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Notes on Dune Messiah

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Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah (1969) is the first of five sequels to his masterwork Dune (1965). It is the shortest of the sequels, and I found it one of the least satisfying. The best sequels are Children of Dune (1976) and God Emperor of Dune (1981). The worst are Heretics of Dune (1984) and Chapterhouse Dune (1985).

John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, rejected Dune Messiah because he did not like the transformation of Paul Atreides, the hero of Dune, into a sulking anti-hero buffeted about by forces beyond his control. But this is not a problem for me, because Paul’s reversal of fortune is a necessary outcome of the basic plot elements of Dune. In Dune, Paul Atreides’ final step toward becoming a superman and conqueror is to acquire the power of prescience. He can see the future. But to see the future is to become imprisoned by it.

Paul saw that by using the wild Fremen of Arrakis to overthrow his family’s enemy Emperor Shaddam IV, he would unleash a holy war that would engulf the universe, creating untold bloodshed and destruction. But he didn’t stop it. Maybe he couldn’t stop it.

Dune Messiah is set twelve years after the conclusion of Dune. The holy war is dying down, its chaos and fanaticism congealing into a massive, bureaucratic theocracy with Paul as God Emperor at the top. Paul is sickened as much by the peace as by the war. He longs for escape. He wants to free himself and humanity from tyranny, and not just political tyranny but the tyranny of prescience. He dreams of discrediting himself as a god and disappearing.

But Paul can’t just step down without throwing the universe into even greater chaos. For one thing, he needs an heir to his throne, but for twelve years, his concubine Chani has been unable to conceive. He refuses to have children with his wife, Irulan, Shaddam’s daughter, for theirs was only a marriage of convenience, to secure his accession to the throne. But Paul is not too eager to have an heir, because he has foreseen that Chani will die in childbirth. It turns out that Irulan had been feeding Chani a contraceptive drug all along, but Paul forgives her, because he knows that it is prolonging Chani’s life.

These are conflicts with enormous dramatic potential, and if Herbert had constructed his story around them alone, it would have been quite a good read. But instead, Herbert relegates these conflicts to the background, in favor of a Byzantine plot involving two conspiracies against Paul, one by Fremen and the other by offworlders: the Bene Gesserit, represented by Reverend Mother Mohiam; the Spacing Guild, represented by a navigator named Edric; and the Bene Tleilax, represented by Scytale, a “face dancer” who can take on anyone’s appearance at will. But the aims of the plotters, and how they mesh together, are quite unclear.

The Bene Gesserit sisterhood’s aims are clearest. They aren’t seeking political power. They simply wish to continue their ancient breeding program by crossing Paul with Irulan or his sister Alia. They don’t want Paul’s heir to come from Chani, who is half-Fremen, a strain that the sisterhood regards as too “wild.” But the purpose of their breeding program is to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, a Janus-faced superbeing who has access to his ancestral memories as well as the power to see into the future. But Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, which means that their plans have already been fulfilled. Of course, the sisterhood wanted to control the Kwisatz Haderach, but none of their plotting could guarantee control over Paul or any of his offspring. So what’s their point?

The Spacing Guild’s motive is unclear. They do not seek political power. They simply seek a reliable supply of the spice that grants them the prescience necessary to navigate starships faster than the speed of light. But the spice comes from only one place in the universe: the deserts of Arrakis. So the Guild is dependent on whoever exercises political control over Arrakis.

The Bene Tleilax want Paul to renounce his godhood, discredit his priesthood and his sister Alia, and hand over his shares in the CHOAM conglomerate. One wonders if they have contemplated who would rule next or the chaos that would ensure if there were no clear successor.

The Children of Dune miniseries (2003) adapts both Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. It unifies the two novels by giving the plotters a common aim: returning Shaddam’s House Corrino to the imperial throne. This improves the story considerably, because although it is a banal aim, at least it is an intelligible one.

As for the Fremen plot, it involves both Fremen who long for the old order and Fremen who have prospered under the new one. Their motives and aims are never made clear. Nor is it clear how independent their plot is of the offworlders’ machinations. The offworlders snare Paul in their plot by revealing the Fremen plot. But it is not clear if they initiated the Fremen plot or simply discovered it and then used it as bait.

Beyond the murkiness of their motives, the actual mechanism of the offworlders’ plot just doesn’t make sense.

An essential premise of Dune Messiah’s plot is that one oracle can cloud the power of another oracle. The Bene Gesserit have introduced the Dune Tarot to Arrakis because even the presence of tarot readings can cloud Paul’s vision. Guild navigators are far more prescient than tarot card readers, so the conspirators have included Edric the navigator simply to conceal them from Paul’s prescience.

