Monster of the Week: Face Dancers of 'Dune'

A face dancer in 'Emperor: Battle for Dune.' Image va

The unnatural world of monsters contains many a nefarious shapeshifter, but few invoke such mystery as the Bene Tleilax face dancers from Frank Herbert's "Dune" universe.

To refresh, these creatures reside in a very curious interstellar civilization. After the rejection of thinking machines, space faring humans turned to their own minds and genetic destinies to manage their widespread empire -- and that's where the Bene Tleilax found their niche. These master flesh crafters use their technology to tinker with human brains and bodies, begetting clone-like gholas and various thralls on the Tleilax homeworld.

Yet, of all the forms to emerge from their axolotl tanks, the face dancer stands alone as the most fearsome and repellent.

Fiend Without a Face

While face dancers are best known -- and feared -- as spies and assassins, they play a far greater role in Tleilax society. Their talents make them unparalleled actors, so they serve as entertainers throughout the galaxy. Indeed, face dancers seem to have originated as a class of highly-trained mimes with zen-like bodily control. But 5,000 years of genetic tinkering transformed them into something more startling: beings capable of changing bodily appearance, voice and behavior to impersonate any human target.

The 1969 introduction of face dancers.

Face dancers serve as Tleilax diplomats and conspirators, as well core operatives in the creation of so-called "twisted mentats."

Mentats are an order of human computers that helped make interstellar civilization possible in age of thinking machine prohibition. Think of them as a human smart phone for noble houses. But since mentats follow a highly ethical ethos, an unethical or cruel one demanded special preparation -- and I suppose you can think of these as jail-broken smart phones.

According to "The Dune Encyclopedia," face dancers assist in the "twist conditioning" of candidates through the systematic destruction of the individual's faith and confidence in his or her fellow humans. The details of this are rather vile: face dancers engage in atrocities with one another while mimicking key loved ones or authority figures from the candidate's life -- such as the rape of one's mother by a trusted mentor.

So how are we to understand the face dancer's unnatural abilities in light of natural-world science? Frank Herbert himself revealed little of the Tleilax's secrets, leaving the matter to speculation -- and we have two key takes on the matter.

Manipulation on All Fronts

The masterful (though sadly out-of-print and canonically-impaired) 1984 "Dune Encyclopedia" explains face dancer biology as a complex creation of training, breeding, embryonic manipulation, genetic tinkering and surgical augmentation.

Space prohibits me from going into the level of detail provided by the encyclopedia's face dancer entry, but here's a list of the key alterations:

  • Selected breeding for appropriate physicality and muscle control.
  • Embryonic stimulation of overdeveloped back muscles and hyper-elastic spine for height control.
  • The embryonic manipulation of the body's celomic sacs, altering their position and allowing them to serve in the voluntary inflation of artificial tubes implanted after puberty, thus allowing conscious body size alteration.
  • Childhood augmentation of facial structure, replacing certain facial bones with elastic cartilage, coupled with extensive training to allow total manipulation of facial features.
  • Cellular embryonic manipulation to allow conscious control of scalp temperature, allowing the color manipulation of artificial, liquid crystal hair follicles.
  • Genetic manipulation to enable the conscious, hormonal control of eye pigment.
  • Fetal manipulation and surgical augmentation to produce male genitals retractable within a vaginal cavity for visual gender swapping.
  • Training and surgery to enhance differential muscle and autonomic nerve control.

In other words, a face dancer is an extremely complex product and no mere human subspecies. But this is just one take on face dancer anatomy. For surely if the Tleilax can resurrect the dead through cloning, they can also grow their face dancers wholesale within an axolotl tanks. Our next theory explores this possibility.

The Cell Manipulation Theory

In her essay "Evolution by Any Means on Dune," science writer Sandy Field posits that face dancers mimic their targets through the conscious migration of body cells. In order to swiftly change form, a face dancer would need to reorganize skin cells, musculature and skeletal elements -- a feat they might accomplish through the dissolution and recombination of the cell-to-cell bonds that hold tissue together.

And how might Tleilax have accomplished this? Here's what Field has to say:

"The concerted action of newly created hormones selected genetically by the Tleilax over many generations could act to allow different cell types to move when promoted by neurological signals... Face dancing, then, could be a genetically derived ability to generate specific hormones at will, which allow for the concerted movement of skin, muscle, bone and other cells to new locations to create the appearance of another person."

I suspect we might realistically land somewhere between these two takes on face dancer anatomy, which is to say I love both approaches.

The "Dune Encyclopedia" explanation (written by contributor Walter E. Myers) extends nicely from our current theories about what's possible through human augmentation. Just consult our episodes "Wind Beneath my Surgical Wings" and "The Werewolf Principle: Adapting Humans for Space." But the cellular argument feels more in keeping with distant-future technology.

Either method, however, feels convincingly Tleilax in nature.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.