Book Review: “Dune: House Atreides” (by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson)

I’m about to make a very controversial statement. I actually like the series of books that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have written, building on the legacy left by Frank Herbert. Anyone who’s spent any time in the world of the Dune fandom knows that those who loved the original books are, for the most part, quite hostile to the efforts of the younger Brian. I’ve seen them described as potboilers, as exploitative cash grabs, as bastardizations of the elder Herbert’s grand philosophical vision that he set out in his original six volumes.

However, all of this is somewhat beside the point. Herbert and Anderson, like another scion of a great literary figure (Christopher Tolkien) have done a great deal to flesh out the world left behind by Frank Herbert. You can love it or hate it, but I personally like returning to this world, seeing the backstories of some of the most fascinating characters in science fiction literature.

The result in this instance is Dune: House Atreides, the first in a trilogy of novels that chronicles events several decades prior to the original novel. At the time in which the novel begins, Shaddam is not yet Padishah Emperor, though he schemes with his loyal friend Fenring to achieve the throne, as well as to support the Tleilaxu in their efforts to create a synthetic melange. Leto is at this point a young man, not yet Duke (though he later becomes so after his father is killed in a bullfight, with the connivance of his mother), while his wife Jessica is only born toward the end of the narrative.

The characters that appear in this novel are some of the most iconic in the entire Dune universe. It’s quite exciting to see Leto in his youth, as he struggles to live up to the expectations set by his father, the Old Duke Paulus. Leto is an eminently likable character, and it’s easy to feel for him as he finds himself caught up in the great happenings of his era, particularly after the Tleilaxu manage to conquer the planet of Ix, sending the ruling Vernius family into exile. He’s both sympathetic and deeply honourable, and even at this early stage we can still see the roots of the man that he will become in Dune. He’s a man who isn’t afraid to tell the great powers of the Imperium how corrupt they are, even if that means that he is rendered vulnerable to the malevolent scheming of his enemies.

Of course, no story set in the Dune universe would be complete without the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. As truly awful as he was in the original novels, he’s even worse here, as he schemes against House Atreides and, in one of the novel’s more horrific scenes, actually rapes the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (unaware that he will father the Lady Jessica). Of course, the cause of the millennia-long enmity between Harkonnen and Atreides is still left largely unexplained, it certainly provides the Baron with a great deal of his motivation for his continuing schemes to bring about the fall of the Atreides (including, it’s strongly hinted, working directly with the Lady Helena, Leto’s mother).

And, of course, there are the Bene Gesserit, the sisterhood that works to bring about the culmination of their breeding program within a few generations of the time in which this story is set. It was actually rather fascinating to see Gaius Helen Mohiam, the Reverend Mother that will play such a large role, particularly since she is such an enigma in both Dune and Dune Messiah. As it turns out, she is the one responsible for the Baron’s later obesity, since she infects him with a disease after he rapes her. Though this is a bit of retconning (for which the authors have taken no small amount of flack), it works well, especially since it’s also revealed that she is the mother of the woman who will later become Lady Jessica, mother of Paul Atreides.

Narratively, the novel is densely packed with action, but it doesn’t feel that way while you’re reading it. Instead, it’s a very quick read, in part because the chapters are for the most part very short. Nevertheless, there is a lovely complexity at work here, with each action taken by the characters radiating outward into the broader universe. One can see how the events of this novel will have a direct impact on the events that take place in Dune, particularly since Leto and Shaddam are shown as having a deeply confrontational relationship even at this early stage.

By the end of the novel, Leto is at least somewhat stable in his position as the new Duke, Baron Harkonnen, having been thwarted in his efforts to sow chaos and bloodshed in the Imperium, yearns for revenge. Shaddam sits on the throne now that his father is dead, though he has banished Fenring to Arrakis and it remains unclear whether the scheme to produce a synthetic version of the spice will actually come to fruition. Each of these characters is painted with such depth and subtlety that it’s easy to find yourself caring about what happens to them, even if they are morally reprehensible (which is the case with both the Baron and Shaddam). Herbert and Anderson deserve a lot of credit for crafting both an exciting narrative and compelling characters.

