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!

Science Fiction Classics: God Emperor of Dune (by Frank Herbert)

Now at last we come to one of the most divisive entries in the Dune Chronicles. It’s not hard to see why. After all, this is a novel that has as one of its main characters a man who managed to make himself a hybrid of human and sandworm. To be honest, when I long ago read the cover of this novel, I thought it sounded ridiculous, a far cry from how things had started out in Dune. Now that I’ve finally finished the first three volumes, the fourth does make more sense than I thought it would.

To be fair, the novel is weird, particularly in comparison to the other entries in the series. By this point, 3500 years have passed since Leto first began his transition into a human/sandworm hybrid. He now rules as the supreme authority in all of the universe, known as the God Emperor. Utterly convinced that his is the only path by which humanity can avoid catastrophe, he represses dissent in his domain. However, he has begun to lay the groundwork for his own downfall, which will come about at the hands of Siona and another ghola version of Duncan Idaho. At the same time, Leto has also begun to find himself falling in a strange sort of love with the Ixian Hwee Noree.

Despite the novel’s absolute strangeness, I found myself absolutely captivated by it. In part that’s because the character of Leto himself is so bizarre and yet so utterly compelling. This is a creature that has given up almost all semblance of his humanity in order to bring about what he sees as the salvation of humanity, and there is in his story (as there was in his father’s) a profound tragedy. This is particularly acute for the reader that remembers Leto as the child that he was in the previous novel (though of course he was never really a child, since he has had full consciousness from birth). The fact that Leto feels himself so drawn to Hwee, even though he also knows that he stands at the brink of his own death, heightens the sense of tragedy.

It’s sometimes been said of this book that it indulges too much in Leto’s own delusions about his godlike status. However, to me that rather misses the point. The novel makes no bones about the fact that this creature is, indeed, a tyrant, and it betrays a certain ambivalence as to whether his actions–which he claims were taken in order to prevent humanity from destroying itself–are really just a cover for his own desire to rule over everything in his power. To a large extent, it seems that the final determination on that particular question must lie with the reader though, for my part, I think that Leto’s strenuous command of the entire narrative–almost every chapter has an excerpt from one of his journals–definitely skews it in his favor.

Though Leto occupies a substantial portion of the narrative, the other major players are Duncan Idaho and the rebel Siona. I’ve always found it particularly haunting that Idaho, who served the Atreides so faithfully, should be endlessly replicated through the centuries. Of course, Idaho gholas have played a significant role in each of the previous two novels, but this one is different, somehow. As the last being other than Leto himself that has a memory of what things were like before, he is something of a conscience figure, for both us as readers and for Leto himself. More than any of the other iterations of the character, he is a reminder of the old system of morality and order that existed before the rise of the God Emperor and the decline of the old Imperium. It’s small wonder, then, that it is he who joins with Siona in order to bring about the end of his rule.

Whereas Duncan is the past, Siona is the future. The product of numerous generations of Leto’s select breeding of the Atreides breeding, she has been chosen by Leto bring about his end. Like so many other members of her family, she finds herself caught up in forces that she cannot control, responsible for moving history forward. In bringing about the end of Leto’s reign, she sets in motion something that will radically reshape Dune (yet again), whatever her own wishes might be in the matter. Though parts of the novel are from her perspective, she still remains something of an enigma, though it’s always nice to see a woman do something in a science fiction novel rather than just serving as window dressing.

As much as I enjoyed God Emperor of Dune, however, I also found myself wanting to understand more about the events that transpired in the three and a half millennia since the last installment of the series. In particular, I found myself wanting to know the eventual fates of the many characters that we met in the last installment, people like the Lady Jessica (always one of my personal faves), as well as the tragic Princess Irulan, and of course Leto’s own sister Ghanima. Of course, I know that sometimes less is more when it comes to these sorts of stories, but I’m also the sort of person who wants to know each and every detail about characters, particularly ones that I’ve spent so much time with. What’s more, I wanted to know more about how the Fremen have become the degraded beings they are by the time of the events of this novel, reduced to merely aping the practices of their ancestors.

For all of that, this novel is a bold and risky one. It’s the rare author who would attempt a time jump of such magnitude between book and the next, and it’s a testament to Herbert’s skill as a storyteller that we as readers are brought so immediately into this world that he has created. I’ve already begun reading Heretics of Dune, which takes place a millennium and a half after the fall of Leto. I can’t wait to share all of my thoughts with you!

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.

Science Fiction Classics: “Dune Messiah” (by Frank Herbert)

Having finished Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune, I decided to dive right in and begin the second volume, Dune Messiah. While it lacks some of the narrative richness of its predecessor, in many ways it is even more theologically and philosophically sophisticated, as Paul must contend not only with the consequences of the jihad he unleashed upon the universe, but also with a conspiracy and with the ever tightening noose of his own prescience.

The novel begins several years after Paul seized the throne. The Fremen have swept everyone before them, and Paul is now the undisputed ruler of the Imperium. However, there are those that see him as a danger that must be removed, among them a Navigator from the Spacing Guild, a Tleilaxu Face Dancer, the Princess Irulan, and a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit (none other than Gaius Helen Mohiam herself). While their plan ultimately fails, it is enough to both physically blind Paul and send him wandering into the desert and his presumed death.

Given that this is Dune we’re talking about, there is a great deal of discussion about Paul’s powers of prescience. By this point, they have become more a prison than anything else, a millstone around his neck that he can’t shake off. It is, however, the one thing that allows him to prevent even greater violence and, just as importantly, to protect the lives of those that he loves (to an extent, at least). Indeed, I would argue that one of the novel’s great strengths is that it not only explores the philosophical underpinnings of prescience and its consequences but also shows how those consequences manifest in Paul’s life and his physical well-being. Paul, ultimately, is a sort of negative tragic hero, denied the fulfilling life that some might think that he deserves.

