Science Fiction Classics: “Dune Messiah” (by Frank Herbert)

Having finished Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune, I decided to dive right in and begin the second volume, Dune Messiah. While it lacks some of the narrative richness of its predecessor, in many ways it is even more theologically and philosophically sophisticated, as Paul must contend not only with the consequences of the jihad he unleashed upon the universe, but also with a conspiracy and with the ever tightening noose of his own prescience.

The novel begins several years after Paul seized the throne. The Fremen have swept everyone before them, and Paul is now the undisputed ruler of the Imperium. However, there are those that see him as a danger that must be removed, among them a Navigator from the Spacing Guild, a Tleilaxu Face Dancer, the Princess Irulan, and a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit (none other than Gaius Helen Mohiam herself). While their plan ultimately fails, it is enough to both physically blind Paul and send him wandering into the desert and his presumed death.

Given that this is Dune we’re talking about, there is a great deal of discussion about Paul’s powers of prescience. By this point, they have become more a prison than anything else, a millstone around his neck that he can’t shake off. It is, however, the one thing that allows him to prevent even greater violence and, just as importantly, to protect the lives of those that he loves (to an extent, at least). Indeed, I would argue that one of the novel’s great strengths is that it not only explores the philosophical underpinnings of prescience and its consequences but also shows how those consequences manifest in Paul’s life and his physical well-being. Paul, ultimately, is a sort of negative tragic hero, denied the fulfilling life that some might think that he deserves.

For it is also true that the novel also raises potent questions about the relationship between faith and politics. In many ways, the world that emerges in the aftermath of the Paul’s jihad is very similar to that faced by all political and military movements that emerge from religious fervor that centers on a powerful, charismatic individual. Paul has the distinct disadvantage of still being alive while the theocracy he leads is built around him, and even his prescience isn’t entirely enough to prevent the seeds of rebellion from taking root. In Messiah, as in its predecessor, Paul is simultaneously omnipotent and completely impotent, caught in an impossible position that he alone has made possible.

One of the most surprising things about this novel is how much it manages to pack into its relatively short length. In it, we not only see the birth and growth of the conspiracy that will ultimately cost him his eyes, but also the conflicted nature of his sister Alia, the conflicted loyalties of Irulan and, perhaps most importantly, the ghola Duncan Idaho, who has been resurrected by the powers of the Tleilaxu. His presence is a troubling and unsettling reminder of the powers that this reclusive group wields, in this case the ability to resurrect dead flesh. What is particularly striking here is that even though Duncan is at first distinctly not the same as he was when he was alive before, Paul is able to force his former persona to resurface. It’s a pivotal moment in the novel, positing the radical idea that there just might be memories, and fundamental aspects of who we are as individuals, buried deep within our cells. It’s a fascinating and troubling idea.

It is also a remarkably pessimistic novel. When, at the end, Paul walks into the sands of Arrakis, leaving behind his two newborn children, his sister, and his lieutenant Stilgar behind to rule his empire, it’s a breathtakingly devastating moment. This is the man, after all, that we as readers have followed since the very beginning of his journey to the top of the universe. It’s tragic, in the truest sense of that term, that he is unable to attain the rewards that he clearly deserves.

If I have one minor complaint about the novel, it’s that the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, one of the shrewdest women in the Imperium and a key part of Paul’s own rise, is killed off-screen on Alia’s orders. While it makes sense that Alia would engage in an act of retribution for the death of her brother, it seems to me that a character like Mohiam would have, at the very least, deserved a more meaningful death.

Overall, however, I quite enjoyed my re-read of Dune Messiah. While it doesn’t quite attain the epic grandeur of its predecessor, it is nevertheless a worthy successor and a compelling prelude to the many things to come.

Science Fiction Classics: Dune (by Frank Herbert)

I’m not sure what prompted me to go back and reread Dune, the science fiction masterpiece by Frank Herbert. I’ve read it several times now, but something just keeps drawing me back to it. Part of it, no doubt, is the fact that it is basically the sci-fi equivalent of The Lord of the Rings, and it focuses more on politics, philosophy, and religion than it does on science. Part of it also has to do with the fact that it continues to be a part of the cultural conversation, both because Herbert’s son Brian (along with his coauthor Kevin J. Anderson) continue adding to the series and because there is a hotly anticipated new film adaptation coming this fall.

For those who haven’t read it, the novel focuses on Paul, the heir to Duke Leto Atreides. When his family is betrayed and his father killed, he flees into the desert of the planet Arrakis with his mother, the Lady Jessica. Ultimately, Paul learns to live among the Fremen and ultimately leads a revolt against the Emperor Shaddam, after which he claims the throne for himself.

What I found most fascinating about the novel is the way in which it manages to give us insight into the science that makes the planet of Arrakis work as well as the politics that surround it. In the universe that Herbert has created, the vast edifice of the Empire rests on spice, without which nothing can function. The entire novel is, in some ways, a potent warning about the dangers of an entire society building its fortunes and its most fundamental structures on one resource. Indeed, the various powers come to realize that they have been very foolish indeed to not only rely so much on the spice but also to underestimate the Fremen, who end up being key to Paul’s bid for revenge against his family.

Yet it is just as much a rumination on the power of biology and destiny to shape our lives. By the end of the novel, Paul has come to accept that the jihad that he has attempted to keep from happening will in fact spiral out of control no matter what he does. Like so many other epic heroes that have emerged in literature, Paul is in the unenviable position of being a super powerful figure–his very existence is due to a generations-long genetic experiment by the group of sorceresses known as the Bene Gesserit–that is nevertheless helpless to really change the course of events that surround him. Though the full extent of this powerlessness won’t manifest until Dune Messiah, even in these early days it is clear that Paul will ultimately become the victim of his own success, a figure that has both extraordinary power and yet none at all.

There are, of course, a whole host of other characters that are equally if not more compelling than Paul, foremost among them his nemesis the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He is, without a doubt, an absolutely fascinating figure, precisely because so much of him remains unknown (though more is revealed in the prequels published by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson). Equally interesting is the figure of the Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, who is a testament to the ability to science fiction to feature strong women.

Re-reading the novel, I was struck by how neatly it cleaves into two separate parts. The first part is the well-developed one that shows the complex web of politics and scheming that brings the Atreides to their knees, as well as showing how Paul gradually finds himself drawn into the world of mysticism and foretelling that will shape so much of his future destiny. The second half occurs after a time jump and, to be honest, still feels a little less-developed than the one that preceded it. Even now, it feels as if the climax of the novel is a bit rushed.

Admittedly, there are some things about the novel that don’t age particularly well, chief among them Baron Harkonnen’s penchant for young boys, which falls far too neatly into the pernicious stereotypes that evil people must be sexual perverts. Though one rather expects this sort of lazy storytelling from others, one would think Herbert would be above it.

All in all, though, I loved Dune just as much this time as I have in my previous readings. It’s one of those rich and textured works of literature that is both infinitely accessible and yet continually full of new meanings to be explored.