A Face Dancer is a type of human in Frank Herbert's science fiction Dune universe. A servant caste of the Bene Tleilax, Face Dancers are shapeshifters, and their name is derived from their ability to change their physical appearance at will.
Originally, Face Dancers were Tleilaxu trained to mimic others using acting and makeup, enhanced by plastic surgery. As time went on, the Tleilaxu began to use genetic manipulation to enhance natural ability in phenotypic plasticity, so that Face Dancers could change height, increase and decrease apparent mass, change coloring and texture, and change facial features.
Herbert describes Face Dancers in their natural state in Heretics of Dune:
The first Face Dancers Miles Teg ever saw: Two small men as alike as twins. Almost chinless round faces, pug noses, tiny mouths, black button eyes, and short-cropped white hair that stood up from their heads like the bristles on a brush.
In the history of the Dune universe, Face Dancers have been employed for a number of purposes. Initially, their principal use was entertainment — they served as comedians, impersonators, and actors. However, their identity-stealing skills made them highly useful as spies and assassins, and they were hired by the Great Houses in their continual political, financial, and military conflicts.
In time the Face Dancers became genetic eunuchs, sterile creatures with full sentience but no sense of self and a genetically-programmed loyalty to the Tleilaxu Masters. The Tleilaxu control them like all their creations by forcing them into a hypnotic state with some predefined sound (often a specific humming or whistling noise).
Throughout most of the Dune timeline, only the Bene Gesserit-trained can detect a Face Dancer, typically by recognizing signature pheromone scents or other micro-indicators. Face Dancers are liable to give away their identities, though, since they lack the memories of the people they replace. Later in the series, the Tleilaxu give them the ability to acquire these memories as well.
In the Dune series
In Dune Messiah (1969), the second book in the series, the Tleilaxu use a ghola of Duncan Idaho in an attempt to undermine the Emperor Paul Muad'Dib and take control of the Imperium. The Face Dancer Scytale uses his talents to facilitate an assassination attempt on the Emperor. Paul can immediately detect the replacement, but lets the plot play out to see where it leads and determine its place in his prescient visions.
Face Dancers also play a role in God Emperor of Dune (1981). They replace nearly everyone in the Ixian embassy on Arrakis, and attempt to assassinate the God Empereor Leto II using a force of approximately fifty Face Dancer duplicates of Duncan Idaho. This causes Leto's guards to hesitate in case one is the real Duncan, but the attempt fails as the Face Dancers are defeated by Leto's Fish Speaker army and Duncan himself. Leto employs the Bene Gesserit Anteac to spot the Face Dancer impersonators in his midst so they can be eliminated (although Leto can detect them himself).
Some 1,500 years later in the beginning of Heretics of Dune (1984), the Bene Tleilax feel ready to take control of the Imperium. They have achieved their long-term plan of developing Face Dancers who are perfect mimics, able to take mind prints of the people they imitate and possess all their memories. This leaves an ordinary person with no real way of detecting a replacement; the Tleilaxu believe that the Bene Gesserit cannot detect these new Face Dancers either. The Tleilaxu intend to take control of the other powers in the Imperium by replacing their leaders with Face Dancers. However, the Tleilaxu plan is ultimately ruined by its flaws. The Tleilaxu have never tested the Face Dancers over long periods independent of a master's control. It develops that, after playing their roles for too long, the new Face Dancers come to think of themselves as the people they have printed and forget their Tleilaxu origins. They effectively become the people they are mimicking, passing beyond the control of the Tleilaxu. Nor are the new Face Dancers undetectable to the Bene Gesserit. By the end of the novel, it looks as if the Bene Tleilax will be forced into an alliance with the Bene Gesserit.
In Chapterhouse: Dune (1985), The Reverend Mother Dortujla describes being approached by a group of Futars and "Handlers" wishing to ally with the Bene Gesserit against the Honored Matres. Dortujla is struck with the impression that the Handlers are Face Dancers, but standard Bene Gesserit detection techniques are unable to confirm her suspicions. These Handlers supposedly bred and trained the Futars to hunt Honored Matres. In his vision of the mysterious observers Daniel and Marty, Duncan Idaho notes:
Reassuring faces. That thought aroused Idaho's suspicions because now he recognized the familiarity. They looked somewhat like Face Dancers, even to the pug noses ... And if they were Face Dancers, they were not Scytale's Face Dancers. Those two people behind the shimmering net belonged to no one but themselves.
