The One Book That Made Me Take the Long View of the Future: God Emperor of Dune

Jo Walton once wrote, fairly, that each of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels is about half as good as the one before it. By my math, that makes God Emperor of Dune (#4) about 12.5% of a classic, but it’s still worth reading.

It presents an argument that I think is fundamentally misguided, but it’s worth reading.

It’s about the ruminations of a man who turns into a worm, but it’s worth reading.

I know it’s worth reading because I’m still thinking about it three decades after the first time I read it.

The worm in question is Leto Atreides. He’s the son of Paul Atreides, the protagonist of Dune. Like his father, Leto has the gift (or curse) of prescience, and of awareness of the memories of all his ancestors.

The Dune books begin in the far future of humanity, when Earth’s culture is barely remembered, and they span a long period after that.

God Emperor takes place 3,500 years after Paul Atreides won a family feud, became emperor of the known universe and reluctantly unleashed a violent “jihad” his prescience told him was necessary. After his father’s death, Leto makes a decision guided by that same vision of the future: he gradually becomes a sandworm, one of the giant creatures that make Dune a dangerous place to visit. This transformation makes him nearly invulnerable to attack and greatly extends his life.

Like Walton, I was about 12 the first time I read Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. My older sister’s boyfriend told me about them and lent me his battered paperbacks. (Be warned, teens of the world: The younger brats who borrow your books may be the science fiction writers of the future. Lend wisely.)

I read them all, back to back, and then I read them again.

Contrary to the stereotype, many teenagers think about the future a lot. It is, after all, the stage when you’re meant to decide the main course of the rest of your life. For an earnest, politically-minded kid, that translates into: How will I serve humanity? Can an individual even make a lasting difference?

God Emperor of Dune gave me one resounding, booming version of yes, in response to that question. It’s taken me a few decades to figure out precisely why it’s such a bad yes, but that in itself is useful. It’s an entire series of books about What Not to Do.

Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that Frank Herbert intended the books to be a cautionary tale. In 1982, he told Bryant Gumbel on NBC that his message was “Don’t trust leaders to always be right.” Herbert’s prescient tyrants—Paul and Leto Atreides—use their own charisma and humanity’s history of messianic religion to create unspeakable horrors.

But the reading of the original six Dune books simply as a cautionary tale doesn’t sit easily with me. Whether or not that’s what Herbert intended, it doesn’t fit the experience of reading the books, which are not didactic, or at least not in that way. Paul and Leto are, for the first four books, the protagonists. And they are sympathetic ones. The first four books aren’t about how humanity reacts to tyrants; they’re about why tyrants believe it is necessary to become tyrants.

God Emperor is dominated by Leto’s perspective. It shows us his Golden Path, his vision of a future in which humanity survives because Leto is willing to manipulate it into a period of suffering first. Leto’s oppressive regime, and its aftermath, is the only way to ensure that humanity reacts in a way that makes it harder to oppress. And the design of Leto’s prescient eugenics program is to create humans who will be invisible to future prescients. The means and the avoided ends differ only in that the former are meant to be, ultimately, temporary.

There is no escaping Leto’s vision. The people in God Emperor who think they’re rebelling against him are actually serving his goals. When the emperor is both functionally omnipotent and prescient, if you’re alive and resisting, it’s because he wants you alive and resisting. Resistance is worse than futile; resistance is inherently co-opted.

Like many tyrants, Paul and Leto believe the horrors they unleash are all for humanity’s own good. This is familiar: Many a strongman has come to power by convincing people he’s the alternative to worse horrors. Herbert doesn’t portray their worldview uncritically, by any means, but he does portray it with a great deal of sympathy. After all, Paul and Leto do what they do because they know what few others do. They see the obligation to play the bad cop as a burden they must bear. Leto believes he is the war to end all wars.

Herbert was writing in the latter half of the 20th century, when humanity had just created a new set of international, liberal-democratic institutions in direct response to the two world wars. It really did seem, when I was a teenager reading these books, that human history was moving in a certain direction. That it had an arc.

And one certainly gets the impression that Herbert thought that humanity had to learn its lessons somehow. Later in that same NBC interview, he said half-jokingly that his favorite president was Richard Nixon, “because he taught us to distrust government.”

Or, as Leto says to a rebel, “You hate the predator’s necessary cruelty.”