For it is also true that the novel also raises potent questions about the relationship between faith and politics. In many ways, the world that emerges in the aftermath of the Paul’s jihad is very similar to that faced by all political and military movements that emerge from religious fervor that centers on a powerful, charismatic individual. Paul has the distinct disadvantage of still being alive while the theocracy he leads is built around him, and even his prescience isn’t entirely enough to prevent the seeds of rebellion from taking root. In Messiah, as in its predecessor, Paul is simultaneously omnipotent and completely impotent, caught in an impossible position that he alone has made possible.

One of the most surprising things about this novel is how much it manages to pack into its relatively short length. In it, we not only see the birth and growth of the conspiracy that will ultimately cost him his eyes, but also the conflicted nature of his sister Alia, the conflicted loyalties of Irulan and, perhaps most importantly, the ghola Duncan Idaho, who has been resurrected by the powers of the Tleilaxu. His presence is a troubling and unsettling reminder of the powers that this reclusive group wields, in this case the ability to resurrect dead flesh. What is particularly striking here is that even though Duncan is at first distinctly not the same as he was when he was alive before, Paul is able to force his former persona to resurface. It’s a pivotal moment in the novel, positing the radical idea that there just might be memories, and fundamental aspects of who we are as individuals, buried deep within our cells. It’s a fascinating and troubling idea.

It is also a remarkably pessimistic novel. When, at the end, Paul walks into the sands of Arrakis, leaving behind his two newborn children, his sister, and his lieutenant Stilgar behind to rule his empire, it’s a breathtakingly devastating moment. This is the man, after all, that we as readers have followed since the very beginning of his journey to the top of the universe. It’s tragic, in the truest sense of that term, that he is unable to attain the rewards that he clearly deserves.

If I have one minor complaint about the novel, it’s that the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, one of the shrewdest women in the Imperium and a key part of Paul’s own rise, is killed off-screen on Alia’s orders. While it makes sense that Alia would engage in an act of retribution for the death of her brother, it seems to me that a character like Mohiam would have, at the very least, deserved a more meaningful death.

Overall, however, I quite enjoyed my re-read of Dune Messiah. While it doesn’t quite attain the epic grandeur of its predecessor, it is nevertheless a worthy successor and a compelling prelude to the many things to come.

Science Fiction Classics: Dune (by Frank Herbert)

I’m not sure what prompted me to go back and reread Dune, the science fiction masterpiece by Frank Herbert. I’ve read it several times now, but something just keeps drawing me back to it. Part of it, no doubt, is the fact that it is basically the sci-fi equivalent of The Lord of the Rings, and it focuses more on politics, philosophy, and religion than it does on science. Part of it also has to do with the fact that it continues to be a part of the cultural conversation, both because Herbert’s son Brian (along with his coauthor Kevin J. Anderson) continue adding to the series and because there is a hotly anticipated new film adaptation coming this fall.

For those who haven’t read it, the novel focuses on Paul, the heir to Duke Leto Atreides. When his family is betrayed and his father killed, he flees into the desert of the planet Arrakis with his mother, the Lady Jessica. Ultimately, Paul learns to live among the Fremen and ultimately leads a revolt against the Emperor Shaddam, after which he claims the throne for himself.

What I found most fascinating about the novel is the way in which it manages to give us insight into the science that makes the planet of Arrakis work as well as the politics that surround it. In the universe that Herbert has created, the vast edifice of the Empire rests on spice, without which nothing can function. The entire novel is, in some ways, a potent warning about the dangers of an entire society building its fortunes and its most fundamental structures on one resource. Indeed, the various powers come to realize that they have been very foolish indeed to not only rely so much on the spice but also to underestimate the Fremen, who end up being key to Paul’s bid for revenge against his family.

Yet it is just as much a rumination on the power of biology and destiny to shape our lives. By the end of the novel, Paul has come to accept that the jihad that he has attempted to keep from happening will in fact spiral out of control no matter what he does. Like so many other epic heroes that have emerged in literature, Paul is in the unenviable position of being a super powerful figure–his very existence is due to a generations-long genetic experiment by the group of sorceresses known as the Bene Gesserit–that is nevertheless helpless to really change the course of events that surround him. Though the full extent of this powerlessness won’t manifest until Dune Messiah, even in these early days it is clear that Paul will ultimately become the victim of his own success, a figure that has both extraordinary power and yet none at all.

There are, of course, a whole host of other characters that are equally if not more compelling than Paul, foremost among them his nemesis the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He is, without a doubt, an absolutely fascinating figure, precisely because so much of him remains unknown (though more is revealed in the prequels published by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson). Equally interesting is the figure of the Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, who is a testament to the ability to science fiction to feature strong women.

Re-reading the novel, I was struck by how neatly it cleaves into two separate parts. The first part is the well-developed one that shows the complex web of politics and scheming that brings the Atreides to their knees, as well as showing how Paul gradually finds himself drawn into the world of mysticism and foretelling that will shape so much of his future destiny. The second half occurs after a time jump and, to be honest, still feels a little less-developed than the one that preceded it. Even now, it feels as if the climax of the novel is a bit rushed.

Admittedly, there are some things about the novel that don’t age particularly well, chief among them Baron Harkonnen’s penchant for young boys, which falls far too neatly into the pernicious stereotypes that evil people must be sexual perverts. Though one rather expects this sort of lazy storytelling from others, one would think Herbert would be above it.

All in all, though, I loved Dune just as much this time as I have in my previous readings. It’s one of those rich and textured works of literature that is both infinitely accessible and yet continually full of new meanings to be explored.