Dune Messiah
November 23, 2015 1:18 PM - by Frank Herbert - Subscribe

The second book in Frank Herbert's Dune series, detailing the events surrounding Emperor Paul Muad'dib, his confederates, and his enemies, in the years following a galaxy-spanning Fremen jihad.
posted by cortex (25 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Boy, this weekend flew by, so this is a couple days later than I had it in the calendar.

But we're following on now from a very fun discussion of Dune, en route to Children next month, with this second book that I think Chrysostom was right to describe as "kind of a coda" to the original novel—it's much shorter than the original, and relies greatly for its context all the stuff set up in the original, though it's its own thing and doesn't merely finish up the somewhat abruptly-ended first book.

I've read Messiah a couple times, but not recently, and so have started back in on a reread in the last couple days, and found it interesting that I had the same rocky-start-then-getting-really-absorbed feeling about this as the original. Maybe it's the case that Frank Herbert builds great wonderful boulders that are just a bit difficult to get rolling at the start.

But things like Ixian and Tleilaxu lore, and the machinations of and slippery tensions between agents of those cohorts and the Guild and the Bene Gesserit are among my favorite world-building details of the series and it's interesting revisiting these books from the start to see how much of that was left more or less elided in the first novel to then start seeing a lot of attention from the start in this second book.
posted by cortex at 1:26 PM on November 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have hazy memories of this. It opens with the Conspiracy Meeting, right? And I remember the stone burner episode, and Paul wandering off into the desert.

Looking forward to rereading this one.
posted by curious nu at 1:35 PM on November 23, 2015

Syctale is one of my favourite fictional opportunists, like probably up there in the top 5.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:01 PM on November 23, 2015

It opens with the conspiracy, yeah*. As a sort of audition for Irulan, and a fairly complicated setup of character and motivation for Scytale, the facedancer.

And it's interesting how Herbert handles the idea of secret machinations there, because I'd misremembered it as simply "they met in a No-Room, which can't be seen with prescient visions". Instead, it's apparently set up as more a matter of maintaining an ideological parity with a prescient figure—so that Guild steersmen for all their navigation-enabling prescience can't actually in their visions see Paul or his closest confidantes because those folks are so aligned in purpose and intent with the imperceivable Paul, and likewise (or at least the Guild conspirator asserts) Paul who can't perceive Edric the steersman also won't be able to see his co-conspirators, so long as they are actually aligned in purpose with Edric.

Which is actually a lot more interesting as the setup for a conspiracy than a magical room, on reflection. Not that I don't think the No-Room idea itself is pretty rad, and I guess maybe that was actually only introduced and elaborated on in the second three books. Leto II-era tech? I suppose I'll see.

*Or, in my edition, with a short interview with, and then essay by, Bronso of Ix. And the thing is, I don't remember that bit from when I last read it, but it's totally plausible that I've just forgotten it. But I'm reading an ebook version because I misplaced my actual paper copy, and the ebook has an intro by Brian Herbert, and so I'm completely fucking paranoid about the possibility that he also fucked around with the opening a little, even though both the interview and the introductory essay also sort of map well to the sort of stuff that later shows up in McNelly et al's Dune Encyclopedia. Long story short I resent having to navigate this half-trust of those sections on the basis of how shittily the old Herbert legacy has been handled, and would all else aside love to have someone verify that those bits are or are not part of the original printing so I can stop fretting about it one way or the other.
posted by cortex at 2:02 PM on November 23, 2015

My copy is from 1987 and it has the same prison cell interview and essay.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:06 PM on November 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I though I'd read this one already but by about page 50 I was pretty sure I'd never finished it the last time I started it. I found the first book super engaging almost immediately and this one was much harder for me to get into.

I think for me one thing that made this book less compelling was that I really liked how little overt magic there was in the first book; things ascribed to prophecy could just as easily be due to politics, religious credulity, luck, spice-induced hallucinations or what have you, in pretty much every case I could think of. In Dune Messiah there's no question that some supernatural shit is going on, between the shapeshifters, the fact that Paul uses his powers of prophecy to fake accurate vision for quite a while after he's blinded, and a couple other things. What I liked about Dune was how human it felt, and I was disappointed that the sequel veered so hard into fantasy territory.
posted by town of cats at 2:10 PM on November 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can see what you mean, town of cats. It may be that the distinction stands out less to me because I'm pretty on board with (for the purposes of the Herbert narrative itself, anyway) the out there aspects of the whole series and so brought that to my reread of Dune last month. I wish I could have a conversation with my younger first-time-reader self about the original book, because I have no idea how exactly it struck me back then.

