We’re back to reading! Welcome once again to the Dune Reread, where we are getting a jump start on Dune Messiah! The next books run a bit faster, so I will be going through them in bigger chunks—Dune Messiah will probably be about 3-4 parts on a reread. There will be more overall summary rather than in-depth recapping. So for now, let’s dive into the current conditions of House Atreides and their galaxy-wide empire.
Index to the reread can be located here! And don’t forget this is a reread, which means that any and all of these posts will contain spoilers for all of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. If you’re not caught up, keep that in mind.
Summary (From opening up until “Truth suffers from too much analysis.”)
It is twelve years since the end of Dune.
Dune Messiah opens with a recorded interrogation between a Fremen priest and a historian named Bronso, who has been labelled a “heretic” for his writing on Muad’Dib. We then get a sample from Bronso’s writing, where he insists that Paul Atreides’s downfall can only be understood when one singles out issues of prophetic ability. We then see a meeting between Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim, Eric of the Spacing Guild (whose oracle abilities shield them from Paul’s prescience), a Bene Tleilax Face Dancer (which means he can change his appearance to anyone) named Scytale, and Princess Irulan. They are hoping to break Paul’s hold on the universe; Irulan wants to have his child so that she can be mother of the new empire’s line. She has been secretly giving Chani contraceptives to prevent her from having more children. Scytale reveals that the Bene Tleilax have created a ghola version of Duncan Idaho named Hayt—they have reanimated his flesh and intend to use him to distract Paul and intrigue Alia. Irulan wonders what Paul’s overthrow will leave for her.
When Irulan arrives back on Arrakis, she confronts Paul about giving her a child, but he refuses. Chani later comes to Paul to ask if he will give Irulan what she wants, as she cannot give him an heir. More than anything, she knows that Irulan is up to something against them, and wants Paul out of harm’s way. She wants them to go back into the desert, and worries that Paul is cross with her for going to the desert’s edge. But Paul is caught in a web of prescience and wonders if there is a possibility for a single-track life anywhere.
Scythe brings the Duncan ghola to Arrakis and meets with an old Fremen Bashar of the Jihad named Farok, whose son was blinded by the use of a stone burner (atomics) during the war. He claims that he went to fight in the Jihad out of a desire to see a sea. When he finally did, he was cured of any desire to fight. He is unhappy that the Fremen have turned from the old ways and listen to Muad’Dib. His son cannot find a Fremen woman who will have him because he is considered “incomplete” without eyes, but he won’t take Tleilax mechanical eyes because they are not flesh. He has addicted the daughter of Otheym (one of Paul’s Fedaykin) to semuta to try and keep her for his own, but she merely ended up an addict. Scythe kills Farok and changes into him, leading her away.
Paul is in a meeting of council where Alia is stirring up trouble by mocking his high priest Korba. They are having difficulties with a treaty with the Spacing Guild, who will not tell them the location of the Tupile Entente. Irulan suggests cutting off their spice, but Paul, Alia, and Chani are all against it. Stilgar wonders why Paul cannot use his powers to locate it, so Paul explains that prediction is a natural consequence rather than a power he can force. Irulan is irritated at its lack of preciseness, which Alia berates her for. People are asking Paul for a constitution, wanting limits to his Imperial will. Korba thinks it should start as a religious constitution, which Paul nixes. In fact, he nixes all talk about constitution, calling them tyranny, and has Irulan record as such for posterity. Stilgar insists that they need control of taxes, so Paul suggests that his price for signing the Guild treaty will be assurances of the tax money. Stilgar tells Paul that Irulan’s father has also been stirring up trouble practicing maneuvers, so Paul tells her to write to him and put an end to it. Irulan points out that people are looking back on her father with nostalgia, which angers Chani, but Paul is still grateful for the insight.
Stilgar tells Paul that the Bene Gessserit want to know about his plans for an heir and Chani and Irulan both attempt to have the conversation. But Paul is keeping something from them both… about what he would have to sacrifice in order to have children with Chani, what he has seen in that future. Paul wishes that he could flee with Chani, even knowing that the Jihad he started would rage on. He tells everyone that while he knows the political reasons for having an heir, the human reasons are the ones he is concerned with, and therefore his decision stands. Irulan is furious, though Paul tries to apologize. Stilgar then reveals the last order of the day, which is the Guild wanting their own embassy on Arrakis. Paul says they are welcome to send Steersman in case one might prove useful.
Eric arrives and brings the gift of Hayt, which Alia is deeply intrigued by. Hayt reveals that he has faint glimpses of Idaho’s memories, but no true knowledge of his past. Both Paul and Alia sense the danger of this gift, and Paul questions him thoroughly. Hayt admits that searching for signs of his past in others pleases him. Stilgar does not like the gift, but Paul accepts him anyway and tells Stilgar to guard the Reverend Mother carefully. He asks Hayt what he is for, and the man admits that he has been sent to destroy him, and that Paul should send him away. Paul finds he cannot, and says that Hayt will stay and that they must both be cautious. Alia realizes that Hayt is a danger to her as well.
