I really liked Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune when I first read it a few months ago –so much so that I named it one of the best books I read that year. But upon finally getting around to the sequel, Dune Messiah I’m pretty disappointed. It’s really boring.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see some of the impressive literary clockwork that Herbert assembles in the book. Where Dune told the story of Paul Muad’Dib’s rise to the Emperor, controller of the universe’s only source of the coveted super spice “melange,” and general badass dude, Messiah tells the story of his downfall. It also follows through on one of the more interesting concepts introduced in the first book: Paul’s spice-induced ability to foresee the eventual species-wide extinction of humans and the hard choices he has to make in order to steer history towards a lesser evil. Indeed, Messiah fast forwards to a point where Paul’s fanatic followers have propagated a holy war that has destroyed entire planets and left over 60 billion people dead in just a few years. By those measures, Paul is the worst monster history has ever created, yet he has to bear the mostly private burden of knowing that he’s killing all those people to save the race as a whole while simultaneously trying to outmaneuver his political opponents and crafty assassins. Angst!
The problem I have with Messiah is that it suffers acutely from a kind of talking head syndrome. It’s not until the back sixth or so of the book that anything interesting happens. Dune had sword fights, skirmishes, Paul and his mother tromping around the deadly desert of Arakis meeting and learning about the Fremen, and all other kinds of adventures. Messiah devotes literally dozens of pages at a time to sitting in a room listening to conspirators talk to each other. And then talking about what the talking means. And then thinking about what the talking about the talking means. It’s terrible and jarring to see how Herbert has switched gears so abruptly from fascinating adventure and world building to stark exposition and naval gazing.
Not that some of the ideas aren’t interesting. The way that Paul must grapple with his precognition and how he has to grasp at things to try and leave humanity on the path to survival in the wake of his inevitable fall is a complex and fascinating idea, for one. And I liked the idea of how his strengths are the things that ultimately do him in –sometimes literally. It’s just that I wish Herbert had found ways to make this story less tedious in its execution.
Is the third book any better? I’m on the fence at this point.