The Dune Saga in a Nutshell
Sixteen thousand years in the future, a human empire spans the galaxy, but it has spurned most science and technology and exists in a neo-feudal state complete with old-fashioned dukes and counts and barons. Reliance on machines is viewed with great suspicion. Instead, humans have been trained to replace computers, aided by a substance known as spice which also extends life to a span of nearly four hundred years. Spice allows the Spacing Guild Navigators to find a safe path in foldspace for their vessels, and allows an ancient order of women called the Bene Gesserit to tap into their racial memories, but only down the female line. The Bene Gesserit have bred humans for ninety generations to achieve a kind of supreme being, and their plan has nearly reached the pinnacle with the birth of Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. It remains only to find him a suitable mate. Spice has never been synthesized in the laboratory, but can only be found on a world called Arrakis, or Dune, which is entirely desert, where it is guarded by giant creatures called sandworms, as indeed spice is produced by their larval vector. The Emperor, Shaddam Corrino, has grown fearful of the popularity of Duke Leto Atreides and conspires with House Harkonnen to destroy him, a plan which requires that the Duke take temporary possession of Arrakis as a fief. During the battle, the Duke is killed, but his only son, Paul Atreides, escapes into the desert with his mother Jessica. The indigenous people of Dune, the Fremen, have been prepared by centuries of religious conditioning to accept a messiah, and Jessica, having already disobeyed her Bene Gesserit order by bearing a son out of love for her Duke, rather than a daughter to be mated with the Harkonnen heir, has also given Paul the deep training of the Bene Gesserit, which together with the spice uniquely prepares him to find a place among the Fremen. In time, Paul becomes the leader of the Fremen and embarks on a war of attrition against the Harkonnen occupation, a matter which leads the Emperor to travel to Dune with his elite Sardaukar troops where they suffer the first defeat in their long history. Victorious, Paul compels the Emperor to give him his daughter Irulan to be his wife (on paper only, a path to the throne), while he retains the love of his life, a Fremen named Chani, as his only mate.
For twelve years after Paul Atreides ascended to the Lion Throne, a jihad has raged across the galaxy, killing billions of lives and pacifying thousands of worlds, but Paul, to his great horror, has discovered that he has fallen into an oracular trap. Although the spice and his genetic inheritance has given him the power to foresee the future, the very act of looking at the future locks that future into place. He is powerless to stop the jihad, and worse, he can see the prison bars holding him in place. Only one narrow way exists for him to escape the trap, and but tragically, this way involves the death of his beloved Chani. Meanwhile the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild conspire with the Bene Tleilax and Paul’s legal wife Princess Irulan to thwart the emperor. The Bene Gesserit want to regain control of the Atreides genes, possibly by breeding Paul with his own sister Alia. The Spacing Guild want to negate Paul’s threat to destroy all spice production on Dune, which would render them impotent and end all interstellar travel forever. And the Bene Tleilax want to gain control of Paul by offering him a clone of Chani so perfect that the clone would even have all of Chani’s memories up to the moment of her death. To prepare Paul for this temptation, a friend of the family named Duncan Idaho, who died helping Paul and Jessica escape the Harkonnens, is presented once again to Paul as a clone, albeit without his memories intact. This clone has been designed to be sexually irresistable to Alia, and also has been prepared with a compulsion to kill Paul when he utters the words, “She is gone.” Chani, meanwhile, has fallen victim to Princess Irulan, who has introduced a subtle poison into her food that causes her pregnancy to proceed at an accelerated rate. As events race toward their conclusion, Paul is rendered blind by the radiation of a stoneburner, yet his vision is so precisely matched to reality that he can “see” perfectly well, even with empty sockets where his eyes used to be. Chani gives birth to twins, something that was not foreseen by Paul, and this creates a new universe outside of his vision, making him truly blind, but he is victorious in escaping the prescient trap. However Chani dies as a result of complications in the birth. Paul says to Duncan Idaho, “She is gone” and Idaho undergoes a profound transformation, as something deep inside him struggles to overcome the compulsion to kill Paul. He regains his full memories at last. Duncan Idaho had been killed, but now he lives again, to his infinite wonder. The Bene Tlielax offer to do the same for Paul’s beloved wife, but he resists the great temptation and orders Duncan to kill the Tlielaxu agent, even though this will ensure Chani is gone forever. Stricken by grief, blind at last, Paul accepts the Fremen law that says the blind must be left to the desert. He walks into the desert alone to die, fully Fremen at last, leaving his sister Alia as regent until his son Leto II can assume power as Emperor.
