Date: March 2002
From: Brock Haas
To: Ask Tim
Subject: Dune: A Question of Preference

The ultimate Dune question: Who was the better leader, Paul or his son Leto (Worm God)?


[WARNING: If you haven't read Frank Herbert's Dune, Dune Messiah, or Children of Dune, you should be aware that the following column contains "plot spoilers."]

I believe Herbert may have meant for us to see Leto as the better leader, and for us to see Paul as flawed. But as Frederick Lerner said when he remade Pygmalion into My Fair Lady, and had Eliza Doolittle end up with Henry Higgins rather than Freddy Eynsford-Hill, "God and Shaw forgive me, but I'm not sure he was right."

Dune Messiah is my favorite of the three initial books. (And yes, though there were many later additions, Dune was originally designed as a trilogy.) Paul's ability to see despite his blindness, and his acceptance of the stasis that comes through perfect prediction, was the most thrilling moment of insight in the whole trilogy. Paul's willingness to walk away from it all in order to turn the future loose again was the ultimate act of heroic leadership.

Paul's dilemma, the quest for control, made complete sense to me. And his solution, to let go and let the world find its own course, also made complete sense to me. It's no accident that Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching (Witter Bynner translation) is one of my key guidebooks. Lao Tzu says, "Let life ripen and then fall, Force is not the way at all."

In one sense, though, Herbert meant Leto's sacrifice to be another version of the same thing. Except he went further. He took perfect control, sacrificing his own "honor" for the sake of a longer-term view in which freedom and human evolution would be even greater because of their suppression under his rule. But in a lot of ways, I felt, as a reader, that this was a cheap trick. For me, Children of Dune (though I turned up evidence that it was part of the original plan for the trilogy) felt much more like a "do over" to extend the story than a natural extension of Dune in the way that Dune Messiah was. Herbert had to say, "Paul's sacrifice didn't really work. Let's make up some reason why so we can have another volume."

In some abstract way, I can identify with Leto's willingness to be seen as a "bad guy" in order to achieve some long-term goodness. (Dorothy Dunnett's wonderful Lymond Chronicles, starting with The Game of Kings, explores some of this same territory.) There are cases where this makes sense, and I'll return to that in a minute. But at bottom, I don't buy it in Children of Dune. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night: "We are what we pretend to be, but we better be very careful what we pretend." Leto may only be pretending to be a tyrant, but the reasons given for that pretense just don't hold water for me.

I prefer Paul's pretension to noble renunciation than Leto's pretension to tyranny for the sake of later liberty.


Read an online copy of Frank Herbert, written by Tim O'Reilly. Other science fiction writings by Tim may be found on the tim.oreilly.com Science Fiction page.


Actually, though, when I think about leadership in Dune, I think first of Leto the elder, Paul's father, who has always been something of a model for me. There's a scene in which someone (I don't remember if it was Duncan Idaho or Gurney Halleck) says to Liet-Kynes, after Leto has risked his life to rescue the men stranded at the spice harvester, that Leto has such total loyalty from his men because they know that he has such total loyalty to them.

And of course Paul picks up on this lesson, and offers to buy Kynes' loyalty with the one coin that he knows he will accept: his own complete loyalty in return.

These scenes, along with the story of Harold, the last of the Saxon kings, as told in Hope Muntz's wonderful book, The Golden Warrior, form a key part of my own belief system about leadership and loyalty. (The story of the Golden Warrior is that Harold, despite having just fought-off his half brother Tostig and a Viking invasion up in Yorkshire, went down to fight William at Hastings over the advice of counselors who told him to regroup and gather his forces. Harold, as told in this story, refused, because that wasn't the deal between a king and his people. An invader was raping and pillaging in the South. He had to go, because that's what a king does. They follow him, and in return, it's his responsibility to look after them.)

This concept of mutual loyalty is a key to how I want to relate to the people in my company. Of course, it's very hard, especially as a company gets bigger and you lose the personal connections that make a loyalty-based culture work. And given that Harold lost the battle of Hastings, one has to wonder if he was right to do what he did. But there's something wonderfully noble about trying!

Yeah, I know I'm a romantic.

I've struggled with the conflict between loyalty and pragmatism with especial intensity in this past year, as the downturn in the tech industry forced O'Reilly (like every other computer book publisher) to do some very painful layoffs. Yet another fictional hero was helpful to me here, Francis Crawford of Lymond, the hero of Dorothy Dunnett's wonderful series of historical novels (The Lymond Chronicles) that take place in 16th century Scotland. Lymond isn't afraid to be considered a villain by people who don't understand the complexity of the issues he's dealing with. He does the right thing regardless, sometimes even courting the unthinking abuse of others who don't see as deeply or as far as he does. Like Paul in Dune, he recognizes that leadership means making hard choices, and not always being popular.

By the way, if you wonder that these fictional stories are so real to me . . . . You should look for the wonderful out-of-print book, The Meaning of Culture, by John Cowper Powys. Powys argues that the function of literature (and art, music, and philosophy) is to give us tools for thinking about and interacting with the world and our lives. Culture, as opposed to education, is about the odd bits that you pick up and put to use in your life. So I'm proud to cite as my mentors these fictional characters from my teenage reading.

Tim

Got a question? Just ask!

Return to: Ask Tim


Popular Topics

Browse Books & Videos

International Sites

O'Reilly China O'Reilly Germany O'Reilly Japan