The Bene Gesserit Books:
Frank Herbert’s Heretics of Dune & Chapterhouse: Dune
Frank Herbert’s six Dune novels fall into three pairs. Dune (1965) and Dune Messiah (1969) chart the rise and fall of Paul “Muad’Dib” Atreides, a man who becomes a superman and the God Emperor of the known universe. Children of Dune (1976) and God Emperor of Dune (1981) narrate the rise and fall of Paul’s son, Leto II, a superman who transforms himself into a monster and rules for 3,500 years. Heretics of Dune (1984) and Chapterhouse: Dune (1985) are set 1,500 years after God Emperor and focus on the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood’s struggle with their evil twin, a sisterhood that calls itself the Honored Matres.
The Bene Gesserit novels were great commercial successes for Herbert and his publishers, but artistically they are disappointing. The marvelous universe he built in the first four novels is still in place, but the stories take a long time to get going, with most of the action happening at the end — and often related in the sketchiest possible manner. The writing overall is prolix and self-indulgent. At one point in Chapterhouse, Herbert pauses to insert a soup recipe — and the story was not exactly flying along to begin with. The characterization is also weak, even for Herbert. But he was always more interested in recurring types than individuals, anyway.
The great failure of the Bene Gesserit books, though, is thematic. The first two Dune novels are unified by the grand, over-arching themes of religion and hero-worship, in both their positive and negative aspects. The second pair of novels focus on Leto II’s Golden Path, which is arguably one of the most audacious and bizarre stories in all of literature. But in the Bene Gesserit books, there is no comparably grand thematic architecture to the conflict between the Bene Gesserit and the Honored Matres, giving the series a routine, “pulp” feel: There’s plenty of conflict, but not conflict about anything that particularly matters.
This may in part be due to the fact that the story is unfinished. Frank Herbert planned to write at least one more book to complete the story arc he launched in Heretics. But he died after publishing Chapterhouse. His son Brian Herbert, with Kevin J. Anderson, used the notes for “Dune 7” to write two massive novels, Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. But these novels read like vast pulps as well. One also wonders how much of these notes would have made it into a final draft, so I won’t comment on them here.
Leto II’s “Golden Path” was his attempt to save the human race from tyranny and technological apocalypse by freeing it from the Imperium. Humanity was fastened to the Imperium by two chains. First, there was space travel’s dependence on the hallucinogenic “spice,” which is found only on one planet: Arrakis, also known as Dune. Second, humanity was fettered by the prescience created by the spice, including Leto’s own prescience: the ability to abolish space and time and render everything present.
Leto severed these bonds in three ways. First, he worked with the Ixians, a technological civilization, to develop a navigation machine that could fold space without using the spice. Second, he worked with Ix to create the no-globe, which made everything inside it invisible to all forms of knowledge, including prescience. The no-globe could be combined with the navigation device to create the no-ship, a stealth spacecraft that could travel anywhere in the universe unobserved, with no need to return to the Imperium (Heretics, p. 29). Third, using his own family as breeding stock, Leto managed to create human beings who were invisible to all forms of prescience, even his own (Heretics, p. 29).
But once Leto had assembled these elements, he still had to set them into motion. He wished to propel mankind outside his Imperium, to scatter us to every corner of the known universe, so no single gaze or power could encompass us, dragging us to our doom. To create such an explosion of exploration and adventure, Leto locked the human race into a post-political, post-historical dystopia for 3,500 years, suppressing human thumos and freedom while keeping alive a longing for them in literature and song. When the God Emperor died and his regime collapsed, both the chaos and the freedom that followed caused a great “Scattering” of humanity.
The Scattering was also a sorting: The most adventurous and aggressive fled the Imperium, leaving behind the most rooted and sedate. At the opening of Heretics, 15 centuries have passed, allowing divergent evolution of the two populations: Imperium and Scattering. Conflict in the former Imperium is 2% of what it was before Leto’s reign (Heretics, p. 13).
