- Series: Dune (book 2)
- My rating: 8.5/10
For all of Dune’s accomplishments, it remains a very basic Campbellian Hero’s Journey, and as such it feels like Frank Herbert never had any sequel in mind when he wrote it. Young Paul Atreides loses his home, learns powers in the desert and then returns, victoriously, to free his people and take the Emperor’s throne. Such hero journeys always end at the moment of triumph, when the hero bestows the boons of his transformation on the world he originally came from, and we hardly ever imagine what comes after.
In Dune Messiah, a short novel written a few years after Dune, Herbert has some ideas what comes after, and he wants to undermine some rose-colored illusions we might be harboring from Dune. Dune Messiah is heavy and ponderous; filled with a sense of impending doom. Paul is an emperor of terrible power. His religious armies have conquered the known universe and he has the power of prophecy. His and Alia’s lives inevitably restricted by the demands of empire, Paul feels rising melancholy and doubt about his course. He is a tragic figure, as from a Shakespearean play.
Yet his enemies are still to be feared. Herbert takes this opportunity to greatly expand Dune’s universe. He introduces a new faction: the Bene Tleilax, a guilt of genetic manipulators. Together with the Bene Gesserit and the Space Guild they plot Paul’s downfall. Herbert effectively introduces the Tleilax power in a secret meeting. They wisely know that Paul can only be conquered from the inside, and seek to play on his vulnerabilities, such as his ongoing search for moral clarity. With the Tleilax come the Face Dancers and the Gholas, and we finally see Guild Steersmen up close.
And the Bene Tleilax made a smart assessment. Paul is an unwilling prophet; someone who stands apart from the mythological figurehead of a religious war that his Fremen armies made him into. Even stepping aside from this path in life will not extinguish that figurehead. Maybe… he would even want to be defamed, to free him from this path and not have any more death resting on his shoulders.
Dune Messiah offers a lot of depth and world-building but little in actual story. What happened since the events of Dune comes to us through whatever is mentioned in conversations where people try to outmanoeuvre each other in mindreading and hidden goals. These conversations are just as strong as they were in Dune, and Herbert offers some striking new visual images with them, like the Guildsmen and Paul’s palace. Some of these scenes I find repeated in modern works: the image of Paul walking through life while seeing his own future in visions, down to the moment of him remembering each situation happening with a finality, something similar happened in R. Scott Bakker’s The White-Luck Warrior (2011).
(In fact, for those looking for similar series to Dune, R. Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse series feels so inspired by Dune that it is a modern crossbreed between it and Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings. Bakker’s series has the same focus on philosophy and religion, featuring the Bene Gesserit and Mentats in the form of the Dunyain, and Paul Atreides is a clear inspiration behind the Messiah/Emperor Anasurimbor Kellhus.)
While these elements definitely make the novel worth reading, it is simply a slimmer story and does not feel like a full sequel in scope. It is, however, a finely crafted, chiseled novel, in which everything that was straightforward in Dune is now complex. There are no easy answers and every future and every choice that lays before Paul creates new consequences. All the characters are fully realized adults, with complex emotional lives. The way Herbert sets up the plot against Paul, who can see the future, is masterfully done. Dune Messiah may be different, but it sure is impressive in its own way.