Stop the Inanity: Dune: Butlerian Jihad

September 18th, 2003  |  Published in Uncategorized

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

href=”http://www.srcf.ucam.org/~gh248/dunefaq/”>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,

href=”http://www.dunenovels.com/news/encyclopedia.html “>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.

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