Of Dune and its Descendents

I could never create a blog about science fiction without mentioning the man who is by most standards the greatest sci-fi author of all time. Frank Herbert, author of the Dune sextet, was not only a master at creating detailed universes and realistic characters, he was also the man who literally wrote the book on hard sci-fi. In essence, he was the one who taught people how to take science fiction seriously, something rarely seen before his time. Philip K. Dick, another great of hard sci-fi claimed while writing in the 1950’s that whenever he spoke of his work, he would constantly be asked: “have you ever thought about writing something serious?” I myself have fallen into this trap many times, thinking to myself that anything I write that is set in an alternate universe or the distant future is somehow less real, less meaningful than something written about today or true life events.

It took Herbert’s Dune to snap me out of my complacency. It was after reading the first three of his novels (re-reading actually since I’d already cracked them before) that I realized that a bunch of ideas that I had been keeping bottled up in my head could actually be made into a full-length novel, maybe even a series of them. Up until that time I had been looking for something to write about, but had placed any thoughts of a sci-fi nature into a folder marked “idea for a TV series”. Yep, the best I figured I could do with any science fiction material I thought up was maybe pitch an idea for a TV show someday, you know, in case teaching and writing “serious” stuff never panned out. This was a long-shot in its own right, not to mention something I knew nothing about. Writing for TV? Not my thing, but at the time I figured that was all my ideas would be good for. At no time did I think they could be useful in helping to solve my writing dilemma. But then, after reading Dune, I felt inspired and started putting pen to paper (well, fingers to keys if you want to get technical) and the rest has been history.

But this isn’t about my work, its about Frank’s. And as every fan of Dune knows, Frank’s sextet ended on a somewhat uncertain note. His original six novels did not complete the series; for instance, we were still left with many unresolved threads in the last book, the whole “Golden Path” thing that Paul Atreides and Leto II “The Tyrant” had foreseen had yet to be explained or brought to fruition as well. After years of waiting, wondering and speculating, the Dune fan community finally caught a break when his son Brian Herbert picked up the mantle and revealed that his father had kept notes on a seventh and final Dune book in a safety deposit box that would cap off the series and answer all their unanswered questions. I was lucky enough to have finished the sixth book just in time to get in on this and was relatively excited.

And I’m sorry to say that the only thing greater than the build-up was the letdown! I sound like a prick saying this, but I honestly feel that Herbert’s legacy has fallen on hard times in the hands of his son and coauthor, the soft sci-fi writer Kevin J Anderson. After first announcing their collaboration and plans to complete the series, they started out with a pretty sensible and predictable stunt: they wrote prequels. The first was the trilogy known as the “Prelude to Dune” series. I read two of the books in this trilogy, “House Atreides” and “House Harkonnen” (but not the third and final, “House Corrino”) back in the early 2000’s and was generally unimpressed. In fact, it would be an exaggeration to say I read them, Atreides I put down two-thirds of the way through and Harkonnen I didn’t even get one hundred pages into before I got bored and dropped it.

This I blame in part on the fact that I’ve never really been a fan of prequels. For one, they have to be done right! And if the audience is already familiar with the story, the characters, and where everything is going, it’s not going to make for a very good read. It’s just filler, people reading to see how it happened, not what, where, when, and why. Anyone who sat through the Star Wars prequel trilogy ought to be able to relate. Another reason was the fact that the books seemed relatively uninspired. Not only did they suffer from that prequel sense of duty, having to explain how events the readers were already familiar with came to pass, it was almost always in a way that disappointed. When it comes to background, like most things, less in more. And these two authors really didn’t seem to be bringing anything new and original to the table, just recycling old stuff they knew the fans liked. Just seemed… I don’t know, lazy and kinda crass.

However, this did not stop me from perking up when they announced the second prequel trilogy, the “Legends of Dune” series. It seemed a bit consumerish for them to put out another set of prequels keep us fans waiting for Dune 7 like this, but what the hell right? We all wanted to know what the heck this thing called the “Bulterian Jihad” was all about. In the original Dune series, Frank had indicated that 11,000 years in the future – 10,000 years before the events in the first novel – there was a religious war that was waged by humanity against any and all thinking machines. This war altered the shape of the universe and ushered in the socio-political landscape that characterized the original novels. But beyond that, no one knew what happened. So, the son and the coauthor decided to write about it. What could go wrong?

