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September 18, 2003

Stop the Inanity: Dune: Butlerian Jihad

Posted by Mike on September 18, 2003 9:36 PM

Here's a lengthy screed regarding my wild, unseemly, and excessive disappointment with the "Dune" prequel series. If you aren't up for 3100 angry words from an overwrought geek, don't bother reading the rest, just take away this pocket review:

"Hellooo, Peter... yeeeeah. We're gonna have to have a jihad this weekend, and I'm gonna have to kinda have you come in on Saturday. Mmkay? Oh... and uh... we're gonna have to smash the thinking machines on Sunday, too. Mmkay? Let me get you another copy of that memo . . . we've kind of decided thinking machines fill us with religious loathing and hatred that will burn itself into humanity's memory for 10,000 years. Mmkay?"

Perhaps because summer is winding down and classes are mere weeks away, I've been catching up on my pulp reading. The beginning of summer always involves heady reading lists, and it always ends this way: cramming sugary sweets down my gullet before I'm forced to start reading things I didn't pick for myself. I walk into this time of the reading season with my eyes open. I know what I'm doing. I feel furtive when I pick up some of the titles I do, and I always buy them at the grocery store, where I can go through the U-Scan aisle and avoid detection.

This summer's special reading project was "Dune: The Butlerian Jihad," co-written by Frank Herbert's son Bryan and journeyman sci-fi writer Kevin Anderson.

A Quick History of the Dune Books

"Dune" has a lot of faithful fans who've been with the franchise since the first volume arrived in the '60s. Frank Herbert built on "Dune" with five sequels. Opinion varies on the entire run. I personally enjoyed the first four the most. "Dune" itself has been an almost annual re-read since I first picked up a copy in seventh grade. That would put my total number of reads somewhere around twenty, I suppose. Probably sounds dull to most, but I like getting older with a few of the books on my shelves.

Frank Herbert died in 1986 having written six Dune novels. Notes for yet another novel have been found, extensive enough that there may be a posthumous seventh novel. Several years ago, armed with the backing of the publishers and "The Herbert Limited Partnership," Herbert's son picked up a collaborator and began a prequel trilogy, set in the decades leading up to the original "Dune" novel, featuring most of the characters found in the later books.

I read all three installments with increasing unhappiness. People have criticized Frank Herbert's writing for its pages and pages of meaningful glances and characters musing about "plans within plans within plans," and that's fair enough: "Dune" wasn't so much an adventure novel as it was a novel about how ecology affects politics and how people create charismatic leaders. It was a talky/thinky novel, and it seemed the characters couldn't even get into a knife fight without spending some time pondering their place in the universe. Readers who considered Herbert's work too ponderous, at least, should be content with the prequels: The product turned out by Anderson and the younger Herbert is most definitely not about ideas. It's fairly pedestrian sci-fi that uses a lot of names and places found in "Dune" to tell a simplistic, juvenile adventure story. I hate not finishing books, though, and I have that thing about summer reading I've already mentioned.

Where these books are concerned, there's little to indicate they're what Frank Herbert had in mind, but they're clearly aimed to sate a sort of fanboy completionist urge to fill in every piece of back story Frank Herbert himself either never considered or didn't get around to writing. The revelations, though, aren't particularly revelatory. They tend to evoke a sigh and a muttered "guess it's the copyrightholder's prerogative to do this with these names and places." The prequels are to Frank Herbert's work as "The Stepford Children" was to "The Stepford Wives": denuded of any allegorical meaning and thoroughly flattened into a simple "rockets and robots" yarn (or yawn, I guess).

The newest book, "The Butlerian Jihad," takes us back "100 centuries" to tell the story of how the foundations of the Dune universe came to be.

