I’ve always considered the Dune series the best SF I’ve ever read, but as I read it fairly early in my ventures into SF, a reread is in order. Do my past opinions still hold, years & years and books & books later?
My reread of Dune itself was a fantastic experience, and before reading this review, I politely urge you to read my 5000+ word analysis of Dune – it deals with the question of determinism & Paul Atreides as a tragic hero, among other things, and I’ll talk about those themes here too.
I remember that when I first read the sequels, I thought Dune Messiah and Children of Dune to be a lesser affair than Dune itself. I also remember feeling Herbert got into his full stride again with the final 3 installments.
We’ll see how all that holds later, but my feeling on Dune Messiah turns out to be more or less the same. I really liked it, but it’s not on the same level as Dune: 4 stars, instead of 5. It’s also of note that I liked it a bit better now than the first time around.
I’ll try to keep this text under 5000 words, so that’ll be all for the introduction. In what follows, I first compare Dune Messiah to its big brother: why exactly is it a lesser book? That part is the proper review, so to say.
Afterwards, I’ll zoom in on a few things for those interested in a deeper analysis. I’ll first write about Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, and how that ties into Paul being a tragic hero. I’ll finish with a discussion on determinism & free will in Dune Messiah – even though I’m starting to feel I’m beating a dead horse on this blog, especially after my massive post on the same subject and Lord of the Rings. The last two parts will be heavy with quotes.
DUNE v. DUNE MESSIAH
Dune Messiah is painted on a smaller canvas, but at the same time it introduces some bigger mechanics that are needed for the rest of the series. As such, it might be called a typical second series book – where it not for the fact that it kinda wraps up Paul’s story, and as such the focal story of Dune itself.
The smaller canvas is clear if you look at the character list on Wikipedia: it only has 9 main characters. Dune was a much richer book, with much richer character relations. Dune Messiah only deals with Paul’s own internal struggles, and the conspiracy against him, that’s about it. It’s of note that some important, strong characters of the previous book, like Jessica or Gurney Halleck don’t even feature. There’s also no Harkonnen present, and the Fremen are reduced to Chani & Stilgar. Others, such as Gaius Helen Mohiam, hardly feature.
On the plus side is the proper introduction of the Tleilaxu as a faction – they were referenced to in Dune, but only now their methods and nature become clear.
The Bene Tleilax held little attachment to phenomenal nature. Good and evil carried strange meanings in their philosophy.
‘We of the Tleilaxu believe that in all the universe there is only the insatiable appetite of matter, that energy is the only true solid. And energy learns. Hear me well, Princess: energy learns. This, we call power.’
The Tleilaxu displayed a disturbing lack of inhibitions in what they created. Unbridled curiosity might guide their actions. They boasted they could make anything from the proper raw human material – devils or saints.
With them, technology that is crucial to the series – the gholas and the possibility of full resurrection via their memories – are injected into the larger story arc. It builds on what was already present in Dune‘s Reverend Mothers: memory embedded in cells. In Dune Messiah also the true nature of that Reverend Mother power becomes clear: in a way, Alia and her ilk can talk to their internal ancestors.
As such, that particular strand becomes a great narrative trick, opening up all kinds of possibilities in the later novels, but at face value a cheap one too. This is not necessarily a bad thing – also Dune clearly had pulp elements, as I’ve written in that long review. It is just that Dune Messiah, especially the first half, has an even more pulpy vibe: the conspiracy, the Tleilaxu’s abilities (Face Dancers, gholas, the quality of sympatico, the underdeveloped mirabhasa laughter), the creepy Guild Navigator in a tank – a weak character by the way, and spearhead of another narrative trick that prevents oracles to see each other’s plans. But again, pulp isn’t inherently bad, and the dwarf Bijaz is proof of that.
What’s also totally different in Dune Messiah is the dampened sense of discovery. Second book syndrome, maybe. It’s just that the story Herbert chose to tell for this installment hardly features new stuff – aside from what I listed above. But for new world building, expanding the universe, there’s not much there. The entire book is set on Arrakis – aside from the first cabal scene on Wallach IX – and so the overall scene becomes smaller. True, there’s the empire spanning new religion that Paul & Alia devised, but that doesn’t have the awesome feel of Imperial Sardauker or Harkonnen treachery.