All in all, I quite liked this novel. While it may lack some of the philosophical sophistication of the original books, that’s okay with me. Instead, what it offers is an exploration of the roots of the characters that we already know and love. And, as a science fiction political thriller, it’s actually quite a good effort. The true brilliance of the novel, however, is the fact that it still manages to be suspenseful, even though the reader knows how most of the actions will resolve themselves and which characters will end up surviving until at least the events of Dune.

I’m hard at work reading Dune: House Harkonnen, so stay tuned!

Book Review: “Paul of Dune” (by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson)

It’s quite common in the Dune fandom to take potshots at the expanded Duniverse, particularly the series of prequel and midquel novels published by Frank Herbert’s son Brian and his collaborator Kevin J. Anderson. In fact, the fandom has even coined a term to refer to that part of the canon: “McDune.” It’s actually a clever bit of derision, a means by which fans can register their disapproval of the perceived downgrading of Frank Herbert’s original novels.

Allow me to disagree.

Though there are times when Herbert and Anderson’s books are a bit pulpier than their predecessors, I personally find them more accessible. What’s more, they do still address some of the weightier philosophical issues that were such a key part of the original novels’ appeal. That is certainly the case with this novel.

Paul of Dune is set between the events of Dune and Dune Messiah, as well as before the events of Dune. The two alternating timelines shed light into both the events in his adolescence that shaped who Paul became in later years as well as the struggles have faces as his Jihad fans out across the universe, costing billions of lives. In the past, his father Leto is drawn into a War of Assassins, while in the present Paul has to contend with the consequences of his Jihad as it fans out across the universe. What’s more, plots and schemes abound, as both the deposed Shaddam and the noted assassin Hasimir Fenring put their own plans into motion to reclaim the throne.

The novel moves at a brisk pace. In keeping with the format of many of the Dune novels, the chapters are usually short and punchy, moving between different characters in order to provide us with a panoramic view of the many players at work. Some classic favorites from the original novel make appearances, including the villainous Vladimir Harkonnen. By far the most interesting parts of the novel, however, focus on Hasimir Fenring, who has always been one of the more enigmatic yet fascinating characters in the canon. Here, he plots with his wife Margot to steal the throne, either for their daughter Marie (who is herself a product of the Bene Gesserit breeding program) or for some other puppet that they can manipulate for their own purposes.

We also get a glimpse at the sinister and mysterious world of the Bene Tleilax, who have been undertaking their own effort to create a Kwisatz Haderach. Their creation, Thallo, is one of many such, and he’s one of the novel’s more haunting creations. Seemingly a perfect human specimen, he befriends Marie before going mad and attempting to destroy his master. Like so many other of the other times that the reader encounters the elusive Bene Tleilax, they are strange and unsettling, as well as deeply misogynist.

One of the fundamental questions at the heart of the entire Dune series has always been about the nature of humanity and, relatedly, whether it is morally justifiable to slaughter billions in order to ensure that trillions more don’t perish in the future. Here, that takes on an added edge, as we see Paul, newly ascended to his throne, struggle to hold to his vision. He’s an epic hero, certainly, but despite the fact that he can see into all possible futures, it is up to him, and no one else, to prepare humanity for the tribulations to come. His own particular burden is that he must do so while also contending with the inevitable assassinations and attempts to dethrone him. Paul Atreides was and remains one of the most fascinating and complex figures in all of science fiction.

A lot of reviews I’ve seen of the book blasted it both for its perceived retconning and for its use of Irulan as a means of justifying any future retconning. Fans of the novel will remember that Irulan, daughter of the deposed Shaddam IV and wife of Paul, set herself the task of becoming his official historian, crafting his image for generations to come. In this novel, we learn that she has already started bending the truth, that what we have been led to believe about Paul in earlier iterations of the series may not be true, but instead deliberately manufactured truths designed to further his ambitions and to make it easier for him to be seen as a god.

While this certainly does make any future creative decisions that Herbert and Anderson easier (in that it allows them to not be absolutely beholden to the established canon), I would argue that something more important is going on. Dune has always been about the deep philosophical issues, and what can be more important than the nature of history? Irulan recognizes, and in doing so forces us to recognize, that the way we look at the past is conditioned by our present circumstances more than any objective view.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Paul of Dune. It was not only pleasant to revisit some of the best characters of this universe, but also to see how events between the first two installments of the original series affected the events that followed.