Barnabé Monnot

Research scientist @ Robust Incentives Group, Ethereum Foundation.

Research in algorithmic game theory, large systems and cryptoeconomics with a data-driven approach.

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Dune Messiah

My copy of Dune Messiah started with notes from the author’s son, Brian Herbert, commenting on the cold reception that followed the book’s release. Being full of spoilers (it perhaps assumed people had already read Dune Messiah, hence why it was printed at the beginning?), I largely avoided it but not before I got the gist of the argument: the chamber politics of Dune Messiah felt “boring” after the all-out battle of the previous opus, while Herbert conceived of Messiah as a bridge between the opening chapter and the following one, Children of Dune.

I have not read Children of Dune (yet), so I cannot judge the last argument, but Messiah was all but boring. In fact, for a series that is so influential, it is striking that in its first chapter, it established so many patterns later found in many other children of Dune (the books that followed in its tracks, that is), while in its second, it confronted head-on the narrative wall that is the natural outcome of these patterns.

To be more precise, a criticism I often see levelled at Dune is that once Paul becomes the equivalent of an all-knowing, predictive computer, there is no more space for narration (it was even discussed on reddit a few days ago). Agency is obliterated by the inevitability of everything that Paul predicts. One of the thrills of reading fiction is the contradiction that although characters and the story can seemingly develop in any direction, of course only one of them does happen, since the book is written already. The idea of prescience, of a charater knowing perfectly well what will happen, can feel like a let-down for the reader, who doesn’t, and is left to play catch-up with the hero. The narrative space seems to have collapsed to one strand that no amount of cleverness by any character will be able to perturb, so what’s the point?

It is a feeling I often get when reading anything by the broadly-defined group that is often referred to as rationalists. Every “event” read from the frame of rationalism loses the world of possibilities it is tied with. In a world of rationalists, people aware of their own biases behave in the most reasonable manner they can compute, so that the future is merely a by-product of everyone’s intentions at present (indeed, when adequatly priced, the future can be self-enforcing). A natural side-effect to the inevitability of the process seems to be cynicism, which translates in many texts I have read to sometimes pompous, often dismissive prose, masking genuinely important insights.

Back to Dune Messiah, Herbert seems to have found himself in the same position as I feel many who work in decision sciences, game theory and all the associated fields do from time to time: where to go from here? The question is much more difficult however for fiction writers, who are still expected to perform the illusion of narration while the rest of us can keep publishing papers. So my reading of Dune Messiah is really that of the author wrestling with the narrative black hole it created in the first chapter by giving prescience to Paul.

An easy way out would have been to just take away the toy he gave to Paul, but cleverly, the author resists doing so until the very last moments of the book. Instead, Paul is depicted almost entirely in opposition to how he was in the first book: no longer triumphant, but guilt-ridden, no longer in control, but overwhelmed by the fruits he reaped when he had absolute control. The characters deepen the morbid undertones of the book, a ghola grown from the flesh of Duncan Idaho, deceased in battle in Dune, a Face Dancer, a tank-bound fish. Paul meanwhile tries to escape the gravitational pull of its vision, which doubles as a story of a character attempting to redeem narration from the depths of inevitability.

The small-scale intrigues of Dune Messiah, set with a background of colossal heights (10 billion died in Paul’s Jihad, the cities on Arrakis are described as massive, glimmering feats of engineering), were compelling to read from that point of view. I have always been a fan of “The party has ended” aesthetics, which you can find in places as diverse as Le Grand Meaulnes or even the first hour of Avengers: Endgame. In these, echoes of past events ripple throughout (embodied by Idaho here) and motivate a quest of the characters to return to how things were, an illusory denial of how things go. When Paul becomes definitively blind, in sight as in vision, the narrative does come full circle, but of course the resolution is bittersweet—in that case, lethal, even.

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