As it turned out, a lot! Purely my opinion, but these books were an example of what never to do in writing. The first book, “The Butlerian Jihad”, I bought with some interest, and I am sad to say it was one of the worst pieces of writing I have ever seen! It was totally one-dimensional, predictable, and the plot was full of starts and stops and just seemed to fumble its way towards the conclusion. The characters were also completely superficial and really just a bunch of bad stereotypes and cookie cutter heroes and villains. But, I finished it, mainly out of curiosity and even managed to talk myself into buying book two, “The Machine Crusade”. Another suck-fest! The same exact weaknesses as the first! The good guys were too good, the bad guys too bad, and the story was ridiculous and thin as the paper it was written on. I couldn’t believe that Brian Herbert and Anderson could even think about putting the name Dune on it! Surely they had to be sick with guilt over it! But apparently not because they just kept on turning them out. To be fair, I never read book three of the series, for obvious reasons. And based on the synopses I’ve read, I think I made the right choice. While some reviewers hailed the literary duo for their ability to connect past with present, others described it using the same words that I did. Namely, contrived, superficial and not up to the originals.

And yet, I still went out and bought the Dune 7 book when it came out! I might have been a sucker for it, but after years of waiting and many dollars wasted on useless prequels that did nothing to satisfy my curiosity, I had to know how the damn thing ended! I was already writing my own novels at this time, so I felt all the more driven to see how my mentors own vision wrapped up. Sure, this latest book was only book one of two, yet another conspicuous act of opportunism by these two authors, but what did I care? I had to know how things ended and as usual, I felt that the writing style and narrative ability of the duo left something to be desired, but I was still intrigued and held on throughout, waiting for the awesome conclusion to book one of two.

Then I read it… I threw down the book in disgust and never touched another publication by them again.

“Seriously?” I said to myself. The conclusion to the whole story was that the machines were coming back? All that build-up, all that talk of humanity’s extinction and the need to alter the future, it was because those lame-ass, tinker toy, evil the cat, cardboard cutout, villainous robots were coming back to settle an old score? Needless to say, I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe that Herbert’s own son and the hackish Anderson would ever stoop to ending Frank’s masterpiece with a tie-in to their own pitiful work! I refused to believe that the book was even the result of looking over the contents of a safety deposit box that Frank Herbert’s had left behind. In my mind, this ending was merely an attempt to conclude the series in a way that paid homage to their own weak interpretations of the Dune universe. Attempting to rewrite history, as it were, to suit the son and his second, not to complete the vision of the father. (Bit of a Dune-esque theme in there I’m thinking!)

Of course, I could be all wrong. It’s entirely possible the Legends of Dune prequels and Dune 7 (titled “Hunters of Dune”) were the direct result of Herbert’s own notes. But I couldn’t see how. They were nothing like his original books, and all throughout the originals, where hints were dropped as to the possible outcome of the “Golden Path”, not once was machines mentioned or any hint given that the threat to humanity came from the return of some old enemy. If anything, Herbert seemed to be suggesting that it would come from within, from humanity itself, or possibly from an alien intelligence, something humanity had yet to encounter. And while I wanted desperately to know what happened in book II of Dune 7 (“Sandworms of Dune”), I just couldn’t bring myself to waste the money. Luckily, I managed to get a hold of some reviews and synopses which told me all I needed to know. The story ends with more Deus Ex Machina plot twists, contrivances and plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. And the final message, the moral of the whole Dune saga? Humans and machines need to live together in peace! …Really? Where did they get that shit from, the Matrix playbook? Had they just watched that whole trilogy and figured ripping off another franchise was a good way to end Herbert’s legacy?

I mean really, THIS was how six books about human evolution, ecology, science, social and economic models, politics, social control, revolution, upheaval, prescience, survival, genetic engineering, eugenics, holy wars, secret societies, resource control, awareness drugs, chivalry and knife fights was to end? All that history and timeless wisdom that Herbert drew on, and the final message was that humans and machines need to learn how to live together? Dear God, I could imagine Frank Herbert turning over in his grave! But what can you say when its own son who’s putting out these things? You figure he must have the best of intentions.

But good intentions or not, the duo weren’t finished there. Shortly thereafter, they began writing stories that fell (ahem!) between the original books. Yes, as if prequels and sequels weren’t enough, now they were writing… I’m not even sure what to call those! “Paul of Dune”, “Winds of Dune”, and coming soon, “The Sisterhood of Dune”, are all stories that take place between the respective novels in the original series. Again, out of curiosity, I picked up these books to give a gander at their dust jacket and see just what the hell they were about. Again, I felt my IQ drop and promptly put them back down! Even after all the crap I had endured at the hands of these two writers! And yet, I somehow found fresh reasons for being offended by their latest attempts to cash in on Frank’s good name. One, the stories obviously do not cover anything new! Events between the first three novels are all covered in the originals themselves, and at length! Nothing more needs to be said! Second, these guys had already put out six books of pure filler, unoriginal stuff that does nothing but flesh out stuff Frank already wrote about. So it would hardly be unfair to say that the “Heroes of Dune” series, as its called, will be any different. Every time these two publish a book with the Dune name on it, it becomes an instant bestseller, purely for reasons of recognition, never for reasons of quality or originality. Profit incentive is the only reason to keep doing it!

