Twelve years (at least) had passed since Paul Muad'Dib had taken the throne of the Imperium at the end of Dune and in that short time the Jihad had been successful. However, the influence of the Muad'Dib cult grew strong of its own accord, and he was unable to stop it. Furthermore, his decisions were responsible for the deaths of billions. Alia also had a cult following, she was high priestess at her temple, where she periodically appeared to pilgrims, performed the Reverend Mother change of the poison from the drowned little maker, and spoke of the prescience she saw.
Opposition from the political powers that Paul had stymied—as the Emperor, the kiswatz haderach who could see the lines of the future, and also a mentat he was a formidable opponent—had coalesced. It composed primarily of the Reverend Mother Mohiam (Lady Jessica’s teacher), a Tleilaxu Face Dancer (who can change their physical appearance), and a starship Guild Steersman (whose prescience would shroud the conspiracy from Paul’s view). Paul’s wife-in-name, Princess Irulan joined, having failed at the seductive role she had been trained to do, because she wanted to father an imperial dynasty. Korba, a priest of the Qizarate that forced godhood onto Paul and carried out his orders, provided a sandworm to the conspirators so that they could try to make spice themselves and be free of the constraints of Arrakis.
While the conspiracy progressed, Paul was trying to find a way out of the violent future he seemed locked into. People want stability and order; his prescience offered that to them, and fulfilled the prophecies that the Bene Gesserit had seeded throughout the galaxy. So the people wanted a religious government, but a religious government ensured violence because there was only one voice. Paul searched through through the avenues of time looking for a way to step off the vision that forced him to betray the Atreides values with violence and more violence. As the conspirators wove their plot, he found a possible way out, but it was painful, and he would lose everything.
A Fremen girl addicted to semuta (which was odd, since Fremen are not usually addicted) was found dead in the desert. The Face Dancer took on her form and came to ask a favor of Muad'Dib as a distant relation. Paul’s Bene Gesserit training told him that a Face Dancer was imitating the girl, but he decided to keep his enemies close, and granted her request. Chani, who had been fed secretly with a contraceptive by Irulan, had switch to a Fremen diet and had conceived twins, who, the doctor said, were developing uncommonly rapidly. Irulan had been rebuffed by Paul, who refused to give her children, or even sleep with her—she was his wife only because she was his key to the throne. (One need not feel sorry for Irulan, she was trained by the Bene Gesserit to seduce her way into manipulating the bloodlines, she just did not succeed.) Paul’s vision involved the death of Chani, so he summoned the Reverend Mother Mohiam and attempted to bargain for Chani’s life.
The Tleilaxu had found Duncan Idaho’s body shortly after his death, and had created a Zensunni/mentat ghola with it, with the intent of destroying Paul. The Guild Steersman offered it too him as a gift, which he accepted out of love for Duncan Idaho, even though the ghola told him frankly that he was designed to destroy Paul. Alia was of the age where she wanted to be appreciated in her femininity, so the conspirators had made the ghola a masculine attraction for her as well (Duncan Idaho having been a womanizer in his life). The Tleilaxu manipulated genes, and they had created a kwisatz haderach themselves, but it was uncontrollable. They defeated it with the principle that a man who has spent his entire life being one thing will kill himself rather than become the opposite. The Tleilaxu secretly hoped that when Paul killed himself, they would make a ghola of him—a controllable kwisatz haderach.
Paul was informed about a messenger implanted with details of people who conspired against him. Guided by the visions (and dismissing his confidante Stilgar’s warnings), he met the informant in the crowd watching his sister Alia prophesy for people in the crowd. It seemed to him that she had some sense of the future-path he was taking. The messenger was a dwarf at a poor Fremen house in a dead end of the capitol city, and had a penchant for speaking the blunt truth twisted in a sort of riddle. After exiting the dwelling, a stone-burner went off—an atomic weapon which burned out the eyes of people nearby while it attempted to burn down to the core of the planet and rupture it. Paul and the people around him became blind. He promised them all Tleilaxu metal eyes, although he refused them himself.
Fremen law required that a blind person walk off into the desert, but despite not having eyes, Paul was not blind. As he followed the vision, he saw the present with enough clarity to see people’s clothes, hand gestures, and even expressions. This really unnerved people, even Chani. He showed off this power at the trial for Korba, who had arranged for a sandworm to be taken off-planet. Paul made arrangements to take Chani out to the sietch in the desert for their children (and heirs!) to be born.
And now the means of the conspiracy becomes clear to the reader. The Duncan Idaho ghola came to question the dwarf, but the dwarf had been made from the same batch as the ghola, and his purpose was to control the ghola. He implanted a compulsion to kill Paul when the trigger words “she is dead” were said. And we know that the only path that holds the possibility for Paul to step off the path involves Chani’s death. We also see that Alia loved the ghola, and she had the prescience that she would conceive in the future, who would also be self-aware as an embryo. Chani did not like the ghola, and could not understand why Paul kept him. So one time he questioned the ghola about his past in front of her. It made him uncomfortable, but eventually his face and voice showed his humanity, before it was shoved back down.
At the sietch, Paul had invited the Reverend Mother, the Face Dancer, Irulan, and the dwarf to stay with them. The ghola was part of Paul’s retinue, so he also came. With the birth came, Paul stood outside in the desert night. Chani did not look well, and it made the ghola very nervous. He attempted to warn Paul, who brushed it off. Then the news, as Paul expected and waited for, came. Duncan Idaho’s compulsion became unbearable, and he told Paul to run; Paul refused and said they would do what needed to be done. This reminded the Duncan Idaho deep down of his master in life, Paul’s father, and he remembered that his purpose in life was to serve the Atreides. And so the Duncan Idaho reinhabited his body, and did not kill Paul, just as Paul had anticipated.