Core to "Dune" is society's aversion to "thinking machines." This aversion is attributed to the lasting impact of "The Butlerian Jihad," a religious upheaval in reaction to the near extinction of humans at the hand of sentient computers. The original Dune novels refer to the Butlerian Jihad just enough to underscore its meaning to the characters and settings in the novel. Not much detail is required . . . just enough to explain the complications the taboos against computers create and to rationalize the mystical bent some of the society's institutions have taken despite a setting 10,000 years in the future. As such, it's certainly an area of fascination for Dune fans: The sort of cataclysmic intensity with which such a thing would have played out to leave its mark on humanity 10,000 years later would have to be awesome, and surely the story behind such a thing would be epic. Unfortunately, the effort falls as flat as any of the other Dune prequels.

The book is part of a school of science fiction writing that drives much of the market these days if you make the mistake of buying your sf from the chain (or grocery) stores, which cash in on massive franchises, like the "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" novelizations. As with the first three prequels, it's imaginative as far as it goes, but the authors aren't trafficking in ideas here. The potential for creating a truly creepy machine culture is undermined by a paucity of imagination that involves anthropomorphizing all the robots and making the most active proponents of machine dominance giant robots with human brains. The scenes meant to convey how horrible it would be to be a frail human at the mercy of the machines are simple gore-fests, or over-the-top failures that involve infants being dashed on rocks.

The climax also fails resonantly. The process of embarking on a jihad against the machines is reduced to a sophomoric call to arms and listless agreement that maybe people oughta go smash those machines. Imagine Patrick Henry played by Keanu Reeves, or the American Revolution as reenacted by a troupe of actors with voice modulation disorder and you've got a sense of how flaccid the depiction is.

Hello, Peter... yeeeeah. We're gonna have to have a jihad this weekend, and I'm gonna have to kinda have you come in on Saturday. Mmkay? Oh... and uh... we're gonna have to smash the thinking machines on Sunday, too. Mmkay? Let me get you another copy of that memo . . . we've kind of decided thinking machines fill us with religious loathing and hatred. Mmkay?

The book also shares a point of commonality with the "Star Trek" publishing franchise: The recent "Eugenics Wars" novels, which gave us the backstory for the character Khan (yes, Ricardo Montalban in a latex chest), were plagued with a need to tie virtually every character and event into a grand narrative. It was obnoxious long after it was cute. Herbert and Anderson have done the same, to boorish effect. Once I decided I didn't like what they were doing, every appearance of a character or description of event became less a mediocre account and more a deliberate, aggressive violation, meant to rub the collective readership's nose in the authors' capacity to leave no stone unturned in their single-minded desire to cram everything into the pedestrian scope of their version of the Dune story.

The Dune Encyclopedia Question

What makes the bellyflop that is "Dune: The Butlerian Jihad" even more gut-stinging is that Frank Herbert authorized a version of the tale long before the mediocre prequel factory began churning out cycnical sludge.

"The Dune Encyclopedia" was edited by Dr. Willis E. McNelly. McNelly died in April of this year, but a site devoted to some of his writing and a few recollections about the creation of "The Dune Encyclopedia" is available that explains his role in the book's creation, how it was assembled, and a little of Frank Herbert's role in it. Dr. McNelly reportedly spent several years lobbying Dune's publishers to republish the encyclopedia, but it remains out of print.

The encyclopedia is an entertaining book. It's set 5,000 years after the events in Herbert's first three "Dune" novels, and the content is presented as a series of entries written by scholars analyzing an archaeological find. As such, there are some humorous misinterpretations that flatly contradict the "canon" Herbert's work established, which really add to the verisimilitude of the work in its role as a future history.