To be fair, its hard for anyone to step into the shoes of a great author, let alone someone like Frank Herbert who left a mountainous legacy. And hey, we all gotta eat right? But in the case of Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson, I think it’s safe to say that their work and continued attempts to cash in speak for themselves. When it comes to raping the legacy of Frank Herbert and the Dune series, these two just can’t seem to get enough! Where there’s more money to be made and fans to exploit, these two will pen something else thats equally fluffy and superfluous and just sit back and let the royalties roll in. But how much longer can they keep this up? Who knows, these guys are good like that!

So out of respect for the master and original creator, I implore his son, Brian Herbert, to please stop! Its noble and brave that you’ve decided to step into your father’s shoes to finish off his masterpiece, but the direction you’re taking it in threatens to destroy every last trace of authenticity it once had! And to Kevin J Anderson, let me humbly suggest that you take this opportunity to go back to doing what you do best: writing fan fiction for Star Wars, X-Files and other generic sci-fi franchises. Hell, Star Gate has to be hiring, and Halos pretty damn popular right about now, maybe you could pen something for them. But for the love of God, stay away from Dune, it is clearly out of your league and I don’t think the fans can take much more, let alone the memory of Frank Herbert! I know its kind of late in the game to be asking this, but if there’s anything you two have demonstrated, its the ability to find new ways to squeeze blood from Frank’s corpse. So please, in the name of the master and all that is good and literary, I implore you, STOP!

29 thoughts on “Of Dune and its Descendents

  1. Wow, what a disappointment you must feel. Even with all the wasted time and money reading the fluff, you *still* don’t know how Frank *really* intended his work to end. I suspect it was not with the return of the machines. (Can you say Terminator?)

    Fan fiction writers (in general) are what they are because they can’t come up with their own original work. I think that’s what you’re seeing here. It’s a shame, really, because in the right hands the series could be completed to satisfaction–but it’s becoming too late.

    1. Exactly what I was going for, Steve! I take it you were a fan too? I don’t normally like to criticize someone else’s body of work like this, but dammit, I could have written a better ending to this series! I mean that too, not that I’m any superstar, but I had my own theories as to how it was going to end and compared to what they produced, I honestly think mine would have been more fun to read!

  2. Hi, Matt. You’re not alone in your feelings of betrayal or disgust at the continuing travesty!

    Just one correction: the “Heroes” series (first a trilogy, then a tetralogy) was canceled halfway through! The upcoming Sisterhood of Dune is actually the first volume of a new, post-Legends-era “Great Schools” trilogy. The official story is that Anderson and Herbert just couldn’t wait to get back to the formative period of the Duniverse and tell the stories they’ve had in mind for years. But a lot of us think that the publishers pulled the plug after Paul of Dune and The Winds of Dune crashed and burned rather impressively. (Each book has done worse than its predecessor since Sandworms, and there hasn’t been a well-known reviewer touch them since Hunters.)

    If you ever want to discuss the REAL Dune books, or bash the new crap, drop by Jacurutu.

  3. Nice, I love Dune too!! I wouldn’t really call Philip K. Dick hard SF, per se, though, he focuses on the psychological and cultural aspects of the near-future, rather than describing planets and technology in detail like in Niven’s Ringworld, Robinson’s Red Mars, or Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, all of which I’d recommend.
    But, still, PKD is my favorite SF author, probably favorite author ever, and Dune is my favorite single SF novel. Oh yeah, and I hate the new ones by BH and KJA. Nice to see a nother intelligent critique of the nu-Dune books!

    1. Read Rama and working on Red Mars, have yet to read anything of Niven’s. Thanks for stopping by, and trust that you are not alone at all! I hear the interquels (as they are called) have been canceled due to low sales. Score one for the good guys!

  4. I have to agree with Nekhrun here. You have still been to kind to these two. I stopped reading after the first six prequels and have never touched a book by these two again.