It’s that word necessary that’s all kind of wrong. I don’t know whether Herbert believed it was wrong, but I sure do.

A sole, horrific path to survival is a staple of science fictional story-telling. In Marvel’s Infinity War movie, it’s a motivation for both the bad guy and at least one (prescient) good guy: the idea that there’s only one solution, so its cost must be paid. This set-up appeals to story-tellers: It puts humanity in a giant arena like the one in Frank R. Stockton’s story “The Lady, or the Tiger?”. In this arena, there are infinite tiger doors and only one lady door. One way to survive, and many ways to die.

I can’t argue with a hypothetical God Emperor who can see the outcomes of all things. But I do know that a Golden Path is not actually how we are going to save the real world. The future survival of humanity is not a puzzle to be solved. There can be no single solution, no lone tipping point, because the future is the ultimate wicked problem.

The term “wicked problem” arose in social science in the late 1960s, roughly simultaneous with the publication of the first two Dune books. In 1973, the journal Policy Sciences published a paper by Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber called “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” It defines the characteristics of wicked problems. Such problems are not wicked in the sense of malicious, but they are, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, not tame lions. (The paper actually compares wicked problems to lions, and, charmingly, to leprechauns.)

Rittel and Webber noted that the rise of professionalism in modern social science seemed to inspire both faith and fear. “Many Americans seem to believe both that we can perfect future history—that we can deliberately shape future outcomes to accord with our wishes—and that there will be no future history,” wrote Rittel and Webber. “To them, planning for large social systems has proved to be impossible without loss of liberty and equity. Hence, for them the ultimate goal of planning should be anarchy, because it should aim at the elimination of government over others.”

This could easily be a thematic summary of God Emperor of Dune, which would be published eight years later.

The paper goes on to posit that we cannot “solve” social problems, in any definitive sense. Even the act of defining a problem, of setting a goal, can’t be separated from the act of addressing the problem. Solutions to wicked problems are not true/false; they are good/bad, and they are never good enough. A wicked problem is both fundamentally unique and connected to other problems. Every action has repercussions that cannot be foreseen, not even with vast amounts of data and computers to analyze that data. (Even Leto’s prescience has its limits, by his own design.) “The planner who works with open systems is caught up in the ambiguity of their causal webs.” Wicked problems are not just bigger or badder than tame problems; they cannot be addressed by the same methods.

Many smart people have devoted many words since 1973 to refining and refuting Rittel’s and Webber’s argument, and debating how we understand and solve complex social problems, especially when it comes to climate change, the wicked problem par excellence.

The theory of wicked problems doesn’t mean, of course, that policy-makers can’t examine evidence and act on it. It does mean that waiting for a Great Intelligence to show us the one door that doesn’t lead to a tiger is a false and dangerous hope.

It’s tempting to think, like Tom Stoppard’s version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, that “there must have been a moment.” A single moment, when we could have made a choice, and a better future could have been secured. Circa 1998, perhaps? Or perhaps earlier, before the bloody 20th century began? Earlier still, before the ravaging atrocities of colonial empires? But the truth is both more terrifying and more hopeful: the truth is that both the future and the past are made entirely of those moments. This is one of those moments right now, as you’re reading this.

Saving the world is not a yes or no proposition. We’re all saving the world to some degree every day, and destroying it to some degree every day. Even an action as seemingly binary and discrete as diverting an asteroid from its path depends on many decisions long before that point in many different systems, and it creates repercussions, some of which are far in the future and can’t be foreseen. Saving humanity is a good thing, but it’s never a simple thing, and it can’t be crossed off a to-do list, by a giant worm or by anyone else.

I can’t say whether I would have majored in political science, had I not read God Emperor of Dune. I can’t say whether I would have written books about a war between rival sets of time travelers bent on shaping the future. I do know that Herbert’s novel, as frustrating and disturbing as it is, caused ripples of consequence in my own little life, and is causing them still.

Kate Heartfield’s time-travel novella, Alice Payne Arrives, is available now from Tor.com Publishing, to be followed by a sequel in March. She is also the author of the historical fantasy novel Armed in Her Fashion (CZP) and the novella The Course of True Love (Abaddon). Kate’s interactive novel, The Road to Canterbury, is available from Choice of Games. She is a former journalist and lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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