Herbert's own feelings about the book were apparently mixed. He authorized and commissioned the work, and he participated in its creation to the extent there are accounts of him vetoing parts of it and approving others. He also, however, felt free to contradict elements found in it as he wrote the two "Dune" novels that followed it. It was, in the end, not a very pure source for any of the story ideas Herbert had in play as he worked on his novels, but wasn't received by "Dune" fans as a complete piece of apocrypha, either. It was apparently, to the extent the back cover of my copy says it's the "authorized guide and companion to Dune," meant to provide some background for the parts of the "Dune" universe Herbert never got around to touching, including, to bring this back around to the subject of this little screed, the events of the Butlerian Jihad. Further buttressing the legitimacy of the encyclopedia is the widespread story that Herbert and Dr. McNally had discussed collaborating on a Butlerian Jihad prequel before Herbert died.

Anyone who cared enough about "Dune" to own the encyclopedia probably read the entries pretty closely and figured out pretty quickly that some of the content was meant to be a humourous jape on both over-earnest fans and modern academics. But that reading was probably close, nonetheless. It was, after all, "the authorized guide and companion." When Frank Herbert's son and accomplice decided, though, to cash in on their own "Dune"-based franchise, the encyclopedia presented an understandably unpleasant issue: Its detail, if treated as "canon," would militate a certain direction for the stories they could tell. It would mandate characters, events, and places. It would also, it seems, have forced them to abandon their need to single-handedly explain the origins of every single institution, technology, and practice found in the "Dune" universe.

Not having been a particularly active "Dune" fan, I turned to the experts to see what the consensus among online fans toward Dr. McNally's encyclopedia might be by looking up the alt.fan.dune FAQ. One of the functions of fan FAQs is establishing the "canonicity" of a given work or group of works. This sort of stuff is important to fans, because being a fan of something involves a lot of discussion about the people, places, and events in a book or group of works. You might be tempted to think something like "if it's a book about 'Star Trek' that Paramount licensed, it's canon."

The problem is, a franchise as long-lived as "Star Trek" has been adapted into books, comic books, cartoons, "technical manuals," and even read-along childrens' records so many times that all the pieces don't quite agree with each other all the time. Characters are placed somewhere the original novel's story line contradicts, or a device has properties that are convenient to an author working on a sequel adaptation that it doesn't have anywhere else, or is said not to have in another work.

Besides the issue of diverging facts, some fans also admit there are issues of simple economics. Going back to "Star Trek," there are hundreds and hundreds of novels to choose from. While a few devoted fans will read them all (and perhaps even explain away the apparent contradictions), most will not. Establishing a base-line canon allows fans to comfortably discuss and argue without being blind-sided by a "fact" from a now-unattainable paperback a licensee published in 1976, or a short story from an out of print collection that appeared in 1974.

In the case of the Dune universe, there's not a lot to argue about. The original books were all written by one author, and there's not a large body of Dune tie-in fiction written by many other authors. In fact, in terms of the books written while Herbert was alive, "The Dune Encyclopedia" is pretty much the only bone of contention, and of it the alt.fan.dune FAQ has this to say:

"Where 'The Dune Encyclopedia' directly conflicts with the Dune Chronicles, whether attributable to the historians who supposedly wrote it or not, it is politely ignored. Where it fills in the holes of Frank Herbert's novels, though, attitudes vary. Some refuse to consider it altogether, while others tend to apply as much information from it as possible without contradiction."

I suppose I'm of the "pay some attention to it" school because I'm lucky enough to still own the copy my parents gave me for Christmas nearly twenty years ago, and because I read it as closely as I did the original novels: it answered questions Frank Herbert never would, and he seemed to think it was as good an answer as he would have given us.

So why am I writing this? Even the fans don't agree on the relative merit of the encyclopedia, and I'm not even much of a "fan" in the sense that I'd never get too heated up about any discussion centered on "Dune." I think it was the second statement that I came across about the encyclopedia, written by the authors and Willis McNelly, which included this:

"To clear up any confusion that might exist, the authors think it is important to explain that THE DUNE ENCYCLOPEDIA reflects an alternate "DUNE universe" which did not necessarily represent the 'canon' created by Frank Herbert. Frank Herbert's son, Brian Herbert, writing with Kevin J. Anderson, IS continuing to establish the canon of the DUNE universe. This is being done with the full approval of the owner of the DUNE copyright, the Herbert Limited Partnership."