The fact that Herbert mentions “billions and billions” are addicted to the spice, and that he describes Paul having “killed sixty-one billion, sterilised ninety planets, completely demoralised five hundred others” and also “wiped out the followers of forty religions” shows the broad scope of what Herbert had in mind, but it doesn’t really feel that way in this book.
I do think Herbert dumbed it down a notch. Certain stuff is repeated too much for my taste: Hayt/Duncan Idaho newly being both a Zensunni philosopher and a mentat for instance, or the descriptions of Paul’s mental state. It might be handy for the non-discerning reader, but if you’ve weathered Dune, you surely don’t need that? On the other hand – there might have been publisher’s pressure: I’m guessing there were lots of people kinda liking Dune, but finding it a tad too difficult, so best to try and keep those readers aboard if you want a stable revenue.
Dune Messiah becomes a bit more messy too – prescience and its implications are messy, especially if you want to build your story around it. (I’m looking at you, Blake Crouch.) As such, the introduction of the Dune Tarot feels unnecessary, underdeveloped and a bit out of tune when even a Bene Gesserit is shown to use it. There’s also a glaring question I can’t answer: at the end, Paul suddenly is able to look through his son’s eyes. How that is possible given the book’s mechanics is unclear to me. Maybe it will be worked out in the sequels, but it seems like a plot hole to me. (If you can explain, don’t hesitate to comment!)
Messy can be a synonym for complex, and it remains to be seen how far Herbert will take prescience and its relation to determinism. It will be the main focus of my reread of the series. I will return to this matter later in this text.
All this is not to say Dune Messiah was bad. I do think that after the first half the book becomes fully engaging, and the emotional conundrum Paul is in works well – repetition aside. And while the conspiracy might have been set up a bit clumsy, once it kicks into gear, the book becomes a true page turner. So yes, this book isn’t fully balanced, but I’m already looking forward to reading the next one, so that’s a job well done – plain and simple. It is only in Children of Dune the Golden Path will be truly started – there’s no mention of it at all in Messiah.
THE NIETZSCHEAN “EWIGEN WIEDERKUNFT DES GLEICHEN”: PAUL IS NOT A SUPERMAN
I was first alerted about the Dune series’ connection to Friedrich Nietzsche 2 years ago, by a review of Children of Dune on Gaping Blackbird. So when I started reading Messiah, I guess I had Nietzsche in the back of my mind. There were quite a lot passages of that reminded me of the ‘eternal recurrence’, so many even that I don’t think it was a mere coincidence. After I finished the book, I went back to that Gaping Blackbird review and saw that it mentioned 2011’s Dune and Philosophy, edited by Jeffery Nicholas. That collection has Brook Pearson’s essay “Nietzsche Goes to Space”, and I found a PDF of that 16-page text on Academia.edu.
At first I was a bit disappointed, as at first glance Pearson wrote a whole section on “Prescience and Eternal Recurrence” and I thought there might not be new ground for me to cover, but it turned out to be merely 2 pages that only discuss Children of Dune. My reading of Messiah sides with Pearson’s findings, but I have some additional remarks.
I want to focus on how Paul’s prescience feeds into him being a tragic hero. For starters, it is loud and clear that there is a link with the ‘eternal’.
His prophetic visions had been eavesdropping on eternity for such a long while, catching snatches of foreign tongues, listening to stones and to flesh not his own.
It becomes clear throughout the book that a Nietzschean eternity doesn’t really work out for Paul. Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence is a thought experiment: suppose that you would have to live your life over and over again, would you want that? Lows & warts & sorrow & all? Paul doesn’t seem to be fully willing. On top of that, he doesn’t only experience his own life over and over, but that of mankind’s possible futures too.
