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God Emperor of Dune is the fourth Dune novel written by Frank Herbert.
Thirty-five hundred years have passed since Paul Atreides had become the messiah of the Fremen and the Emperor of the known universe at the end of the novel Dune. His son, Leto Atreides II, sees the path that his father Muad'Dib had also seen, a future that secures the continuation of human life throughout the universe. That future, however, requires an aberrant act of selflessness: becoming a hybrid of man and sandworm. At the end of Children of Dune, Leto II accepts this mantle of godhead from the Fremen and transforms himself into a monster of the desert, a sandworm, that will dominate the ecology of the planet Arrakis (known as Dune) for millennia. This is an act his father had been unwilling to do. Leto essentially accepts the terrible price of saving humanity which his father had rejected. God Emperor of Dune chronicles Leto's attempts to consummate the Golden Path, which delivers the volition of humanity by scattering it beyond the perceived safety of the Imperium's known universe, and also by destroying the possibility of the Imperium's control by any single entity, including himself.
The seemingly immortal God Emperor Leto II has ruled his Empire for more than 3,500 years, his lifespan lengthened due to his decision in Children of Dune to merge his human body with sandtrout, the haploid phase of the giant sandworms of Arrakis. His continued evolution has slowly transformed him, altering his human form into what he calls a "pre-worm." His body has come to resemble a small version of the ancient sandworms of Arrakis — ribbed, elongated, and covered in scaly sandtrout; his face remains, as do his hands and arms, but his legs and feet have atrophied to be of no use whatsoever. He moves from place to place on a large cart of Ixian manufacture that shields him from harming moisture and bodies of water, and it is later revealed that his brain has gradually diffused into the rest of his body, becoming a series of nodes throughout his whole form. The sandtrout skin makes him virtually impervious to harm, even allowing him to survive lasgun fire.
During his long reign, Leto has enforced a state of peace throughout his multigalactic empire, both through tight control of his enormous (but limited) hoard of the spice melange and the military might of his Fish Speaker army. The old Imperium is basically non-existent; the Landsraad has ceased to exist, and only a few remnants of the Great Houses survive. The Bene Gesserit and Spacing Guild have endured, although both have been forced to adapt to Leto's absolute control over melange and his powerful prescience, and CHOAM has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. His reign is considered by many to be depraved and despotic, but he is confident that his actions will ensure the survival of the human race.
Leto battles an incessant struggle with boredom and loneliness that overwhelms him because of his everlasting life, close-to-absolute prescience and loss of humanity which renders him incapable of physical intimacy (and to a lesser extent, the awkwardness of his transformed body); few people realize the burden that he carries as he deems subjects useful as long as they serve a purpose to the "Golden Path" (the end justifying the means). He maintains a small and reclusive system of government, and as God, he chooses not to share the inner workings and purpose of his decisions or any sympathy for his cause, as he knows that humanity wouldn't be able to grasp the concept.
Leto has employed a series of gholas grown from the cells of ]]Duncan Idaho]], the faithful Swordmaster of House Atreides. Duncan functions both as the captain of Leto's guard, and as a familiar face to calm Leto in his moments of distress. They remind Leto of his family, and he feels that he owes Duncan for his service and devotion to House Atreides. Over the centuries, a significant number of the gholas have attempted to assassinate Leto through various means after struggling with the conflict between their intense loyalty to House Atreides, and the moral disgust triggered by the repression and stagnation Leto has forced upon the Empire. These feelings, compounded with the uneasy doubt caused by being millennia out of their own time, drives some of the Duncan Idaho gholas insane.
