Dune Messiah is the second book in the Dune saga written by Frank Herbert and was first published in 1969. The story begins about twelve years after the conclusion of the first book with the Muad’Dib Paul firmly in charge of an empire in which under the colors of the Atreides a bloody jihad was fought by his Fremen (at a certain point he takes responsibility for 61 billion deaths).
But despite the epic dimensions of these facts, Dune Messiah is a more introspective and more limited book (even in terms of number of pages) than Herbert’s first book. It opens with a conspiracy against Paul which involves his wife Irulan, the Face Dancer called Scytale (a member of the Bene Tleilaxu), the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit, and Edric, a Guildsman. And in fact the expansion of the universe built so well in Dune stops here: here come the Bene Tleilaxu with their science fiction techniques of preservation of life; the shape-shifting Face Dancers; and the Spacing Guild with its members who have little of human and that are capable of piloting ships in space thanks to prescience (although not at the levels of the Muad’Dib).
The rest of the book is a study of power and of the role of religions and governments, especially when combined with each other (it’s not surprising to discover that Herbert had worked for the US Senate as a speechwriter). On the one hand, we follow the tormented Paul who, after having tried in vain to avoid the jihad, now tries to choose a positive path for his Empire in a future full of alternatives that could make the jihad that just happened pale in comparison.
It’s wonderful to discover how he understands that he has to follow the events that unravel before him, looking for the right action at the right time to maneuver destiny towards a future worth living. So he accepts as a gift the ghola of Duncan Idaho despite the latter admitting that he was created to destroy him, and he voluntarily enters a trap in Arrakeen with very serious consequences for him and for many of his most loyal men. Herbert demonstrates a certain mastery in building a plot that only gets resolved itself in the final climax after having artfully built a spasmodic tension for most of the book!
But Dune Messiah is something more than a simple continuation of the story of Paul Atreides, Stilgar, Chani, Irulan, and all the other beautiful characters created in Dune (I’m thinking about the powerful character of Alia, Paul’s sister, which alone is worth reading the whole book). Dune Messiah is also a study of the effects of power on people, and of what can come out of religious fanaticism taken to the extreme.
Let me quote a passage from the book on this: “Power tends to isolate those who hold too much of it. Eventually, they lose touch with reality… and fall.” I thought about our politicians who live in a world so different from ours (as normal citizens) that not only do they not know how to deal with actual everyday problems, but they are not even aware of them.
More generally, this is just one of the moments when Herbert seems to be writing an essay on our civilization rather than a speculative fiction novel. Sometimes entire chapters are devoted to analyzing the role of politicians, religious leaders, and war as an instrument of control and government. Not that these elements were entirely absent in Dune, but Dune Messiah seemed to me a profoundly different book, yet at the same time also its natural continuation. How could Paul have accepted being Emperor of a universe subjected to a cruel jihad done in his name? The sequel to Dune couldn’t be other than a character study of a devastated protagonist in search of a solution, a way out. And the ending, which I won’t reveal here, is truly exciting and surprising, perfectly closing one chapter and opening another that I can’t wait to discover by starting to read Children of Dune.
To conclude, let me quote another passage from the book: “Production growth and income growth must not get out of step in my Empire. (…) There are to be no balance-of-payment difficulties between the different spheres of influence. (…) My government is the economy.” Herbert isn’t afraid to use economic terms and almost seems to portray the Muad’Dib’s Empire as the Soviet Union at least in economic terms. Yet, once again, the ideas developed by the author are not old-fashioned, they aren’t too affected by the world of the Sixties in which they were generated (if not for the role of drugs and visions which is so important for the characters of the saga). Instead, the author created a story that is still exciting and feels very modern, so much so that it has also recently been brought back to the cinema… Ciao!