Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review of "Dune Messiah" by Frank Herbert



Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune was an overwhelming success.  Winning awards and selling millions of copies, little did readers know, however, it was only the beginning of the Family Atreides saga.  Picking up events roughly a decade after Paul’s ascension to Emperor, Dune Messiah is the story of his descent from power.  Knocking the hero he created off his pedestal, readers should be prepared for a large number of changes in the story—and not all are for the better.

Dune Messiah continues the saga of the Atreides family in epic, soap-operatic fashion.  Paul, having expanded his power to over much of the known universe since becoming Emperor in Dune, is nevertheless helpless to prevent the religious fanaticism and destruction caused by his Fremen followers, drawing the hatred and ire of the opposition in the process.  Chani, now his concubine, is unable to conceive due to contraceptives the consort Irulan is secretly slipping her.  Paul is aware of the fact, but his visions have shown him that Chani dies in childbirth, and thus does nothing to stop Irulan.  New cabals have arisen, also.  The Benne-Gesserits, Spacing Guild, and a newly introduced species of shapeshifters called the Tleilaxu plot together to dethrone Paul.  Everyone’s fate once again uncertain, major changes on Arrakis are in the works.

Despite the continued usage of operatic motifs, readers expecting another monomyth—a la Dunewill be disappointed.  In fact subverting the very hero he created, Herbert seeks to dethrone Paul through no fault of his own in Dune Messiah.  Believing religious and political movements to be beyond the control of one man—even a man with the powers of Paul Atreides—the presentation of the descent from power, despite the moments of melodrama, is the strongest aspect of the novel, and, along with the operatic elements, will keep the reader reading.

There are numerous problems with Dune Messiah, however.  Where the dialogue and internal monologue of Dune were only slightly stilted and unnatural, Dune Messiah’s is outright jarring.  Herbert boldly presses the reader with maxim after maxim on the realities of religion, power, and realpolitik. This epigraphical style of dialogue distracting, there is in fact little actual storytelling in Dune Messiah.  Even the climactic moments digress into speeches on the principals and motives backing their actions.  There is some tension to the story, but by in large the book feels more like a vehicle for Herbert to rant about the divisive nature of religion and political than to propel the Dune storyline in balanced consistent fashion.  Like an airplane crash, there is no smooth landing to match the takeoff.

Another problem with the novel is that it seems to be missing important elements.  Where Dune ends with Paul ascending the throne, readers are introduced to him potentially losing it in Dune Messiah.  Small hints and backstory do exist, but by in large the space between the novels remains unbridged.  Thrown in feet first to this contradictory situation, many readers will ask, how exactly did this come about?  What happened on Arrakis in the meantime to put Paul into this situation?  Frank Herbert’s son Brian, writing with Kevin Anderson, would later fill this gap, but for readers following the series’ by publication date, the connection between this book and Dune is largely missing.  Backstory exists, but cannot replace “present tense” narrative.

In the end, Dune Messiah is a below average sequel.  Herbert continues pushing his ideological agenda, but perhaps too much emphasis is placed on the ideas and not enough on linking them to storytelling.  Dialogue and narrative are too often bogged down with axe-grinding on the positives and negatives, hopes and dreams, power and dominance of religion and politics.  While Herbert should perhaps be applauded for being unafraid to undermine a hero he built, doing so in a style more consistent with the preceding story would have certainly gone a long way toward making people remember Dune as a series, rather than for its initial publishing.  The Duniverse does have a cult following, which means, as long as the above-mentioned issues can be forgiven, it’s possible you may also enjoy how the evolution of the Atreides saga.  

(This review has also been posted at www.fantasyliterature.com)  

5 comments:

  1. John Campbell, who had first published DUNE in Analog, rejected DUNE MESSIAH because of how it undermined all that DUNE had accomplished, which was precisely what Herbert had, indeed, set out to do. Many readers have opined that DUNE MESSIAH is best appreciated as continuous with DUNE, as a sort of coda to it. I disagree: the two are too different in tone, purpose, and style. I admire DUNE MESSIAH for its conciseness; I have criticized it elsewhere for the near impenetrability of its plot; i.e., trying to tease out who are the warring factions, and what their objectives are.

    Navigation among the tangled conspiracies of which DUNE MESSIAH is woven is the necessary shortest distance to be traversed between two points. DUNE MESSIAH functions, finally, as a kind of switching station between DUNE and CHILDREN OF DUNE: we must travel through DUNE MESSIAH on the way from the one to the other. DUNE MESSIAH is the way the sets are rearranged between these two operatic performances, and in it we can just about see the stagehands themselves shuffling props about. DUNE MESSIAH looks backwards inasmuch as it portrays Paul's fall from superhero status; it looks forward inasmuch as it lays all the necessary groundwork for both CHILDREN OF DUNE and, in my opinion, Herbert's magnum opus, GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE. For example, Herbert dedicates space in DUNE MESSIAH that prepares the way for Alia and Hayt/Duncan to perform in CHILDREN OF DUNE. What I'm suggesting is that DUNE MESSIAH is best understood not as merely a sequel to DUNE, but as the connection between both of these more important novels. Considering it to be merely a sequel is inadequate.