Leto's "Golden Path," as he calls it, is a millennia-spanning attempt to produce a human who is invisible to a watcher gifted with prescience. This breeding plan, begun with the marriage of Leto's twin sister Ghanima to Farad'n Corrino, has resulted in Leto's majordomo Moneo Atreides and his daughter Siona. Moneo has served Leto faithfully for the majority of his life, having been a rebel until he was shown the Golden Path in a test by Leto. Siona is the leader of a group of rebels seeking to overthrow the God Emperor, and locate his hidden hoard of melange. Unbeknownst to Siona, Nayla — her close friend and de facto bodyguard — worships Leto, and is under orders to protect and obey Siona in all things while reporting on her rebellious activities. Although Leto knows the important purpose of Siona, as long as she doesn't serve the "Golden Path" she would be expendable, and he would have to take measures for the breeding paths that he would have to take to replace her.
During a raid on his Citadel, Siona and her friends steal, among other things, a series of excerpts from Leto's private journal. Unknown to them, Leto is aware of their activities and allows them to continue. In perusing some of the items and documents stolen from the Citadel, Siona learns that Leto remains capable of love, and plots to use this as a weapon against him. At the same time, the new Ixian ambassador, Hwi Noree, is sent to the court of the God Emperor. Immediately entranced by her beauty, grace, and purity, Leto begins to be tortured by the knowledge that he and Hwi are separated by his continued transformation. For her part, Hwi desires nothing more than to serve the God Emperor, and she quickly becomes a confidante, finally expressing her love of Leto. The latest incarnation of Duncan is also captivated by Hwi's beauty, but is rebuffed by Leto, who warns that Hwi is his alone.
Because of his intense feelings for Hwi and the fact that she had never appeared in his prescient visions, Leto realizes that she is a trap, trained and sent by the Ixians to weaken him. However, he is unable to send her away, and she gladly accepts his offer to remain. It is revealed that Hwi had been grown inside an Ixian no-room — a device that shields its occupants from prescient view — from cells of a former Ixian ambassador, Malky, who had been a cynical and roguish friend of the God Emperor.
Through discussions with Moneo and Leto, Duncan learns about Leto's transformation, the Fish Speakers, and the oppressive measures Leto takes to maintain his absolute control over the Empire. He begins to grow more agitated and restless, though he continues in his duties, defending the God Emperor from an attack by Tleilaxu Face Dancers]. Duncan struggles with feelings of inadequacy, and the confusion and disorientation that result from existing in a time alien to him. Duncan meets Siona, and though the two of them are coldly formal to one another, they eventually unite to kill Leto and end his tyrannical rule over mankind.
Leto and Hwi decide to marry, and lead a wedding procession from Leto's Little Citadel to Tuono Village, where Duncan and Siona have been sent. While crossing the Idaho River, Siona orders Nayla to cut the supports of the bridge with a lasgun, spilling Moneo, Hwi, Leto, and a number of courtiers into the jagged rocks in the canyon below. Nayla obeys, despite her fanaticism toward the God Emperor, believing that the instructions are a test of her loyalty. Leto survives the fall, but is immersed in water, and his body begins to dissolve, just as did the sandworms of ancient Dune. In a final conversation with Siona and Duncan, Leto reveals that Siona is the embodiment of the Golden Path, a human completely shielded from prescient view. He explains that humanity is now free from the domination of oracles, free to scatter throughout the universe, never again to face complete domination. After revealing the location of his secret spice hoard, Leto dies, leaving Duncan and Siona to face the task of managing the empire.
The major themes explored in God Emperor of Dune are the cyclical patterns of human society. Using his ancestral memories, Leto II can recall the tyrannical fashions from Babylon through the Jesuits on ancient Earth, and thus builds an empire existing as a complete nexus encompassing all these methods. The empire differs from the historical tyrants, in that it is deliberately designed to end in destruction, with the hope that humanity will never succumb to such patterns again. Leto II personally explores the emergent effects of civilization, noting that most hierarchical structures are remnants of evolutionary urges toward safety. Thus, by forming a perfectly safe and stable empire, Leto II delivers a message to be felt throughout history.
Stylistically, the novel is permeated by quotations from, and speeches by its main character, Leto, to a degree unseen in any of the other Dune novels. In part, this stylistic shift is an artifact of how Herbert wrote it: the first draft was written almost entirely in the First-person narrative voice, only being revised in later drafts to insert more third-person narration of events.