I suppose I should sum up right at the beginning. Both Frank Herbert and I should have left well-enough alone: he in the writing, and me in the reading. I had been told that none of Dune‘s sequels was cut from anything resembling the same quality of cloth, and Dune Messiah proved the point.
Famously, Miles Davis asked John Coltrane why he soloed for so long. Coltrane responded that he didn’t know how to stop. Miles then said, “take the horn out of your mouth.” I side in that discussion with Coltrane, but Miles, had he been speaking with Frank Herbert, would have been right on point. Put down the pen. If nothing else, Dune Messiah is a cautionary tale about the dangers of continued writing after a story is over.
A few points about Dune itself. It straddled a lot of lines politically, and this allowed some appeal. Paul Atreides, led the Fremen, an occupied, indigenous underclass on its own planet, Arrakis, to not only power but to conquest of other planets. Written in the 1960’s, Dune benefited from the broader historical context of the anti-imperialist struggle. One sympathized with the Fremen, who were the good guys. Herbert, as I noted in my first piece, focused on Paul–we might call him “Lawrence of Arrakis”–for reasons I wasn’t entirely sure of. Was it a plot device or did Herbert see natives as historically passive? We find out in Dune Messiah that, indeed, natives are historically passive. No surprise here, but certainly disappointment.
The bulk of the struggle in the book, if not necessarily the plot, is Paul’s regret over his role in history. He unleashed a Fremen jihad, leading to the deaths of billions, and can do nothing to stop it. Poor boy gets all weepy half the time in his imperial helplessness. We now get Herbert’s take on liberation movements: aren’t they all just bloody messes in the end? This is how liberals justify the maintenance of a bloody, but normalized, status quo. Oh, but if we changed things, people might get hurt. I don’t suggest that bloodshed should be taken lightly, but this line of thought is precisely the kind of thing that Gramsci was dealing with when he looked at liberals’ role in capitalist hegemony.
Much is made, largely through the character of Alia, Paul’s sister, of the cultishness of the Fremen. Paul detests what he takes to be their naive superstition. One can take this position if one wants, and we can agree or disagree–I myself have had enough experience in meditation to no longer doubt the possibility of basically any religious sentiment or experience. The problem here is that Paul detests this superstition, or religiosity, while getting filthy rich off it. Paul, seen through the lens of his personal morality and its revulsion at bloodshed, is sympathetic. Seen through the lens of his class position, he is, at best, an ass.
I have been told not to bother with the other books in the series. An AA buddy told me that, in fact, they get progressively more inane. I accept his advice. Let it be known though, that Herbert did, in fact, write one great novel. That’s an achievement.