Paul knows that other oracles can interfere with his own prescience, but he nevertheless accepts Edric as the Guild’s ambassador on Arrakis. Why? Obviously, if one oracle really clouds another, he cannot anticipate the consequences. He knows there is a conspiracy against him, and he may wish to accelerate it, but it seems a mad gamble to do so while also diminishing his own powers.

Edric brings a gift for Paul: a “ghola,” meaning a revenant. The Bene Tleilax have the power to grow tissue in so-called Axlotl tanks. They can take a cadaver, or even a few cells, and grow them into a living being. The ghola is the regrown flesh of Duncan Idaho, the Atreides swordmaster, who had died on Arrakis to save Paul and his mother Jessica from their enemies the Harkonnens. The Idaho ghola has no recollection of his previous life and has been trained by the Tleilaxu as a mentat, meaning a human computer, and a “zensunni” mystic.

When Paul asks the mentat-ghola what his purpose is, he says to destroy Paul. It is the most logical answer, but it is not the whole story. The Idaho ghola has been implanted with two compulsions. The first compulsion is to remember his identity as Duncan Idaho, which will be triggered when Paul tells him that Chani is dead: “When the moment comes, you will remember. He will say ‘She is gone.’ Duncan Idaho will awaken then” (The  Great Dune Trilogy [London: Gollancz, 1979], p. 538. The second compulsion is to kill Paul.

So the Tleilaxu do know how to bring back memories after all. Why do they wish to demonstrate this power to Paul in such a dramatic way? Because Chani is going to die in childbirth, and the Tleilaxu want him to know that they can completely restore her—for a price. But why offer Paul a deal and then kill him? A living Paul could honor their deal and protect them from his Fremen. A dead Paul could do neither. It makes no sense.

But the deeper problem is: How do the Tleilaxu know that Chani will die in childbirth? How do they know that Duncan Idaho will be present? How do they know what words Paul will use? Obviously, only prescience could make that possible. Paul knows, but he did not share that information with anyone, not even Chani. Thus the Tleilaxu must have had access to another oracle. But the whole plot depends on the assumption that one oracle clouds another. Thus if Edric hid the conspirators from Paul’s prescience, Paul’s prescience would have hidden Chani’s end from any other oracle. Thus the Tleilaxu plot depends on knowledge that they cannot have according to the basic premises of the story.

None of this was explicitly clear, of course, when I read Dune Messiah for the first time. But I believe that my dissatisfaction was based on a subliminal sense that the central plot is incoherent. Now I understand why. Your experience, of course, may vary.

For more on Dune, see:

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  1. HamburgerToday
    Posted April 17, 2020 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I agree. The first time I read Dune Messiah two things struck me: (1) it was incoherent and (2) all of the strange — and totally game-changing technologies — that seemed to play no role at all in Dune when it sure seems like they should have. One of the rare occasions where the made-for-tv movie is actually better than the book (especially when combined with Children of Dune.

  2. ward
    Posted April 17, 2020 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Dear Greg have you ever seen the Spicediver fanedit of Dune?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted April 17, 2020 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Wow, that looks good. How does one get ahold of it?

  3. Chad Crowley
    Posted April 17, 2020 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    The Spicediver fanedit is fantastic and can be found here:

  4. John
    Posted April 18, 2020 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    Hi Greg,

    Excuse me for the digression, but I’d like to know how to go about submitting on Counter Currents. I already submitted an email to [email protected], but received no reply.


    • Greg Johnson
      Posted April 18, 2020 at 5:23 am | Permalink

      Try resending.

  5. Ganger
    Posted April 18, 2020 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I liked Dune Messiah a lot, probably more than Dune itself. I have read it many times.

    I don’t think the book is incoherent (mostly). I think the problem is that the Dune
    Universe itself is so bizarre, and whereas the first book both explained and shielded the reader from this — making it more comprehensible — the second book throws the reader right into it and one has to read and think carefully about what is happening in the story. One is left to try and comprehend what the characters are talking about and doing without the training that these characters receive as members of their respective schools. It’s actually appropriate; I think the overwhelming weirdness of the story mirrors the difficulty and increasing lack of clarity which Paul experiences as the story progresses (even though he possesses powerful prescience, he cannot really see what his enemies are doing or the forces which are constricting around him!).
    Most of what Greg points out as problems with the story can be explained. For example, the Tleilaxu were planning for different possible outcomes. The Idaho ghola (called Hayt) was designed so that a compulsion to kill Paul would conflict with an equally strong need to protect an Atreides: the tension between the two would force the ghola to remember the original Duncan Idaho’s memories. However, if the ghola failed and ended up killing Paul, the dwarf Bijaz says (if I remember correctly) that they would then try to make an offer of a perfect ghola of Paul to Chani or maybe Alia.
    I always took it for granted that they made an educated guess that Paul would say “She is gone” to Hayt, maybe based on analyzing his speech patterns — the Bene Gesserit could have also helped them with this. The power groups in the Dune universe have
    strange attributes and abilities, after all.
    I think Paul accepted Edric and the other conspirators into his midst because even if his oracle was clouded, it still makes sense to keep one’s enemies close. Deep down he knew what was going to happen, but he still wanted to see if some way out of his miserable situation would present itself. Ultimately it did and he won, in as much as the conspirators were all defeated and his children were secured in their inheritance.

