Sunday, August 5, 2018

A Stillness Which Moved Itself: Dune Club Messiah, Session 4

The fourth and final copy of Dune Messiah that I own is an omnibus that collects the second and third books in the series.  It's a Science Fiction Book Club edition:

I've always felt that this was a bit of an insult to both novels.  Are they not good enough to stand on their own?  I think they are; I don't remember that much about Children of Dune, but Dune Messiah is certainly holding up marvelously on this reread.  I'm not sure that slapping the two novels together actually is all that demeaning, but if so, it's a practice that carried over to television: the Sci-Fi channel's second Dune miniseries was titled Children of Dune and combined the two books.  
We'll maybe cover those two miniseries, as well as the David Lynch movie, one of these days.  I'd love to; but that'll be a time-consuming thing, and currently I don't feel I can spare it.
Anyways, let's dive in to the chapters for this session.
You do not beg the sun for mercy.
--Muad'dib's Travail
from The Stilgar Commentary
Interesting that it's "Travail" singular and not "Travails" plural.  I tend to assume this means bad news of some sort for Paul.  I guess we kind of already knew that; but this also seems to imply that Stilgar will be around to comment on the fullness of it, whatever it is.
This chapter is devoted to a negotiation of sorts between Paul and the Reverend Mother Mohiam.  It's one of the standout chapters of the novel; it's stuck with me ever since I first read it.  Among other reasons, I love it because it's a scene between Paul and Mohiam; their introductory scene in the first novel is obviously one of the standout bits of the whole series, if not all of science fiction; so it's very gratifying for the two of them to meet again here in a meaningful fashion.

Even more than that, though, I am knocked out by the descriptions Herbert gives us of the citadel where Mohiam meets Paul.  He has forced her to walk the entire way, and the citadel is apparently colossal enough that it is (my words, not Herbert's) to buildings what V'Ger is to spaceships.  This is not immediately apparent to Mohiam, and as she makes her way to wherever it is that she is expected to be, we learn of the building's size through her eyes:
  • "The guards herded her around a corner into another of the seemingly endless vaulted passages."  A few paragraphs later:
  • "The immensity of this ighir citadel began to impress her."  (Anybody know what "ighir" means?  The best I could find was that it kind of means "local.")  A few paragraphs later:
  • "The size of the citadel began to oppress her.  Would the passages never end?  The place reeked of terrifying physical power.  No planet, no civilization in all human history had ever before seen such man-made immensity.  A dozen ancient cities could be hidden in its walls!"  A bit later:
  • "Ahead of her, finally, loomed double doors centered in the far wall of a tall antechamber.  She sensed that the doors were very large, and was forced to suppress a gasp as her trained awareness measured out the true proportions.  The doorway stood at least eighty meters high, half that in width."  Now, I'm a dim-witted American, so I had to consult Google to find out how big these doors are in a measurement that my own brain will grasp.  What I came up with is that in height, they are almost 88 yards, or in other words, damn near the length of a football field.  Width, half that, so pretty freaking wide.  But there's more to come.  These next three bits are uninterrupted (except by paragraph breaks) in the text:
  • "As she advanced toward Paul on the distant throne, the Reverend Mother found herself more impressed by the architectural subtleties of her surroundings than she was by the immensities.  The space was large: it could've housed the entire citadel of any ruler in human history.  The open sweep of the room said much about hidden structural forces balanced with nicety.  Trusses and supporting beams behind these walls and the faraway domed ceiling must surpass anything ever before attempted.  Everything spoke of engineering genius.
  • "Without seeming to do so, the hall grew smaller at its far end, refusing to dwarf Paul on his throne centered on a dais. An untrained awareness, shocked by surrounding proportions, would see him at first as many times larger than his actual size.  Colors played upon the unprotected psyche: Paul's green throne had been cut from a single Hagar emerald.  It suggested growing things and, out of the Fremen mythos, reflected the mourning color.  It whispered that here sat he who could make you mourn -- life and death in one symbol, a clever stress of opposites.  Behind the throne, draperies cascaded in burnt orange, curried gold of Dune earth, and cinnamon flecks of melange.  To a trained eye, the symbolism was obvious, but it contained hammer blows to beat down the uninitiated.
  • "Time played its role here."

