I have often lamented the fact that re-reading books I enjoyed in the past can sometimes lead to deep disappointments, due to changed tastes and to the evolution of writing styles, so I’m glad to acknowledge that my re-read of Dune Messiah did not incur in that kind of problem and, on the contrary, made me enjoy the novel even more than on my first encounter. The younger me who read Messiah for the first time was disappointed by the lack of epic-ness that was so much a part of the first book, nor did she enjoy seeing Paul Atreides become somewhat diminished; now I was finally able to appreciate what Frank Herbert was doing with his character and the world he had created.
The story starts twelve years after the final events in Dune: Paul Atreides has extended his power over the empire, mainly through a galaxy-wide war of conquest waged by his Fremen armies and fueled by the religious fervor that invested him with near godhood; it’s the jihad he foresaw and tried to avoid, to no avail – we learn that it ‘killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others’, a series of staggering numbers that, instead of consolidating his rule, has created mistrust and discontent, so that now some of his enemies (and some of his former allies as well) are plotting to dethrone him, putting an end to his rule. Prescience already warned Paul of what’s brewing in the shadows, and here we see him trying to navigate the possible futures, knowing that every one of them will entail devastating losses and even worse consequences.
What Dune Messiah amounts to, in the end, is the story of a man gifted with amazing powers and yet powerless to prevent the catastrophes he envisioned: despite the prodigious skills he acquired through both nature and motherly teachings, he remains a human being, with all the frailties and contradictions this entails, and seeing them, seeing his struggles and the pain they carry with them, helped me connect with his character on a level I had not reached in the first book. Which brings me to a consideration that struck me, this time over, as I thought about Paul’s dilemma and the road he would/could not choose here, leaving it open (as I already know it will happen) for his son to take: in my review of Dune I mentioned how I consider it a landmark in SF just as Tolkien’s LOTR is for fantasy, to the point that I saw a sort of parallel between Paul and Frodo. Paul knows – has seen – a way out of those devastating futures, the terrible purpose that will turn into the Golden Path for young Leto, but is unable, or unwilling, or both, to accept it and ultimately gives up, choosing to wander alone in the desert, maybe to die; Frodo reaches the end of his perilous journey only to fail – and he was destined to fail since he was only the Ring Bearer, not the Ring Destroyer, thanks to Tolkien’s always precisely chosen wording – carrying forever the burden of that failure and equally choosing exile, no matter how pleasant, to remove himself from it. I’m aware the comparison might be quite a stretch, but it’s one I can’t seem to get out of my mind, and I would love to hear what my fellow bloggers think about it….
Back to the novel itself, I found that despite the reduced page count, if compared with its predecessor, it expands the reader’s knowledge about the universe where the story takes place: the main narrative focus is still set on Arrakis, granted, but the presence, amid the conspirators aiming to remove Paul from power, of a Guild navigator and of a Tleilaxu Face Dancer shows us a glimpse of the various powers inhabiting the galaxy. The navigator is described as something only vaguely resembling the human being it must originally have been, the exposure to the spice gas that renders it capable of forging paths through space having transformed the creature in a weirdly horrific way, but the truly fascinating character is that of Scytale, the Face Dancer. A bio-engineered shape shifter, Scytale is the product of Tleilaxu gene manipulation, and an intriguing creature as well, particularly in the peculiar affinity for the people it must impersonate – and therefore kill – that translates into a sort of sympathy (the Face Dancer’s own words) for the victim, almost a regret for the necessity of the act. It’s a choice that turns Scytale into much more than a simple enemy, a simple killer, and gifts its personality with depth and intriguing shades.
The Tleilaxu are also involved in another part of the plan against Paul Atreides because they bring one of their creations to his court in an attempt to distract and destabilize him: their skills in bio-manipulation can literally bring the dead back to life – through a process that might be cloning, even though it’s never explained – in the form of gholas, perfect copies of the dead although deprived of their memories. The ghola which is brought to Paul’s court is no one but his former instructor and friend Duncan Idaho, who gave his life to allow Paul and his mother to escape from the Harkonnens. Duncan is a character who does not enjoy great narrative space in Dune, and yet he leaves a deep impression, to the point that his reappearance hits the readers just as much as the intended target in the story. There is a poignant quality to Duncan’s journey, the drama of a person who knows there is a past waiting for him to be unlocked, and also that such unlocking will require a high price to be obtained, and it’s almost as touching as that of Paul, of his dilemma and of the bittersweet meeting with his old-time friend.
As a sequel, Dune Messiah works far better on a re-read, particularly when one is aware of what will come after: it is indeed a bridge between the two distinct halves of the Atreides’ family history, but most importantly it sets aside the more “adventurous” themes of its predecessor for an in-depth examination of the nature of power and how it can betray its wielders, no matter how many skills they can call into play. The author’s choice of mixing what might have been a somewhat dry commentary with some powerful emotions is what turns this novel into a touching journey and one that is enhanced – not lessened – by hindsight.
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