Last time around, I made a big deal about prequels and why they aren’t so good. And of course, the Dune prequels were featured pretty prominently in that post. However, what I came to realize shortly after writing it was that I’ve never dedicated a post to the prequel work of Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson and explained what it was that was so disappointing about them. Nowhere was this more apparent for me than with their Legends of Dune series, the hackish trilogy that was supposed to detail the seminal background event known as the Butlerian Jihad.
Sure, they’ve come up here and there in my rants, always in the context of how they effectively raped Frank Herbert’s legacy. But today I feel like zeroing in, applying the rules I devised for why these prequels fall short, and mentioning a few other things that bothered me to no end about them. So, without further ado, here’s the The Butlerian Jihad, the first book in the Legends of Dune series and one of several unoriginal Dune-raping series they created and why it sucked!
Dune, The Bulterian Jihad:
In my previous post, I outlined four basic reasons for why prequels can and often do suck. As I said, they are by no means scientific or the result of expertise, just my own observations. However, when it comes to the Dune books of Brian Herbert and KJA, they certainly do apply. Hell, it was the act of wading through their books that I was able to come up with these rules in the first place. They were: 1. No Surprises, 2. Sense of Duty, 3. Less is More and 4. Denying the Audience the use of their Imagination.
These things ran like a vein throughout the works of Brian and KJA, but were by no means the only problem with their books. In addition, there were also the problems of cardboard cut-out characters, heavily contrived plot twists, cliches, and an undeniable feeling of exploitation. Add to that some truly bad writing and the fact that the story felt like a complete misrepresentation of Herbert’s ideas and you can begin to see why Dune fans found these books so offensive. As one of them, I’m happy to ran about this whenever and wherever possible. So here goes!
1. Bad Characters
In the Preludes to Dune series, this problem was not so pronounced, nor was it a huge problem in the Dune sequels (Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune). But in the Legends of Dune series, it was palatable! The characters were so one-dimensional, so predictable and so exaggerated that they became downright annoying to read. And of course, their dialogue was so wooden I thought I was sitting through that horrible “love scene” from Attack of the Clones. This was a clear indication that where the elder Herbert’s own characters and notes were not available, the two authors had to rely on their own instincts and took the cheap route.
Examples! Legends of Dune revolves around the characters of Serena Butler, Vorian Atreides, and Xavier Harkonnen on the side of good, Erasmus, Omnius and Agamemnon on the side of evil, and Iblis Ginjo, Tio Holtzmann and a host of others somewhere in the middle. And in each case, they are horribly over-the-top, too good, or too evil to stand. In addition, bad dialogue and writing counts for a lot. Even the characters who are not robots speak as if they are, their traits and attributes are openly announced, and nothing beyond their topical persona’s are ever revealed.
On the one hand, Serena Butler is a crusader for the abolitionist cause and a tireless leader for free humanity. After dedicating herself to ridding the free worlds of slavery, she then selflessly volunteers to lead a mission to liberate Geidi Prime (later home of House Harkonnen) when its clear her people think its a suicide mission. Afterwards, she becomes a willing figurehead in the holy war against the machines and puts aside the love of two men in order to be an effective leader. You might think this is just her public persona, but that’s all she’s got going on. Seriously, she has no other character traits beyond being the perfect heroine!
As if she wasn’t bad enough, you also get Xavier Harkonnen, a warrior who believes in endless self-sacrifice just like her, the perfect hero to her heroine. The entire series is filled with his rallying of troops, leading them into the fray, and coming to the rescue. All the while, he naturally struggles with his love for Serena, which is repeatedly frustrated due to the needs of the war. Vorian, on the other hand, is meant to be the Han Solo type, the bad boy who stands in contrast to Xavier’s good boy. But in this too, he is horribly predictable. Whereas Xavier is the honor and nobility hero, he is the daring and risky dude who also becomes a real ladies man. And of course, he loves Serena too, creating a predictable love triangle that somehow doesn’t manage to create a shred of conflict or complication.
