in a much wilder direction.
That said, the book do pick up where Children of Dune left insofar as Leto II’s (Paul’s son) transformation from human to human-sandworm hybrid, began in this book. The star of God Emperor is Leto II, a deranged half-sandworm, who we imagine has tiny T-Rex hands. He hangs out with gholas (clones) of Duncan Idaho and is hyper focused on a specific breeding program. Leto II is neither a hero nor a villain, and his grotesque nature makes him particularly difficult to root for. In 1981, Jabba the Hutt’s true form had yet to be revealed in Return of the Jedibut perhaps the best way to imagine the God Emperor of Dune is to ask: What if Jabba was immortal and had the power to see the future?
It can be said that Herbert’s thematic focus with this book is somewhat similar to previous books. He wants to portray power struggles as they actually would be if these science fiction plots were real. In Messiah, Herbert took the concept of Paul’s prescience to a tragic, but realistic conclusion: if Paul could see the future, he would be trapped there. In Children of Dune, Herbert suggested that the idea of having a deep ancestral memory wouldn’t be all it’s made out to be, especially if someone (namely Baron Harkonnen) was your secret grandfather. Alia’s crisis in this book is sort of the reverse of her brother’s in the previous book. And by God Emperor, by making Leto II near-immortal, we’re dealing with what, at first glance, seems like a worst-case scenario for Paul and Alia’s endings. Leto II looks crazy, and he’s basically an all-powerful monster.
But Frank Herbert not only wrote God Emperor to show how awful messianic rulers can become. He has already done this with the other books. Instead, Herbert’s full stop of God Emperor is strangely about trying to put humanity back in its place, by pressing a reset button. Since the first dune, the paradox of prescience dominates a large part of the conflicts. In the first novel, this even leads to moments where the reader is unsure if Paul is life in the future or remember he. In God Emperor, what makes the ending so interesting is that (spoiler alert!) Leto is actually trying to get rid of prescience, forever. You see, it’s not that bad!
In the end, the character of Siona Atreides – a descendant of Leto’s sister, Ghanima – becomes something of an anti-chosen one. She is the beginning of a new type of human, people who will be totally invisible to those who can see the future. In a sense, Herbert did what Asimov did with the Mule in the Foundation series, but reversed the meaning. In these books, Hari Seldon’s ability to predict the future was thrown into chaos by a random telepath called the Mule. From Asimov’s perspective, this was presented as a bad thing. In God Emperor of Dune, Herbert presents Siona as the potential salvation of the human race. Leto’s so-called “Golden Path” demands that humans exist who are immune any type of future forecast. This way, humanity will never have to deal with, well, emperors who look like giant worms who declare themselves God.
God Emperor of Dune arrives at a rather elegant and simple thesis, by complex and subversive means. It’s a book featuring a giant worm, which tries to bring people together in what feels like a cult. The backstabbing does Game Of Thrones feel like a picnic, while the relatable humanity of the first three books is largely absent. But, in many ways, it is the most dune-y of all dune books. Its message is unclear to the casual reader, and the text forces the reader to work much harder than previous books.
At the end of the day, dune talks about corrupt rulers and giant worms. In a brilliant move, Frank Herbert just decided to write a book where the main character was both.