Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune was an overwhelming success, winning awards and selling millions of copies. Little did readers know, however, that 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. Herbert knocks the hero he created off his pedestal, so readers should be prepared for many 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 is once again uncertain; major changes on Arrakis are in the works.
Despite the continued usage of operatic motifs, readers expecting another monomyth — a la Dune — will be disappointed. In fact subverting the very hero he created, Herbert seeks to dethrone Paul through no fault of his own in Dune Messiah. Religious and political movements are beyond the control of one man — even a man with the powers of Paul Atreides — and this 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 is distracting and 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 politics than to propel the Dune storyline in a 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 J. 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 opening novel. 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 the evolution of the Atreides saga.