Years ago I had a habit of starting well-known philosophy books but not getting anywhere close to finishing them. These included Nietzsche’s famous work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his mock scripture describing the pronouncements of a fictional prophet.* This was Nietzsche’s attempt to put his philosophy in the form of a novel; he ended up subtitling it “A Book for Everyone and No One,” showing his pessimism that its great ideas would fall upon deaf ears. In fact, Nietzsche’s work — especially in the distilled, often out-of-context form of pulled quotes — seems to be most known for being misinterpreted by Nazis and other totalitarians.
Frank Herbert had to have recognized the potential audience for the third volume of his Dune series, the 1976 novel Children of Dune. The original Dune had won critical recognition and was (finally) on its way to becoming the best selling science fiction novel of all time. In fact, CoD was the first hardcover bestseller in the history of science fiction. So when I saw the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra reimagined to introduce The Preacher early in CoD, I was convinced that Herbert was using this unique opportunity to give Nietzsche another chance to be presented to a large, invested audience.
Like the books that preceded it, CoD is composed of many chapters, each starting with an excerpt from a fictional text, song or poem. We are thus encouraged to read the story at two levels; one following the narrative and the other to engage in the overarching themes of philosophy and history. The characters, whose feelings and reasoning we are always given, might be therefore be better considered as ideas than personalities; the task of engaging CoD comes from the depth and coherence of Herbert’s ideas, rather than any tension from what the characters might be up to.
I proceed here in sketching a few of these characters and the abstract concepts I think they could represent. I’m convinced that just about any reader of the entirety of CoD will have their own opinion. For more informed viewpoints on Herbert’s use of Nietzsche, see the book Dune and Philosophy, especially Brook Pearson’s essay “Nietzsche Goes to Space.”
The opening Prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra describes the titular prophet approaching a town square after spending ten years out of civilization. Zarathustra, whose Greek name is Zoroaster, has realized that the core religious idea he had spread – that the entirety of the universe has arisen from the forces of good and evil – is false, and has grown eager to repair his mistakes. A crowd has gathered to watch a tightrope walker, and Zarathustra attempts to share his revelations. He is not taken seriously:
. . . “You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now man is more an ape than any ape.” . . .
When Zarathustra had spoken thus, one of the people cried: “Now we have heard enough of the tight-rope walker; let us see him, too!” And all the people laughed at Zarathustra. But the tight-rope walker, who thought that the words applied to him, set to work.
The blind Preacher of CoD, arriving in a Fremen city square nine years after a blind Paul Artreides (known as Muad’Dib to the Fremen) wandered into the desert, witnesses a similar mockery of his religion:
“I have see-ee-en!” the newly awakened dancer shrieked. “I have see-ee-en!” He resisted the pull of the other dancers, darting his eyes right and left. “Where this city is, there will be only sand! I have see-ee-en!”
A great swelling laugh went up from the onlookers. Even the new pilgrims enjoyed it.
This was too much for the Preacher. He raised both arms and roared in a voice which surely had commanded worm riders: “Silence!” The entire throng in the plaza went still at that battle cry.
The Preacher pointed a thin hand towards the dancers, and the illusion that he saw them was uncanny. “Did you not hear that man? Blasphemers and idolators! All of you! The religion of Muad’Dib is not Muad’Dib! He spurns it as he spurns you! Sand will cover this place. Sand will cover you.”
Like Nietzsche’s prophet, the Preacher finds that mediocrity and the erosion of belief has afflicted the Fremen. During the jihad, Arrakis under the rule of Alia Atreides (sister of Paul, and regent while his twin children are young) had grown wealthy and important. Pilgrims of the Muad’Dib visit the planet, and many local Fremen have forsaken centuries of hard-earned traditions, especially their obsessive water conservation.
Arrakis is also undergoing an ecological transformation, with imported technology capturing atmospheric moisture to form green patches across the desert. This allows people to abandon, or at least to stop meticulously maintaining, their stillsuits. Traditionally-minded Fremen disapprove of course, forming their reactionary tribes well outside of Alia’s governance. Instead of staying with these out-lying families, the Preacher doggedly tries to convince the town-dwellers to look at their own lives in a different way, and realize the folly of their leaving the desert.
Paul Atreides and Leto II
To have many virtues is to be distinguished, but it is a hard fate; and many a man has gone into the desert and killed himself because he was tired of being a battle and battleground of virtues.
From his first appearance, the Preacher is suspected of actually being Muad’Dib, or Paul Atreides.** The events of Dune and Dune:Messiah made Paul the messiah of the Fremen people and ruler of the Atreidean Empire. His ability to see into the future, the result of centuries of genetic manipulation, helped the the first part of Dune get published in Analog (whose editor John Campbell always liked stories featuring characters with ESP).