CHILDREN OF DUNE
Nine years after Paul walked into the desert, a blind preacher returns to the capital city of Arakeen railing against the corrupt organized religion that has sprung up around Paul’s legend and many people believe this preacher is Paul himself. Wensicia Corrino, a sister of Irulan, conspires to kill Leto II Atreides and wed her own son Farad’n to Leto’s twin sister to return House Corrino to the Lion Throne. Meanwhile, Paul’s sister Alia, possessing the Atreides talent to tap into racial memories, has become possessed by the “shade” of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and her subsequent cruelty and mismanagement of the empire causes many to despise the once noble House Atreides. This comes to a head when she attempts to assassinate her own mother Jessica, an action that leads to outright civil war between the Fremen and the Imperium. The plot to kill Leto appears to succeed, Ghanima returns to report her brother was killed by giant Laza tigers, and a deep trance-conditioning discovered by herself allows her to pass the examination of Bene Gesserit truthsayers. But Leto has actually escaped into the desert, where he is captured and forced to endure repeated spice overdose to activate the same oracular powers that his father possessed. During this ordeal, Leto puts the larval form of sandworms, the sandtrout, on his skin, and due to the saturation of spice in his bloodstream they form a symbiosis. His skin becomes invulnerable to heat or impact, and gives him great power and speed. Leto has become the Bene Gesserit’s supreme being indeed, but once again outside of their control. Meeting the Preacher in the desert, he discovers that the man is indeed his father, Paul Atreides, but Paul fled the terrible consequences of what Leto has done, while Leto freely accepted them, making the universe conform to Leto’s vision, no longer Paul’s vision. Power has passed from father to son, and very shortly after that Paul himself is killed by the priests of Alia for teaching “heresy”. Leto kills his aunt Alia in personal combat and ascends to the throne of his father, wedding his own sister Ghanima, once again in name only to secure the throne, but Farad’n is to become her mate. Leto has taken complete control of the Bene Gesserit’s breeding program.
GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE
Three thousand five hundred years after ascending to the throne, Leto II still lives and rules the galaxy as emperor, but the sandtrout which merged with his skin have now transformed him into a sandworm with a human face. Dune no longer has sandworms, it has become a lush forested world with only one tiny fragile desert remaining. Leto’s subjects literally worship him as God. His oracular vision allows him to spot any potential trouble, which he puts down with a fierce army of female warriors called Fish Speakers led by restored clones of Duncan Idaho, of whom there have been hundreds. Leto allows nothing exciting to happen anywhere in the galaxy, which has become one vast uniform suburb. By so doing, for thousands of years, he is teaching humanity a lesson that will be learned at the cellular level: Never seek peace, for peace leads to stagnation and decline. But at last, Leto’s own breeding program has reaped dividends. He has achieved Siona Atreides, a distant descendant of his twin sister Ghanima and her consort Farad’n Corrino who is completely invisible to Leto’s prescient vision. The actions of Leto deeply offend Siona’s internal sense of rightness, and she positions herself as an opponent to the God Emperor, the leader of a rebellion. Stealing a copy of Leto’s journals, Siona found a lock of Ghanima’s hair and a poem he composed on the day of his sister’s death. Realizing that Leto is capable of love, Siona’s allies the Ixians present as their ambassador to Leto’s court one Hwi Noree, a saintly woman so filled with empathy that Leto cannot help but fall in love with her. Hwi is the essential god-trap, and yet Leto can never experience physical love with her because he is more worm now than man, and his anguish only deepens when Hwi herself falls for the masculine charms of Duncan Idaho. When Leto rushes ahead with plans to wed Hwi, Duncan goes over to Siona’s rebellion and by scaling a kilometer-high cliff unaided helps her to intercept Lord Leto’s procession with a suitable greeting. Leto and his attendants fall off a bridge that is damaged by a laser, and Hwi herself perishes. Leto’s body is immersed in water and he disintegrates into hundreds of sandtrout, which will transform Arrakis into Dune once more. But the empire is finished.