It stands to reason that the peoples of the Scattering will be very different. Herbert envisioned them as warlike, competitive, and freedom-loving tribes. He believed that their ethos would generate immense diversity, wealth, and technological sophistication. Eventually, some of those peoples would start finding their way back to the Imperium, driven by conflict or curiosity. Some of these wanderers might even look on the Imperium as wolves look upon sheep.
After the death of the God Emperor, the Imperium lost central government. Sovereignty reverted to individual planets and planetary confederations. There is no talk of the Imperium’s old nobility. The Spacing Guild is a diminished power because they have lost their monopoly on space travel. A religion has grown up around Leto II. It can mobilize the masses, but it is not a civilizational force because it lacks guiding intelligence and serves only to perpetuate priestly dynasties and prosecute impossibly petty feuds. (Herbert clearly despised clerics.)
The most powerful players in the old Imperium, ruling over uncounted planets, are two rival initiatic spiritual orders: the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood and the Bene Tleilax brotherhood. Both orders are shadowy players in the first four Dune novels. In the last two, they take center stage, and here Herbert delivers handsomely.
Frank Herbert was fascinated by time-horizons. He believed that civilization required long-range planning, especially galactic civilization, due to the time needed to traverse interstellar space without faster-than-light travel. Liberal democracy, however, fosters short time-horizons and grants primacy to petty private interests. It is therefore incapable of the grand, long-range planning that will take us to the stars.
Instead, Herbert believed that interplanetary civilization would require the return of medieval institutions, such as feudalism (ideal for a decentralized realm spread over vast distances) as well as aristocratic dynasties, guilds, and initiatic spiritual orders, all of which are characterized by the ambition to persist through the ages, which requires collectivism, patience, and long-range thinking.
Herbert especially admired initiatic spiritual orders because they could survive for centuries, preserve and propagate their founding doctrines, and mobilize immense idealism and energy in service of their goals.
The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood is modeled on Catholic religious orders. Herbert took inspiration from the formidable nuns and crones he was exposed to as a child through his mother’s Irish Catholic family. The name is supposed to remind us of the Jesuits.
But the Bene Gesserit are hardly Catholic or celibate. They regard religion as merely a tool of statecraft. Their mission, moreover, is entirely this-worldly: the preservation and perfection of the human race. For thousands of years, they have presided over a eugenic program to improve the human stock. Many of the sisters breed prodigiously, but the Sisterhood allows no rival attachments, so most of their children are taken away and reared by others.
The Bene Gesserit have cultivated fine-grained conscious control of every voluntary and involuntary process of the body, which they use for enhanced health and extraordinary martial and marital skills alike. The Bene Gesserit also practice hyper-observation and abductive reasoning, which grant them “truthsense,” an uncanny ability to read other people’s emotions and intentions. Their powers are perceived as nothing short of magical, thus they are called “witches.”
The Sisterhood is especially interested in historical continuity. Thus, they have developed a way to remember and pass on the memories of their female ancestors, but male lines remain obscure to them. Naturally, the Bene Gesserit also wish to develop the ability to see the future, as do the Guild navigators. The principal goal of their eugenics program was therefore to breed a male who could access both past and future. They called him the Kwisatz Haderach, meaning the “shortener of the way.”
Five thousand years before Heretics begins, the Kwisatz Haderach was born as Paul Atreides. But he escaped the Sisterhood’s control and shattered the whole Imperium, setting himself up as God Emperor among the ruins. His powers and his Imperium were inherited by his son, Leto II, known to the Bene Gesserit simply as the Tyrant, whose reign lasted 3,500 years because he transformed himself into a monstrous hybrid of human being and sandworm.
Under Paul and the Tyrant, the Bene Gesserit were no longer in a position to pursue their own grand designs, but they demonstrated another feature of the best initiatic orders: the ability to roll with the punches, to adapt to and survive circumstances beyond their control.