His lows weigh too heavy. Especially the loss of Chani – something he knows will happen because of his prescience – is too much. Paul’s oracular powers put him in a state of constant grief:
‘We must not grieve for those dear to us before their passing.’ ‘Before their passing,’ Paul whispered. ‘Tell me, little sister, what is before?‘
Paul cannot escape his future, and when that is described the imagery has a distinctly Nietzschean feel, who writes about a demon that brings up the thought experiment, and about the suffocating feeling of being bitten in your tongue by a black snake.
He felt chained to a future which, exposed too often, had locked onto him like a greedy succubus. Tight dryness clogged his throat.
So Paul is no Superman, no Übermensch. A true Übermensch would embrace Eternal Recurrence, but Paul does not.
‘Ah, Stil, I live in an apocalyptic dream. My steps fit into it so precisely that I fear most of all I will grow bored reliving the thing so exactly.’
‘What? Deny my own oracle? How can I when I’ve seen it fulfilled thousands of time? People call it a power, a gift. It’s an afflictions! It won’t let me leave my life where I found it!’
There was the feeling in him then that his body had become the manifestation of some power he could no longer control. He had become a non-being, a stillness which moved itself. At the core of this non-being, there he existed, allowing himself to be led through the streets of his city, following a track so familiar to his visions that it froze his heart with grief.
His prescience also sets him apart from those around him, and it causes a bit of a rift with Chani: loneliness is the hallmark of the tragic hero.
‘We’re here now!’ she protested, fighting a dry sob. ‘And . . . I feel we have so little . . . time.’ ‘We have eternity, beloved.’ ‘You may have eternity. I have only now.’ ‘But this is eternity.’
His flesh moved – one foot and then another – but his thoughts were elsewhere. ‘I don’t understand myself,’ he whispered. When he opened his eyes, he found that he had moved away from Chani.
Herbert even gets lyrical when he describes Paul’s tragedy.
He felt hidden grief drain his marrow then, empty his life into a black flask.
There’s one final passage I want to discuss in this part. When Paul discusses his fate with Duncan Idaho, there is a clear reference to a famous fragment from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, in which a madman proclaims we have killed God. Nietzsche himself referred to Diogenes the Cynic in the passage, who was know to carry a lamp during the day.
‘But I have answered you! Have I not said the myth is real? Am I the wind that carries death in its belly? No! I am words! Such words as the lightening which strikes from the sand in a dark sky. I have said: “Blow out the lamp! Day is here!” And you keep saying: “Give me a lamp so I can find the day.” (Dune Messiah)
‘Haven’t you heard of that madman who in the bright morning lit a lantern and ran around the marketplace crying incessantly: ‘I’m looking for God! I’m looking for God!’ (…) The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Where is God?’ he cried; ‘I’ll tell you! We have killed him – you and I! We are all his murderers.’ (The Gay Science)
Paul here juxtaposes himself to the Nietzschean madman, and he resents to be cast into that role by others. Muad’Dib obviously is a kind of messiah: the book’s title gives that away. Paul Atreides’ second son will even be a God-Emperor. But Paul doesn’t want his role, as was clear from some of the quotes above – and below.
At the end of Dune Messiah it is suggested Paul loses some of his prescient powers. It will be interesting to see how Herbert treats Paul – transformed as the blind Preacher – in Children of Dune. Will he be able to overcome his own tragedy? That Gaping Blackbird review has already a great deal to say about all that, and it’s wholeheartedly recommended.
ILLUSIONS OF CONTROL: THE HUMAN MIND IN A MECHANIC WORLD pt. 2
Being prescient can be read as a metaphor for being determined. I’ve written before that I have long held the suspicion that what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to ourselves being determined. I think it was the core of Dune, as I think I have shown in my analysis.
It is also a big part of Dune Messiah, but there are a few differences though. For starters, it is much, much more explicitly so. In Dune, it was mostly between the lines, but here Herbert more or less spells it out loud and clear, and the theme is constantly chewed on, as you can tell by the numerous quotes below. He even name drops ‘Free Will’ – as I already said, Messiah is a bit dumbed down.
