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Notes on Dune Messiah

1,468 words

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 [1], 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.

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