The OF Blog: Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah

Monday, April 19, 2010

Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah

Before I begin discussing the second Dune Chronicles book, Dune Messiah, I want to note something from my earlier review of Dune that I purposely neglected.  Those who are familiar with the series might have wondered why in that review there is very little to no discussion of the religious and political elements of that novel (certainly, there was a round of discussion regarding this on a forum where I posted a copy of my review).  There are two main reasons, some of which I explained at length in the link above.

The first is due to the way the story was structured, much more emphasis was put on the influence that a person's ecosystem has in shaping that person; ecology is not just the study of how humans influence the environment but also how environmental pressures shape humans and their perceptions of the world around them.  I realize this is a highly debatable point (and the amount of discussion on this point in that linked thread bears this out), but it is a key element, if not the key element I took from the novel.  The second reason is that despite Dune ending with the ascension of Paul Atreides/Muad'Dib to the throne of the Padishah Emperors, the ending to that book clearly indicates that the overall story of Paul, his Fremen, and the complex issues raised in the first novel are far from complete.

Indeed, looking at Dune Messiah as being both sequel and complement to Dune has some merit.  Despite taking place twelve years after the final events in Dune, Dune Messiah takes several of the thematic elements present in the first novel and explores them at greater depth.  Sometimes, this deeper exploration into elements such as the character of Paul may be a bit off-putting for certain readers desiring a story that has more of the surface structure and tone of the first novel, but when I re-read this book for the first time in nine years, I found myself enjoying it much more.  In a few ways, Dune Messiah may be a better story than its predecessor. 

As the story opens, Paul's jihad (whether or not he wishes to claim such is beside the point) is nearing fruition.  Sixty-one billion people, according to Paul's own calculations, lie dead in the aftermath of the conquest/jihad launched by the Fremen Naibs.  The traditional powers of the Imperium, the Bene Gesserit, the Guildsmen, and the mechanistic-oriented Bene Tleilaxu, have begun conspiring on how to cause Paul's downfall.  But how does one remove a ruler who has near-complete prescience and is aware of so many possible futures?

Paul in turn is besieged by doubts and worries.  He is revolted by the violence done in his name and the deification that others wish to see in his body.  Yet his visions show that there are far worse futures than the blood-soaked present his followers are enacting.  And yet despite his awesome powers, Paul finds himself more and more trapped by the futures he beholds and the steps he has to take in order to avoid the worst of all possible futures.  But at what cost does this avoidance take?

In some aspects, Dune Messiah is a relatively simple, linear novel.  Making up less than two-thirds the length of the first novel, Dune Messiah is the shortest of the six novels written by Frank Herbert.  Yet in its compactness, there is a far clearer sense of the issues that Herbert wants to emphasize.  While there are still a few occasions where Herbert abuses the use of internal monologues to drive the action, on the whole, he does a much better job developing the characters, particularly those of Paul, Irulan, and the restored ghola-form of Duncan Idaho, the loyal Atreides retainer who died to protect Paul and Paul's mother, Jessica, in the first novel.  These characters and their conflicts feel much more immediate than they do in Dune, making for a more pleasant re-read than I had anticipated.

If part of the original novel was devoted to the tragedy of a Duke that everyone knew was sentenced to die through political betrayal and manipulations, that tragedy finds its reflections in the religious aspect of Paul's rule.  How does a man prevent others from viewing him as a god?  How does a person who is blessed/cursed with prescience going to handle knowing so many possible outcomes, most of which would have disastrous results?  Herbert's treatment of these important issues, as reflected in how conflicted and confused Paul becomes over the course of the novel, is handled much more adroitly than I felt was the case in the first novel.

This is not to say that there are not any deficiencies.  Despite being more focused than the original novel, Dune Messiah still at times has a sluggish pace, where often it appears that machinations introduced toward the beginning of the book take overlong to develop, leaving scenes like the penultimate one with the twins to feel somewhat rushed and underdeveloped.  For those who value the planetary aspects of ecology, this novel does not focus as much (or rather, it focuses very little on the natural aspects, but much more on the human aspects) on how environment and humans shape each other.  This is very much a novel about humans and what motivates them to betray and to swear allegiance to a higher goal than their self-preservation.

The conclusion is rather ambiguous, setting the stage for the third volume, but leaving unanswered several of the questions I noted above.  But perhaps that is the point, to leave thorny issues for the reader to consider long after the final page has been turned.  All I know is that I took far more out of this re-read than I did from my initial 2001 read. 

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