Why Dune Messiah is even better than Dune
By Edward Cox
Posted on June 28, 2017 in Books with tags Frank Herbert
Like millions of other people I’m a huge fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune. I’m one of those fans who loves the David Lynch movie, who was desperate for the TV show to continue on through the whole series – even though it wasn’t the greatest of adaptations – and I played the video games to death. For sheer depth of history and mythology, the Dune Universe is arguably second only to Middle Earth. Some say that Herbert’s creation should be called fantasy, while others maintain that it is absolute science fiction. Personally, I think the amalgam science fantasy fits it the best, but as much as I love Dune, it isn’t my favourite book in the series.
After Dune comes Dune Messiah. We’re once again treated to a unique blend of merged philosophies and mysticism and religions, and continue with a story that rides on the culmination of millennia of the human race’s future history. This universe spans the length and breadth of imagination, but our eyes are again turned to the most important world among all these worlds: the desert planet Arrakis. Only here can the most valuable commodity in the known universe be found. Only here is the spice melange produced. Spice is the drug which expands consciousness, folds space, makes monumental distances simple to cross. Spice is vital to everything and everyone.
A decade or more after the events of Dune, Paul Atreides has taken control of Arrakis and has built his empire. To the Fremen, the people of Arrakis, he is the messiah who was prophesised to lead them. To the jealous Houses and feudal factions he is the pretender, and it seems that the biggest players in the known universe are conspiring to depose him. In continued defence of his empire and control of melange production, Paul’s war has spread to the stars. Tens of billions have already died and there seems no end to the fighting in sight. But Paul is the result of generations of selective breeding. He is the superhuman, the Kwisatz Haderach. He has visions of the future, and he can see hope there, in the far distance, a time when humanity has been steered away from destruction.
If Dune can be said to be a story about how an empire rises, then Messiah is about how an empire falls. But never in the way that you would imagine. No spoilers here. Paul is caught between acting as the Fremen holy man and establishing his rule as the emperor of the known universe. He might just be the saviour of all humankind, but the opposition he faces doesn’t just come from the worlds outside of Arrakis; dissent is also growing among his own people. Troubles are compounded when Paul is blinded; tradition dictates that all blind Fremen must be abandoned to the unforgiving desert.
Where Paul was once the great hope, the hero, he is now an isolated character, unique, difficult to comprehend. Those closest to him cannot begin to understand the scope of the visions that he, a superhuman, can see; and those that do are his enemies, fighting him because of his prescience. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, Paul is evolving above the human race, and to save his people – the Fremen, his enemies, the billions of souls scattered across the stars – he knows that he must sacrifice tradition in order to make way for certainty. And therein lies this book’s genius.
Messiah might be set in the same glorious universe as the first book, but the perspective is altogether different, askew. In Dune we battled alongside Paul Atreides and the Fremen, fighting the good fight, weaving through the cruelties and political intrigues of an infinitely complex universe. In Dune we helped to build an empire. In Messiah we’re fighting to keep it while not being entirely sure that we’re the good guys anymore.
There is a tragedy inherent to being an emperor, a path that leads to martyrdom for a messiah. Where is the balance for an impossible situation, the road between right and wrong that will steer humanity to a golden future but only after generations of hardship? Dune ended in victory, but its aftermath gets complicated. Messiah proves that endings aren’t always wrapped up in a neat bow because they’re just too damn fractured. It’s like the galactic Scouring of the Shire on acid and on a scale that only Herbert could envision.