I recently reread the first three Dune books, in preparation for the new Dune movie (which was excellent!). Unfortunately, Children of Dune (CoD) stuck out for its drop-off in quality. So, inspired by the reread and conversations with Peter Sanfilippo, here are some thoughts! Minor spoilers throughout, with major spoilers for Dune and Dune Messiah.
First and foremost, I was struck by how much it borrows from its predecessors. From Dune: A coming-of-age story, the protagonist escaping into the desert, intersecting plots from our villains (the Baron and the Corrinos!). From Dune Messiah: the transformation of Arrakis and the decay of the empire.
So why is it so much worse than its predecessors?
Don't get me wrong -- there are great moments. However, issues that hurt Messiah are at the forefront here: the 9th-dimensional chess, the dreariness, the philosophizing. And worst of all...
Does Herbert hook us into cheering for our new hero, Leto II, when we meet him? No. Does he transform into a likeable character over the course of the book? Also no.
To have an interesting story, most heroes need some inner conflict (Duty or freedom? Self or other? Tradition or change?). Paul is an excellent hero (twice!) because of how engaging his inner conflicts are. In Dune, in order to survive, he sets plots in motion that will lead to genocide across the galaxy. His inner life is fascinating because you watch his growing horror at what will come:
The imperfect vision plagued him. The more he resisted his terrible purpose and fought against the coming of the jihad, the greater the turmoil that wove through his prescience.
In Messiah, he's tormented, trapped by his knowledge of the future. The boy we met long ago has become a villain, and he hates it. God, it's good!
Leto II has no real inner conflict. Leto II has it all figured out. It's clear within the first quarter of the book.
“This Golden Path could be no better than any other path,” she said. Leto looked at the rock floor between them, feeling the strong return of Ghanima’s doubts. “I must do it,” he said.
There isn't really conflict about whether it should be achieved, or whether his conception of it should change -- just how to go about achieving it. Ghanima ocassionally hopes for a way out, some alternative. But Leto? Leto's got his sights set, and we're along for the ride.
“I’m speaking of something else—a perfection of being far beyond anything humans have ever before achieved.”
“You must explain,” she said finally.
“How?” he asked. “Unless you understand that Time isn’t what it appears, I can’t even begin to explain. My father suspected it. He stood at the edge of realization, but fell back. Now it’s up to Ghani and me.”
Kind of boring, isn't it? You want your hero to be transformed through the story. Yeah yeah, Leto transforms -- but in a way he entirely expects (no spoilers!). Herbert tries to shoehorn tension in by not telling us what the Golden Path is, but it doesn't really hold a candle to the tension in Dune of not knowing whether Paul can prevent the jihad or not.
Eventually, in this life, you hopefully become skilled at noticing when somebody is trying to impress you by how they talk. They might say meaningful things, they might say meaningless things -- whatever it is, it's beyond you, and the point is to grind into you the fact that it's beyond you.
Most of the conversations in Children of Dune are between two people doing this to you. A character will say something and intend a hidden meaning to direct a character's thoughts down a different corridor. What hidden meaning? Which corridor? We don't know. Meanwhile, another character will address them, and our main character will try to figure out if there was a hidden meaning to their words. Was there? We don't know.
“I intend to turn you loose upon the universe,” she said. “You will become whatever it is you most deeply desire.”
He mulled this for a moment. “Whatever I desire?”
“Unless you learn to control your desires the way you control your reality, ” she said. And she thought: There! Let his analysts examine that. They’ll advise cautious approval, but Farad’n will move a step closer to realization of what I’m really doing.
He proved his surmise by saying: “It’s one thing to tell a person he’ll realize his heart’s desire. It’s another thing to actually deliver that realization.”
When I was younger, I did find it neat. I was sure it indicated some deficiency in me that I didn't understand any of it, and I should just enjoy the feeling of ignorance while words flashed past me. Now I get to say: no thank you, I'm no longer impressed by being confused.
Something Will Happen Soon
Characters must do things in order to be interesting. Sometimes they can also think about doing things, discuss doing things, and reflect on things that were done. Sure! But characters must do things. If they don't, a story sags. It's that simple.
This is probably the second-largest problem in CoD: Characters just don't do that much. For every chapter in which they do, there are a few chapters of them planning to do it. The Corrinos slowly plan the tiger attack. The twins plan their escape. The abduction of Jessica is planned over a few chapters.