After the death of the Tyrant, the Bene Gesserit became major political players in the ruins of the old Imperium. Their ultimate goal, the survival and perfection of humanity, remained unchanged, but was tempered by their experience under Paul and his son. In particular, they were terrified at the prospect of another Kwisatz Haderach and ruthlessly killed anyone who showed such potential.
But they could not eliminate the Atreides bloodline altogether, because by that time they were effectively all Atreides; specifically, descendants of Siona Atreides, in whom the Tyrant’s own eugenics program came to fruition with a genetic variant that made her and her descendants invisible to prescience, and thus they were “free” beings — on the assumption that those who can be predicted are somehow determined. After 15 centuries, practically the whole Sisterhood is descended from Siona. Their fear of another Tyrant is thus specifically a fear of the malign potential lurking in their own blood.
But the Sisterhood has arrived at a juncture in which a break with orthodoxy — a heresy — is required for the survival of their order and much of the human race, at least within the old Imperium.
In the first four novels, we learn that the Bene Tleilax brotherhood produce “twisted” mentats, namely human computers. (What makes them twisted, apparently, is that they have no ethical limitations.) The Tleilaxu have also mastered genetic engineering, using mysterious vessels known as “axlotl tanks,” which can produce clones (“gholas”), hybrid organisms (“chairdogs,” “sligs”), and even synthetic spice. But the most dangerous Tleilaxu invention is the “face dancer”: sterile and servile humans of indeterminate sex who can take on the appearance of another human, male or female.
In Heretics, we learn that the Tleilaxu are a Sufi Muslim secret society. They are ruled by a small population of human “masters,” who are tiny and physically repulsive men. They are served by a vast population of face dancer slaves. But the ultimate horror is the status of Tleilaxu women. They are the axlotl tanks: brain-dead female bodies hooked up to mechanical control mechanisms, mere incubators for mass-produced monstrosities. I can’t think of a more brutal and contemptuous depiction of “Oriental despotism” in all of literature.
In Heretics, the Tleilaxu have created a new kind of face dancer that they believe to be undetectable. Not only can it take on the appearance of another person, it can also absorb his memories and personalities, creating a perfect copy that just so happens to be a slave of the Tleilaxu. The Tleilaxu have been placing these face dancers in positions of power all over the old Imperium. Soon, they believe, they will be the masters of the universe. Only the Bene Gesserit stand in their way.
The Bene Gesserit and Bene Tleilax have existed for thousands of years, in a state of deep rivalry and distrust. They occasionally trade and cooperate. But they also plot against one another. Because both are secret societies, they naturally spy and counter-spy against one another, trying to learn the other’s secrets while preserving their own.
One of the Dune universe’s least plausible features is the ability of any organization to keep secrets for thousands of years, especially in a universe in which prescience in effect places us all in a panopticon. Herbert was horrified by the prospect of Artificial Intelligence. In fact, the Dune universe’s distant back story was the “Butlerian Jihad” that eliminated all thinking machines because they had enslaved humanity. Herbert died before the Internet and the “information age” came along, but he would have regarded them as sinister and dystopian.
The Bene Gesserit and Bene Tleilax are forced into an uneasy alliance by the appearance of the Honored Matres from the Scattering. By a combination of subversion and military force, they have taken control of a number of worlds in the old Imperium, and now wish to challenge its major players: the Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilax.
The Honored Matres were apparently formed in the Scattering by renegade Bene Gesserits and members of the Fish Speakers, the Tyrants’ female army and bureaucracy. They may have banded together simply for survival, but eventually they became a violent and predatory cult: paranoid, cruel, addicted to adrenaline and anger, and grasping after ever greater wealth and power. They are tactically shrewd, but seem to have no long-term ambitions. They seek control over nature, not balance with it. Thus, they are doomed to disaster (Chapterhouse, p. 101). The Bene Gesserit liken them to predators who exceed their ecological carrying capacity, then experience a mass mortality event to bring their numbers back down.
Despite their name, the Matres don’t seem to be especially maternal. They control men by sexual bonding, hence they are called “whores,” but they don’t reproduce sexually. Instead, they recruit. All told, Herbert’s characterization of the Honored Matres strikes me as hazy and muddled. They don’t come off as feminists so much as wizened old biker chicks picking catfights with one another.
