Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune

Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune: Dune Messiah, Part Two

We’re going to learn to talk with our hands! And our faces! Simultaneously! Onto the next chunk of Dune Messiah….

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 end of part one through “I’ve had a bellyful of the god and priest business!”)

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim is being held on Arrakis. Irulan has a secret conversation with her about her current difficulties, but Mohaim doesn’t care—Irulan had her chance to try and have a child with Paul, now the Bene Gesserit want to make sure the line is preserved and are interested in pursuing a cross of Paul and Alia’s genetics. She tells Irulan that perhaps Chani must be killed to make this happen, but Irulan tells her that Chani has gone on her Fremen fertility diet, eliminating chances for administering contraceptives. The Reverend Mother is furious and suggests that Chani must be killed, or must receive an abortifact if she conceives. Irulan is upset by this, knowing that if any harms comes to Chani, she will be suspected first. The Reverend Mother cares not, and instructs Irulan to do as she’s told. Irulan realizes that the ghola of Duncan Idaho is more dangerous than she’d previously thought, and decides to play along with her Bene Gesserit orders, hoping to prove her value even in being tossed aside.

Alia is growing aggravated at her duties and the changes on Arrakis. She decides to do some automated fight practice naked and is interrupted by Paul and Stilgar, who berate her for being reckless. Stilgar insists that she needs a mate, and she’s clearly getting to a point in her life where there will be trouble if she’s without one. Paul discusses the difficulties he’s sensing, knowing that the Guild wants to capture a sandworm and try to make it produce spice on another world. Alia mentions that it is a problem because the Steersmen prevent Paul from being able to see the Guild plan and Stilgar realizes that they’ve just admitted terrible weakness in front of him, and he’s not comfortable with it.

Paul has a discussion with Eric, who attempts to trap him into discourse about his seeming godhood. Stilgar is furious that Paul would allow the Steersman to speak to him that way, but Paul wants more data from his enemies. Korba comes with information on the Golden Age of Earth, which Paul wants Stilgar to study. He tells him to read up on Genghis Khan and Hitler, comparing his own Jihad to the millions those men killed. He tells Korba that he believes that his high priest is his greatest creation, and Korba is deeply upset by this. He orders the Sardaukar hiding in the party in their gardens killed.

Alia is sent into the desert with Hayt to study the body of a young Fremen woman who was addicted to semuta and died by a Tleilaxu poison. (Clearly the woman who Scytale led away from Farok’s house.) On their way back Alia talks to Hayt and finds that she is interested in knowing more about the man that he used to be. They pass over the resting place of Duke Leto and he cries, remembering the man. Alia continues to question him and he continues to give her answers that she doesn’t like, answers about the roles she and Paul have taken and how they might be destroyed. Then he kisses her, saying that he wanted to and he can tells she did as well. Alia is bothered by his truthfulness, knowing that it is dangerous and still wondering how he is meant to be used to destroy Paul. She thinks of the Face Dancers in relation to the body and Hayt points out that perhaps there is no woman reported missing among the Fremen….

Paul has a vision that disturbs him greatly where the moon falls out of the sky. He seeks Hayt’s opinion on it, and the ghola tell him that he is drunk on too much time, and that his empire will eventually runs its course. Paul sees a future coming where Chani is gone. He calls the Reverend Mother into his throne room, makes a big show of having her walk all the way to him—but it’s just for show. He calls her into a back room where he admits that he wants to bargain for Chani’s life. Chani is pregnant and their child will be heir to his throne, but he will allow Irulan to be artificially inseminated, so that the Bene Gesserit can keep their genetic program running. The Reverend Mother tries to suggest Alia, but Paul won’t have it. The situation is not ideal for the Bene Gesserit, as they believe that insemination is an inferior form of conception, but that is all Paul will offer. The Reverend Mother asks to speak with her people about the offer first, which Paul grants.

Commentary

As we get into the meat of the book, we see certain themes unfolding. There is the question of how Paul’s prescience effects his ability to rule, the question of the over-arching force of time eventually displacing all governments, the question of Hayt and how much this ghola really is (or can be) Duncan Idaho. There is Alia’s development into adulthood, and also how the religious fanaticism built around Muad’Dib eventually begins to crumble due to nothing so much as Paul’s inability to perpetuate it without cynicism.

