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!