Broken Messiah – Review of Frank Herbert’s “Dune Messiah”

Cover Art for “Dune Messiah”. Source

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Frank Herbert’s legacy in science fiction is one that he spent a lifetime creating, mainly through the six novels of the Dune series. The first book, which I covered in a previous book review, is hailed as a classic of the science fiction genre. It is also one of the most well-known works of fiction in the 20th century, behind only Lord of the Rings in popularity. The follow-up novel, Dune Messiah, examines the fallout of Paul Atreides rise to become Emperor of the Known Universe and the Messiah of the Fremen people.

Obviously, there will be spoilers, so don’t read if you haven’t read the book.

Twelve years have passed since the events of Dune and Paul Muad’Dib has overseen the Jihad he had foreseen during the events of that novel. Ruling over the galaxy because of his monopoly of the spice mélange, which underpins every aspect of the galactic economy, Paul stands above all others as both Emperor and a Messiah, the prophesied savior of the Fremen. In the course of the dozen years since his reign began, the Jihad of his Fremen warriors has claimed billions of lives and sterilized entire star systems that revolted against the change in galactic leadership. This is no longer the young man who sought revenge against his enemies for the destruction of his House and the death of his father. This is a man who is soaked in the blood of billions of human beings.

And according to Paul, this was the least worst option available.

Frank Herbert, author of the original Dune Cycle. Source

Herbert’s primary focus, aside from his environmental commentary, is to show us as readers what can happen when we allow charismatic leaders to take control of our collective future. Paul has moved beyond the Hero’s Journey into something entirely different and ultimately dreadful: the realization that even with his immense power of foresight into possible futures, he cannot escape his own choices. The Jihad he has unleashed on the universe was the lesser evil but he foresees a greater sacrifice in the future. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the chapters that focus on Paul’s perspective as the weight of his visions grows heavier and heavier.

The plotting of the book is far more rushed than Dune, which took a long view on setting up the central conflicts and their resolution. Whereas Dune was a sizeable novel, Dune Messiah is just over half the size of the first novel. The main plotline involves Paul having to outmaneuver a conspiracy involving the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, the Spacing Guild, and the Tleilaxu as they attempt to unseat him from the Golden Lion Throne. The Bene Gesserit want to regain control of their breeding program (of which Paul is the product of it, although a generation earlier than he should have been born). The Spacing Guild require spice not only for space travel but also to allow their Navigators to be transformed into the physical and mental state that allows for safe travel in the galaxy. The Tleilaxu are geneticists, specializing in creating gholas, clones of deceased individuals from a small amount of cellular material. Each group has their own reasons for joining the coup attempt, but we don’t learn more about the Tleilaxu’s true reasons until the ending.

Part of the plot involves the reintroduction of Duncan Idaho, a character that was killed during the events of Dune. Now called Hayt, the ghola of Duncan Idaho does not possess the memories of the original Duncan. Paul recognizes the ghola for the trap that it is but he allows it to become part of his court in order to flush out the rest of the conspirators. Throughout the novel, Paul tries desperately to avoid the fate he has foreseen for himself and his wife Chani. But as he struggles to avoid his fate, it moves closer and closer to him, inexorably drawing Muad’Dib to his destiny.

While not as cut-and-dry from an ethical standpoint, Dune Messiah is still an excellent book. Herbert focuses on the consequences that would arise from the tumultuous events of the first novel, exacting the full costs for the choices made in that story. Few authors make the effort that Herbert does to examine the after-effects of the great battles they write. Through Dune Messiah, Herbert examines what it means when the charismatic leader assumes power and has to make the difficult decisions involved in ruling. The ending of the story, with Paul wandering off blind into the desert to ensure the loyalty of the Fremen to his children Leto II and Ghanima, is bittersweet to say the least. In a traditional story, Paul would have been able to have everything he ever dreamed of. Instead, the price he pays for his attempt to steer destiny in a specific path is to lose everything that matters to him. And that is the most telling part of Herbert’s vision as a writer and creator: the price of our choices far often outweighs the benefits gained from them.

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