Mohiam has seen hints of Ixian handiwork during this walk; it's unclear whether this means that she believes all of the architecture and engineering to have been of Ixian design, or only the massive doors (which open automatically).  My feeling is that the entire citadel was likely a product of Ixian engineering, and that brings up interesting questions in my mind about the relationship Ix has with the empire so as to have produced a work such as this.
Is Ix primarily loyal to the empire?  Is it a loyalty to whoever is on the throne, or is it a loyalty to Muad'dib personally?  Might it be more of a loyalty to the Atreides themselves?  We don't have enough info to make informed speculation, but it intrigues me that in this citadel, we apparently have a feat of engineering impressive enough to shock an experienced Reverend Mother.  That's no small thing.  We've sort of gotten the feeling based on the rest of the novel that most of the great powers are allied in conspiracy against Paul.  But there seems to be no hint of involvement from the Ixians in that conspiracy, and if they are capable of feats of engineering such as this, then that must mean they are a powerful ally indeed.
There's not enough to go on to really draw any conclusions about any of this; but it's intriguing stuff.

During this walk, Mohiam intuits that the long walk is intended to oppress her, and intuits further that Paul wants something from her.  She's not wrong.  What he wants is for the Bene Gesserit to make a deal to save Chani's life; what he will provide is a child for Irulan as well ... provided it is conceived via artificial insemination.  This, of course, is against every tenet of the Bene Gesserit breeding program, but Paul correctly senses that this may be less important than it is not to have to more or less begin that program over from scratch.
A question is asked -- by Duncan/Hayt -- that kind of flew over my head under I was skimming the chapter again in preparation for this post.  "Will you bargain with the Bene Tleilax?" he asks.  I initially took that to mean that Duncan was asking if the Tleilaxu would perform the artificial insemination of Irulan.  But no, that's not what he's asking at all: he's asking if Paul is considering having the Tleilaxu create a ghola of Chani.
This idea shocks Alia, who is also shocked by Paul's stated decision to go into the desert so Chani (who is finally pregnant) can have her child in sietch.  Alia knows via prescience that this is a bad decision; she wonders why Paul, who must also know it, would do such a thing.  She attempts to comfort Paul, saying, "We must not grieve for those dear to us before their passing."
Paul's reply is one of the most haunting things I have ever read.  "Before their passing," he whispers.  "Tell me, little sister, what is before?"
This, my friends, is a hell of a chapter.
"I've had a bellyful of the god and priest business!  You think I don't see my own mythos?  Consult your data once more, Hayt.  I've insinuated my rites into the most elementary human acts.  The people eat in the name of Muad'dib!  They make love in my name, are born in my name -- cross the street in my name.  A roof beam cannot be raised in the lowliest hovel of far Gangishree without invoking the blessing of Muad'dib!"
--Book of Diatribes
from The Hayt Chronicle
It kind of cracks me up that Paul did so much ranting around Hayt that the ghola stockpiled it all and turned it into a chapter of his autobiography or whatever.  
I also want to know everything there is to know about Gangishree.  Not if I have to read one of the Harbert/Anderson books to find it out, though; those books are mostly terrible.
This chapter consists of a conversation between Scytale and Edric, in which the former impresses upon the latter the need to step the conspiracy up, and damn quick.  Edric is resistant, but, of course, Edric is mentally deficient, as Scytale is happy to demonstrate.
I really like Scytale as a character; I'd not remembered at all how great he is.  Here's a terrific back and forth in which he demonstrates that he has a pretty good grasp on what is really going on with all of this Muad'dib business:
     "You talk like a Fremen," Edric said.
     "This is a Fremen thought and it's instructive," Scytale agreed.  "They speak of Muad'dib's Jihad as leaving tracks in the universe in the same way that a Fremen tracks new sand.  They've marked out a trail in men's lives."
     "Another night comes," Scytale said.  "Winds blow."
     "Yes," Edric said, "the Jihad is finite.  Muad'dib has used his Jihad and--"
     "He didn't use the Jihad," Scytale said.  "The Jihad used him.  I think he would've stopped it if he could."
     "If he could?  All he had to do was--"
     "Oh, be still!" Scytale barked.  "You can't stop a mental epidemic.  It leaps from person to person across parsecs.  It's overwhelmingly contagious.  It strikes at the unprotected side, in the place where we lodge the fragments of other such plagues.  Who can stop such a thing?  Muad'dib hasn't the antidote.  The thing has roots in chaos.  Can orders reach there?"
Man, that's great stuff.  I can't help but think how great a relief it would likely be to Paul to hear those words of Scytale's; for someone to understand that much about who he really is and what he is really going through.  It's also compelling that this Face Dancer enemy is apparently that much more insightful than Reverend Mothers, mentats, prescient Guild navigators, and even Alia.  Does this say something specifically about how canny Scytale is?  Or is this an indication that the Face Dancers (if not the Telilaxu generally) overall are more of a force to be reckoned with than anyone has even begun to imagine?
Good questions.
Oh, worm of many teeth,
Canst thou deny what has no cure?
The flesh and breath which lure thee
To the ground of all beginnings
Feed on monsters twisting in a door of fire!
Thou hast no robe in all thy attire
To cover intoxications of divinity
Or hide the burnings of desire!