It occurred to Paul then that all creatures must carry some kind of destiny stamped out by purposes of varying strengths, by the fixation of training and disposition. From the moment the Jihad had chosen him, he’d felt himself hemmed in by the forces of a multitude. Their fixed purposes demanded and controlled his course. Any delusions of Free Will he harbored now must be merely the prisoner rattling his cage. His curse lay in the fact that he saw the cage. He saw it?
There’s other passages like this, but feel free to skip the next few quotes – I’ve included them mainly as more proof. There’s others to be found, but these will have to suffice.
‘You belong to us.’ ‘I belong to a vision,’ he whispered. (Paul to Chani, when she tells him the tribes expect him to return.)
I wanted only to look back and say: ‘There! There’s an existence which couldn’t hold me. See! I vanish! No restraint or net of human devising can trap me ever again. I renounce my religion! This glorious instant is mine! I’m free!’ What empty words!
How did I set this in motion? he asked himself? It had, of course, set itself in motion. It was in the genes which might labor for centuries to achieve this brief spasm.
At some faraway instant in a past which he had shared with others, this future had reached down to him. It had chivvied him and herded him into a chasm whose walls grew narrower and narrower. He could feel them closing in on him. This was the way the vision went.
‘There was no choice,’ Paul said. ‘You understand that, Duncan?’
‘There are some things no one can bear. I meddled in all the possible futures I could create until, finally, they created me.’
He found himself, instead, thinking that he had come a long way from his boyhood days in Caladan Castle. Where had he put his foot on the path that led this journey across a crowded square on a planet so fare from Caladan? Had he really put his foot on a path? He could not say he had acted at any point in his life for one specific reason. The motives and impinging forces had been complex – more complex possibly than any other set of goads in human history. He had the heady feeling here that he might still avoid the fate he could see so clearly along this path. But the crowd pushed him forward and he experienced the dizzy sense that he had lost his way, lost personal direction over his life.
A moment of fulcrum had to be found, a place where he could will himself out of the vision. If such a moment existed . . .
In these last three quotes we see that also Paul himself at times falls prey to the illusion he has control. It is an example of another, more important difference in Messiah: the fact that Herbert starts making things messier, more complex. That’s the result of a few things.
For starters, the nature of prescience isn’t fully clear. It seems as if Herbert doesn’t know himself, or deliberately leaves things unclear – hard science fiction this is not. In the essay Dune Genesis, published in 1980 in Omni magazine, Herbert himself pulls out the paradox card – a cop out, you could say. Let me quote at length from that essay first.
As in an Escher lithograph, I involved myself with recurrent themes that turn into paradox. The central paradox concerns the human vision of time. What about Paul’s gift of prescience-the Presbyterian fixation? For the Delphic Oracle to perform, it must tangle itself in a web of predestination. Yet predestination negates surprises and, in fact, sets up a mathematically enclosed universe whose limits are always inconsistent, always encountering the unprovable. It’s like a koan, a Zen mind breaker. It’s like the Cretan Epimenides saying, “All Cretans are liars.”
Each limiting descriptive step you take drives your vision outward into a larger universe which is contained in still a larger universe ad infinitum, and in the smaller universes ad infinitum. No matter how finely you subdivide time and space, each tiny division contains infinity.
But this could imply that you can cut across linear time, open it like a ripe fruit, and see consequential connections. You could be prescient, predict accurately. Predestination and paradox once more. The flaw must lie in our methods of description, in languages, in social networks of meaning, in moral structures, and in philosophies and religions-all of which convey implicit limits where no limits exist. Paul Muad’Dib, after all, says this time after time throughout Dune.
Do you want an absolute prediction? Then you want only today, and you reject tomorrow. You are the ultimate conservative. You are trying to hold back movement in an infinitely changing universe. The verb to be does make idiots of us all. (Dune Genesis)
I don’t think predestination sets up a “universe whose limits are always inconstistent”, but I do agree that the flaw must lie in our own methods: the blindspot of human understanding – the fact that “our basic understanding of reality short circuits with our basic perception of ourselves” as I have written in my analysis of Dune. So Herbert is on to something here, but at the same time retains some leeway. The following passage has a built-in safety mechanism for possible holes in the theory: it’s too complex, don’t bother to try and understand it… Rest assured: I will try, dear reader, I will try.