HERETICS OF DUNE
One thousand five hundred years after the death of Emperor Leto the human universe is very different. People took Leto’s lesson to heart never to stagnate. Humanity has exploded from a single galaxy into the entire universe in wave after wave of migration, never to be subject to a single ruler with the prophetic power to dominate them again. That was Leto’s greatest gift: Humanity has become infinite. In the region of space known as the Old Empire, worlds are only loosely bound by informal ties, with the old Bene Gesserit order providing an important role as arbiters. Arrakis has become desert again, but no longer enjoys a monopoly on spice production, for the Bene Tlielaxu have learned to manufacture the substance at last. But on Arrakis, a young girl named Sheeana has appeared, a girl with the inexplicable power to control the sandworms. Leto himself once prophesied the coming of this girl. To ensure Sheeana remains under Bene Gesserit control, they have prepared another clone of Duncan Idaho to be her mate, a clone with the power to amplify the sensation of female orgasm beyond anything previously known. This power in turn was copied by the Bene Tleilax from a new force in the universe, the Honored Matres, a mysterious cult of women who ensnare men with nearly infinite levels of sexual ecstasy and use their control of the resulting addiction to ride to power. To aid in the project to snare Sheeana, the Bene Gesserit rely on a man named Teg Miles who is a military genius of the highest order, and opposing him are “heretics” within the Bene Gesserit order itself who fear that Duncan Idaho will become another monster like Paul or Leto, and in a way they are absolutely right. When Duncan Idaho is finally unleashed, enslaving an Honored Matre named Murbella rather than Sheeana (and growing enslaved to Murbella in the process), the memories of all the Duncan Idaho clones who ever lived become available to him. As the novel proceeds to the conclusion, Dune itself is destroyed by the Honored Matres, an action that results in the death of Teg, but Sheeana joins with the Bene Gesserit and helps them to save a single sandworm which will guarantee the flow of spice during the dark times to follow as the Honored Matres run amok.
The Honored Matres, a group of women who enslave men with unprecedented sexual power, range throughout the Old Empire conquering worlds that submit to them and destroying worlds that do not. Dune is gone, the Spacing Guild and Ix serve the “whores” and the Bene Tleilax have been exterminated. Even the Bene Gesserit have lost dozens of worlds to the Honored Matres, but their home world of Chapterhouse remains, for the moment, undiscovered, albeit transformed from a watery world to another copy of Dune. An Honored Matre named Murbella, who fell under the control of the Bene Gesserit after being sexually addicted by Duncan Idaho (a mutual addiction to be sure) is training to become a Reverend Mother. Meanwhile a clone of Miles Teg made from skin cells scraped by the fingernails of his daughter Odrade just before he died on Dune has been created, but he is only a child. If his memories can be restored, then he can help defeat the whores, it is thought. And the Bene Gesserit prepare to unleash Holy Sheeana, now a Reverend Mother herself, on a universe prepared to worship her by Leto thousands of years prior. But Sheeana has plans of her own, and secretly conspires with Duncan to escape Chapterhouse in a no-ship that cannot be followed, as soon as the first sandworms are spotted in the desert. The memories of the child Teg are restored when Sheeana attempts to seduce him, which calls forth the deep training his Bene Gesserit mother gave him to resist the whores. After losing many planets to the Honored Matres, the Bene Gesserit come out at last to do battle, led by Teg riding on the shoulders of an acolyte girl. The attack appears to succeed, but the Honored Matres have a surprise up their sleeve, a weapon that kills swaths of troops without shedding blood. Murbella arrives and the Honored Matres find they cannot compete with her combination of both Honored Matre and Bene Gesserit training, she is a deadly whirlwind who very quickly slays the Great Honored Matre and seizes the reins of power. But when Mother Superior Odrade of the Bene Gesserit is slain, Mubella retrieves Odrade’s final memories, which qualifies her to become Mother Superior herself. Murbella unites both groups of women into a single organization. This proves too much for Sheeana and many other Reverend Mothers. Taking sandworms, they depart in the no-ship with Duncan, an action that both Duncan and Murbella, addicted to each other, find to be almost unbearable.
In a very strange, elliptical, but deeply profound coda, Frank Herbert described two godlike characters based on himself and his recently departed wife Bev who bicker in a garden like an old married couple over letting the no-ship escape. The character representing Frank Herbert says a few words about the importance of letting them go. The author himself would follow Bev into death shortly after writing this novel, but his creation would live on without him in the minds of the readers, and his creation would go places that he could not foresee (for indeed his son Brian Herbert continued the saga) and to the author that made all the difference in the world.