Recapping the first two books … His clairvoyance was augmented to an extreme degree by an overdose of melange, or “spice,” the renowned stimulant that could only be harvested on Arrakis. The effects of spice, this being unique in the science fiction that I’m aware of, varies radically depending on the individual who takes it. In Paul’s case, he is able to save the Fremen and House Atreides by controlling his future via uncanny foresight. To that point, he resembled a Western version of the great usurper Sam in Lord of Light. However, he eventually found himself imprisoned by his knowledge of the future, explicitly conscious of his lack of Free Will. He then blinded himself and wandered out alone into the desert.
It becomes clear in CoD that Paul was bothered by the many deaths brought about by his jihad against the Empire, even though he had chosen the “best” of all possible evils set before him. His clairvoyance had not, in fact, included the widespread death of his war. Rather than be the agent of any further disaster, he chose to abandon the path – known as The Golden Path – and leave the burden of leadership to his offspring. His son Leto II (whose mother was Fremen), possessed with an even greater foresight, confronts him on this point late in the story:
“For a time they’ll call me the missionary of shaitan, too,” Leto said. “Then they’ll begin to wonder, and finally, they’ll understand. You didn’t take your vision far enough, father. Your hands did good things and evil.”
“But the evil was known after the event!”
“Which is the way of many great evils,” Leto said. “You crossed over only to a part of my vision. Was your strength not enough?”
“You know I couldn’t stay there. I could never do an evil act which was known before the act. I’m not Jacurutu.” He clambered to his feet. “Do you think me one of those who laughs alone at night?”
“It is said you were never really Fremen,” Leto said. “We Fremen know how to commission the arifa. Our judges can choose between evils. It’s always been that way for us.”
This conversation could be between two tyrants as much as between two heroes, and admittedly floats into the dangerous territory where Nietzsche’s ideas have been known to be twisted. Thus Spoke Zarathustra was dedicated for everyone or no one, not a chosen few who have power. However, the changes to be imposed upon the populace have to come from someone . . .
Leto II takes the mantle in the above quote, claiming by birthright a more nuanced understanding of the nature of evil. This is an example of Herbert philosophically departing from Nietzsche — Nietzsche posits that good and evil are not at the metaphysical essence of existence, and that evil is a construct of envy and resentment. Herbert suggests a rational basis for how evil comes to exist in the Dune universe: Leto II and Paul both understand that evil must exist in order for good to be defined against it, but only Leto embraces it. Moreover, the shocking cost of Leto’s Golden Path indicate a keen reversal of Nietzsche’s skeptical treatment of evil as a thing. Even after reaching the end of CoD, we do not know whether the Nietzschean ideal outcome, when interpreted in this nuanced context of the Dune universe, would actually be any good for us.
It was much easier to see Paul Atreides as the sympathetic hero in Dune, but we see now that his great victory was a hollow one. His people are wealthier and healthier than before the jihad, but they are reaching a stasis wherein they will, at some point, fall under the rule of House Corrino, the Spacing Guild, or other outside entity. They have become what Nietzsche derided as “Ultimate Man,” the self-satisfied middle class.
Leto II, on the other hand, intends to put humanity on the path to become the “Superman,” or Übermensch in Nietzsche’s writings. Often mistaken in popular culture as an ideal for a special individual, Übermensch actually refers to the future of the entire human race; understanding this informs us of the scale of Leto’s ambitions.
Alia, Jessica and Duncan Idaho
The ongoing feud between Alia, the autocratic regent of Arrakis, and her mother Jessica drives the plot of CoD. Jessica is a wayward member of the Bene Gesserit, an ancient society of erudite women who maintain a limited ability to foresee political events and influence them. From the start, they struggle over the fate of Leto II and his twin sister Ghanima.
The Bene Gesserit plan is thought to be to have the twins share the throne as a married couple; this is something the children find repugnant but would give the Bene Gesserit a second chance at a line of scions under their influence. Alia’s scheme is to get rid of her mother through assassination and arrange a marriage between Ghanima and a member of House Corrino (an off-planet rival of House Atreides). Alia and Jessica make a series of moves, feints and counter-moves, pulling around a cast of secondary male characters like so many pieces on a game board. They comprise the most conventionally interesting aspects of CoD, and reveal the heavy influence of Shakespeare.