One of these novels’ weaknesses is that most of the main characters are female. But it is hard for men to write female characters, and it is hard, at least for me, to comprehend plots driven exclusively by female psychology. I felt I was drowning in an ocean of estrogen.
The most memorable character in these novels is Miles Teg, an Atreides descendant who looks remarkably like Duke Leto I. Teg was Supreme Bashar of the Bene Gesserit military forces until he retired. He is nearly 300 years old when he is approached by the Bene Gesserit leader Reverend Mother Taraza and asked to take charge of a project on Gammu, formerly known as Giedi Prime, the Harkonnen homeworld.
Teg is a military genius, but he’s also a master at de-escalation and mediation who can win battles without firing a shot. He was steeped in the Atreides ethos of honor, loyalty, and service. His men are willing to die for him, and he is willing to lay down his life for the Bene Gesserit.
But Reverend Mother Taraza wants even more from him. She senses that Bene Gesserit orthodoxy and Atreides loyalty are not equal to the challenges ahead. She wants Teg to follow in the footsteps of his mother, a Bene Gesserit “heretic” who taught her son more of their secrets than authorized. This, of course, reminds us of another Bene Gesserit heretic who bore and educated an Atreides son: Jessica, the mother of Paul, the Kwisatz Haderach. Like Paul, Teg was also trained as a mentat.
Taraza senses that Teg has the capacity to become another Atreides superman, but instead of suppressing it, she wants him to commit the ultimate Bene Gesserit heresy and realize his potential — which he proceeds to do. It is a rather inspiring story arc, and Heretics would have been a better book if some of the clutter were pared away to bring it into greater relief.
In Heretics and Chapterhouse, the Bene Gesserit are consistent mouthpieces for Herbert’s anti-liberal sentiments:
Atreides ancestors rose up in rebellion at the word [liberal] . . . lashed out at the unconscious assumptions and unexamined prejudices behind the concept. “Only liberals really think. Only liberals are intellectual. Only liberals understand the needs of their fellows.” How much viciousness lay concealed in that word! (Heretics, p. 12)
Herbert believed that states can accomplish wonders. But he believed that their actions must harmonize with nature, and any attempt to flout nature would lead to disaster:
In my estimation, more human misery has been created by reformers than by any other force in human history. Show me someone who says “Something must be done!” and I will show you a head full of vicious intentions that have no other outlet. What we must strive for always is to find the natural flow and go with it. (Heretics, p. 90)
Herbert pours scorn on bureaucracies. Good government holds them in check, because nature holds it in check. Bad government, however, seeks the impossible; that is, the unnatural, which causes bureaucracies to grow in size and power until they destroy society:
A top-heavy bureaucracy the electorate cannot touch always expands to the system’s limits of energy. Steal it from the aged, steal it from the retired, from anyone. Especially from those we once called the middle class because that’s where most of the energy originates. (Chapterhouse, p. 155)
Bureaucracies also make societies brittle and incapable of dealing with change: “Bureaucracy destroys initiative”; bureaucracy hates innovation (Heretics, p. 213); “Bureaucracy elevates conformity” (Chapterhouse, p. 100); “Educational bureaucracies dull a child’s questing sensitivity . . .” (Chapterhouse, p. 115).
Herbert respects power, but he despises those who seek it. “Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not power that corrupts, but that it is magnetic to the corruptible” (Chapterhouse, p. 59); “Trust no government! Not even mine! . . . Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect all who seek it” (Chapterhouse, 138; cf. 154).
Power is necessary. But if we cannot trust the people who want to wield it, then to whom should it be entrusted? Herbert’s answer is that power should be thrust upon the deserving (Chapterhouse, p. 138). Aristocratic families, initiatic orders, guilds, and other institutions should breed and/or recruit those with leadership potential, train them, and then promote the best candidates, who will also be the least willing. What, then, would motivate them? An ethos of duty, like the one cultivated by the Atreides.