A note at the bottom of the page hastens to add that "there are no plans to republish" the encyclopedia.

There's not much of a choice in reactions here, except a cynical snort. Fan reaction matters enough to inspire some hand-waving about an "alternate universe," but they don't trust the handwaving enough to keep from falling back on simple legal privilege: the copyright holders say it's canon, so it is. Considering Frank Herbert's unfortunate state, there's not much more to it than figuring out who owns what. Brian Herbert evidently had his hands on enough material of interest to the publishers that he got to keep a hand in the new books. The publishers thoughtfully pulled in someone well qualified to produce the sort of white-bread, tie-in SF that does so well at the corporate chain stores, and despite insistence to the contrary, the Dune franchise dies a strange sort of "lights are on but no one's home" death. Or perhaps it was dead the second the word "franchise" was applied to it off in some corner office.

As I poked around the corporate Dune site, I also came across a FAQ the publisher set up in which the authors purport to answer continuity flaws readers have pointed out. It made me a little sad to realize that the answers provided weren't really answers at all... just equivocations. The point wasn't so much to answer the questions as demonstrate that the authors, acting on behalf of the publisher and copyright holders, can pretty much make things up as they go along, and will do so off-handedly. Some will assert that copyright ownership is adequate justification for that sort of behavior, and I'll make no attempt to argue the contrary. It certainly bestows a legal right, but in this case legal right has been exercised to infantilize and then gut a classic series.

It's strange to realize I've devoted as many words to this as I have at this point. Ordinarily I'm impatient with fans. My reading of assorted Tolkien fan groups lasted a total of a week before the religiosity and hostility toward the "movie people" made me decide a mere twenty or so readings of "The Lord of the Rings" hadn't made me crazy enough to be that silly and mean. "Star Trek" fans can be even more irritating and self-righteous (though Tolkienites hold them in a special sort of classist contempt that comes close to evening the two groups up in terms of unpleasantness). But in this case, there's not much helping my feelings. I was excited when I first heard about the prequels, thinking they'd represent, perhaps, a real continuation of "Dune." They proved to be a disappointment, and they haven't improved. If I'm angry, it's probably as much with myself for thinking there'd be any real return to "Dune" outside of re-reading the books written by Frank Herbert himself. And I'm angry because any close reading and comparison of the originals and the prequels is evidently considered contemptible nit-picking by the authors, who think the proper role of "their" unearned audience is passive acceptance of their mediocre efforts.

This sort of contempt and neglect has happened elsewhere. When the "Star Trek" franchise launched the prequel series "Enterprise," it soon became clear that the continuity established through the previous movies and shows was mostly out the window. There's some half-hearted defense of the choices "Enterprise's" writers have made, but the series has clearly lost its way. The creative team has trashed things the series' long-term fans appreciate as it looks to find widespread acceptance with more and more overt reliance on titillation or the play-it-safe, issue-of-the-week political allegory of "Trek" at its most smug and smarmy.

But where "Star Trek: Enterprise" is struggling to keep its head above water in the ratings, the Dune prequels are evidently market successes. There have been four (and a fifth will be showing up any day now) so far, with yet another in the works. They've consistently made it into the bestseller lists, too.

I'll account for my portion of the sales: I bought my copies because I've got that nasty habit of impulse buying bad books at the grocery store, and because the Dune franchise has some brand recognition with me, even if I'm consciously aware that the only meaningful point of continuity between Frank Herbert's work and the prequels is the family name and some legal rights. Against all reason, I've wanted to believe there'd be some getting "Dune" back.

Having finished "Butlerian Jihad," though, I'm happy to say "enough is enough." You can't go home again. The cynical money-grubbing on display with these books seems to illustrate that well enough. So I'm not going to bother trying anymore.