    They now have their new Epic trilogy Hellhole on the bookshelves and this first of three is even worse than their rape of Dune, the writing that is. Our friend Ampoliros on Jacurutu has sacrificed himself for the greater good and is digesting it for all of us in order that only one has to suffer.

  5. Yea, these guys deserve both barrels. And I’ve turned the other corner on Tor; they need both barrels too. They are as much responsible for these travesties as the “authors” who “write” them.

    Not sure what you meant when you called PKD a hard SF author. Herbert certainly wrote hard SF, but pretty much only in his short stories. Hard SF focuses on scientific (or at least plausible scientific) realism. PKD’s stories and the Dune books have scientific and science fictional elements, but don’t really focus on them in the way a hard SF author would.

    1. I’m starting to learn that my definition of what constitutes hard sci-fi was not wholly accurate. I meant realistic, gritty, as opposed to fantastical or fluffy. I stand corrected on this one.

  6. Good review of the crap that Kevin Anderson and Brian Herbert crank out every year.

    What do you think of the ‘Rama’ books that Clarke oversaw the co-writing of, with Gentry Lee– ‘Rama 2″, ‘Garden’, and ‘Revealed’?

  7. Contrary to seemingly popular opinion I was impressed by your lack of vituperation concerning BH and KJA’s attempts at continuing the Dune saga. While some of my fellows may disagree, I find the ad hominem attacks on these two in extremely bad taste. Yours was the first I found (among many) that took a conscious effort to limit this, and for that I say – Bravo.

    Come on, show a little class people

    While I agree with many of you in that

    1. Did anyone ever think that the ‘journey’ that ‘Brian & Kevin’ began with ‘Dune: House Atreides’ would end with the stuff of ‘Sandworms’ & ‘Winds’?

      Not me, not any of us.

      What started off over a decade ago as a decent semi-worthwhile attempt to add some meaningful back-story with the ‘House’ series, ended up plunging into the abyss.

      After concluding the ‘House’ series, ‘Brian & Kevin’ should have just stopped. But no, they had to fling us back 10,000 years to their version of the Butlerian Jihad — complete with SkyNet from Terminator (Omnius) & Data from ‘Star Trek’ (Erasmus).

      Then, off we go 15,000 years into the future with ‘Hunters’; where somehow ‘Brian & Kevin’ make SkyNet & Data the Enemy from ‘Chapterhouse’. Allegedly, Frank Herbert wanted the whole thing neatly bundled up in ‘Sandworms/Seaworms’ with Duncan Idaho receiving machine codes from Data, and becoming a super-duper Messiah.

      And if that’s not enough, then they have to ‘milk the cow’ by going back and padding the stories of Paul and Jessica? In ‘Paul of Dune’, Irulan declares that the novel Dune is an ‘in-house’ dumb-downed version of Paul’s life, written for the back-world Fremen.

      Enough! What makes me really sick is that I blindly defended ‘Brian & Kevin’ for 10 years of my life. I want my 10 years back!

      Zack , you will want your years back, as well, one day.

  8. Good read.

    Honestly, if I sit down and think about the new “contributions” to Dune I fluctuate between dissapointment and outright anger. It’s honestly a disgrace that should never have been allowed & I agree that the publishers are as much to blame.

  9. This may be outside your field, but what do you think about the Tolkien’s that is Christopher’s work on his father’s legacy?

    1. Not at all, I love Tolkien and have often wondered if the situation were the same. I’ve read Silmarillion and mainly just found it really dense so I can’t comment too much on that one. As for other examples of his son’s work, can’t really say. It’s something I intend to get educated on though.

      1. I’ve recently re-read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, which I loved (hardly suprising). I also have the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and the Children of Hurin to read, but I’m pretty sure the father did most of the work on these. There are some more done by the son, which I’m not sure about, I guess it depends how long I stay with Middle Earth etc before reverting back to sci fi.

    2. There stands an enormous tower of difference between what Christopher Tolkien has done and what these two have.

      Tolkien’s legacy has been, in my opinion at least, well served. Christopher has enough care to try not to tarnish his father’s image. His releases have been very carefully crafted and have not noticeably stepped on J.R.R.’s toes – not that I’ve read, at least, and I’ve read the majority of the body of work. Christopher himself had the class to do no less than organize and release his father’s “long lost notes.”

      Not so with the Dynamic Duo. All they have demonstrated is a total lack of understanding of just what Frank was getting at. He wrote commentary, they write pulp. If they had understood the messages that Frank gave us, we could have forgiven the inaccuracies.

      But, like Williams says, they’re hacks milking it. I’ve read all of the *quels up to but not including Sisterhood. I’m done.

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