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Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

Published by Ace Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When I finished Dune, the emotional high was intense. Paul Atreides had just triumphed over the wicked Harkonnens who had usurped his father's fief over Arrakis, and in the process he had even won the hand of the beautiful space princess Irulan, daughter of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. I was excited to see what would happen next, since i knew there were at least two more Dune books I had seen on the shelves at the bookstore. I had simply assumed that the second book would pick up where the first had left off, so I was rather disappointed when I finally was able to acquire it and discover that it did not.

Instead it jumps forward a decade, and instead of showing us the further adventures of the hero Paul who led the Fremen to victory against a hated oppressor, it begins with a dialog with a historian who's in trouble with the law. Except the law is the priesthood that has arisen to administer the religion that grew up among the Fremen followers of Paul, and the historian is in trouble for telling the truth and making connections between the facts. Something has gone terribly wrong.

The next chapter is the passage to which the priest-interrogator was objecting, which contains a pretty accurate summary of the events of Dune -- yet another hint that something has gone terribly wrong since that heroic moment at its close. This is not the way the hero's story is supposed to go, at least not from all the stories I'd read before that. Heroes were supposed to keep on being heroic in one book after another, not turn into oppressive villains.

The rest of the chapter introduced the major new elements that would play an important role in the book. In particular we have the Bene Tlielax and their Face Dancers. To be sure, Tlielax had been mentioned in Dune as a source of Twisted mentats, both in the glossary and in the text, when Baron Harkonnen commented that it would take time to prepare a replacement for Piter de Vries, and in the meantime he would suborn Thufir Hawat to his purposes. But the Bene Tlielax are a new thing, although their name would suggest that they are an organization similar to the Bene Gesserit whose generations-long quest for the Kwisatz Haderach was such an important element in the original. And their mysterious Face Dancers are an even more interesting development.

The very next chapter, the first one of actual narrative, introduces us to Scytale, who is just one of those Face Dancers -- a shapeshifter. He is on Wallach IX, seat of the Bene Gesserit motherhouse, for a meeting of conspirators against Paul Atreides. Two of the other conspirators, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim and Princess Irulan, are familiar from the first book, but the other is not. Edric is a Steersman of the Spacing Guild, that mysterious organization we only glimpsed in the first novel, and then only enough to know that they depended upon melange-derived prescience to fold space and thus proved faster-than-light travel for the feudal, technophobic Imperium. For the first time one is an actual major character, and we get what is probably the closest thing to an alien in the entire Dune universe. Edric is of human stock, to speak strictly, but he has mutated to the point that he appears more like a frog than a typical human being.

This chapter is also interesting for the way in which Frank Herbert deftly weaves into the conversation of these conspirators bits of information about the Tlielaxu -- their ability to bring the dead back to life as gholas, the axolotl tanks by which they perform biological manipulaitions, their own attempt to create a kwisatz haderach and other pure essences of humanity (a hint dropped in a way that suggests it had been a considerable time before, perhaps even generations, rather than the mere years portrayed in Paul of Dune), the various other biotechnologies in which they have dabbled and are reviled for by the general populace of the Imperium. And given that this is a society in which computers and most electronics are anathema, it is not at all surprising that manipulating the very stuff of life would be regarded with revulsion of a deeply religious sort.

And only then do we finally get to see Paul, who had been the first character we met in the original. By this time our appetite is whetted and we desperately want to see what has happened to him. If we're hoping that he's preparing for yet another heroic adventure on the scope of the first book, we're soon to be sadly disappointed. No, he's in his quarters in the gigantic Keep built upon the sands of Arakeen, in the company of his beloved Fremen concubine Chani. Yet there's something oddly helpless and passive about his conduct throughout this scene which is at stark variance with his image as a man of action from the first novel, which is yet another sign that things have changed, and not for the better.

Even he is pondering it, considering how he has become emmeshed in his own prophecies and has lost his freedom of action in the process. And that moment sets the tone for the entire novel, in which he is steadily encircled tighter and tighter by the webs of the conspiracy against him and seems to be sleepwalking right into their trap. At one key turning point, he knows that he is going into trouble, and yet he still goes straight into the trap they have created for him because he has foreseen it.

When I originally read this book, I felt that it was an enormous let-down. Not only did it fail to give me the sustained heroism I had been expecting from the emotional peaks of the first one, but by jumping ahead I felt that it had deliberately cheated me of the most exciting parts. However, now that I am older I can see what Frank Herbert was intending to achieve;, namely, a warning about the perils of heroism and of leadership, and how legend could enslave the person about whom it arose. And after reading the atrocious Paul of Dune, I understand why this novel jumps ahead twelve years rather than detailing all the great actions of the Fremen Jihad that are merely glimpsed in references dropped here and there -- for the simple reason that it would have reduced it to nothing more than a pulp adventure, and lost sight of the great message of the series, of what happens to a society that starts blindly following a Leader.

Review posted February 5, 2009.

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