Duncan Idaho, a former swordsman for Paul and advisor-husband of Alia, serves a complimentary role as a link between the two women, but Herbert mainly uses him – as he often does with “mentat” characters – to provide an ostensibly disinterested overview of the complex plot threads and settings. After Idaho concludes that Alia is conspiring with members of House Corrino, he reveals to us the reasons why this would not lead to a nuclear attack on Arrakis. Among these reasons is the suppression of technical ingenuity by feudal governments:
Planetary feudalism remained in constant danger from a large technical class, but the effects of the Butlerian Jihad continued as a damper on technological excesses. Ixians, Tleilaxu, and a few scattered outer plants were the only possible threat in this regard, and they were planet-vulnerable to the combined wrath of the rest of the Imperium. The Butlerian Jihad would not be undone. Mechanized warfare required a large technical class. The Atreides Imperium had channeled this force into other pursuits. No large technical class existed unwatched. And the Empire remained safely feudalist, naturally, since that was the best social form for spreading over widely dispersed wild frontiers – new planets.
Reading CoD requires absorption on two levels; we must follow the plot and decide what is at stake for the characters, and we also drink the knowledge of Herbert’s Dune universe. It’s like pausing a conventionally told story to check out a related article every few pages – something I do when reading history. If you can accept CoD as a telling of a worthwhile history imbued with philosophy, I think Herbert’s style should work for you.
“Everything straight lies,” murmured the dwarf disdainfully. “All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.”
The important ideas of Dune series hang around between the volumes; so too do many of the characters. Duncan Idaho is the ideal example of this – he is killed at the end of Dune, but is essentially replicated as a cognizant zombie in Dune: Messiah. In a plot to assassinate Paul, he was “programmed” by the technicians who constructed him, but he recovers the necessary Will to overcome this and foil the conspirators. This made him a Nietzschean hero in his own right, having forsaken the will of others (including those who created him) in order to recover his potential as an individual.
More interesting is his apparent embodiment (I don’t know if he shows up after CoD) of the notion of eternal recurrence: that the events in our lives have happened before, and will eventually repeat themselves ad infinitum. He may switch alliances and surprise the Bene Gesserit in his (after-)life, but he realizes he remains somewhere in their web of manipulations. Like Paul, he has defeated his human enemies but has ultimately fallen short of the ideals of the superman, and remains subject to the cyclic history of Dune. I was frustrated with his deux ex machina quality in Dune: Messiah but I found him more interesting in CoD — he also was a needed character in driving the plot onward.
That said, I felt CoD took a good 180 pages before the events really got moving. So much of the first part of the book was recapitulating the content of Dune and Dune: Messiah and establishing who-knows-what and who-thinks-what-may-happen. This is not merely embodied in the long internal dialogues of Duncan Idaho. Jessica frequently provides her own perspective on past events and the possible motivations of her rivals. Alia’s psychotic “possession” by the ghost-memory of Baron Harkonnen,*** brings back the principal villain of Dune. Of course, Leto II and Ghanima have many generations of ancestors living inside of their minds – no major character experiences the present without obsessing over the past, regardless of whether or not they actually lived in it. Even at the very beginning, old Stilgar, a loyal Atreides soldier and having relatively simple motivations, must summarize historical events as he talks himself out of an act of double regicide.
So, reading CoD can be slow going as it revisits the prior books in the series. The world of Dune must have been the most richly realized in the experience of Herbert’s wide readership, and CoD certainly does not compromise this complexity. The ecological theme is again part of the background, but we do get a healthy amount of sandworm biology (recalling Melville’s enthusiasm for cetology in Moby Dick). In this volume, he brings a new emphasis on modern philosophical ideas, taking on the difficult task of combining them into a compelling narrative. For the most part, it appears he has pulled it off. 8/10.
* Thus Spoke Zarathustra can be an uneven reading experience for the casual reader, so it wasn’t entirely surprising I failed to finish it at the time. I do recommend it for anyone wanting to plumb the philosophical depths of Children of Dune.
** Unlike what is claimed in Brook Pearson’s essay “Nietzsche Goes to Space,” the Preacher does not leave his first audience unmoved, like Zarathustra. The mystique of Muad’Dib is still powerful among the modernized Fremen as well as the off-planet visitors. They were pilgrims, after all. Overall, Pearson’s arguments are sound and easy to follow. The book looks like it was marketed toward the Dune movie, but the chapter authors mostly focused on Herbert’s novels.
*** Baron Harkonnen was an obvious physical manifestation of evil in the original Dune, something I think portrayed very effectively in David Lynch’s movie. Calculating, disgusting and taking sexual gratification in killing innocent victims, he was also an economic terror, hoarding spice so that potential rivals would be cut off from Arrakis when he set his invasion plans in motion. As a voice inside Alia’s mind in CoD, Harkonnen is a more modern incarnation of the Devil: an aberrant mental ghost who the Regent turns to in her desperation to defeat the conspiracies around her.