All of the Dune sequels are concerned with the effect Paul’s legacy has on the universe. Some of these books handle the issue more effectively than others, and I would argue that Dune Messiah and Children of Dune are the best equipped to answer these questions. We are immediately faced with issues of decay in the fervor surrounding Paul; Bronso the historian is going to be executed for treating Paul more like a historical subject than a god; Farok is completely disillusioned with the world that Muad’Dib has brought about; the various galactic orders are working together to plan his disposal. Billions have died as a result of the Jihad, and the outlying powers in the universe are growing restless with the new status quo.
At the center of the current drama is the issue of legitimacy, and the leap in time is incredibly useful for this—understanding that it has been twelve years since Dune’s end makes sense of Irulan’s frustration with Paul. To be a figurehead in a household where her opinion is taken less seriously than Chani’s and then be continually reminded of the lack of affection between her and Paul must eventually take its toll on her. Though she is being used by the Bene Gesserit, it’s impossible not to wonder if she would have been a more useful ally had Paul actually cared for her; Jessica was willing to defy her training for Leto, after all. On the other hand, Irulan is perhaps more cerebral than Jessica, and certainly more interested in her power and role in the current environment.
Chani, on the other hand, only appears to have grown in all this time. She is also the person who refuses to downplay Irulan’s abilities; while Paul is keen to call the princess’s historical texts silly, Chani refuses the label. She clearly knows that Irulan is a threat to them, and still she finds room to respect Irulan’s accomplishments. It takes a long time for characters to come clear in Herbert’s ‘verse, still Chani’s nature is fascinating the more we learn of her; pragmatic to the core, always empathetic, and deeply analytical. But she is falling back on the traditions of her people in order to conceive, which signifies other ways in which Paul’s mystique is breaking down, even if only in a symbolic fashion.
The passage of time also permits Alia to be a better realized character, which has always been exciting to me—her full consciousness starting in the womb allows Herbert to even better explore the issues of prescience from the perspective of the person who was utterly shaped by the ability. Alia cannot think of the present without thinking of the future and the past, but this is not ever a new way of thinking to her. Paul had to learn it, has room to be bothered by how it has changed him, but she has no such past (unless we get really specific and talk about her knowledge of the pasts of each Reverend Mother before her, but that’s a different can of soup). It is no wonder that she terrifies so many.
The Bene Tleilax were casually mentioned in passing in the previous book, and now we are getting a greater measure of them. The Baron Harkonnen had mentioned getting another twisted Mentat from them following Piter’s demise, as Tleilaxu is where the twisted Mentats come from. The Bene Tleilax are genetic traffickers who deal in body parts and in whole persons. It is later revealed that they are secretly a totalitarian theocracy that wishes to dominate the universe, but like every group on this political stage, they are happy to play the very long game in that regard. They are meant to be an offshoot of Sunni Islam and Buddhism (hence Paul referring to their mode of philosophy as “Zensunni”), though they are certainly pretty far away in their interpretations of those philosophies, as thousands of years will do. The Tleilaxu Masters have Face Dancer servants like Scytale, who tells Farok that he is a hermaphrodite who can change sex at will to coincide with the shapeshifting ability. Now… that is not what hermaphrodite actually means (a term that is still used on biology, though it has been largely replaced with intersex when referring to humans due to stigma); the terms would typically indicate the appearance of sex characteristics from different assigned genders, not the ability to switch one for the other at will. Then again, we are thousands of years in the future, so who knows how those words might evolve?
The limits to Paul’s prescience are again helpfully laid out in slightly clearer terms when he tries to explain his inability to seek out the secrets of their enemies to the council. Keeping this in mind is important again, as the construct of prescience in these stories is essential to how the narrative unfolds, I’m always pleased with the detail we are given, even if the execution can get muddy at times.
In terms of writing, there is a great deal of philosophy in the opening of this book, but little action. It is something that Herbert excels at better than he has any right to—rumination as action, as plot, but it does mean that the book drags in places as everyone’s motives are carefully addressed and constructed for the reader. If it’s not your cuppa, it’s strange to be reading Dune, however. The series is ponderous by nature, and I don’t mean that as an insult. To that effect, we still have our opening sections with clips from historical texts. Perhaps the most interest so far to my mind is Stilgar’s commentary about the atomics; while he talks of the problem with all the Houses having access to atomics, he goes on to insist that his greater fear is of people being fashioned into weapons. Of course, this has direct bearing on the plot in the form of Duncan Idaho, but it also strikes a bit close to home with the knowledge that biological weapons are likely destined to become far more deadly on our own world, and soon.
The major tonal difference to me is that Dune Messiah is largely a tragedy that we can see coming. While Dune itself is not an overly heroic story, it does end on a “high note” of sorts where the hero has won the day. Dune Messiah has the standard Greek or Shakespearean hallmarks of tragedy; we even get a prologue that details Muad’Dib’s fall before we have any idea what will happen to him. It makes the sequel a very different exercise.