The sudden introduction of tarot into these faith systems always struck me as odd, mostly due to never being used in the first book. While the idea of a tarot deck (especially an updated deck for the current religion) is fascinating, it does seem as though perhaps Herbert introduced it to the text primarily for dramatic purposes. I can’t really blame him, as they lend a particular brand of mysticism to the proceedings. When you take the underpinnings of tarot—a European tradition that likely has roots in Egyptian culture—the many influences within the universe that Herbert has constructed sort of primes it for the use of the arcana, but it would have been more interesting if the use of Dune had allowed the reader to better appreciate its update.

Paul’s decision to compare himself to Genghis Khan and Hitler shows that he is at least aware of how massive his atrocities are, but while the story is intent on making that clear to the reader, the sense of scale can be a bit baffling. Frank Herbert has said that he wanted Paul Atreides to serve as a warning to people of the dangers of mythologizing individuals, of buying into rhetorics of deification. Much of this novel is bound up in philosophical conversations as a result, and while the questions it poses are interesting, it is all unfocused. You can only read so much double-talk before you begin to lose the thread of a thing, no matter how well it is constructed.

The one thing that is truly bothersome about Alia’s development as a character is that she mostly just surrounded by guys who proceed to tell her what she is thinking and feeling, and how she is changing. The fact that the book actually addresses how confusing it would be to mature into adulthood when one already has the full lifetimes of many searing into their brain is excellent. But it’s a bit aggravating to have everyone going on about how inappropriate or wrong she is at every turn, from Stilgar’s insistence that she needs a partner to Hayt’s decision to kiss her. (Fine, they both wanted it. It’s still a pretty crappy way to have your romance develop.) It’s fine that the narrative wants to straddle a line regarding Alia’s relative maturity due to her singular nature. She can still be treated with a little more consideration.

Hayt is another odd turn in the story. The idea of reanimating a person who isn’t privy to their previous memories all at once is a great one to create tension in a story. But it would be more fascinating if we as readers had known Duncan Idaho better. Idaho dies quickly in Dune, and we know very little of his personality aside from his steadfast loyalty and ability to win people over (also the fact that he’s a great fighter, but that’s a given with Atreides men). If we had a better sense of him as a person, then watching those aspects resurface in Hayt would mean more. As is, the narrative has to tell us every time he seems more like Duncan to Paul. It robs us of the ability to connect with the character as keenly as we might. Even so, Hayt is still a boon to the story, and a sound lynchpin to all the terribleness on the horizon.

I have to say, one of my favorite parts of this section is detailing the Reverend Mother’s walk through the throne room. There’s great attention given to how architecture and design informs a space and the people residing in it. The idea the the room is angled in such a way that Paul appears giant though the hall is large, the structure of the throne and the position of people of relevance to Paul, the idea that having to walk a distance to reach someone of power and importance can cow even the most haughty of guests. As someone who has studied Greek architecture, including the way they used perspective and sloping to make their structures appear larger and grander, it’s always tickling to have a novel make note of these tricks and tools.

The Bene Gesserit wordplay is at work again when Paul suggests impregnating Irulan via insemination; the Reverend Mother calls it an “animal” way to breed, which is a great reversal; most people in our world today would take the opposite view. Then there’s the idea of breeding Paul and Alia, which is extra creepy-making, but important for giving us an idea of where the Bene Gesserit draw the line due to their fears about the breeding program’s continuation. It is incredibly unsettling.

The seeds are being sown for Paul’s undoing at every turn. He and Alia reveal their limitations to Stilgar in far more detail than ever before. Paul upsets Korba by calling out the falseness of the religion that has grown up around him and Korba’s complicity in it. He is bargaining for Chani’s life with the Bene Gesserit, allows Edric to engage in a lengthy questioning in hopes of guessing his motives. He is getting caught in his own webs of prescience, unable to separate out from the terrible omens he finds. We are watching his Empire deteriorate before his eyes, or at least his role in it. The momentum continues to pick up pace.

Emily Asher-Perrin worries sometimes about how much she likes Alia. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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