Herbert values freedom, but he doesn’t identify it with doing whatever one feels like. That, he says, is merely slavery to desire. Freedom, rather, is identical with duty, which is built upon disciplining desire: “Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty” (Chapterhouse, p. 344).
The last two Dune novels incorporate some dark musings on banks and oligarchy. When Teg begins to size up the situation on Gammu, he realizes that it has become a galactic Switzerland: a hiding place for immense wealth, including from the Scattering. But the banks also work as forward positions for a hostile elite that will soon arrive in full force: the Honored Matres.
Given Herbert’s fascination with peoples who employ religion and crypsis to persist over eons, it is surprising that the Jews make their first appearance in the Dune saga only in Chapterhouse. I’m not quite sure Herbert meant it as a joke, but I laughed out loud to learn that they’ll still be kvetching about Cossacks 30,000 years from now.
These wouldn’t be Frank Herbert books without flashes of deep philosophy, such as Heideggerian ideas about science (Heretics, p. 148), and Sufi ideas about the magical universe (Heretics, pp. 148–49, 176) and active imagination (Heretics, pp. 148–49; Chapterhouse, p. 242).
There are also brilliant feats of imagination, both grand (the depiction of the Tleilaxu worlds and society) and small (the Harkonnen no-globe on Gammu).
It is interesting to note that aspects of the Dune saga which contradicted David Lynch’s Dune movie are in harmony with it here. For instance, in Dune, Giedi Prime is depicted quite differently than in Lynch’s movie, where the Harkonnen keep appears as a vast, black industrial block built above black, bubbling ooze in an industrial hellscape. In Heretics, the block appears with the name “Barony.” Herbert also mentions that the ooze and other industrial blights have been cleaned up. Moreover, in the first four Dune novels, there is no talk of “folding space.” But the idea appears in Lynch’s script as well as in Heretics (p. 69) and Chapterhouse (p. 336). Did Lynch influence Herbert, or did Herbert influence Lynch? Heretics was written at the same time as Lynch’s Dune script, so the influence could go either way.
Herbert weaves such a tangled web that he sometimes loses his own plot. At one point, he mentions that the Tyrant had foreseen a woman who would ride worms (Heretics, p. 4). But he could not have predicted the one who appears in Heretics, since she is a descendant of Siona and thus invisible to prescience. At several points, he mentions that the ghola of Duncan Idaho contains Atreides genes, which makes no sense if a ghola is a clone (Heretics, p. 467; Chapterhouse, p. 26). But the worst incoherence is on Heretics’ thudding final pages, when we are told that what has transpired was the grand design of Reverend Mother Taraza, when in fact it was brought about by Teg going off script and making entirely free, and thus “heretical,” decisions.
I see no point in ending with recommendations, since no force on Earth could have stopped me from reading Heretics of Dune. But I will say it was worth rereading. Despite its structural problems, it still offers genuine pleasures, and with a bit of streamlining, it could be magnificent on screen. Nothing, moreover, could have stopped me from reading Chapterhouse. But nothing could force me to read it a second time. It is a pity that the Dune saga ended on a low note. But there’s still some spice in these books. You’ve just got to sift through a lot of sand.
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 Citations are to the Ace paperback edition: Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune (New York: Ace Books, 1987).
 Citations are to the Ace paperback edition: Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune (New York: Ace Books, 1987).
Thanks for this. Outside the Dune books, my favorite is the (very flawed) Dosadi Experiment.
I haven’t yet read Dosadi Experiment. Now that I have written on all six Dune books, I will start reading Herbert’s other novels. I’ll report any interesting finds.
I look forward to it. Dosadi is not by any stretch of the imagination as well-constructed as Dune. In the mid-seventies, Herbert was cranking out material. As you may have noticed in the Dune series, Herbert had lots of interesting ideas that didn’t always get the careful treatment they deserved. Dosadi is a follow-up to Whipping Star (which I never read).
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