Legends of Dune

Dune was one among many books/series I read in high school or college and remember almost nothing about. At this point, most of what I remember about Frank Herbert’s genre classic probably comes from the David Lynch film that me and ten other people in the world actually like. And as for the subsequent books — I don’t know. There was something about some kids, right? And Duncan Idaho with metal eyeballs? Yep, that’s about the limit of my memory, which I think sufficiently qualifies me as having not read Dune even though I’ve read Dune. So I decided that it was time to revisit the series, especially since, regardless of my recollection or lack of, I never finished the series. But, of course, I figured that if I was going to read/re-read Dune, I was going to reread all of it. And that meant starting at the narrative’s chronological beginning — in other words, starting with the books written by Frank’s son, Brian, and his partner-in-crime, Kevin Anderson.

Fans of anything can rarely reach consensus. And that’s the way it should be. One’s man’s trash and all that. But the world of science fiction fandom has come awful close to consensus when it comes to opinions of the Dune books by Herbert and Anderson, and that opinion is, to be kind, pretty unkind. Exactly what each reader hates about the book can vary, though pretty much everyone touches on the inability of the two authors to actually write. If I was going to work my way through the narrative chronology of the Dune series, that meant reading six rather hefty Herbert-Anderson books before finally getting to Frank Herbert’s Dune.

I was game. After all, my love of two-star sci-fi movies translates pretty easily to similarly two-star sci-fi novels. Within the timeline, the first three Herbert-Anderson books, collectively known as the Legends of Dune, chronicle the war against the thinking machines — the Butlerian Jihad — that was alluded to from time to time in the original Dune novels. Set thousands of years before the first Frank Herbert book, the three books that comprise this sprawling space opera prequel begin after the first war against the machines. Humans, increasingly dependent upon thinking machines for even the most trifling of matters, find themselves suddenly ripe for conquering. That conquest comes courtesy of the Titans, a cabal of humans who sacrifice their human bodies in favor of the near immortality that can be achieved with a cyborg — or cymek, as they are called — body. Unfortunately, the Titans themselves are conquered by Omnius, the central thinking machine.

The first book in the prequel series, The Butlerian Jihad, picks up after these events (which means Herbert and Anderson have yet another prequel series lying around, if they ever need it). The Titans slipped programming into Omnius that prevents him from killing Titans, but the cymeks are still subservient to the machines, serving as strategists and generals for the machine army. The war against normal flesh and blood humans reached a sort of stalemate, and the fronts have been quiet… until today, when the Titans, under the leadership of their general Agamemnon (if you think such names like the Titans and Agamemnon are less than subtle — well, nothing about any of these books is subtle) launch a sudden offensive against the planet Salusa Secundus, the capitol of mankind’s galactic sprawl. The attack devastates the capitol city but is narrowly thwarted by a young officer named Xavier Harkonnen.

The event kicks off renewed hostilities between humans and machines, and so begins a fairly vast and poorly written story. Among the many plots/subplots are the story of Vorian Atreides, the human son of Agamemnon, raised to be a loyal subject of the machines but prone to an eventual revelation that turns him to the cause of his fellow humans; Serena Butler, a noble who falls in love with Xavier and eventually gives birth to the child, Manion, whose murder at the hands fo the erratic robot-scientist-philosopher Erasmus sparks off the full-fledged jihad against the machines; and then, way out on a planet called Arrakis, a misfit desert dweller learns the secret of riding the planet’s massive sandworms and begins to build himself into a folk hero and leader of a band that will become known as the Free Men of Arrakis. Oh yeah, and then there’s the sorceresses of the planet Rossak, and the mathematical genius Norma Cenva who, shunned by her statuesque and psychic mother, becomes the lynchpin in the research lab of washed up scientist Tio Holtzman. And probably about half a dozen other subplots and even more characters. When it comes to cramming as much crap as possible into several hundred pages, Anderson and Herbert certainly give the reader their money’s worth. Sadly, if you want quality along with quantity, you’re going to be left out int he cold.

Herbert the younger claims to have worked off original notes and outlines left behind when his father passed away. That’s probably true, but what exactly those notes said, and how extensive they were, remains undetermined. What isn’t undetermined is just how wildly divergent the history presented in this and the subsequent two books is from the little we learned about it through Frank Herbert’s originals. In fact, the author Willis McNelly, when he wrote The Dune Encyclopedia, also claimed to be working from Frank Herbert’s notes and outlines when he sketched a very different version of The Butlerian Jihad than is presented in this book. In his version of Frank Herbert’s notes, the Butlerian Jihad was fought by entirely different people, human against human, and was a crusade against the addiction to and dependence upon thinking machines — not a war against the machines themselves. Not being privy to the actual contents of these mythical notes, I feel that debating an pondering them here is ultimately moot, and so we’ll work with what Herbert and Anderson gave us.

What they gave us a gigantic, action-and-gore packed space adventure where legions of humans blast it out against wave after wave of murderous robots who, despite being machines, tend to act a lot like humans except for when the plot needs them to act like unfeeling machines. If you’re thinking that’s not really the tone struck by the original novels, well, then, you’re one voice in a pretty gigantic choir. For me, as someone who already admitted that he can’t remember much about the original Dune, I’m less concerned about what they say than how they say it. And how they tell this tale leaves a lot to be desired. The writing style reminds me of a middle school book report, one that is basically a poorly written summary of a better written book. For the first few pages, I thought we were just getting some prologue-ish back story out of the way, and the style proper would kick in any page now. But it turns out that “book report summary” is the style they stick with, only instead of being a couple pages of dodgy summarizing, it’s like 700 pages.

