Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert

This week I'm reviewing Dune Messiah which is the second in the incredibly expansive Dune series. At least the second in order of publication. Like many long-running series there are now prequels and sequels galore so it's kind of confusing. So in my own way I'm attacking it in the manner that I feel best. The thing that surprised me the most was this book was actually significantly shorter than Dune, coming in around the three hundred page mark, opposed to Dune's six hundred pages. The result is this story feels rather abbreviated, especially when it's taking place and expanding upon the fairly detailed world of the Dune series.

 Dune Messiah is set roughly twelve years after the end of Dune. Paul Atrides is on the throne as emperor of the galaxy and his Freman legions are conquering the galaxy under the banners of jihad. However already the top tiers of Freman society are becoming fat and complacent with the spoils of victory that conquest has brough them, and more worryingly the edges are beginning to fray around Paul's empire. Most importantly, though, there is a plot among the Spacer Guild, the Bene Gesserit, and Bene Tleilax to overthrow Paul and reestablish the old order. This book starts off promising with a lot of really good plot threads that could be interesting stories, but I felt like they were ultimately squandered within the book and not capitalized properly.

The biggest thing that I noticed, and it may just be because I was listening to it rather than listening, is this book spends a lot of time navel-gazing. Well, that's me putting it charitably. I could call it something else but we'll leave it at that for the post. There's a lot of pseudo-philosophy on religion and politics and prophecy and the interplay between those forces and how they affect everything, but the result is we don't really get to see how it's affecting the empire. We're told it's happening, but wTe don't really see it. That was kind of a problem with Dune as well, despite its verbosity, it spends a lot of time telling us about things rather than showing them to us. I'll admit it can be a challenge when you're doing world-building, but we spend a lot of time watching people sit around in meetings talking about or reminiscing about things that have happened rather than watching them actually do those things they're talking about. It just adds onto the feeling we're spending time contemplating our navels rather than determining the fate of a galaxy-spanning empire.

There also isn't a lot of dramatic tension in the book either, despite there being a plot to topple or otherwise eliminate Paul from a position of power. It's made explicit from the start of the book that Paul is capable of seeing the future, which makes acting against him directly difficult. The plotters therefore utilize other oracles, such as Guild Navigators, to provide a shield against Paul's visions. Basically Paul can't see other oracles in his own visions, or actions involving oracles. Except even with this blind spot Paul sees through their plots very easily and makes rapid moves to neutralize the threats while trying to figure out the best path to create the optimal future. There's just no real tension because we know Paul's going to get his way in the end, even if he himself dies. The use of historians analyzing the story as a framing device just really cuts down on the dramatic tension and makes it less interesting as a story.

Ultimately, the world of Dune is very rich and complex and interesting, and you could easily craft very interesting stories about the different powers within the universe and how they're interacting in their quest for dominance. To an extent Dune Messiah tries to do that, but I can't say it does it terribly well. Instead of being shown things happening, we're told things are happening instead. Instead of political intrigue and massive battles on distant worlds, we're told about these things second hand. The philosophizing doesn't really help and just adds to the fact that we're sort of sitting around passively with the characters while tons of action is occurring elsewhere. I'm hoping the series gets better, but I'll just have to see.

- Kalpar

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