Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

Dune Messiah[This post contains spoilers for those who have not read Dune, but none relating to Dune Messiah itself].

Twelve years have passed since Paul Muad’Dib assumed the role of galactic emperor in the dramatic coup d’état that ended the first volume in the Dune saga. Now he sits on the emerald throne, slowly bringing life to the desert planet of Arrakis, his adopted home. However, all is not well. Paul is beseiged by doubt. He is emperor in name but:

Awareness turned over at the thought of all those stars above him—an infinite volume. A man must be half mad to imagine he could rule even a tear-drop of that volume. He couldn’t begin to imagine the number of subjects his imperium claimed.

Subjects? Worshippers and enemies more likely. Did any any them see beyond rigid beliefs? Where was one man who’d escaped the narrow destiny of his prejudices? Not even an emperor escaped.

This is the crux of Dune Messiah. Paul has the gift of foresight to an extreme degree but rather than a gift, it destroys his life. Knowing what is to come makes him fatalistic, doomed to feel neither he nor anyone else has free will. He has become a tragic figure, a lone ruler like Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Like Macbeth, we can have no sympathy for Paul now, for he has been the trigger of a holy war that has caused massive suffering and slaughter across the universe. In Dune Messiah, Herbert’s focus is very clearly on mass religious movements and how they can possess their followers so that the war becomes an all-encompassing obsession. Written in 1969, this is a novel whose relevance only grows with each passing year.

It is a much darker book than its predecessor. We have come to relate to and support House Atreides through their struggle against Harkonnen treachery, but now they are the ruthless oppressors who blithely compare themselves to Ghengis Khan and Hitler. Dune Messiah suffers greatly from the absence of the most likeable characters from the original novel: Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, and the planetologist Kynes, both missing for very different reasons.

Although philosophical in parts, Herbert has not lost his touch for drama. Dune Messiah revolves around an elaborate plot to slay the god-emperor using a bizarre cast of dwarfs, shape-shifters, golems, and the weird Steersmen who pilot the starships that connect this galactic empire:

They formed a moving design of gray robes … all arrayed in a deceptively random way around the transparent tank where the Steersman-Ambassador swam in his orange gas. The tank slid on its supporting field, towed by two gray-robed attendants, like a rectangular ship being warped into its dock … The Steersman assumed a sybaritic reclining pose in his orange gas, popped a melange capsule into his mouth before meeting Paul’s gaze. The tiny traducer orbiting a corner of the Guildsman’s tank reproduced a coughing sound, then the rasping uninvolved voice: “I abase myself before my Emperor and beg leave to present my credentials and offer a small gift.”

In Dune Messiah, Herbert has moved on from the ecological preoccupations that were the centerpiece of his first novel. In turning his attention to the causes of religious extremism, he takes us into new territories and explores very different ideals. As a novel it is dark, rich, and thrilling, a worthy successor to Dune.

You can read another take on Dune Messiah here by Fiction Fan, a great book blogger who has an eye for some very esoteric titles!

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22 responses to “Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

    • I would say not. As the series progresses, the science fantasy element becomes more and more bizarre and the overall message gets a bit lost. So far, I think Dune and Dune Messiah are far away the best of the series but I’m only on book 4. Dune Messiah gets better the more I think about it. Firstly, because it shows that foreknowledge of the future is a terrible curse, robbing us of free choice. Secondly, the story focuses on a plot to kill Paul Atreides with an extraordinary cast of weird beings working against him. It is exceptional.

  1. Great review. I agree that Dune Messiah is darker and although I really enjoyed the environmental desert aspect of Dune, the fierce agony and soul-searching of Dune Messiah appealed even more to my glass half empty mentality. It also has an interesting mix of genetics and religion. Herbert’s view (1969) for a future entwined with religious fanaticism is almost the opposite to Arthur C Clarke’s version in ‘The Deep Range’ (1957) where religion has been trumped by science except for some alternative Buddhists. You wonder what a decade or so of the Space Race did for any optimistic views of the future.

    • It’s funny but I was really struck by Herbert’s interest in genetic engineering when I was reading the book but I forgot to mention it in my reviews. It’s an idea which seems years ahead of its time considering that this book first appeared in 1965. There’s so much else to talk about!
      I’ve never even heard of ‘The Deep Range’ so that’s another one to add the pile!

      • Oh, I’m not sure ‘The Deep Range’ is worth adding to the pile especially if you are fond of whales. Plus the characters aren’t complex and overall it feels dated in a way that the Dune books don’t.

      • Ah then I will skip it. I do like my leviathans as you know but I haven’t been able to go out on any spotting trips because I’m snowed under with work (and blogging!).

  2. I actually preferred Messiah to the original. It got to the point much more quickly, and although none of the characters was what you’d call likeable, I thought he did Paul’s internal struggle very well. And although I missed Lady Jessica, I liked that he had a strong female character in Alia. Should be reading Children some time soon – is it good?

    • What can I say? Children of Dune is bizarre, even by the standards of the Dune epic. I’m coming round to the opinion that Messiah may be the best of them all but I do love Dr Yueh and his plot in the original.
      I’ve just updated the post to include a link to your blog too!

      • Oh, dear – I’m not sure I can cope with bizarre! Well, only one way to find out! Haha – should be fun anyway…

        Oh, thanks for the linkt, Alastair, and for the kind words! 😀

    • Well not every book is for everyone. Personally, I always feel guilty for not having read more Jane Austen. I just cannot get into them, although I do like one or two of the films.

  3. Dune and Dune Messiah are brilliant, nice to see a review of this. Dark stuff as you say.

    The sequels I don’t really remember. My vague recollection is that the story was done with this one, and what followed was diminishing returns.

    • I think that’s right. Dune and Dune Messiah are really tight, taut action packed stories with a clear narrative. So far the sequels have wandered off into very odd territory. I’m still enjoying them but I don’t think I would re-read them, whereas I could see myself picking up Dune and Dune Messiah in ten years’ time to revisit Arrakis.

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