‘The uninitiated try to conceive of prescience as obeying a Natural Law,’ Paul said. (…) ‘But it’d be just as correct to say it’s heaven speaking to us, that being able to read the future is a harmonious act of man’s being. In other words, prediction is a natural consequence in the wave of the present. It wears the guise of nature, you see. But such powers cannot be used from an attitude that prestates aims and purposes. Does a chip caught in the wave say where it’s going? There’s no cause and effect in the oracle. Causes become occasions or convections and confluences, place where the currents meet. Accepting prescience, you fill your being with concepts repugnant to the intellect. Your intellectual consciousness, therefor, rejects them. In rejecting, intellect becomes a part of the process, and is subjugated.’ (…) ‘Chaos!’ Irulan protested. ‘It has no . . . no . . . consistency.’ ‘I did say it obeys no Natural Law,’ Paul said. (…) Alia said: ‘Dear Irulan, prescience has no limits. Not consistent? Consistency isn’t a necessary aspect of the universe.’ (…) ‘How can my brother give you explicit information about the limits of something which has no limits? The boundaries escape the intellect.’
I do believe Herbert remains a believer of the cause-effect chain – the essence of determinism.
The sequential nature of actual events is not illuminated with lengthy precision by the powers of prescience except under the most extraordinary circumstances. The oracle grasps incidents cut out of the historic chain. Eternity moves. It inflicts itself upon the oracle and the supplicant alike.
The fact that the different oracles hinder each other’s prescience makes it seem the future is undetermined to a certain degree, just like the fact that oracles at times see different futures also hints at the fact that different outcomes are still possible. But both of these things need not to be taken as proof against determinism, as they are the result of human “methods” indeed: imperfect visions & imperfect calculations of future complexities do not mean imperfect or non-existent determination.
Where was the insecurity of things that were only probable? he asked himself. His mind carried such a burden of mutilated memories. For every instant of reality there existed countless projections, things fated never to be. An invisible self within him remembered the false pasts, their burden threatening at times to overwhelm the present.
But I have to admit, while Dune had zero passages that could be interpreted in favor for free will, things open up a bit in Dune Messiah. So while the first quotes in this section show Paul to be trapped in his own life, Paul himself briefly falls for the illusion three times, and a few other characters sometimes speak of choices and freedom, mainly Hayt/Duncan Idaho. In that respect, it has to be pointed out that Herbert implies that Idaho’s Zensunni reasoning is faulty.
‘Bondage, my Lord? The cleansed mind makes decisions in the presence of unknowns and without cause and effect. Is this bondage?’ [asked Hayt.] Paul scowled. It was a Zensunni saying, cryptic, apt – immersed in a creed which denies objective function in all mental activity. Without cause and effect! Such thoughts shocked the mind. Unknowns? Unknowns lay in every decision, even in the oracular vision.
‘Both of you were taught to govern,’ he said. ‘You were conditioned to an overweening thirst for power. (…) Natural law? What natural law? That myth haunts human history. Haunts! It’s a ghost. It’s insubstantial, unreal. Is your Jihad a natural law?’ ‘Mentat jabber,’ she sneered. (Here Alia calls Hayt’s reasoning jabber.)
‘By mistake or intent,’ he said, ‘they gave me freedom to mold myself.’ (Hayt thinks he can be free to mold himself. Paul laughs at this, and Alia says what Hayt said are Zensunni parables & riddles.)
It’s of note that the ghola Hayt and Bijaz the dwarf are maybe the most pure symbols of determined characters in the book, both the result of conditioning and genetic engineering – only brought into existence because of their conditioned usability. Bijaz however seems to think self-determination has to do with attack and war. The fact that they play a key part in the plot is maybe no coincidence. It’s interesting that Hayt, before he becomes Duncan again, seems to understand Paul’s – and all humans’ – predicament.
