Sunday, April 6, 2008

Children of Dune

Funny story, Avocadoface, but I was just about to post my own book review this afternoon.  First, however, I had to take a nap.  This nap was rudely interrupted, first by a man with a chainsaw, then by the repeated phone calls of my mother.  Now, groggy, hungry and a little ticked off, I sit down to my review. 

For those unfamiliar with Frank Herbert's Dune Chronicles, a brief introduction: Dune, the flagship book in this five-volume series, is a sci-fi CLASSIC.  Seriously.  Ask any nerd worth her salt.  To pick up this book about the relationship between interplanetary politics, religious speculation, human emotion and ecological systems on a faraway desert planet is to be forever changed.  In Dune, we are introduced to Paul Muad'Dib, just a boy but already a hero, the perfect union of male abilities and female knowledge who forever changes the face of the universe by his actions and sayings.

What not every science fiction fan knows, however, is that Herbert wrote four more books about the planet of Dune and the family of Muad'Dib.   His third book, Children of Dune, examines the same relational complexities as the first, taking a closer look at the fall-out of Muad'Dib's actions two generations later. 

At the beginning of Children of Dune, the Imperial reign of the House Atreides still holds. Muad'Dib's sister Alia has taken control over both Dune and the Empire after his 'death'.   Alia is one of the pre-born, instilled in the womb with the consciousness of thousands of generations.  Check it: this chick was literally every woman in history, complete with all their memories, thoughts and abilities BEFORE SHE WAS EVEN BORN!!  How badass is that?! 

However, the stress of these memory-consciousnesses, along with her almost-unlimited power, have become a burden to Alia.  She's been taken over by a hostile consciousness who is using her for their own gain.  She's become perverted, an Abomination, and has twisted the planet's government into a system of malice, greed and excess.  In the face of this perversion, Muad'Dib's children, Leto and Ghanima, must save their family's empire and right the wrongs being enacted on Dune.  Of course, a number of political, social and historical forces resist and confound their quest. 

One fantastic thing that Herbert does in these books is show how quickly a character's triumphs can be inverted.  Even success contains seeds of failure and destruction.  This is evident in the character of Alia, of course, who in the last two books was one of Paul Muad'Dib's most trusted advisors (not to mention his sister!).  In this book, however, she is a force of evil, and eventually kills herself rather than contaminate the House Atreides further.  Another example of this can be found in the character of The Preacher, who is actually Muad'Dib in disguise.  Though Paul's day to rule is done, he cannot resist holding on, trying to shape the flow of human events long past his own time.  Herbert illustrates that people's personalities and their ideals keep them on the path to destruction, as they're usually too rigid to adapt to changing needs.

Of course, Children of Dune contains the usual dose of Frank Herbert's pseudo-philosophic rambling.  And, as usual, some of it is thought-provoking while other parts are opaque and even contradictory.  The character of Leto, Dune's eventual Golden Emperor, is an especially useful vehicle for Herbert's pontificating.  Unlike his father (Muad'Dib) and aunt (Alia), Leto has been raised on Dune, subject to the unique pressures and constraints of a desert planet.  His resultant philosophy is accordingly harsh as his planet, so the plans he lays to save his people are equally extreme.  Can't ruin it here (also, you wouldn't believe me if I told you what he did), but let's just say that Leto doesn't escape the trap of a rigid personality.  Rather, he embraces it, anticipates it, choosing to sacrifice himself for his people, destroying and recreating himself in an ultimate, irreversible act.  He actually becomes his planet, a living god, not-quite human.

Man, none of this probably makes sense to you, huh?  Well, let's get down to brass tacks.  My favorite take-away from this book?  That life can only be understood by living it.  To fall into the trap of knowing is the ultimate sin, and the quickest way to become rigid and destructible.  When a person thinks they know something is exactly when they're most likely to fall prey to another's trap.  When someone moves easily in life down a path that seems clearly laid out is when they're most likely to falter and fail.  Children of Dune encourages us to seek the unknown.  Know yourself and your desires, but move forward into the future with your eyes, mind and heart open.  Learn as you go.

My least favorite take-away?  Well, as in other Dune books, the women in this story get the short end of the stick.  I shouldn't have been surprised, but this book makes the inferiority of women especially apparent.  Alia, an ally in the first two books, is possessed and perverted straight off the bat.  She's hated and feared by her entire planet, including her husband and family, and is ultimately defeated by her nephew.  If you were born with the knowledge of the ages inside you, don't you think you'd be a little smarter than all that?  So much for Alia the Knife.

Herbert's misogyny is apparent in the character of Ghanima, Leto's twin, who is born with the exact same power as he, but whose role in the book is to remain on the sidelines until Leto saves her.  She's then forced to marry her brother, breed children with another man, and ends the book with the line, "Leto was always the stronger."  UGH!  Ghanima, you were born with the same abilities as Leto!  You have the same knowledge inside you!  Don't submit to his incestuous breeding schemes!  Grow a pair!  Jesus. . . 

I suppose one could point to the character of Lady Jessica as an exception to this rule.  Jessica, who started the series by birthing Muad'Dib, and who catalyzes Leto's transformations with her machinations, could be seen as a powerful woman.  But that's just it.  Instead of giving Jessica her due as an active agent, Herbert perpetually portrays her as a conniver, someone who is just barely aware of the outcomes of her actions, who mostly moves according to her own whims, not a grander prescience granted to Paul or Leto.  No, she's a meddler, and any powers she does possess are put down to witchcraft.  Nice job making me feel good about myself as woman, Frank.

Whew.  So that's Children of Dune in a nutshell.  Maybe at some point in the future I'll read a book that other people care about, or write a review that others can understand, or even write a short review for that matter, but not this time.  I feel like I just vomited onto our blog, but here it stands, my first book review.  I hope you enjoyed it.


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