The Better Sequel — Dune Messiah or Paul of Dune?

With the release of the Dune trailer, I’m rereading the classic series along with some of the volumes written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. For twenty years I’ve spurned these sequels, prequels, and midquels, holding fast to the wisdom that sons trying to carry on their fathers’ literary torches are bound to disappoint. Especially when cranked out in obscene quantity: there are thirteen of these novels, and their reputation is shaky to say the least. But I was determined to try some, and Paul of Dune was a priority. Some critics call it the sequel that Dune deserved in the first place, rather than Dune Messiah; I was skeptical of this claim but now agree with it. Having read Dune–>Paul of Dune–>Dune Messiah in my marathon, I will now review the latter two and explain why Paul of Dune is the better sequel.

[Note: Paul of Dune starts one year after Dune and covers the six-year period of 10194-10199, the first half of the jihad. Dune Messiah starts twelve years after Dune, and covers the two-year period of 10206-10207, as the jihad is winding down. I’m going to review Dune Messiah first, however, since it holds primacy of place in the canon.]

Dune Messiah: 2 ½ stars out of 5

Dune was an impossible act to follow, even for a genius like Frank Herbert. When you write the best sci-fic novel of all time (it remains so after 55 years), you don’t do yourself any great favors. Dune had everything — family drama, political intrigue, wilderness survival, action, introspection — and never for a split-second cheated the reader. Dune Messiah has little of any of that. Instead it has shitloads of sulking, as Paul drowns in the self-pity of his messianic woes. The plot is sketchy, revolving around a conspiracy against this Emo-Paul; the conspirators range from the half-competent to the ineffectual, and succeed mostly in scoring philosophical zingers against each other that the reader can’t make sense of. Messiah is essentially a chamber piece that reads like an interlude between Dune and Children of Dune, showing how Paul’s reign fizzles out before his son Leto’s will begin. This could have worked fine, with a little more story and a lot less gas, but Herbert evidently wanted to write a sequel that was different from Dune in every single way, even to the point of ditching the essentials of narration itself.

Herbert’s goal was admirable: Dune Messiah demystifies Muad’Dib and shows that in becoming a god, Paul Atreides became a captive of his own command — powerless to stop the jihad that devastated the universe. All fine and well. The Dune series, after all, is about the self-defeating nature of charismatics and messiahs. The problem is that Paul’s demystification is presented in a navel-gazing cloud without any real conflict (aside from the conspiracy-plot and a few family quarrels). There is the return of Duncan Idaho — resurrected as a ghola named Hayt — but since Hayt admits upfront to Paul that he was sent to destroy him, the suspense over this point is muted.

That leaves the suspense to be carried on Paul’s inner torments. Normally I love this sort of thing. Thomas Covenant is my favorite anti-hero; he’s the most depressing and self-loathing savior you can find in a work of fantasy. But he gets epic stories that rise above misery porn. Dune Messiah has nowhere to rise because it hardly goes anywhere. Add to this that its characters — the dwarf Bijaz, the ghola Hayt, and others — speak in an abundance of riddles and paradoxes that seem designed purely to bamboozle the reader. Portentous dialogue stretches on for pages, and it’s too abstruse to feel like anything of substance is being discussed. Many readers will feel used, if not abused, that a brilliant writer like Herbert has exploited his talents to serve up nonsense that only sounds philosophically impressive.

The best part is when Paul goes out in disguise among the people of Arrakeen, deliberately walking into a trap, knowing what will happen to him thanks to his prescient visions. Sure enough, the stone-burner bomb goes off, dissolving his eye tissue and rendering him blind. But he can still see, due to his prescience as the Kwisatch Haderach, and this throws his Fremen followers into disarray, since it is their unyielding custom to leave the blind to die in the desert. Strong scenes unfold: Paul’s command that Tleilaxu eyes be shipped by the government for every citizen blinded by the bomb; Korba’s trial before the Fremen naibs; Duncan/Hayt and Alia dancing around their lust for each other. This all comes in the last third of the novel, and it helps redeem the novel from being a total dud.

What we never get in Dune Messiah is the intricate world-building of the other five classic novels — Dune, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Dune Chapterhouse. After the magisterial canvass of Dune in particular, that’s quite a come-down. We don’t see the devastating impact of the jihad on other worlds; everything is set on the god-capital of Arrakis, mostly inside Paul’s city-temple. We’re left in the dark about the mysterious Bene Tleilax, how they resurrect people (like Duncan Idaho), create Face Dancers, and how they bred their own Kwisatz Haderach (like Paul) who failed. These are far more interesting questions than pretentious riddles. Thankfully they’re answered in Paul of Dune.

Before turning to that better sequel, however, I should acknowledge the power of the closing chapter in which Paul walks off into the desert to die. His last words reverberate in the ears of the Fremen: “Now I am free.” For Duncan Idaho the words have added resonance, since his ghola body has just been liberated from Tleilaxu control. A stage is being set for a new dynasty, and there’s something genuinely heartbreaking in Paul’s realization that the future no longer needs his physical presence. It’s the messiah’s fate to be rendered insignificant by the religion he calls into existence. I just wish the tragic ending could have paid off an epic worthy of a Dune sequel.

Paul of Dune: 4 stars out of 5

My low expectations for this book paid off, but frankly I would have been impressed with even modest ones. Though not as literary as any of Herbert’s books, Paul of Dune is certainly well written, despite the naysayers’ objections. It’s the sequel we all deserve, picking up the year after Dune ends and throwing us into Paul’s holy war.