A bit later, Hayt says he convinced Paul that he understands his problem. ‘I told him that to endure oneself may be the hardest task in the universe.’
Also interesting are Hayt’s thoughts during his crucial conversation with Bijaz. Here Herbert comes very close to saying our “will” is merely the self-monitoring device some scientists nowadays think our consciousness to be – not at the helm of things, but merely a spectator.
All had become accident, the change involvement of inanimate matter. His own will was no more than a subtle, shifting thing. It lived without breath and was intelligible only as an inward illumination.
And again, I am not arguing choices do not exist – they do, people make choices all the time. I’m of the conviction choices are determined, and as such not free. I’m also not arguing some choices aren’t more free than others – what I am arguing is that not a single choice is made in absolute freedom, and so every choice is determined. (For a more in-depth discussion of all this, including examples, see the comments to my LOTR review.)
In that moment, his whole life was a limb shaken by the departure of a bird . . . and the bird was chance. Free will. I succumbed to the lure of the oracle, he thought. And he sensed that succumbing to this lure might be to fix himself upon a single-track life. (The moment in the first sentence is when Chani says she went to the desert’s edge because she wanted a child.)
For even in the end, when Paul seems to make a choice, also that choice is determined. In the next quote Paul hints at what he will do in the end: go out into the desert, abandon the path. But it is clear he also needed to do that, in order to give his newborn son Leto the credibility he will need to control the Fremen on his own Golden Path, and as such avoid worser alternatives.
‘I’m a figurehead. When godhead’s given, that’s the one thing the so-called god no longer controls.’ A bitter laugh shook him. He sensed the future looking back at him out of dynasties not even dreamed. He felt his being cast out, crying, unchained from the rings of fate – only his name continued. ‘I was chosen,’ he said. ‘Perhaps at birth . . . certainly before I had much say in it. I was chosen.’ ‘Then un-choose,’ she said. His arm tightened around her shoulder. ‘In time, beloved. Give me a little time.’ Unshed tears burned his eyes.
But Alia still seems convinced Paul freely chose to go in exile in the desert.
‘Love? Duncan, he had but to step off the track! What matter that the rest of the universe would have come shattering down behind him? He’d have been safe . . . and Chani with him!’ ‘Then . . . why didn’t he?’ ‘For the love of heaven,’ she whispered. Then, more loudly, she said: ‘Paul’s entire life was a struggle to escape his Jihad and its deification. At least, he’s free of it. He chose this!’
And such is life: some people – against all evidence – keep believing in absolute freedom. Herbert however, spelled it out loud and clear. The very first epigraph in Dune Messiah has these words:
Their flesh was subject to space and time.
Nuff said, for now.
To continue my analysis of the Dune series, please read my text on Children of Dune, which is over 10,000 words and deals with the tragedy of Alia, change as a key concept in the series, a Nietzschean morality beyond good & evil, and Amor Fati, among other things. I’ve also written an 8,700 words analysis of God Emperor of Dune, with a focus on Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot, an examination of the Golden Path and a critical look at various inconsistencies in that novel. My analysis of Heretics of Dune is 11,600 words and, among other things, looks at Herbert’s narrative bluff, and examines the Bene Gesserit’s motivations. It also discusses love, heresy and variation as themes in the novel, and looks at how the book’s characters are permutations of those of Dune. I try to explain why I liked this book the most of the sequels, even with all its shortcoming, and there’s a section on a major shift in the series, as in Heretics, under the influence of Einstein and quantum theory, Herbert casts prescience not as something passive, but as an active, shaping force. This sea change alters the ontology underlying the series drastically. I also look at an underlying principle Herbert uses: perception shaping reality.
Click here for my other Herbert reviews: Dune, Destination: Void, The Santaroga Barrier, Whipping Star, Soul Catcher & The Dosadi Experiment. I’ve also tackled Hunters of Dune & Sandworms of Dune, and wrote about Villeneuve’s 2021 film Dune: Part One.