from the Dunebook

Hey, you know what I just realized?  This novel is sorely lacking in sandworms.  It's not the only thing from the first novel that's missing; there's also no Gurney Halleck, nor (more importantly) Lady Jessica.  It's interesting that Jessica is absent; has she been exiled by Paul?  Has she chosen exile for herself?  Have the Bene Gesserit put her under some sort of restrictions as a punishment for her misdeeds in their eyes?  Very interesting.

As for the sandworms, their absence from the story here kind of strengthens the feel that in this era of Muad'dib-led Arrakis, being a creature of the desert is somewhat a thing of the past.

I don't have a heck of a lot to say about this chapter, in which Paul spars physically with Hayt and verbally with Chani, the latter of whom has found out she has been consuming a contraceptive for years and that it will make her pregnancy difficult.  She wants to kill Irulan for it, but Paul will not let her.

Here are some bits I underlined:

  • "Prescient vision had recorded these moments, but he shielded his awareness from the oracle, preferring the role here of a Timefish swimming not where he willed, but where the currents carried him.  Destiny permitted no struggles now."
  • "And he thought: Irulan prolonged your life, beloved.  For you, the time of birth is the time of death."
  • Paul tells Chani she must not kill Irulan, and she asks why; he says because he asks it.  "He watched her accept this.  She did it the way sand accepted water: absorbing and concealing.  Was there obedience beneath that hot, angry surface? he wondered.  And he realized then that life in the royal Keep had left Chani unchanged.  She'd merely stopped here for a time, inhabited a way station on a journey with her man.  Nothing of the desert had been taken from her."

You know how some books have blurbs of people praising them on the inside front covers?  The copy of Dune Messiah I'm reading has one of those, with one or two blurbs for each of the six books in the series.  The one for Dune Messiah has always struck me, because it was in the copy I had when I was a child:

"Brilliant . . . It is all that Dune was, and maybe a little more." -- Galaxy Magazine

And I agree, totally!  That last bit that I just quoted -- "Nothing of the desert had been taken from her" -- made me think of it, because it reminded me that I really don't think this sequel is appreciably less awesome than Dune is.  Many Dune fans disagree with me about that, and they're welcome to.  I, however, love this novel to pieces; and I remember taking that blurb from Galaxy Magazine as both an insult to Dune itself and as a bit of validation for the sequel.

Which sounds as if I'm implying that I was aware the sequel had a less-vaunted reputation than the first novel; I was not in any way aware of that.  I only knew that I loved it, and that Galaxy Magazine apparently loved it too.  In retrospect, that's perhaps not all that surprising, since Galaxy Magazine is where Dune Messiah first saw print via serialization across five issues in 1969.

Anyways, I can remember simultaneously feeling a bit defensive of Dune, and wondering how on Earth anyone could think the sequel was better.  That makes sense; there's plenty sci-fi adventure in the first novel, which helps make it palatable to a pre-teen like mid-eighties Bryant.  Which makes me wonder: since that aspect isn't as prominent in Dune Messiah, why did I love it back then?  I think it was because the characters popped so greatly; and they POP, boy.  Still, if you told me you thought the sequel was somehow more than Dune, I'd have told you I didn't think it was anywhere close.