As wildly divergent as the plot may be from what people were expecting, there’s a lot, as a fan of overblown space opera, that is theoretically good. Both Vorian and Xavier are decent characters, even if the trajectories their lives take is predictable. And even though giant space battles may not have a place in the Dune style as created by Frank Herbert, the fact of the matter is I really like big space battles, so didn’t much mind that. It’s just that the writing is so bad! Most irksome of all is the tendency to recite a laundry list of character traits and “when last we saw him” events every time a character reappears. I don’t need to be told the entire back story of Vorian or Agamemnon every single time they appear. It was only like 50 pages ago that we last saw one or the other. I think I can remember that long. You could probably chop a hundred pages out of this novel if you simply eliminated the bored sounding repetition of the same character facts over and over.

The first book ends with the true declaration of the jihad and the events that lead to Earth becoming the burnt-out, abandoned husk it’s rumored to be in the later (though written earlier) novels. The second book, The Machine Crusade, continues the story in the same style. Xavier, Vorian, and Serena return, as do a number of other characters, continuing the drearily relayed march toward creating the universe we know from Dune. This time around, Herbert and Anderson decide to make almost every single character except Vorian and Xavier intensely unlikable and unsympathetic. Iblis Ginjo, the former slave turned Grand Patriarch of the jihad, is a wretched, conniving scumbag whose primary concern is using the deaths of billions across the galaxy to further cement his own power base. Serena is an annoying religious fanatic. The primary plots this time around involve Vorian infecting Omnius and the unified machine worlds with a computer virus; a slave revolt that impacts the development of the shields and space drives being developed by Norma; and the horrible and totally unsurprising secret behind the society responsible for growing replacement limbs and organs for wounded soldiers. There’s also substantial forward movement with the plot involving the Titans’ creeping rebellion against the machine overlord Omnius. Once again, the plots tumble and stumble over each other in between gigantic space space battles and lovingly detailed descriptions of evisceration, goring, flaying, and other manner of unenjoyable ways of dying.

The final book, The Battle of Corrin, takes place nearly 100 years after the end of the second book,which means, if nothing else, the intensely unlikable characters of Tio Holtzman, Iblis Ginjo, Serena Butler, and several others have been shuffled offstage. Vorian, having received life extension treatment from his father before revolting against the machines, is still around, though he’s feeling more and more like a relic as a new generation takes over the grinding jihad against the machines. Omnius unleashes a devastating plague, among other nasty weapons, as the humans decide to launch a massive offensive against the machine home world of Corrin, in hopes of finding ending all this madness once and for all.

Being the final book in the series, the final hundred or so pages is dedicated mostly to setting things up to evolve into the Dune universe readers knew before these books were written. We get the birth of the Mentats (very disappointing, actually, and not what I thought it should have been), the genesis of the Bene Gesserit priestesses, the emergence of the Fremen, the discovery of the importance of the spice melange, the Spacing Guild, and just about everything else, including the blood feud that arises between the Harkonnens and the Atreides and the Harkonnen family descent into villainy. Never mind that a number of these organizations were supposed to be in place and well established before and during the jihad, according to the original novels. Herbert and Anderson dismiss any inconsistencies between the originals and their sequels by claiming that the history lessons from the original books were inaccurate recollections, twisted and colored by the passage of time, and the versions of history presented in the Legends of Dune trilogy are what really happened.

OK, I’ll roll with it. Not being a big fan of religion or religious fervor, I don’t mind that these books reveal the revered saints of the movement to have been flawed, at best, and flat out evil in some cases. They also manage to conjure up an incarnation of the jihad that is even more annoying and distasteful than what it was under the guidance of Serena and Iblis. All of the flaws tat were int he first and second book stick around for the third, so if you were hoping that things would get better as Herbert and Anderson got the hang of things, you’d best prepare yourself for thousands of pages of disappointment. Their writing is just as shoddy, awkward, and rough draft feeling here as it was in the first book. And once again, it’s like really bad storytellers trying to tell you a relatively decent story.

So count me part of the chorus. These books are… I don’t know if I’d say terrible. But they are pretty close. They certainly didn’t make me gung-ho about the three more Herbert-Anderson books looming between me and Frank Herbert’s original. But I’m nothing if not committed. i got to the end of Legends of Dune; I’ll get through the Houses of Dune trilogy as well. These were definitely two star sci-fi books, occasionally dipping into one-star territory. With each one weighing in at 700 pages or more, with dozens of plots and characters, it’s actually just as easy for me to pick out things I like as it is to pinpoint the things I hated. With that many pages, and with mysterious notes from Frank Herbert, you’re bound to stumble across a good idea or two by accident, if nothing else.

And there were things to like — Vorian, Xavier, the subversion of the Butlerian Jihad and the respected figures of its history. The computer virus, followed by the biological virus, and the battle between different back-up copies of the Omnius computer were all decent ideas. And even if they were out of place in a Dune novel, I liked the space battles and adventures. Still, those are drops amid a sea of horrible writing and irritating characters. Legends of Dune would make a pretty good TV series if you had the money to pull it off. I’d only hope that someone besides Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson were hired to write it, because they’re just awful.

I expect it from Brian — he’s just some guy trying to carry on/cash in on his father’s legacy. But I thought Kevin Anderson was supposed to be some sort of actual writer. If so, he’s either an actual bad writer, or he didn’t put much effort besides colossal word count into this, or he and Brian just don’t work well together — the last one seeming unlikely since the two have authored more Dune books together than Christopher Tolkien has tales of Middle Earth and Tupac has records after he died. I managed to get through the three Legends of Dune books, even managed to enjoy parts of them, but overall, this was more grim march than it was breathless journey.