Doom foretold

mars2
Mars, showing one of the polar caps: NASA image via http://internetlooks.com/mars03.gif

Frank Herbert Dune Messiah
New English Library 1972 (1969)

Talk, think, talk, think, talk;
conspiracies in deep space
while billions die.

I must confess my heart sank when I began reading this, the sequel to Dune, to find it seemed to be not just more of the same mind games played between key characters that its predecessor relied on but also relatively devoid of action of any kind. There was the usual psychological power play conversations indulged in by powerful individuals who were either human computers, psychics, drug users with heightened prescient awareness, shapeshifters or revenants, in fact nary an ordinary human being among the lot of them. How would it be possible for the reader to make an empathic connection with beings who are palpably superhuman?

And yet it didn’t take long for me to be sucked into this Machiavellian and claustrophobic world of bluff and counter-bluff, political machination and character assassination. It is all patent nonsense, of course, but even though the individuals involved, from Paul Atreides the galactic Emperor to Bijaz the dwarf with a memory like blotting paper, are rarely if ever attractive personalities I found myself increasingly intrigued by how the shifting allegiances and startling revelations would allow the plot to be satisfactorily solved by the final pages. And, despite the twisted logic, it is indeed resolved in a rather satisfying way.

As befits a Dune novel — set on an arid Mars-like planet — there is a lot of cod philosophising and mystical pretentiousness. The eco message of the first novel has been replaced by occasional meditations on the morality of near-absolute power combined with jihadism which I feel is inadequately addressed except in a very oblique way: for example, what morality is there in the acquiescing in the deaths of billions of beings on other worlds, and how does that impact on our sympathy with the apparently well-meaning elite who presided over it?

I’m also not persuaded by the pseudo-scientific and technological attributes of this universe; and I regard the Dune novels as really fantasy which happen to be placed in a science-fiction setting. Still, Herbert’s attempts to create a plausible apparatus for his future scenario are largely consistent within its parameters (the literary quotations heading each chapter, the historical legacy emanating from the Earth of millennia ago which allows the incongruous mix of once competing religions and beliefs on worlds unaware of and uninterested in their original context, and so on).

Central to Herbert’s plot is the concept of prescience which, combined with genetic predisposition, is bound up with the use of the ‘spice’ melange (in truth an addictive drug). This is clearly a product of ideas prevalent in the sixties, and must have been, as much as it remains now, a laughable proposition to most readers. Providing the reader accepts this premise (and it is a big proviso) Dune Messiah ends up an optimistic tale despite its knowing atmosphere of Oresteian doom — I say knowing because, of course, Paul Atreides takes his family name of the house of Atreus, that ill-fated clan in Greek legend whose involvement in the Trojan War and its aftermath is the literal stuff of tragedy.

Revised and expanded version of review originally published in June 2012

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