If you're writing a story, make sure characters actually do something in each chapter, and don't just make plans to do things.
He babbles too much, Hawat thought. He's not like Leto who could tell me a thing with the lift of an eyebrow or the wave of a hand. Nor like the Old Duke who could express an entire sentence in the way he accented a single word.
A little philosophizing goes a long way. You might call it the spice of a thoughtful book. But too much spoils a section because you aren't the one experiencing the thoughts.
Dune rarely goes overboard on it, arguably. It doesn't become too detached from the human. The failing emerges in Messiah, but Messiah is short (60K), so it doesn't feel that dragged down. However, Children is a a clean 150K words, and a good chunk of those words are abstract speculation about ideology, ontology, or epistemology. Here's a sample:
As the two men departed, Leto threw himself onto his back, feeling the cold cot against his spine. Movement sent his head spinning over the edge of his spice-burdened consciousness. In that instant he saw the entire planet—every village, every town, every city, the desert places and the planted places. All of the shapes which smashed against his vision bore intimate relationships to a mixture of elements within themselves and without. He saw the structures of Imperial society reflected in physical structures of its planets and their communities. Like a gigantic unfolding within him, he saw this revelation for what it must be: a window into the society’s invisible parts. Seeing this, Leto realized that every system had such a window. Even the system of himself and his universe. He began peering into windows, a cosmic voyeur.
This was what his grandmother and the Sisterhood sought! He knew it. His awareness flowed on a new, higher level. He felt the past carried in his cells, in his memories, in the archetypes which haunted his assumptions, in the myths which hemmed him, in his languages and their prehistoric detritus. It was all of the shapes out of his human and nonhuman past, all of the lives which he now commanded, all integrated in him at last. And he felt himself as a thing caught up in the ebb and flow of nucleotides. Against the backdrop of infinity he was a protozoan creature in which birth and death were virtually simultaneous, but he was both infinite and protozoan, a creature of molecular memories.
We humans are a form of colony organism! he thought.
Golly. And while some chapters are better than others, the epigraphs are hopelessly given over to it, so chapters start listlessly:
The life of a single human, as the life of a family or an entire people, persists as memory. My people must come to see this as part of their maturing process. They are people as organism, and in this persistent memory they store more and more experiences in a subliminal reservoir. Humankind hopes to call upon this material if it is needed for a changing universe. But much that is stored can be lost in that chance play of accident which we call “fate.” Much may not be integrated into evolutionary relationships, and thus may not be evaluated and keyed into activity by those ongoing environmental changes which inflict themselves upon flesh. The species can forget! This is the special value of the Kwisatz Haderach which the Bene Gesserits never suspected: the Kwisatz Haderach cannot forget.
Contrast that to the Dune epigraphs, which tend to worldbuild or foreshadow effectively. Some are quite short!
"Yueh! Yueh! Yueh!" goes the refrain. "A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!"
God created Arrakis to train the faithful.
There is a legend that the instant the Duke Leto Atreides died a meteor streaked across the skies above his ancestral palace on Caladan.
You get the idea.
The Good Stuff
It goes without saying -- the final quarter of the book is thrilling! The payoff is huge (no spoilers!).
The first quarter is excellent as well, though. Herbert knows how to begin a book. The first chapter is a perfect reintroduction to the world. Jessica's return puts the plot in motion clealy. The stage is set for a great story: Jessica's return, Alia and the Corrinos as villains arrayed against our heros, the twins' struggle against possession, the question mark of the Preacher. The middle of the book doesn't do much with these great pieces, but it's still a pleasure seeing them set up.
A lot of the imagery is also excellent. The twins escaping through the qanat because Fremen can't quite imagine risking drowning, the planet transforming into a paradise, the evolving mythology around Paul:
Alia knew the popular riddle: “What do you see inside the empty purse brought home from Dune?” And the answer: “The eyes of Muad’Dib (fire diamonds).”
Scattered throughout there are still excellent chapters. Alia's possession, Ghanima's return to the sietch, the tiger attack. Whenever something actually happens in the book, it's rivetting!
There's a great adaptation somewhere in here. I haven't seen the mini-series adaptation, but I think a script that makes Leto less annoying and the character motivations more plain could be excellent. Villeneuve 2027?
Though CoD's ending is excellent, the book isn't quite worth it unless you're planning on reading the blissfully weird God Emperor of Dune. If you don't feel like reading four books, end at Messiah.