As the Dune saga sweeps towards its conclusion, the time distances between each volume become greater and greater. We’re not talking centuries here but millennia as the plans of semi-divine beings come to fruition through generations and generations of genetically bred offspring.
Heretics of Dune has Herbert in destructive mood. Whole planets crumble into nothing as the expanded human universe is gripped by civil war. Humanity has split off into branches on different sides of the universe, each group knowing little of the others. Now the survivors of the original planets in the epic, renamed as Rakis, Gammu and Dan find to their horror that those people returning from the scattering are much more powerful and ruthless than those that were left behind.
After the initial book in the series, Dune, Herbert’s big ideas about planets and ecology soon faded away to be replaced with half-baked musings on history and politics. In Heretics of Dune, he returns to his earlier interest in how science and genetics dictate who we are and what we do. He examines ideas which only now are gaining a foothold in the popular imagination:
Memory never recaptures reality. Memory reconstructs. All reconstructions change the original, becoming external frames of reference that inevitably fall apart.
Alongside his philosophising, and despite the galactic sweep of his narrative, Herbert has always been deft at keeping his action at a manageable, human level. In that respect, Heretics of Dune is a return to the action, excitement and cruel reversals of fortune that made the first book so memorable.
In its protagonist Miles Teg, Heretics of Dune also has the strongest character in the series since Alia and Paul in Dune Messiah. Teg bears an inheritance from almost all the most powerful groups in the Dune universe. He is a mentat – a human computer, a fascinating concept which means he can change his consciousness to operate at a level of pure logic. He has also been trained by the Bene Gesserit, a cult of women with preternatural control of their minds and bodies. Most astonishing of all, Teg is also a new human, implanted with powers by his ancestors of which not even he knows the upper limit.
Powerful as he is, Teg is trapped on an inescapable planet with two defenceless companions that he must save at all costs. Their flight for freedom is as tense as any Cold War thriller, especially given Herbert’s enthusiasm for slaughtering his leading characters with abandon.
Heretics of Dune is a huge relief after the poor fare of God Emperor of Dune, and a worthy prequel to the sixth and final section of the story.