In the last chapter of the book, Marty and Daniel themselves mention independent Face Dancers:
"[Tleilaxu Masters] have such a hard time accepting that Face Dancers can be independent of them." "I don't see why. It's a natural consequence. They gave us the power to absorb the memories and experiences of other people. Gather enough of those and..." "It's personas we take, Marty." "Whatever. The Masters should've known we would gather enough of them one day to make our own decisions about our own future."
In Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson's 2006 continuation of the original series, Hunters of Dune, the descendant Tleilaxu who have returned from The Scattering — now called the Lost Tleilaxu — have been infiltrated by their own new breed of enhanced Face Dancers who cannot be detected by even the Bene Gesserit. Led by the Face Dancer Khrone, they have eliminated and replaced the Lost Tleilaxu Elders, and have allied with the Honored Matres to kill all of the "original" Tleilaxu Masters (except for Scytale, who is a captive of the Bene Gesserit). Khrone realizes that though the Lost Tleilaxu could create gholas in axlotl tanks, they did not possess the Tleilaxu secret to producing melange the same way; he tasks the surviving second-rank Lost Tleilaxu Uxtal to rediscover the process in hopes of breaking the Bene Gesserit monopoly on the all-important spice.
Khrone's other primary goal is to find the Ithaca, the no-ship that escaped Chapterhouse. A minion of Daniel and Marty, Khrone believes their "infallible" projections that the Ithaca contains something or someone important to them, the necessary fulcrum to influence the final battle against the human race. Meanwhile, the passengers of the Ithaca discover that the Handlers are actually Face Dancers themselves. The Face Dancers have secretly gained control of many similar power bases across the Old Empire in their plan to take over the universe. Murbella and her New Sisterhood stumble upon this when they discover that the leader of the Honored Matres on the planet Tleilax and her inner circle are in fact Face Dancer duplicates. Khrone implements a parallel plan to the pursuit of the Ithaca, purportedly to create other weapons for Daniel and Marty's conquest of the universe. He tasks Uxtal to create a ghola of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen from genetic material found in a damaged nullentropy tube (from the charred corpse of a Tleilaxu Master). This ghola is to be used to condition the subsequently-grown ghola of Paul Atreides, called Paolo, himself created from blood found on an ancient artifact. Though Daniel and Marty lose interest in the project, Khrone continues; the Face Dancer has his own agenda for domination of the universe, and believes that, like the Tleilaxu, Daniel and Marty can be fooled. Finally, it is revealed that the force behind the plot against humanity is in fact mankind's ancient enemy, the thinking machines; Daniel and Marty are in fact new incarnations of machine leader Omnius and his second-in-command Erasmus, introduced in the Legends of Dune prequel trilogy by Brian Herbert and Kevin. J Anderson.
In the series finale, Sandworms of Dune (2007), it is revealed that the autonomous Face Dancers are creations of the reincarnated Omnius and Erasmus but seek to overthrow their machine "masters" as well. Secretly in control of Ix and its technology production, Khrone provides the Spacing Guild with Ixian navigation systems for their ships, and the New Sisterhood with copied Honored Matre weaponry for theirs. In their final battle against the thinking machine forces of Omnius, Khrone is able to trigger failure in all the technology, effectively neutralizing the human threat. But when Khrone asserts dominance over even the machine empire, a smug Erasmus activates a fail-safe built into all enhanced Face Dancers, instantly killing Khrone and all of his minions across the universe.
- Herbert, Frank (1984). Heretics of Dune.
- Herbert, Frank (1969). Dune Messiah.
- In Dune Messiah, the Tleilaxu dwarf Bijaz hums to activate dormant programming in the Duncan Idaho ghola Hayt to induce him to kill Paul Atreides: "He began to hum, a keening, whining monotonous theme, repeated over and over ... Hayt stiffened, experiencing odd pains that played up and down his spine ... The sound made Hayt think of ancient rituals, folk memories, old words and customs, half-forgotten meanings in lost mutterings."
- In Heretics of Dune, Master Waff tries to control his Face Dancer duplicate of Tuek: "Humming sounds like the noises of angry insects came from his mouth, a modulated thing that clearly was some kind of language."
- In Chapterhouse: Dune, Scytale sees an opportunity to control/influence the Duncan Idaho ghola and thus effect his escape from the Bene Gesserit when he thinks: Somehow, I must contrive it that Idaho and I meet intimately. There's always the whistling language we impress on every ghola.
- Herbert, Frank (1981). God Emperor of Dune.
- Herbert, Frank (1985). Chapterhouse: Dune.
- Herbert, Brian; Kevin J. Anderson (2006). Hunters of Dune.
- Herbert, Brian; Kevin J. Anderson (2007). Sandworms of Dune.