Today, though . . . man . . . I wonder.  This novel is awfully damned good.  I will have to see how I feel about it once I finish my reread, but I'm pretty sure I would indeed still give the nod to Dune, if only because without it none of what moves Dune Messiah could exist.

But why choose?  There's no need.  These are both among the most essential science-fiction novels I know of; if not among the most significant American novels, full stop.


The audacious nature of Muad'dib's actions may be seen in the fact that He knew from the beginning whither He was bound, yet not once did He step aside from that path.  He put it clearly when He said: "I tell you that I come now to my time of testing when it will be shown that I am the Ultimate Servant."  Thus He weaves all into One, that both friend and foe may worship Him.  It is for this reason and this reason only that His Apostles prayed: "Lord, save us from the other paths which Muad'dib covered with the Waters of His Life."  Those "other paths" may be imagined only with the deepest revulsion.
--from The Yiam-del Din
(Book of Judgment)

I don't have much to say about that epigraph, so we'll move on into the chapter itself, in which Scytale poses as Lichna for Paul's benefit.  Lichna, of course, is the murdered Fremen girl; Scytale is in the guise of her via his Face Dancer skills.  Let's peek in on a bit of it:

The moment of supreme test for this girl-shape had come.  Scytale had put on the shape, the mannerisms, the sex, the voice -- everything his abilities could grasp and assume.  but this was a female known to Muad'dib in the sietch days.  She'd been a child, then, but she and Muad'dib shared common experiences.  Certain areas of memory must be avoided delicately.  It was the most exacting part Scytale had ever attempted.

A couple of thoughts from that:

  •  I would hope that any serious movie adaptation of Dune would try to at least set the wheels in motion for potential adaptations of the sequel novels, as well.  Which means I would hope that Lichna would be a minor character as a child; having her actually be seen would make this subplot in the sequel so much more satisfying.  It's fine in the novel because Herbert writes it so well; for a movie or television version, I'd like to actually see that connection.
  • Herbert refers to it as a "part" that Scytale is playing.  That's intriguing to me, given the fact that Face Dancers are primarily known in the public eye as actors.  He thinks of this as acting, clearly; and it is, but in a very high-stakes real-world scenario.  Method acting on steroids.  It brings a question to mind: where does the line exist between playing a role and simply being a thing?  If I were to begin pretending to be a stockbroker, and got good enough at it to fool people into thinking I was a stockbroker, then is the line between stockbroker and not-stockbroker meaningful?

Anyways, I love this little bit with Scytale, where he kind of pauses for a moment before launching into what by necessity must be the greatest performance of his life.  That's thrilling in a way.

So is this:

Paul nodded.  He saw how Chani had been fooled.  The timbre of voice, everything reproduced with exactitude.  Had it not been for his own Bene Gesserit training in voice and for the web of dao in which oracular vision enfolded him, this Face-Dancer disguise might have gulled even him.

Awesome.  I think our expectation of this scene -- provided we don't already know its outcome, of course -- is that Scytale will more or less be successful in his playing of Lichna, but that Paul will somehow come to learn the truth in the course of time.

Nope.  No, he figures it out immediately, despite the fact that Scytale is obviously performing at an incredibly high level indeed.  That's just cool, man.  Paul has rarely seemed more powerful than in that paragraph, and you kind of wish that he would be a cat to the mouse who is Scytale, and play with the Face Dancer mercilessly.

But, of course, this is not that kind of novel (as we ought to know well by now):  

Paul fought to maintain calmness.  He felt naked, his soul abandoned in a groping-time concealed from every vision.  Powerful oracles hid this Face Dancer.  Only the edges of those moments were known to Paul.  He knew only what he could not do.  He could not slay this Face Dancer.  That would precipitate the future which must be avoided at all cost.  Somehow, a way must be found to reach into the darkness and change the terrifying pattern.