That said, there's actually a pretty fun entry in the Encyclopedia on the details of the physiology and physiognomy of facedancers that, while still pretty clearly a bullshitty handwave on a thing that just made for interesting story twists in the novels, does make a straight-faced effort to justify the magic-like plasticity of their appearances.
posted by cortex at 2:17 PM on November 23, 2015

Been a long time but the difference I remember is that Dune was just almost too much, amazing. Messiah was a really great SF novel.
posted by sammyo at 4:56 PM on November 23, 2015

I though I'd read this one already but by about page 50 I was pretty sure I'd never finished it the last time I started it. I found the first book super engaging almost immediately and this one was much harder for me to get into.

I'm a huge fan of the Dune series but I've always been kinda lukewarm on Messiah. I've always kinda felt like it feels like nothing happens for a while, and then when too much happens in like 30 pages.
posted by Itaxpica at 5:12 PM on November 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Messiah feels to me like (and this feeling may come from an interview with Herbert I dimly recall) the third book was well underway but Herbert or someone else said that some kind of bridge was desperately needed between Dune and Children of Dune. Herbert apparently had mountains of materials he'd built up over time covering all six books, so it was a matter of taking a bunch of stuff left out of Dune and using that. He definitely wrote parts of each book out of published sequence.
posted by fatbird at 10:00 PM on November 23, 2015

I've read the later ones much more often than this one (it's my least favorite) and it really bothers me now that Scytale is a facedancer here. If- wait, what's the policy on discussing spoilers from later in the series?
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 9:25 AM on November 24, 2015

there's no question that some supernatural shit is going on, between the shapeshifters

the Tleilaxu Face Dancers aren't supernatural, they've taken the Bene Gesserit prana-bindu training and applied the ideas to the very construction of their muscles and bones.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:30 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

If- wait, what's the policy on discussing spoilers from later in the series?

The whole book series thing is definitely experimental, but as a default policy I think we need to run with "don't, and we'll get there when we get there". If it's a really vague or general thematic thought that's probably something you can squeak in, but try to do so in the spirit of the general FanFare expectation of avoiding spoilers about future content in a series.
posted by cortex at 9:40 AM on November 24, 2015

oh, I was kind of approaching this as a general whole series reread discussion broken down by book for flow, so good to know.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:24 AM on November 24, 2015

Yeah, and I think it's been fine so far as to where folks have drawn the line. "This major character twist from book 5" or whatever we should avoid; discussion of thematic stuff or Herbert-as-author or so on not such a huge deal I don't think.
posted by cortex at 11:25 AM on November 24, 2015

I had never read this far into the Dune cycle before- this is all virgin territory for me now. I know I'd made half a dozen false starts into Messiah in the past- it had just never grabbed me like the first one did. As some have said- it was a hard slog getting into this one.

It felt like an intermission. An interstitial piece... almost filler between movements.
posted by Philby at 12:03 PM on November 24, 2015

Ok. This wasn't vague so I'll keep my mouth shut.

The main thing I remember from this one is it felt so much smaller than all the rest. They start getting epic again immediately afterward, but this just felt like a bunch of people bickering and whining. Which, in retrospect was kind of the point, and kind of a bold thing to do, after you've had someone conquer the known universe. Still not much fun to read.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 12:25 PM on November 24, 2015

(Also Bijaz creeps me out.)
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 12:28 PM on November 24, 2015

I'm going to try to get into some thematic analysis here that doesn't contain plot spoilers but if you're worried about something being revealed, maybe skip this comment until you're most of the way into the book.

While Messiah does seem like a pamphlet for the next four books, it is, on my reading, where the essential problem of prescience and free will gets set up, to continue through the next four books. Dune mentions some of how Paul struggles with being trapped by a vision, of being unable to see a way out, but it's in Messiah that the dilemma is given more shape: Paul can't reject the vision of himself as Emperor (leading to the Golden Path in God Emperor) without acceding to visions of worse outcomes, and much of Messiah is just walking Paul through accepting difficult outcomes. The determinism of prescience is moral, rather than scientific. He's always literally free to make those choices, but he refuses.

This is why I think Messiah's actually a pretty good book, because the assassination plot is like Paul's selecting between alternate visions that have dire implications for billions of people. Paul's struggle is a moral struggle within himself, and the weapon aimed at Paul is an attempt to upset that inner struggle by making him become what he hates. One of my favourite moments is Scytale's casual revalation that the Tleilaxu have made their own Kwisatz Haderachs, just to experiment with them.

This circles back to Herbert's essentialist impulses for me. A human is more than an animal because it makes moral choices; Paul is justified choosing a monstrous vision because he has moral clarity, and the moral outcome is obvious to a sufficiently aware human (a theme raised more explicitly in Herbert's Destination: Void).