We’re treated to characters who are offstage in Dune Messiah: Lady Jessica, Gurney Halleck, the deposed emperor Shaddam IV, and the key players Count Fenring, his wife Margot, and their vicious baby daughter Marie who proves to be a match for Paul’s sister Alia. We see Dune Messiah‘s Korba, chief priest of the Qizarate, in the early days of the Qizarate before he betrayed Paul. Controversially, we get Princess Irulan penning Muad’Dib’s biography as a propaganda piece: The Life of Muad’Dib, Volume 1, is understood to be the equivalent of the novel Dune, and contains hyperboles and outright lies, which in effect retcons Herbert’s series. While this has pissed off many fans, I find it amusing and in line with Herbert’s purpose: messiahs are not only dangerous, they leave legends in their wake that can’t be entirely trusted.

I was glad to see Gurney Halleck return to his home world of Giedi Prime. After four years of commanding fanatical Fremen across the galaxy — and wanting to murder most of them for their barbarisms — he is finally relieved from jihad duty by Paul and sent to reform the oppressive Harkonnen cesspool. Readers of Dune will recall that Gurney was tortured in slave pits as a young man on Giedi Prime, while his sister was made into a whore in a torture bordello, and then eventually raped and strangled in front of Gurney. Gurney’s first act upon arrival is to shut down the slave pits, and then to seek out the “pleasure” houses, whereupon he commands that the proprietor (the very same who oversaw his sister’s torments) be garroted in public:

The administrators remained silent. The proprietor squawked, began to argue, and Gurney pointed a finger at him: “Be thankful that I do not first command a hundred soldiers to sodomize you — some of them with spiked clubs. But even though that is what you deserve, I am not a Harkonnen. Your death will be swift enough.”

With the barbarisms of the jihad still fresh in his mind, Gurney aims for less severe methods to punish as he governs. He refuses to emulate the religious rule of the Fremen, though they obviously have Paul’s approval, and it’s hard not to see an implied critique of Islamic law (Fremen religion is an amalgam of many historic religions, but mostly Sunni Islam) in our real world. Back on Arrakis Princess Irulan levels her own critique, as she lambastes Paul for his warrior-based religion that has replaced democracy and freedom:

“I see no advantage in what you are creating: a fanatically united populace under a charismatic leader, following dogma instead of a bill of rights. You have thrown out the complex — and yes, inefficient — bureaucracy of the Landsraad. But you cannot replace it with anarchy. We need a safety net of laws and procedures, a uniform code by which decisions on all planets are made. And yet, you seek to do away with everything that preceded you.”

Paul Muad’Dib nonetheless holds his ground. He isn’t the Emo-Paul of Dune Messiah, drowning in self-pity. He’s an emperor who by god acts like one, and mans up to the vile shit he must endorse and keep carrying out for the “greater good”. At one point he even disguises himself as a common Fremen and goes off to a distant planet to fight in the jihad alongside his fanatical followers. Paul has doubts and misgivings, to be sure, just like in Dune, but he isn’t paralyzed by them. There are many passages in Paul of Dune which echo his prescient visions seen in the first novel, such as the following:

Only he, Paul Muad’Dib, could see the whirlwind, and the far worse fate that awaited the human race if his jihad failed. As he forged ahead into the future, he saw hazards in every direction, death and pain on every side. He only knew that somewhere beyond this jihad, perhaps many generations later, lay a safe harbor. He still believed he could guide humankind along the correct, narrow path. He had to believe it. For those who could not see the large and subtle tapestry of fate, however, this battle was a slaughter of helpless civilians.

The “correct narrow path”, of course, foreshadows the Golden Path revealed to Paul’s son Leto in the later books — Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, etc. The Golden Path is basically the plan for humanity’s long term survival. As God Emperor, Leto will keep humanity bottled up for centuries under his oppressive rule, so that once people finally break free they will scatter throughout the universe and become more diverse and stronger than ever before. In other words, the Golden Path will instill in humanity a genetic and cultural hatred of oppressive rulers, so as to ensure that humanity will never suffer under tyrants (like Paul and Leto) ever again. But for now, all Paul knows is that his jihad and barbaric rule is the best of bad alternatives, “a flurry compared with the titanic upheavals that lay ahead in the path of human destiny, upheavals that would be far more deadly if the jihad failed now”.

And while Paul contends with the ugly impact of his jihad, old enemies put plans into motion to reclaim his throne: the deposed Shaddam IV, for one, and Shaddam’s old ally and assassin Hasimir Fenring. It’s Fenring who ends up being the chief antagonist of Paul of Dune, and I enjoyed how he ditches his ex-boss Shaddam (whom he disdains as a twit) to pursue his own nefarious plot against Paul: he and his wife Margot plan to steal the throne for their baby daughter Marie, who is a product of the Bene Gesserit breeding program. On top of this is a bizarre side-plot alluded to in Dune Messiah: the defective Kwisatch Haderach created by the Bene Tleilax, named Thallo. Thallo becomes friends with the young Marie, and they shape up to become a deadly duo before Thallo goes insane and tries killing everyone around him. (Little Marie puts him out of his misery with her Bene Gesserit skills.)

Paul of Dune was clearly written by fans who love the first novel and wanted a proper sequel; it wasn’t cranked out to milk the cash cow. I’m looking forward to reading more of the Herbert/Anderson books, especially the Butlerian Jihad prequels. Those look promising.

One thought on “The Better Sequel — Dune Messiah or Paul of Dune?

  1. I just finished Dune Messiah and I agree 100% with what you wrote. For such a short a short novel it sure was a chore to read. Now I’m looking forward to Paul of Dune!

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