Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Series: Dune Chronicles (#2)
Genre: Space Opera
Publication Date: 1971
Paul Atreides is Emperor of the known universe. But total victory has come at a terrible price. Billions are dead, worlds are in ruins, and through the power of prescience, Paul knows worse is yet to come. Can he steer humanity to a brighter future, or will Muad’dib’s legacy claim the man himself as a victim . . ?
In my opinion (which grows less humble by the day) Dune Messiah is the pinnacle of Frank Herbert’s original six Dune novels. Which is a very strange thing to say, because as an individual novel, it really shouldn’t hold together. Dune Messiah is the shortest book of the entire series, original or extended, and I have to say that when people refer to it as an epilogue to Dune, I’m tempted to agree. But it’s more than just a few extra chapters. It’s a bridge between Dune and Children of Dune, and for all its brevity it packs a punch with the core themes of this epic series.
Dune Messiah picks up twelve years into Muad’dib’s bloody reign. As readers of Paul of Dune will know, Paul’s attempts to limit the violence of the Jihad have been less than fully successful. Or maybe he has done everything he can. Though we only get the occasional glimpse of what Paul sees through his prescience, it’s clear that the alternatives to his tyranny are far worse, though at this stage in the series we don’t know what his plans are in aid of. A united and strong humanity yes, but to what end? Personally, I think that goal is a reward in and of itself, and I’m not wholly convinced Frank Herbert had planned ahead to the threat(s) revealed in later novels. For Dune Messiah, the question is a matter of the ends justifying the means, and while Paul thinks they do, he is alone in that opinion.
What I had forgotten from my first read is that Dune Messiah opens with an in-universe commentary on the events about to be portrayed. We know going into this book that Paul faces multiple conspiracies, and that they will fail. We know who the conspirators are and what motivates them. I have to say, it’s nice for an author to be so open like this. It also works better than Dune‘s habit of having villains monologue about all their evil schemes. yes, there are bits of Dune Messiah that fall into the same pattern, but Frank Herbert uses meta-commentary to far greater effect. This opening, the Dune appendices, and the epigrams before each chapter have all but convinced me Herbert was a better writer of nonfiction than he was of prose. Honestly, it’s the epigrams that make this series for me. Each one build the universe a little bit more, enriching the novel as a result.
Dune Messiah works because it is open about being a tragedy. Gone is the boyish adventure of the original. Here there is only loss and suffering. It’s a quietly brutal book, and even if I don’t empathise with Paul, the agony he endures is undeniable. Dune Messiah shows us a man who has brought the Galaxy to its knees. A man who has everything he could ever want. And then it strips away everything he loves. This book proves that one victory matters little in the grand scheme, and that committing to a path is often the only choice, but not always the best choice. Wonderful stuff.
The attentive reader will notice that this pinnacle of the series scores a 4/5 on my ratings. Up next is the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson-penned The Winds of Dune, but after that we’re deep in Frank Herbert territory. You’ll have to keep reading to see how that turns out. Spoiler alert: Be ready for a bit of a slog.