Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dune Messiah


Our book today is Frank Herbert's 1969 Dune Messiah, the much-despised sequel to his towering 1965 science fiction classic Dune, and I recently returned to it because received opinions are always to be tested, and the received opinion on Herbert's Dune books can be overheard in the Science Fiction aisle of virtually every retail bookstore in the country, at least once a day: "The first one is great, but the sequels just keep getting worse and worse."

Sigh.

Three things make this received opinion virtually inevitable: first, the sheer magnitude of Herbert's Dune achievement is so great, so stunning, that any sequel - especially the first one - is naturally going to look a little anemic; second, there's no discounting the deleterious effect all those truly-ghastly Dune-lite ripoff books written by Herbert's son Brian (with ample assistance from Kevin Anderson) might have had on the Dune-reading public (if you follow the subject-labels to the very earliest days of Stevereads, you can refresh your memory on at least one of those books); and third and most important, the first sequel in question here is Dune Messiah - which, I'm curiously saddened to note after all this time, is indeed bad enough to taint the objectivity of a saint.

The story opens twelve years after the events that climaxed Dune. Young Paul Atreides, heir to the House Atreides, has harnessed the giant sandworms and barbaric Fremen warriors of the planet nicknamed Dune and used them to wrest control of the Empire from its corrupt emperor and his shadow-counselors, the all-female super-society called the Bene Gesserit. In order to foster a peaceful transfer of power, Paul agrees to marry the former emperor's daughter Irulan, even though he's actually in love with the Fremen woman Chani. Paul is aided in all of this by the fact that the life-extending spice found only on Dune - melange - has given him vast powers of prescience, allowing him to see into every corner of the future. As a result, he knows where to send his faithful legions in order to win victory after victory and subjugate star system after star system (Paul's younger sister Alia also possesses this spice-awareness - by the time of Dune Messiah, she's grown into a beautiful and fierce warrior-priestess, feared and revered by the simple folk on Dune). When the sequel opens, Paul is bored with his absolute power - and the problem is, Herbert has no experience capturing that on the page; in Dune, absolutely nobody is bored with the power they have, so we don't get scenes as Hollywood-arch as this one:

"You've allowed the weather to fall into a very primitive pattern," she [Irulan] said, rubbing her arms through her robe. "It was dry and there was a sandstorm today. Are you never going to let it rain here?"

"You didn't come here to talk about the weather," Paul said. He felt that he had been submerged in double meanings. Was Irulan trying to tell him something which her training would not permit her to say openly? It seemed that way. He felt that he had been cast adrift suddenly and now must thrash his way back to some steady place.

"I must have a child," she said.

He shook his head from side to side.

"I must have my way!" she snapped. "If need be, I'll find another father for my child. I'll cuckold you and dare you to expose me."

"Cuckold me all you wish," he said, "but no child."

"How can you stop me?"

With a smile of utmost kindness, he said: "I'd have you garrotted, if it came to that."

Unfortunately, that distinct note of bloat is present throughout this book (which is, ironically, the shortest Dune novel of them all). Characters - especially Paul - are forever doing much more thinking, pondering, and musing for their own (or our) good. Even when a ghola (as close as Herbert - in 1969 - could come to envisioning a clone) of a beloved old friend of Paul's is sent to his court by a dangerous faction who claim they mean the act as a gift, the book's dormant tensions refuse to waken. Exchanges like this don't help:

Paul found himself fascinated by a well-remembered mole on the ghola's chin.

"Trying to live in this future," the ghola said, "do you give substance to such a future? Do you make it real?"

"If I go the way of my vision-future, I'll be alive then," Paul muttered. "What makes you think I want to live there?"

The ghola shrugged. "You asked me for a substantial answer."

"Where is there substance in a universe composed of events?" Paul asked. "Is there a final answer? Doesn't each solution produce new questions?"

There are plot developments in Dune Messiah, although far too few. An attack robs Paul of his eyesight (he's not really inconvenienced - Herbert tells us it's because his powers of prescience give him a map of everything as it unfolds, although a moment's thought shows how screamingly illogical that is), and even from the beginning of the book, it's clear that Alia harbors an instability could become dangerous. She longs for the simple days before the complaisance of power:

The departing swarm [of pilgrims] had stirred up dust. The flinty odor came to Alia's nostrils, ignited a pang of longing for the open bled. Her sense of the past, she realized, had been sharpened by the coming of the ghola. There'd been much pleasure in those untrammeled days before her brother had mounted the throne - time for joking, time for small things, time to enjoy a cool morning or a sunset, time ... time ... time. Even danger had been good in those days - clean danger from known sources. No need then to strain the limits of prescience, to peer through the murky veils for frustrating glimpses of the future.

Wild Fremen said it well: "Four things cannot be hidden - love, smoke, a pillar of fire, and a man striding across the open bled."


But the most important plot-event in Dune Messiah is the birth of Paul's twin children, Leto and Ghanima - and the reason it's so important is because it sets up this book's own sequel, Children of Dune, which is a massive, glorious return to form for Herbert, a fast-paced, incredibly intelligent, exhilarating science fiction novel. And Herbert's three Dune novels after that, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune are similarly fantastic (in my opinion, God Emperor is fully the equal in quality to Dune itself).

For decades, I've been thinking - and telling people who asked - that Dune Messiah was an odd aberration in Frank Herbert's writing career, and especially in his Dune series. The received opinion I'd long ago devised here was that all the other Dune books were entirely wonderful, well worthy of being the jewels in Herbert's reputation, and that only Dune Messiah lets the side down.

And just this once (!), it turns out received opinion was right on the money - at least as far as this one book goes. Those of you who're contemplating taking on these books are well advised to simply skip Dune Messiah - its skimpy important contents are effectively reprised in a page or two of Children of Dune, so go right on to that one and enjoy yourselves!

20 comments:

Greg said...

Messiah is the weak link, but I didn't think it was actually bad, just relatively bad. It had it's moments, most of them Fremen-related.

I liked Children of Dune quite a lot but it seemed more like a (big) step up than a complete return to form. I never found Leto all that interesting until he became a god. But the last three books are unbelievable and God Emporer is a sui generis masterpiece. (Sam's choking on his food right now...)

steve said...

No, take my word for it, it's bad. Wandering, wordy, and weak. Stevereads has spoken!

Leo said...

I've read Dune several times, but couldn't get past Messiah. I had dismissed the later books due to my lack in interest in book two - maybe I'll try and tackle them after reading your review. You're sure book three can adequately stand on its own if I skip to it?

Also, a fantasy novel I've read in past months reminded me quite a bit of Dune (mainly the philosophic leanings) - have you read The Darkness That Comes Before?

Really enjoy your reviews.

Sam said...

I'm not choking, but I am feeling dumb. I enjoyed Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune all more or less equally (Dune itself stands squarely above them--it's the only one that's completely exciting all the way through). I liked the central dilemma of Dune Messiah--what do you do with yourself once you've been made a Messiah? How do you avoid using your powers for evil, once there is no force remaining to overthrow?

steve said...

Leo: you can indeed skip right to "Children of Dune" - indeed, you should! A string of JEWELS awaits you, once you get past "Dune Messiah"!

And I have indeed read "The Darkness That Comes Before" (HOW that dumbass title survived the editorial process, I have no idea, but still ...), and it's great - one of the best works of its kind in the last few years. And almost wholly indebted to "Dune," of course.

Greg said...

Sam, I think God Emperor answers Messiah's question, though with a twist on the problem of evil, since Leto's views actions and consequences in the super-long term.

I curious as to what you thought of the last two.

Greg said...

"Leto views" I meant.

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