I suppose one could argue that all this business with the conspirators being hidden from Paul's prescient visions smacks of plot contrivance/convenience.  If one takes it that way, I think it's fair.  For me, however, it remains thrilling; it keeps Paul human -- vulnerable, fragile, challenged, having to scrap for every bit of his existence -- but in an incredibly alien manner.  This is heavy material, but it's also a great deal of fun, because where else but in science fiction and fantasy literature can you experience stuff like this?

No matter how exotic human civilization becomes, no matter the developments of life and society nor the complexity of the machine/human interface, there always come interludes of lonely power when the course of humankind, the very future of humankind, depends upon the relatively simple actions of single individuals.
--from The Tleilaxu Godbuk

Hmm.  Well, that's interesting, isn't it?  And obviously a very true sentiment.  One wonders what The Tleilaxu Godbuk is all about; is it a bible of some sort for a religion we know nothing of?  Is it a sarcastically titled history of Muad'dib?  A non-sarcastically-titled one?  Something else entirely?  Impossible to say, but the content of this epigraph coming so soon after a Scytale-centric chapter puts one in mind of him and the would-be heroism he is engaged in.

This chapter, however, is devoted to a scene of Paul going about in disguise.  He goes into the thronged masses and, with them, watches an appearance by Alia.  This chapter has always weirded me out, and that's probably for the best.

A few bits that stood out to me this time:

  • Paul is clearly haunted by a recent encounter with Chani.  "For a blurred, emotionally painful moment, he relived their parting.  At the last instant, Chani had experienced a tau-glimpse of his feelings, but she had misinterpreted.  She had thought his emotions were those experienced in the parting of loved one when one entered the dangerous unknown."  Paragraph break.  "Would that I did not know, he thought."  Poor Paul; poor Chani!  [It occurs to me that I just expressed pity for Space Hitler But Ten Thousand Times Worse.]
  • Later, among the masses, hearing a sort of poem that heralds Alia's arrival: "Paul felt sickened.  What are we doing? he asked himself.  Alia was a child witch, but she was growing older.  And he thought: Growing older is grow more wicked."  There's a fascinating dynamic between Paul and Alia that Herbert largely leaves unexplored.  I feel as if she is in some ways a reaction against Paul, but in a way that sort of pushes her closer to actually being a subset of Paul.  She is both a contradiction of him and an affirmation of him.  Is that a bunch of hogwash, or do you think I might be onto something there?
  • "He knew her ritual and its roots, but he had never before stood out here with the pilgrims, watched her through their eyes.  Here, performing the mystery of this place, he saw that she partook of the universe which opposed him."  Okay, so maybe there's something to what I was just saying.  I'm also intrigued by Herbert's use of the word "performing," which cannot help but conjure associations with the way Scytale's impersonation of Lichna was characterized.  And hey!  That reminds me of Scytale correctly intuiting that Paul was a tool of the Jihad, not the opposite.  In some ways, Scytale's inherent aptitude for play-acting seems to have put him on Paul's wavelength; an actor recognizing the work of another actor.
  • "She knows I'm out here, Paul thought.  Did she see something in the vision that angered her?  Is she raging at me?"  More of that fascinating but underexplored dynamic: Paul and Alia are both prescient beings, but if their prescience is in both cases flawed, then they may not necessarily always see the same futures.  This stuff is so weird that I have to admit to being incapable of fully getting a handle on it.  Perhaps there's actually nothing to get a handle on; critics might say so.  Doesn't feel that way to me, though; it feels like a great big truth dancing just outside my reach.  It's fascinating.
  • "There was the feeling in him then that his body had become the manifestation of some power he could no longer control.  He had become a non-being, a stillness which moved itself.  At the core of the non-being, there he existed, allowing himself to be led through the streets of his city, following a track so familiar to his visions that it froze his heart with grief.  I should know what Alia saw, he thought.  I have seen it enough time myself.  And she didn't cry out against it . . . she saw the alternatives, too."

One senses that Paul has been having an out-of-body-experience for the past twelve years or more; a permanent deja vu upon which brief bits of uncertainty have been sprinkled like salt.  How could one even begin to cope with such an existence?

Maybe we'll find out in the next session.  We're two-thirds of the way done with Dune Messiah, and I'm already dreading that final third.

But in the good way!

See you in seven.

No comments:

Post a Comment