Friday, December 8, 2017

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

The bridge between two epics
Dune Messiah, published in 1969, is the sequel to Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune, which is perhaps the most highly regarded and certainly one of the bestselling science fiction novels of all time. In any case it was a tough act to follow. Portions of Dune Messiah were originally serialized in Galaxy magazine before being published in book form. Given that mode of delivery, plus the four years’ wait and the shorter running time, Dune Messiah may have been a reluctant sequel. Here Herbert doesn’t repeat the epic grandeur of the original Dune; in fact he seems to rebel against it. At some point, however, he clearly began to envision a trilogy with Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune, and this book is the perfect second volume to bridge the gap between the more grandiose novels that precede and follow it. Dune Messiah may not be as good as its predecessor, but it is a brilliant continuation of the Dune mythos.

The story takes place about a dozen years after the events of the first book. Paul Atreides, also known as Muad’Dib, is now Emperor of the known universe, ruling over hundreds of planets occupied by the human diaspora that has flown forth from Earth tens of thousands of years in our future. Hailed as a messiah, Muad’Dib’s followers have launched an interstellar jihad, killing billions as they subjugate new worlds in his name. Paul does not enjoy his roles as messiah and tyrant, but his powers of prescience show him that this brutal path is the least of all evils for the future of humanity. Though worshipped as a god, he has acquired many enemies who would love to see an end to his reign. A group of conspirators joins forces to take Paul down, including representatives of the Spacing Guild, which monopolizes interstellar travel; the religious/political sisterhood the Bene Gesserit; and the Tleilaxu, masters of genetic manipulation. These would-be assassins manage to recruit members of Paul’s inner circle to join them in their plot against him.

Though the novel makes reference to Muad’Dib’s absolute power and far-reaching influence, the story has the feel of an intimate chess game, albeit one with seven or eight major players all vying for dominance. Though the scope may be narrow, the stakes are high. Almost the entire narrative takes place within the capital city of Arrakeen, but Herbert makes it clear that what happens on this narrow stage affects the course of human history throughout the entire universe. At one point, Herbert gives us a rare glimpse into humanity’s past by comparing Muad’Dib to Genghis Khan and Hitler (both of them lightweights compared to the greatest dictator the universe has ever seen). This novel lacks the big action sequences and battle scenes of the first Dune book, however, in favor of a more quiet warfare that often takes the form of verbal sparring and intricate mind games. The moves and countermoves of all this power-jockeying are admittedly tough to follow at times. Every line of dialogue is so rich in subtle allusions and hidden meanings that the reader can easily get lost in each labyrinthine conversation, but the rich psychological and philosophical depth of Herbert’s vision makes the tough going worthwhile.

In the six Dune books that Herbert wrote before his death in 1986, he created the most fully realized fictional universe in the history of literature—more convincingly complete and eminently engrossing than the worlds of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. Any trip to Arrakis (the planet also known as Dune), is truly an amazing journey, and Dune Messiah is no exception.
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