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Several times in the Dune franchise, we hear of the dead being resurrected via the "ghola" process of the Bene Tleilax. The process sounds very much like cloning, with the Dune wiki page for ghola (here) stating that a true ghola is only created AFTER the original body's death.

However, there are several references in the books that would seem to indicate a ghola is NOT cloned from cells, but rather is the original body regenerated - or healed - back to its original state. One passage stated that the wound to a victim's head was too great for regeneration, thus preventing said person from being brought back as a ghola. If the process only required a few cells, like cloning, that wouldn't be an obstacle... so obviously there are some key differences beyond WHEN the cells are obtained.

What are the parameters (and limitations) of the ghola process in Dune, and is a ghola the original body repaired or merely a copy of the original?

  • Have you read all of the original series? There's a surprising revelation about what the axlotl tanks are at the end of Heretics. – Daniel Roseman Nov 17 '17 at 21:06
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    It is basically cloning. They use the cells of the original. It only has to be a few cells, no head needs to be intact. I think you're mixing it up with regeneration because there is a "triggering" process wherein the memories of the original can be awakened. This isn't because of regeneration, this is because memory in the Dune universe is stored genetically somehow, magically. That's why the Other Memory is also a thing. – Shamshiel Nov 17 '17 at 21:09
  • The Tleilaxu made the God Emperor dozens (hundreds?) of Idaho gholas, usually keeping the latest one unconscious until it was time to re-awaken them and send them off. – Valorum Nov 17 '17 at 21:10
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    According to the (non-canon but Frank Herbert-approved) Dune Encyclopedia, the ghola process at the time of Dune was more of a corpse-restoration process, meaning Hayt was one such "refurbished corpse"; however, by the time of God Emperor of Dune, the process had been refined to allow a full clone to be created as a ghola. – Vanguard3000 Nov 17 '17 at 21:42
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There are some caveats with Hayt, but in general, the ghola process is cloning. As little as a single cell is used to regrow a human being in an axlotl tank, which is actually

a Tleixu female.

This is a closely guarded secret. What you seem to be referring is this:

"We are pleased to accept your credentials," Paul said. "Explain the gift." Edric rolled in the tank, bringing his attention to bear on the ghola. "This is a man called Hayt," he said, spelling the name. "According to our investigators, he has a most curious history. He was killed here on Arrakis . . . a grievous head-wound which required many months of regrowth. (Dune Messiah)

As I said, the axlotl tanks are a closely held secret by the Tleilaxu. Even the Bene Gesserit did not understand the whole secret behind them thousands of years later. It seems likely the Guild is simply misinformed as to how the ghola process works.

Gholas do not, by default, have the memories of the original.

"I know nothing of my past for sure, my Lord. It was explained that I can have no memory of my former life. All that remains from before is the pattern set by the genes. There are, however, niches into which once familiar things may fit. There are voices, places, foods, faces, sounds, actions -- a sword in my hand, the controls of a 'thopter . . . " (Hay, Dune Messiah)

However, these memories can be awakened through an emotionally traumatic trigger event. This is not because the ghola is a regeneration of the original body, but because, as suggested in the above quote, memories in Dune are encoded on a genetic level - this is how taking enough spice, for the initiated, can awaken all their ancestral memories. (Later, of course, somehow a ghola-of-gholas is able to access memories he shouldn't have, suggesting that there is indeed some kind of supernatural aspect to it.)

Hayt later, in Children of Dune, makes this same comparison:

Computation: A reflected Lady Jessica lived out a pseudo-life in Alia's awareness. He saw this as he saw the reflected pre-ghola Duncan Idaho which remained a constant in his own awareness. Alia had this awareness by being one of the pre-born. He had it out of the Tleilaxu regeneration tanks. (Children of Dune)

Of course, you can see here that Hayt (apparently) wrongly believes the axlotl tanks are regeneration tanks. To be fair, it's possible that at this time, or in Duncan's particular case, they were able to use an entire corpse as the start of the process, but elsewhere we are shown that ghola go through childhood and age like normal people. (There is a bit of a timeline problem in the Hayt case if he was cloned from a few cells, because Hayt was evidently not twelve. Out-of-story, it seems that Frank Herbert hadn't decided how the ghola process was to really work.) Jessica believes the same thing:

But the Tleilaxu had bought his body from the Sardaukar and, in their regeneration vats, they had grown a zombie-katrundo: the flesh of Duncan Idaho, but none of his conscious memories. He'd been trained as a mentat and sent as a gift, a human computer for Paul, a fine tool equipped with a hypnotic compulsion to slay his owner. The flesh of Duncan Idaho had resisted that compulsion and, in the intolerable stress, his cellular past had come back to him.

To be fair, it's possible that - somehow - if the Tleilaxu have an entire corpse, they can begin the process from there, rather than from scratch. That's never how it is portrayed or referenced after Hayt, however. Or, that the ghola process changed through time. 3500 years later, it was clear that only a few cells were necessary.

To find himself living when he knew he had died, that was proof enough. The Tleilaxu had taken cells from his dead flesh and they had grown a bud in one of their axlotl tanks. That bud had become this body in a process which had made him feel at first an alien in his own flesh. (God Emperor of Dune)

More than one could exist at a time:

At the last instant, the Duncan had tried to throw the explosive to one side, but the material in it had been unstable and it had gone off too soon. The Duncan had died. Ahh, well-the Tleilaxu always had another in their axlotl tanks. (God Emperor of Dune)

A ghola had a ghola-childhood:

He could not remember the axlotl tanks where his cells had grown into an infant. His first memories were of Geasa picking him up from his cradle, the alert interest in those adult eyes that had so soon faded into wary lidding. (Heretics of Dune)

That said, the characters in Dune do differentiate betweena ghola and a clone.

"At Bene Gesserit behest," Schwangyu said, "the Tleilaxu have made a significant alteration in the present Idaho series. His nerve-muscle system has been modernized."

"Without changing the original persona?" Teg fed the question to her blandly, wondering how far she would go in revelation.

"He is a ghola, not a clone! (Heretics of Dune)

One presumes, if Schwangyu is not simply saying that altering the individual makes them not-a-clone, that clones do not, for some reason, retain the original persona.

  • Note that when Duncan's memories are first restored, the Tleilaxu there is glad of it since it represents proof that he can get his memories or past lives back. – WillAdams Apr 25 '19 at 0:42
  • This may have been a misconception on FH's part: cloning does not mean replicating DNA unaltered into a new living organism. In fact, cloning can mean inserting new DNA into an existing sequence. – AdamO Jun 7 '19 at 14:32

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