Monday, 7 December 1998

Frank Herbert: Children of Dune (1976)

Edition: New English Library, 1977
Review number: 176

The third of Herbert's Dune novels marks the end of the first section of the series, with thousands of years now set to elapse before the next novel, God Emperor of Dune. With the exception of the classic first book, Children of Dune is probably the best of the series.

The psychological centre of this book is an investigation of what it would mean to be one of the "pre-born". These are three of the four descendants of Duke Leto Atreides and his concubine Jessica, the culminations of a centuries long breeding programme set up by the sinister Bene Gesserit sisterhood. The pre-born, their consciousnesses enhanced in the womb by the addiction of their mothers to the drug melange, break through into a new world as they gain access before birth to the accumulated memories of their ancestors.

There are distinct problems with this idea. Clearly, there is no feasible mechanism to pass on memories following the conception or birth of the child - which depends on the sex of the ancestor - but Herbert often seems to assume that all the memories from the whole life of the ancestor becomes available. Apart from this, it is difficult to think of a way in which the memories could be stored physically in the body and become part of the genetic inheritance of the children - it's a Lamarkian rather than Darwinian form of evolutionary biology. Also, the total number of ancestors would be huge - even going back a thousand years would produce tens of thousands, and the pre-born have memories from several millennia in the past. Just to store a full set of memories physically would be a feat, but being able to sort through, access and comprehend them is even more unlikely.

For the purposes of the story, these difficulties are virtually ignored. The main concern of the characters is with "abomination", where the pre-born personality is taken over - possessed - by one of their ancestors from what is described as "the clamour within". One, Alia, sister of the former emperor Paul and regent to his children, has fallen victim to the strong personality of her grandfather, the evil Baron Harkonnen who was the villain in the first novel in the series. The other two, Paul's twin children, undergo a variety of tests and rituals designed to find out whether or not they are abominations.

An important character in the book is the Preacher, a blind old man who comes to the capital to preach against the policies of Alia's regency and the way the religion centred around Paul has decayed in the few short years since the Emperor was blinded and walked out into the desert. Most people, including Alia, believe that the Preacher is Paul himself.

The fact that the pre-born and Paul also have a degree of prescience, knowledge of important possibilities in the future, is the other main mystical element in The Children of Dune. The conflict between their visions and the failure of Alia to receive new vision cause them to be the subject of many political plots and schemes, which are elements common to every book in the Dune series.

The two elements in which Herbert interests himself in most of his novels, not just the Dune series, are politics and psychology (particularly the psychology of religion). Here, these elements are skilfully woven together, the peg of the general abhorrence providing a natural way to do this. This is why the book works rather better than some of his others, which make the weaving together seem rather artificial.

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