At the same time, the arc of this theme in the Dune series is that escaping the vision, the moral clarity, the certainty, is the ultimate goal in purely Darwinian, survivalist terms. I can't decide what Herbert was. For most of the books he seems like an evolutionary determinist, but the ultimate evolutionary justification for that is escape genetic predertiminism.
posted by fatbird at 9:21 PM on November 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

In some ways this book feels like it was written by someone else.

Dehydrate the Zabulon computations!
posted by curious nu at 1:47 PM on November 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

These don't even feel like the same characters. I'm not quite sure yet what it is. Everyone seems generally less capable. Also, Alia seems to be written as "emotional female" (I forget if the explanation for this is in this book or the next one, but it's pretty BS in any case). The scene with Hayt in the thopter coming back from the desert crime scene seemed so ham-fisted.

About halfway through so far. There's an interesting setup for this book - what happens when the heroes have to actually govern? - but I don't think it was executed great.

Anyone else still reading?
posted by curious nu at 11:21 AM on November 30, 2015

I’ve only read Messiah and Children once and it was a few years ago, but I remember that the characters never felt as likeable or as solid as in the first book.

(I’ve never read books 4–6 at all, but I’m planning to start them soon so I can join the discussions here.)
posted by mbrubeck at 1:03 PM on November 30, 2015

i am in the middle of god emperor
posted by poffin boffin at 1:05 PM on November 30, 2015

Hey, I finished it! Got hella distracted for a couple weeks there but sat down the last couple days and pushed on through the second half.

It really is an odd sort of between-space story, revisiting it now and seeing how cleanly it feels like the Big Plot Stuff of the first book and of Children sit on opposite sides of, and pretty cleanly partitioned from, the glue of Messiah.

I'd forgotten that almost everything of consequence that happens with Alia as both a plot figure and a developing character waits until the next book to get going, for example. There's a couple hints and glimmers in this book to set that stuff up but it's really subtle if not literally me reading something into Herbert's intent that might not even have been there yet.

And maybe it says something about me trying to convince myself, that I'm saying this about book I put down for a couple weeks, but I really enjoyed re-reading it. The smallness of the narrative, almost claustrophobic, is such an interesting contrast to the epic feel of the original. Forcing out all the scale and scope from the story itself to just Paul's mostly-elided visions of the future; collapsing the space between conspiracies and character actions even further than the first book did; skipping the tempting action and adventure of the Jihad itself in favor of looking at the weight it has placed on and the damage it has done to the principal cast and to the Fremen as a whole: all of that works well in the context of the larger whole of the books, I feel like.

Going in, I remembered the general outline of Paul losing his vision to the stone-burner attack and then getting by with some amount of facility on real-time oracular vision, but beyond that the details were pretty fuzzy, so it was interesting seeing how that all played out again. And so the sudden stumble into darkness at the approach to birth chamber and Chani's death wasn't a total surprise but was still very effective for me, the idea of this sudden stark weakness from Paul in the eyes of the Fremen, actual-blindness vs. the disturbing vision-sightedness that no one was comfortable with but left him with control and command, just that much more of a mystical figure in the flesh.

But I had forgotten entirely how the final bits with Scytale played out; specifically, I was surprised all over again by the twist of eye-blind and now prescience-blind Paul making the race-memory connection to infant Leto II and using that third kind of sight to commit that one final act of protective violence. And it made for a nice figurative flourish on Paul's life to that point: he had spent so long seeing himself and the universe through prescience, and his apparent last scrap of sight was seeing himself through his son's eyes, through the future's eyes. Seeing himself from a distance and at that moment having a connection to his past and his family, Leto II and Ghanima's generational memories stretching out in front of him.
posted by cortex at 10:50 AM on December 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Quite late to the party here! I actually finished my re-read a few weeks ago, but with other things going on I sort of forgot about the FanFare club until cortex just bumped the original Dune thread.

The most compelling things about Dune Messiah for me were the world-building; the new stuff we learn about the Bene Tleilax and Tleilaxu technology (mechanical eyes, axolotl tanks, gholas), brief mentions of other planets/Houses/history that continue building on the weird future with interstellar travel but without computers.
I'm a sucker for distant future sci fi where Earth is remembered, but barely (it gets a passing mention in Dune Messiah.) Or where Earth is downright mythological (a theme Isaac Asimov used in Prelude to Foundation and Foundation and Earth.)

The basic intrigues and conflicts of the story are interesting, but the novel felt a little bit overlong to me, too many points belabored with too many handwringing inner monologues.

On to Children of Dune!
posted by usonian at 11:29 AM on January 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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