42 Years Ago, Dune Went Off The Rails — And Became More Subversive Than Ever

All hail the God Emperor of Dune.

The cover of the audio version of 'God Emperor of Dune.'
Caedmon Records/John Schoenherr
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People who love to go on and on about Dune will often love to remind casual fans (or just straight-up non-fans) that the ultimate message of Frank Herbert’s novels is that heroes are dangerous and, often bad. Herbert said similar things, throughout his life, including the idea that he distrusted “charismatic leaders.” In 2021, director Denis Villeneuve echoed this notion, saying, "I think Herbert wrote it as a warning, [against] leaders that pretend to know what will happen, who pretend to know the truth, who might be lacking humility.” So, all of Dune, even the first novel, is an antihero’s journey. Mostly. But just in case anyone was confused, in 1981, Frank Herbert dropped the book that made things much clearer — by making everything way more confusing.

The fourth book in the Dune saga, God Emperor of Dune was published on May 28, 1981, five years after Children of Dune seemingly ended the “Dune Trilogy.” Set 3,500 years after the previous book, God Emperor of Dune is the most ambitious of all six of Herbert’s Dune novels for one specific reason: Its story is nearly self-contained, but paradoxically relies on all the continuity from the previous three books. It’s also structurally nothing like the previous three and is presented, from the very first page, as a reconstruction of the journals of Leto II, the titular God Emperor. Although Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune contain various epigraphs from future historians (most notably, Princess Irulan), God Emperor takes the future-tense narrative framing into a much wilder direction.

That said, the book does pick up where Children of Dune left off insofar as the transformation of Leto II (Paul’s son) from human to human-sandworm hybrid, began in that book. The star of God Emperor is Leto II, a deranged half-sandworm person, 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 hero nor villain, and his grotesque nature makes him specifically hard to root for. In 1981, the true form of Jabba the Hutt had yet to be revealed in Return of the Jedi, but the best way to imagine the God Emperor of Dune, is perhaps to wonder: What if Jabba was immortal and had the power to see the future?

A 1982 paperback edition of God Emperor of Dune.


Arguably, Herbert’s thematic goal with this book is somewhat similar to the previous books. He wants to depict power struggles as they actually would be if these science-fiction plot devices 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’d be trapped by it. In Children of Dune, Herbert suggested the idea of having a deep ancestral memory wouldn’t be all it's cracked up to be, especially if someone (namely Baron Harkonnen) was your secret grandfather. Alia’s crack-up in that book is kind of the reverse of her brother’s in the previous book. And, by God Emperor, by making Leto II quasi-immortal, we’re dealing with what, on the surface, appears to be a worst-case scenario of both Paul and Alia’s endgames. Leto II seems nuts, and he’s basically an all-powerful monster.

But, Frank Herbert didn’t just write God Emperor to show how horrible messianic leaders could become. He did that already with the other books. Instead, Herbert’s end point of God Emperor is weirdly to try and give home to humanity, by pressing a reset button. From the very first Dune, the paradox of prescience dominates a huge portion of the conflicts. In the first novel, it even leads to moments where the reader is unsure if Paul is living in the future or remembering it. In God Emperor, what makes the ending so interesting is that (spoiler alert!) Leto is actually trying to get rid of prescience, forever. See, he’s not so bad!

In the end, the character of Siona Atreides — a descendent of Leto’s sister Ghanima — becomes a kind of anti-Chosen One. She is the beginning of a new kind of human, people who will be utterly invisible to those who can see the future. In a sense, Herbert did what Asimov did with the Mule in the Foundation series, but flipped the meaning. In those books, Hari Seldon’s ability to predict the future was thrown into chaos by a random telepath called the Mule. In the Asimov view, that was presented as mostly 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” requires that humans exist who are immune to any kind of future forecasting. That 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 fairly elegant and simple thesis, through complex and subversive means. It’s a book starring a giant worm man, who is trying to breed people together in what feels like a cult. The backstabbing makes Game of Thrones look like a picnic, while any of the relatable humanity from the first three books, is largely absent. But, in many ways, it’s the most Dune-y of all the Dune books. Its message is unclear for the casual reader, and the text makes the reader work much harder than the previous books.

At the end of the day, Dune is about corrupt leaders and giant worms. In a brilliant move, Frank Herbert just decided to write a book where the main character was both.

Dune: Part Two — which will certainly not feature Leto II turning into a worm — hits theaters on November 3, 2023.