Frank Herbert's 1965 masterpiece, Dune, was quite simply the greatest science fiction novel ever. He reached heights that have never been scaled before or since. He completely rewrote the rules for science fiction and played an incredibly important role in legitimising what was once seen as nothing more than lightly entertaining, silly fare and turning it into a serious genre capable of delivering powerful messages.
He set the bar so high, in fact, that his sequel to his masterpiece was probably doomed almost from the start to fail to match its progenitor's success and impact.
And fail it did.
Dune Messiah is much shorter than the original Dune, clocking in at only 256 pages. Like its predecessor, it is a very fast read; Herbert's ability to write and flesh out interesting, fundamentally flawed yet heroic characters never disappeared even once during his authorship of the DUNE series. Whereas its predecessor took up a scope that was truly colossal- mind-bendingly so- Dune Messiah was spawned out of Herbert's deep disillusionment with the "hero complex".
Herbert wrote about this fairly extensively in both his private and public works. He argued all his life against the tendency that humans have for hero-worship, to believe that all of their problems could be solved if only they give up their free will and their ability to think for themselves and slavishly follow some great hero down a path of no return. His son, Brian, writes about this in the preface to the book.
In this book, Frank Herbert tried very hard to show the limits of hero-worship, the dangers of charisma, and the severe toll that such idolatry takes upon the focus of that worship. He succeeded in doing this, but in so doing, he lost touch with the very things that made the original Dune such a stunning achievement.
Dune Messiah takes place 12 years after the conclusion of the original. Paul-Muad'dib Atreides is now Emperor of the known Universe. His legions of fanatical Fremen have raged through that universe bearing the Atreides battle colours to spread their devotion to the Word of Muad'dib. He is the greatest emperor in human history, unrivalled in power and might, gifted with true prescience, and able to see and comprehend all possible futures.
Yet his jihad has come at a terrifying price. More than sixty billion have been slain in his name- and Paul knows, through his prescience, that this is actually one of the least terrible fates awaiting Mankind. With his ability to see far into the future, Paul foresees that Mankind will become ever more specialised, ever more inward looking, ever less capable of resisting true threats to its existence (none of this is ever explicitly mentioned in the book, by the way- you sort of learn about it through the series). He foresees the path required to avoid humanity's utter extinction many thousands of years into the future- and he despairs at it, knowing that he simply cannot sacrifice his own humanity in order to save his species.
In the background, sinister forces move and gather. The Bene Gesserit, now disenfranchised by the very creature they sought to create, the Kwisatz Haderach (a sort of human super-supercomputer, capable of understanding and foreseeing all possible futures), has destroyed their power. The Spacing Guild, totally dependent on the geriatric drug melange, does the Emperor's bidding without question. The Tleilaxu, seeking to escape from the grip of the tyrant of Arrakis, put in motion a plan to assassinate and overthrow the Emperor, and find willing allies in the form of the Bene Gesserit and Paul's Empress, Irulan. Conspiring together, they present Paul with a gift that they know he cannot refuse- a ghola, a resurrected clone of Paul's teacher and friend, Duncan Idaho, who was slain giving Paul and his mother time to escape into the desert of Arrakis in the first book.
After all of that setting up, a bunch of other stuff happens- a "stone burner" is detonated in the desert, Paul loses his eyesight, a Tleilaxu Face Dancer attempts to assassinate Paul, his beloved consort Chani dies giving birth to his children, and the ghola's cellular memories take over and Duncan Idaho is restored to life, and Paul finally wanders out into the desert, no longer a great hero but a broken blind man. And that's about it.
You can see, from my short description of what should have been a truly epic follow-up to one of the greatest stories ever told, what a disappointment Dune Messiah was. There is so much about the book's lack of logic and coherence that is frustrating- even infuriating. Paul's character, in particular, goes from being a great leader of men to whiny emo-trash in the space of a single novel. In trying to make his hero a man once more, Herbert overdid it, and turned one of science fiction's greatest creations into a pale, hollow shell of himself.
This is not to say that Dune Messiah lacks any redeeming features. It is still a formidable novel, showcasing a brilliant mind at perhaps the peak of its powers. Herbert wrote this novel as a sort of "bridge" for an even more grandiose and compelling vision in Children of Dune, in which the terrible path that he only hinted at in this book would gradually become more clear. When you read it that way- as a bridge, rather than just as a standalone sequel, you begin to see some of this book's virtues, for it is still a complex book.
The ecological and biological changes wrought on Arrakis, and the consequences for the Fremen, are of particular interest. Herbert's Fremen, as depicted in Dune, were shaped by their environment into the greatest fighters and survivors that one could imagine. They were forced to adapt to an environment of almost unimaginable harshness, and it left its imprint upon their psyche. As a result, the Fremen are brave, honourable, and extremely loyal to each other- yet they appear utterly wild and barbaric to any "civilised" observer. In Dune Messiah, as the planet Dune transitions ecologically into the paradise world that Paul promised for his people, the Fremen begin to lose their hard edge and start becoming soft and complacent. Herbert understood cause and effect as well as any writer I have ever read, and his mastery of these concepts shows itself time and again in his writing here.
Dune Messiah is not the book that its predecessor was. Not even close. It is still a very good book, and well worth reading (or in my case, re-reading for the first time in nearly 15 years). Just understand before you read it just how flawed it is compared to the original- and just how important some of those flaws are for the future of the Dune universe.
Didact's Verdict: 3/5, not nearly up to the standards of the original, but still worth reading even so.
Buy/download Dune Messiah here.