    One last thing: note the allusion to Oedipus: Paul voluntarily loses his eyes, and becomes a blind king. Indeed, the theme of “eyes” is prominent. The Tleilaxu mechanical eyes that Hayt and a young fremen who is killed early in the story have, the “eyes of the ibad”, or the all-blue eyes of spice addiction, Paul’s ability to navigate perfectly about his environs even after his eyes are destroyed by use of prescience (which frightens many in his court), etc.

  6. roo_ster
    Posted April 18, 2020 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Reading Dune Messiah is like walking through a fog at times. I’ve reread it, along with all the other Dune books written by Frank Herbert, several times. Both Messiah and children are books one reads get to the other Dune books.

    In any case, Frank Herbert’s Dune books are so far beyond any contemporary science fiction / science fantasy I’ve come across in the last couple decades in terms of quality, sophistication, and overall excellence.

  7. Hegel's Kegels
    Posted April 18, 2020 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Dune Messiah (and Children of Dune) is a preface to God Emperor of Dune, an unenviable position to be in within Frank Herbert’s work. Messiah’s job is to eliminate Paul and replace his monarchy with a priesthood. This is what will ultimately be destroyed by his son in Children of Dune, another slog, however necessary. The point being a superhuman must embrace being superhuman, something Paul would not do while his son does, in order to lead humanity to not rely on leaders. Dune is the longest zen parable ever penned.

  8. R_Moreland
    Posted April 18, 2020 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    In the Dune novels Frank Herbert raises the question, “What happens after the heroic rebels overthrow the evil tyrannical regime?”

    If you follow the usual liberation narrative, the rebels establish a people’s democratic republic and then it’s rainbows and cosmic unicorns ever after. But in Dune Messiah Herbert provides a different answer: the rebels establish a regime which is more tyrannical by light years. The point is made explicit in the chapter where Paul discusses how many billions of people his revolution has killed and how many religions his Fremen jihadis have stamped out.

    All this has to be seen against the background of the various “liberation struggles” at the time that Dune and Dune Messiah were written – the 1960s being the highpoint of the post-World War II anti-colonial insurgencies, Mao’s cultural revolution, the radicalized third world sabre rattling and the ultimately doomed American expedition in Vietnam. It was apparent to anyone other than a deluded ideologue that the permanent revolutions were creating regimes far more repressive than the ones they overthrew, and this was even before the Khmer Rouge bloodbath in Cambodia, the rise of radical Islamism in the Middle East, and the current ANC destruction of South Africa.

    It’s all the more interesting given that in Herbert’s public statements he expresses strong libertarian leanings with an abiding distrust of elites in power. Dune can be read as an ironic commentary because the reader tends to identify with Paul Atreides as the heroic rebel. Yet Paul turns into the greatest tyrant of all time! In the Children of Dune movie there’s a scene in which the Atreides state council rejects a democratic constitution. Take that, Jedi Guardians of the Republic!

    As for La Resistance in Dune Messiah, it’s not a rag tag band of heroic rebels spouting off about “dark times” and “democracy,” but a corrupt network of former regime elements who want to regain the power they frittered away via their own incompetence. And I think this is where the novel’s plot starts to fall apart insofar as Paul has already demonstrated in the first novel that he can beat the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild and the rest of Deep State AD 10,000…so where’s the dramatic tension in Messiah, especially when he now has the full force of the Empire behind him?

    The Children of Dune miniseries’ Messiah segment works by streamlining the anti-Atreides conspiracy and wrapping it up with the with Scytale’s really clever conspiracy-within-conspiracy. The Duncan Idaho ghola awakens his own consciousness and with that, clears the way for the Atreides to realize their true destiny.

    For Herbert, the Atreides revolution leads not to the restoration of a thousand generation Republic but instead to the rise of the god-emperor Leto II who overthrows the real tyranny, that of prophecy denying free will.

    Somebody needs to make a movie about all that…

  9. Reb Kittredge
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    CC is back up–yes! The site hasn’t loaded on my devices in two days. Feared the worst.

  10. Alex
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    Did you start to drop the remember uncle article because of optics? That’s a shame…

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted April 21, 2020 at 5:25 am | Permalink

      Yes. It gets the wrong kind of people excited.

      • Alex
        Posted April 21, 2020 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        Fair enough…

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