Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune

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

We’re going to be present for the use of a stone burner. Which is actually awful? But awfulness is kind of something you should expect at this point, right?

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 (up until “He has gone from Alia…”)

Scytale goes to talk with Edric, which the steersman thinks is a mistake. The Face Dancer is adamant that the plan is in danger from Alia, and wants Edric to prod their ghola into action more quickly. Edric insists that he cannot do that and Scytale realizes that their conspiracy is weaker than he would prefer. Edric does not seem to understand the difference between toppling a religion and toppling a religious government, which is the thing that makes taking down Maud’Dib far more difficult.

Paul is practicing combat training when Chani storms in; she has learned about Irulan’s contraceptives and wants to kill her. Paul tells her that she cannot, knowing that while Chani’s anger is fair, the contraceptives have prolonged her life according to his prescient visions. He refuses to tell Chani this, and she turns her attentions on Hayt, the ghola, saying that she does not trust him. Paul talks a bit with Hayt, showing Chani that there are pieces of Duncan Idaho underneath that he hopes to unearth, and that this is why he has chosen to keep the man. Chain’s pregnancy is accelerated because of the contraceptives, and she needs to eat constantly to cope with it. She is frightened by it, and so is Paul.

Scytale comes to Paul disguised as Otheym’s daughter Lichna. Paul recognizes that Face Dancer, but allows the thing to take its course, knowing this is part of his vision of the future. “Lichna” has message for Paul, that her father must see him, and that Paul must go to meet him in his home. She tells him to bring Chani, and Paul realizes that Fremen are truly part of the conspiracy against him. He tells her that Chani cannot come due to her pregnancy. Lichna explains that her father is suspected by the Fremen of betraying their conspiracy, which is why he could not come himself. The information he means to give Paul is in a human distrans. Paul goes, walking the streets and seeing a religious rite that Alia presides over. He finds himself moved by the display, even knowing what they have built this faith themselves. Alia is in a bad mood as she answers the questions of pilgrims.

Paul is taken to Otheym’s home and it is clear that the man is poor and ill from a sickness that he caught during the jihad on another world. He has a dwarf named Bijaz (from the Bene Tleilax) who speaks in riddles, but is the distrans Scytale spoke of. Paul is disturbed because he did not see this dwarf in his visions, but Otheym tells him that Bijaz has the names of all the Fremen conspirators. One of Otheym’s wives Dhuri shows disdain for Paul and is clearly upset that Paul has not kept track of his Fedaykin. Paul realizes that Bijaz has some form of prescience and that he’s growing concerned that they should leave, but Paul needs the whole situation to plays out as he saw or risk consequences. Finally everyone says the words he needs to hear and leaves with Bijaz. Shortly after, a stone burner goes off in Otheym’s home.

Everyone nearby is blinded, but Paul can still see by means of his prescience. Stilgar is astounded by this, and Paul demands that all the men blinded here be fitted with new eyes rather than cast out into the desert. The men are shocked that Paul can somehow still see. He commands that the makers of the stone burner be discovered and heads back to Chani.

Commentary

The threads weave tighter and the overall arc of this story is made clear; it is mired in issues surrounding the combination of religion and government, the difficulties associated with prescient ability, and questions of free will in a universe where these abilities are possible. While Herbert himself was determined to show the danger in a rule of someone such as Muad’Dib the overall resonance of Dune Messiah is utterly religious.

One of the primary concerns of this book is showing the difficulty of dismantling a religious government, as Scytale rightly puts it. The Guild and the Bene Gesserit, they believe that because religions have been subsumed before, this is something that they recognize and can handle with the appropriate pressure. But Scytale is aware that the refusal to separate “church and state” in this instance leads to something far more entrenched and sinister. Dismantling a religion can be difficult enough, but when people with power believe that this power comes from any sort of divine right, the process is an entirely different one.

Scytale is also adamant that this process is not Paul’s fault to bear alone; he is aware that Muad’Dib would have stopped all the slaughter if he could, that once the idea of him morphed into something beyond a mortal man, he could barely control what occurred in its wake. Again, we hit on this idea that humanity’s desire to put their stock in saviors and legends and singular figures is one of our greatest failings. Billions have died, countless worlds have been subjugated because Paul Atreides tipped the balance of power and had a few very flashy abilities. He had no desire to become this man when all is said and done. Yet there’s nothing that can divert the path.

Which is where we come to the questions of free will posed in this story, and the strangeness of how they are answered. To take this story at face value, you would assume that it does not place much stock in the concept of free will. But of course, that is part of the trap itself. Paul does not know how to do anything but align with what he has already seen. His perception that deviation from the path will lead to something far worse is something that the reader is likely to believe because we have been aligned with Paul and his perspective this entire time… but there’s always that niggling question of how much more (or differently) Alia might see, hence Scytale coming back to her in his discussion with Edric. And then there’s the question of prescience as a trap, which the book will delve even further into as it closes out.

There are more practical concerns, such as the speedy nature of Chani’s pregnancy (which sounds awful, truth be told), and has a certain parallel to the stories of mythical pregnancies. Almost as though Chani were actually having a child by a god, and she gets all the misfortune that comes with that. And then there’s the constant suggestion that Duncan Idaho’s person is lurking somewhere underneath Hayt’s shell. The concept of personhood and the potential for a “soul” or something of that nature is one that could do with some more work in this story, I think. Characters here believe the Duncan exists in Hayt, but they do not spend much time asking what that means for the work the the Bene Tleilaxu do, only suggest that Duncan is special in this case. Why?

There’s the introduction of Bijaz, which is irritating as these books are frankly remiss in how they handle any notion of disability. Of course the only time we see a person of Bijaz’s stature he is essentially a “magical” device, a character that speaks in riddle and exists to serve at the whims of others. Now, the story does address this ever so slightly, the fact that he is called a Bene Tleilaxu “toy” with all the awfulness that implies. But if a group in this universe are abusing beings to this end, that is something that deserves more consideration and commentary. Why would they do this to someone like Bijaz, and how does it play into their maneuvering? Does anyone in this universe care about these sorts of things at all? Muad’Dib’s wars aside, there must be some people in this universe who have a care for human rights, but we hear very little about that. It is one aspect of politics that could actually use a great deal of expansion.

If there is one thing that Dune Messiah captures beautifully, though, it is the difficulty found between people who cannot turn over to the new ways when the world upends. The Fremen who supported Paul are finding that many of them want no part in this order he’s created (through no desire of his own, but it is still his doing). They have “seen the sea” as it has been put already, and found that it gave them nothing that they wanted. This has been true across the world, in many different eras, and still occurs to this day. People are offered new faiths, new systems, new ideas, and some embrace them while others reject it outright. The people of Arrakis are never portrayed as wrong for refusing to accept this change; if anything, the Fremen are portrayed as right to hold onto their culture and their way of life. It’s a portrayal that is fascinating in its sensitivity to the ideas of colonization and imperial power. No one is truly better off for Paul’s rule because that was never the purpose of his success—it was simply the only road he saw.

Unfortunately, nothing adds to a man’s mystique quite like being able to “see” when physically blinded. We will get to that particular shift in the next and final section of the Dune Messiah Reread.

Emily Asher-Perrin has always been sort of mesmerized by the term “stone burner” as horrific weapon. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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