Now however, Paul was essentially blind. The midwife, Harah, took him to the room. There were two children, a boy and a girl. The Face Dancer, still in the form of the Fremen girl, held a knife to the children and negotiated to make Chani a ghola, which now was known to be able to be revert back to the original personality if it was forced into a situation of disobeying its core values. Paul had Alia negotiate, and unexpectedly, he saw the room from a different perspective. The Reverend Mothers were able to touch each other’s consciousness, and his male child did it with him, giving him his eyes to see with. He noted where the Face Dancer was, used his Bene Gesserit training to carefully prepare a knife stroke, and then unexpectedly killed the Face Dancer. The dwarf came in to negotiate (also excited that he could get all his past lives back), and Paul blind again because the child was not strong enough to hold the connection, told Duncan to kill the dwarf. The temptation to have Chani back would be too much. With that, Paul felt his connection to the visions disconnect and he was now free. During the night Paul fulfilled Fremen law, and walked out into the desert.
The next day Duncan Idaho, the mentat, realized what Paul had done. Stilgar had killed the Reverend Mother (as Paul had expected him to do when he ordered him not to), and the Guild Steersman. The Tleilaxu were dead, since a the threat of resurrecting one’s beloved would constrain both Paul and Chani to the path. Princess Irulan, to Alia’s great frustration, had genuinely flipped around, and she was wailing in sorrow for Paul, and promising to raise his children. “She reeks of truthfulness”, Alia told Duncan. This had severed any remaining lever that the Bene Gesserit had over her. Paul had rid himself of the levers people had over him and his family. As Alia said, he had but to step off the path and stay with his beloved, but for the sake of humanity and the violence that would cause, he kept to the path. And now, he was free.
Dune Messiah does not have the elegance of the first book. For one thing, we hear too much of the character’s inner dialog, and it is too banal. In Dune, we infer how characters feel about other characters by their reactions and what they say to other characters. (Lady Jessica is an exception, but she tends to think in analysis, as if she were speaking out loud, so it works out.) This actually paints a much richer picture: we do not know what powers cause people to consistently refer to a Bene Gessert as “that Bene Gesserit witch”, but the fact that they consistently do paints a richer picture than something like “he had that subtle unease that a Bene Gesserit in the room always provoked in him”. Here there is none of that subtle references that so effectively build culture and character in the original.
Furthermore, all the culture is similarly concrete, but kind of arbitrary. For one thing, Dune explicitly states that there is a power triangle between the Bene Gesserit, the spacing Guild, and the Laandstrat Houses. So having an functionally alien race—being able to change ones shape is a much larger divergence from “ancient” humanity than either the Bene Gesserit genetic line or the somewhat prescient Guildsmen—really upsets the balance. On top of that, they already had a kwisatz haderach?! There is none of the balance and integration with the Teilaxu into the world, like the original power triangle. This similarly extends to Alia’s temple worship, which is clearly just a pastiche of the Oracle at Delphi and the Islamic Hajj.
And a Bene Gesserit using Dune Tarot in a desperate attempt to peer into the future, really?! The Sisterhood that has spent thousands of years patiently developing a bloodline, and whose Reverend Mothers possess the consciousness of all the previous Reverend Mothers in their line? The Sisterhood who have truthsense and have spent millennia learning precise control over the body, and who are presumably adept at manipulation? The Sisterhood with millennia of experience entrenching themselves with hidden political power? What Bene Gesserit would abandon her teachings and embrace her fear—the little death—to merely read tea leaves?!
It is really hard to tell what is going on, plotwise. I think the problem is due to the attempt to have “plots within plots within plots”, but in reality, each faction simply has one hidden goal to cement its power, and one public goal that is largely at odds with each other. This offers interesting interplay, but it is hardly plots within plots within plots, and so the meaning of events is revealed in riddles. Unfortunately I only understood about half of them, which meant that I did not understand the motivations of half the characters. This feels confusing. At least Paul’s strategy was revealed in the end, but it sort of feels like a deus ex machina, because suddenly all the external constraints forcing him onto the path are removed, but we did not see any planning for that, just that it was painful to commit to.
I suppose I would be remiss in literary analysis if I did not observe that while Muad'Dib in Dune is an unwilling type of Mohammad, in Dune Messiah he becomes a sort of Christ figure. He even has some almost Gethsemane moments, where it is painful to choose the path to save humanity. Unlike Christ, who chooses to be obedient to the Father’s plan and is strengthened by the Father to be able to continue into the pain, Paul Atreides does it all in his own power. And even more unlike Christ, who rescues mankind from sin and death into an eternal kingdom of love and light, Paul merely prevents religious violence from overwhelming humanity. It is an altogether smaller accomplishment to prevent death and bloodshed at great personal cost, than it is to change the trajectory of humanity from darkness to light. Humanity after Paul is still the dismal, conniving place it was before Paul; Paul prevented an even greater destruction, but he did not change the trajectory.
The introduction by Herbert’s son observes that Dune Messiah’s purpose is to bridge between the first book and the third, which is helpful, as is the fact that his father intended Paul as a (in the literary sense) tragic figure. It offers some shallow political philosophy as motivation to sort of tie things together, and it sketches a sort of confusing plot. It does explain a little bit that Dune leaves unexplained, and the ending is satisfying. But until then, the highlight is witty banter of Zensunni riddles and of the truth-riddles of Bijaz the dwarf.