    DUNE was a major vehicle for Herbert's speculations about the nature of consciousness, but by the time he wrote DUNE MESSIAH Herbert had taken that obsessive interest about as far as it could go. Beginning in CHILDREN OF DUNE, which marks the second creative half of Herbert's career, he will be especially concerned with the threat to humanity implicit in our kneejerk desire to return to the good ol' days of the past rather than to actively seek out and embrace the disturbing aspects of unknown futures.

    In fact Paul himself embodies this shifting point of view in DUNE MESSIAH. He turns his back on all quotidian concerns, including the multifarious conspirators and their power-grubbing goals and ultimately measures his own soul against the unfolding possibilities of an infinite universe. In the end he may resemble a fool, but his actions are unselfish, and he transcends heroic status.

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  2. Interesting perspective, Bob. I hadn't thought of Dune Messiah as an segue rather than sequel. From a plotting point of view I like what you've described, it's just Herbert's delivery is so damn in-your-face that I have a hard time looking past presentation for substance.

    Does the heavy-handed dialogue and exposition on power and religion get toned down after Children of Dune?

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  3. Herbert never gives up his preoccupation with the big forces shaping history, which include past history, politics, religion, etc. The style of CHILDREN OF DUNE (CoD) is unlike anything he'd written before. When he was trying to write the second book he was already so much more interested in CoD and its themes and plot turns that he had a terrible time focusing on DUNE MESSIAH (DM); his heart was never in that second book.

    Despite a few technical glitches, the plot of CoD is interesting on its own, but maybe what interests me more about that book is it's probably the first science fiction novel that was written in a truly literary style. In that novel Herbert is consciously and deliberately trying to write a novel with staying power. Now DUNE clearly has staying power, but that's because it was stolen from the Greeks. I believe you mentioned yourself its function as a monomyth. In DUNE Herbert rang every bell and blew every whistle he could find that had long since proven themselves in the epics of the hoary old past: he only happened to set it all in a distant future. We could not help falling in love with the superhero, just as Herbert had intended from the beginning, and DM was the whip that instructs: Herbert delivered his punishment for we who are programmed or conditioned to swallow the myth that we've been taught which says powerful people are automatically heroic.

    CoD was written at a critical moment in Herbert's career and in the history of science fiction. This was the moment at which science fiction was finally about to break out of its cult status and enter the mainstream with the arrival of STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and so on. Modern younger readers and movie fans for the most part do not understand that before the mid- to late-1970s the possibility of science fiction entering the mainstream seemed to be nil, although it sure was talked about a lot by the nerds and the geeks. Nowadays I'd guess that more than half of movie blockbusters are at heart science fiction. This was inconceivable in, say, 1974. There had been a few exceptions, like the film version of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but these were not game changers. So during that period the pressure was on. What's more, DM had disappointed many readers after the smashing success of DUNE. The third book was really the make-or-break moment for Herbert's career, and he knew it: if CoD wasn't a major success, Herbert would be a one-hit wonder known for DUNE, and his cachet would collapse.

    Of course what really happened was that CoD was a smashing success, a blockbuster best seller, and it arrived at the very moment when science fiction was exploding across mainstream consciousness. (It's irrelevant whether dyed-in-the-wool science fiction fans quibble over whether STAR WARS is science fiction or space fantasy: to the public it was science fiction, and that made all the difference.) CoD successfully helped finally elevate the genre itself out of the pulps and into the mainstream.

    The success of CoD owes a great deal to the fact that we've moved beyond the fall of Paul Muad'Dib and the pain that brought to the fans, but I think the literary style has something to do with it, too. This is a poetic, lyrical novel. It's not an action-adventure space fantasy, although it certainly has its moments. But for the first time Herbert really starts writing with the psychological workings of his characters front and foremost and this kind of intense character study, of course, has long been the central concern of serious literary writers.

    By itself CoD is a rewarding read, although as I mentioned previously, in my opinion the fourth novel in the series, GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE, is truly Herbert's masterpiece. And as you shouldn't read CoD until you've read DM, so if you want to experience Herbert at his absolute best, you should first read CoD: if for no more reason than that.

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    1. I have read CoD. Despite that it was an improvement on DM, its intense dialogue, operatic plot, and authorial voice continued to put me off, and I gave up on the series. A sucker for well-argued points, however, you've convinced me to look at the larger picture and at least give the next book a try. Next chance I get, I'll pick up God Emperor of Dune.

      Herbert=poetic/lyrical? You and I will need to sit down over a beer to discuss that. :)

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    2. The beer bit sounds like a great idea! But I'll be eager to hear eventually what you've thought of GEoD.

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