Frank Herbert, “Dune Messiah” (1969) – I like Dune! It’s ridiculous, but good. This is the first time I tried the first sequel. Different friends of mine say that different of the sequels are good, but disagree on which, and no one I know seems to think that all of the sequels Frank Herbert wrote are good… or that the many more written by his son, Brian, are any good at all. But I figured the only way to do it, if I was going to do it at all, was to begin with the beginning, so when I found “Dune Messiah” on a free pile, I picked it up.
It’s twelve years after the end of “Dune,” and Paul Atreides rules most of the human-inhabited galaxy (and if there are aliens, we don’t see them, though some of the humans get freaky enough). The Harkonnens, the evil clan that killed his dad, is foiled. The imperial family has been thrown down and forced to give one of their princesses to Paul in marriage (not that he does anything with Princess Irulan, only having eyes for his Fremen lover Chani). Paul’s Fremen warriors, the baddest dudes around, have spread the word of the Maud’dib in a jihad that has killed around sixty billion people. Most of the remainder worship Paul as a messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach (say what you want about Frank Herbert, he comes up with cool names for things and people), and he has some pretty cool powers, like being able to see into the future. His sister, Alia, can not only see into the future but also has had full knowledge of the lives of all of her ancestors she was in the womb! So she’s fourteen but, you know, more or less omniscient except when the plot dictates she not be.
The previous power players in the galaxy are upset by the rise of Paul. The Bene Gesserit sisterhood, to which his mother belonged (and she’s just in the wind somewhere), had put the pieces into place to make Paul the Kwisatz Haderach, but he refuses to do what they want. The old noble families, including the imperial family through his wife Irulan, feel dissent for obvious reasons. Less obvious are the motivations of the freaky specialized mutants, the Spacer’s Guild, who are like weird spaceship fishmen who take the Spice drug to steer ships through hyperspace, and the Tleilaxu, weird biotech people who make zombie-clones and often “bio-hack,” as people now say, themselves. I guess the Spacers want an independent source for Spice, rather than letting Paul keep his Arrakeen monopoly, but Herbert both makes them a pivot of the plot, but they’re also definitely the bad guys he respects the least.
Between them, these players hatch a plot to do in Paul and Alia. The plot is really complicated, and moreover, to the extent it plays out at all – to the extent that the good guys don’t use their prescience to see through them, and all the measures they took to prevent the prescience from doing just that – it mostly does in drawn-out, boring conversations. Paul is in a snitty little mood throughout. It turns out he doesn’t like being the Maud’dib that much. He doesn’t like being worshiped, or constantly having to deal with conspiracies, and is less than thrilled over how many people have been killed in his name by his followers. He doesn’t want to just let the noble houses/Bene Gesserit/Spacers and whoever win, especially because they want to kill him and others close to him. But in many ways, he wins via the expedient of staying alive long enough to walk away, and become a different kind of legend.
But like I said, until some assassination attempts towards the end – which themselves are repeated, almost beat for beat, with different zombie-cyborg-assassins made out of friends of the family, if I remember right? – a lot of what happens in this book is conversation. The original Dune was also a bit slow and wordy. But there was more going on, and everything felt fresher. The strings show more here, the strain of a decently smart guy trying to depict a story of epochal geniuses with minds expanded beyond where humanity could go. In Herbert’s mind, that involves a lot of circular conversations made up of declarative sentences and high-nonsense philosophical aphorisms about power, fate, etc. Herbert had a better bag of tricks than others purporting to depict genius – Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Tom Harris from the thriller side of things – in that he stocks a lot of the genius less in what people say and more in how they observe things due to their super special vaguely-cybernetic training… but that can get a little old, too, especially when the plot does not move at the sort of pace you’d like. So this is a sort of middling effort. I’m thinking about whether it’s worth continuing, or just reading the wikipedia entries. ***