Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Frank Herbert defined science-fiction epics for the entirety of the foreseeable future with his timeless Dune Series, a pioneering and defining work of the genre. In the second novel, titled Dune Messiah, we continue on with the story of Paul Atreides, now christened as Muad’Dib, and Emperor of the known universe. However, such power is always an object of his desire, and there are plenty of those who want it for themselves.
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Frank Herbert Threatens House Atreides
Epic sci-fi is a genre which has never ceased to capture our imagination, as evidenced by all the books and movies aiming to make use of the vast and relatively blank canvas which is the cosmos. Personally-speaking though, I do think the genre is reaching a bit of a stagnation, where new works are increasingly inclined to fall into tropes, cliches and pre-established ideas, offering less originality.
When it comes to the great classics of the genre, I find they never disappoint no matter how many times one might read them, and the Dune Series by Frank Herbert most definitely belongs to this category. Today we’re going to take a look at Dune Messiah, the second book in the Dune Series, picking up right where the first one left off.
As a note before we begin, I do recommend you read the first novel before going into this one. It’s a very real epic telling a single coherent story over six novels, and needless to say, dropping in anywhere but the start will make things confusing.
In any case, the story has us following Paul Atreides, now christened and known across the galaxy as the powerful and revered Muad’Dib. What’s more, he is Emperor of the entirety of the known universe, making him the single most powerful man in existence, even a religious icon to some.
However, such a vast amount of power doesn’t come without its fair share of detractors and plotters wanting to steal it. Paul finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy as he has to face the many political houses whose interests he damaged when he assumed the throne.
Soon, House Atreides finds itself under siege by enemies from all directions, ready to put their countless machinations to the test against the most powerful being in the universe. What’s more, Paul sees his dynasty come under threat, as his lover Chani and their unborn child are caught in the midst of this devastating political hurricane.
The Isolated God of Dune Messiah
When we generally think of sequels in large epic series, we assume they are going to follow the logical progression of events we expect from them, and continue on in a mostly uniform spirit from start to finish. When it comes to Dune Messiah, however, it feels like Herbert flipped the script on its head, and in all the best ways possible.
To begin with, our protagonist Paul, meant to be the most powerful man in the universe, is progressively realizing how powerless he really is in the face of all his enemies. Whereas before we saw him portrayed as the heroic messiah to lead humanity into a new dawn, now he feels like more of a false idol for whom nothing goes as planned.
Some lies are easier to believe than the truth.― Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah
There is a pretty great emphasis placed on exploring Paul’s role as a deity to his countless worshipers, and in my opinion this was one of the more interesting aspects of this story. Despite all his powers and wisdom, we are shown the kind of heavy toll this deification takes on both Paul and his sister Alia, because after all is said and done, they are human beings after all.
I think we seldom stop to think of the challenges, struggles and dangers immense power can bring alongside itself, and the humanization of Paul’s character helps drive home the idea of there being such a thing as too much power for a single person.
It’s a very different take and perspective on Paul from what we’ve seen in the first novel, and it adds a good deal of depth to his character, showing what looked like the pinnacle of his adventure was really only the beginning of his understanding of the universe.
The Whirlwind of Galactic Conspiracy
As much as the Dune Series focuses on interesting ideas and thought-provoking philosophies, it never slacks off when it comes to making a captivating plot. In my opinion, the action moves along rather quickly for the type of story we are told, with every moment being of the exact appropriate length it needs to.
Paul and House Atreides in general are pretty much constantly under siege from all directions by all sorts of people, some out in the open, others working from the shadows. The more we see of the complex politics working behind Paul’s back, the less we become certain of who we can trust, of who is friend or foe.
If you need something to worship, then worship life – all life, every last crawling bit of it! We’re all in this beauty together!― Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah
While there were a couple of moments where I had to stop and process the entirety of the situation, I think Herbert did a fantastic job in presenting complex intergalactic politics in a very digestible and understandable manner. Perhaps as expected to a certain extent, humans remain themselves at their core whether on Earth or in space, and it’s interesting to see how their politics mirror those of our real world.
The big conspiracy surrounding Paul and the grand coup are quite compelling to unravel, especially since from the very start we lose any certainty in our ability to predict how things will unfold. With how dramatic of a fall House Atreides has been experiencing, it’s not out of the question Paul might find a wholly new low point in his life.
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The many characters, part of the conspiracy in one way or another, also add quite a bit of charm and layers to the setting, more often than not having more depth than meets the eye. Their roles as heroes and villains feel less-accurately defined than in the first novel, and I think this works to the story’s advantage, further reinforcing the idea we can’t know who or what to trust at any given moment.
The Final Verdict
Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert is about as great of a sequel as we could have asked for in the Dune Series. It takes the events into new and unexpected directions, builds and adds on to the themes and ideas of the first novel, and has many things to teach the reader about the nature of humanity. If you enjoyed the first book, you have every reason to pick this one up and continue the adventure.
(October 8, 1920 – February 11, 1986)
Frank Herbert was an American author who primarily wrote in the science-fiction genre, with the 1965 novel Dune and its five sequels being considered as his magnum opus.
He also worked as a newspaper journalist, a photographer, book reviewer, lecturer and ecological consultant. In addition to being made into two movies, Dune also won the 1965 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 1966 Hugo Award.