Tuesday, 10 November 1998

Frank Herbert: Dune Messiah (1969)

Dune Messiah coverEdition: New English Library, 1980
Review number: 162

The second book in Herbert's Dune series is a bit of a disappointment. Dune itself is a major classic of the science fiction genre, and succeeds admirably with its portrayal of a galaxy full of political and religious manipulation, complicated rules and conventions, Byzantine plots and schemes. But Frank Herbert never managed to repeat its success (in the literary, rather than the sales sense); the closest he came was in a completely unrelated novel, The Dosadi Experiment.

Dune Messiah is set several years after the end of Dune. Paul has unleashed his followers in the holy war he worked to avoid; he has conquered the old empire and extended its frontiers to rule over more of the human race than anyone has done before. Yet without an heir, all this will mean nothing. The powerful forces of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the Tleilaxu technocrats, and the Guild (who control space travel) have united to ensure they have control of a yet-to-be born heir; and they seek a long minority through a plot against the emperor himself.The problem Herbert has is to recover the atmosphere of Dune, one of that novel's major strong points. It was there created with a huge mesh of carefully worked out and deliberately unexplained allusions, with events and objects referred to in passing as though the reader was supposed to know all about them. In the far shorter Dune Messiah, this technique couldn't work as well, though it is attempted. The subtlety is lost, and you end up picking up jarring ideas about how well things could work in this universe, and this immediately shatters the atmosphere. That the first scene is particularly weak in this respect - the language that is used between the participants in the discussion cannot really support the analysis that they make of it - is perhaps the root of the problem, as it throws the suspension of disbelief off course for the whole of the novel.

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