Book Review: Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah

Frank Herbert’s Dune is a timeless classic of science fiction, and rightly so. I’ve read it at least two or three times over the years (once for a college class, even!), and I even kind of dig the David Lynch movie. (Which is heresy to some, but I digress).

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True fact: The old Earthworm Jim cartoon quoted the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear nearly every episode. 

However, for all that I enjoyed Dune, I never really got around to reading the later books in the series. I have vague memories of starting Dune Messiah when I was a kid, getting bored, and giving up a couple chapters in. And so, many a year later, I thought I’d give it another try. And I managed to make it through the whole book this time, woo! Probably helps that, after The Cybernetic Samurai, I wanted to read something, y’know. Good.

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Dune Messiah is a direct sequel to Dune, taking place twelve years after the first novel’s conclusion. This said, they are very, very different books. Dune, for all of its philosophy and trippy-ass prophecy-drug trips, is still at heart a coming-of-age adventure, complete with giant monsters and knife fights. Dune Messiah, on the other hand, is far more political. This is probably why the book lost my interest when I was a kid … but managed to hold it now. Somehow, I can’t help but love the fact the first chapter starts with “Muad’Dib’s Imperial reign generated more historians than any other era in human history.”

Dune Messiah centers around Paul Atreides, the Emperor of Mankind, ruling his empire from the imperial seat on the desert planet Arrakis (Or “Dune,” as it’s sometimes called). In the twelve years since the end of the first novel, Paul has used his powers of prophecy to rule the galaxy with an iron fist, with missionary-armies revering him as a god and conquering worlds, killing billions in his name. Dude makes Darth Vader look like Mr. Rogers. But, to Herbert’s credit, he neither justifies the excesses or Paul’s empire, or vilifies him entirely. Paul is mostly shown to be a slave to prophecy, as he has forewarnings of tragedies to come, but no ability to truly stop them.

The book centers around a rather convoluted plot by various conspirators to bring down Paul’s rule– though not in out of any quest for justice, but rather ’cause they’re a bunch of power hungry bastards. Of course, when the Emperor you’re trying to depose can see into the future, this makes things difficult, and so the scheme involves clones and a shapeshifting assassin and all kinds of other sci-fi craziness.

But, like I said before, Dune Messiah isn’t an adventure novel– or even a political thriller. Instead, with its symbolism and prophecies and ultimate grim ending, Dune Messiah reminded me of a high Greek tragedy. The sort of thing where characters go into it knowing it will end badly, but they can’t help themselves from going down that path anyway. All of this is wrapped up in a sort of ‘Islam in Spaaaaaace!’ kind of style, as well. I mean, if Paul/Muad’Dib as a prophet of a desert-based people isn’t blatant enough, Herbert uses the term “jihad” to describe the holy war waged in his name, so there ya go. At least Herbert uses the middle-eastern-ish trappings well, and doesn’t lapse into ultra-right wing xenophobia. Then again, this isn’t a Baen novel. Zing!

Ultimately, Dune Messiah is a complex novel, but one worth reading. It may have taken me a decade or so to get to the point where I could ‘get’ the novel upon reading, but I’m glad I finally returned to it. Then again, the Dune novels are classic enough that they’d be worth your time even without my silly reccomendation. Which makes things even better, I guess?

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