Okay, now for the bad guys! Well… let’s start with the absurdly named Omnius, the machine hive-mind that runs things. He has little character to speak of, being a machine, but nevertheless fits the ideal of the evil, calculating AI perfectly. Naturally, he doesn’t understand humans, but hates them enough to want to kill them in droves. And of course he would like nothing better than to bring the whole universe under his “Synchronized” control (aka. he wants to conquer the universe). Clearly, KJA and Brian thought they were doing something clever here, using an unfeeling machine to explore the human condition. But really, the character and material felt like it was ripped right from reruns of Star Trek!
Erasmus, his only free-thinking AI companion, is similarly one-dimensional and stereotypical. He conducts “experiments” to better understand humanity, because of course he doesn’t understand them either. But the really weak character trait comes through with just how evil he is! In just about all cases, his experiments amount to senseless murder, flaying people, using their organs to make art, and studying their reactions with interest when he arbitrarily decides to kill someone. Oh, and did I mention he also murders Serena’ baby (and gives her a hysterectomy) once he becomes jealous of how much time she was spending with him? Seriously, Evil the Cat is not a good archetype to model your characters on!
Agamemnon and his Titans are also very evil, but in their case, a machine-like mentality can hardly be blamed. In addition to murdering billions of people in their drive for power, they hate free humanity, consider them vermin, and will stop at nothing to obliterate them. Naturally, they hate their machine masters too, but not nearly as much as their non-Cymeck brethren. Why, you might ask. Well, beyond saying that they were appalled by humanity’s decadence and reliance on machines, no reason is given. And it seems like a pretty weak reason to reprogram said machines to take over the universe and enslave everybody.
Really, if they were appalled by dependency on machinery, why not simply shut the machines down? Furthermore, if they were so bothered by how dependent people had come to be, what’s with all the machine enhancements they got going on? Each and every “Cymeck” in this story has cheated death by putting their brains inside of massive cybernetic housings. That sound like the actions of someone who doesn’t like machine dependency? Really, the only reason to do what they did (i.e. murder billions and try to take over the universe) would be because they were total sociopaths or megalomaniacs – i.e. really, REALLY evil! But don’t expect any logic from this story, mainly we are to accept that they are evil and move on.
And finally, Holtzman, who is supposed to be the brilliant inventor who created the Holtzman drive (the FTL drive that powers Guild Highliners), is a petty, greedy man who stole his inventions from his assistant, Norma Cenva. She, naturally, was a brilliant but naive girl who was always smarter than him, but continually got the short end of the stick. Iblis Ginjo is a slave leader who masterminds the rebellion on Earth, and becomes the sleazy defacto leader of the Jihad through wheeling and dealing that makes the reader feel enmity towards him.
Whoo! That was long, but I believe my point is clear. Basically, the characters were so simple and their purpose so obvious that it genuinely felt like the authors were trying to force an emotional reaction. The only thing worse was when they were trying to make us think, which were similarly so obvious that it just felt insulting! More on that later…
2. Contrived Plot:
The examples are too numerous to count, but I shall try to stick to the big ones and ignore the rest. First, in the preamble to the story, we are told that the Titans (the evil Cymeck people) took over the known universe by reprogramming all the thinking machines so they’d be able to control them. Okay, that seems a bit unlikely, but whatever. A dozen hackers managed to take over trillions of peoples lives by reprogramming the machines they were dependent on, whatever. But the real weakness was in the motivation. Why did they do this? Because they were upset with how dependent humanity had come to be on them. Meh, I’ve already said how this was stupid so I shant go into it any further.
But another weakness which comes to mind is this: if these “Titans” were so good with programming machines, how is that they let the big brainy AI (aka. Omnius) turn the tables on them? Didn’t they think it would be wise to program it with some safeguards, kind of like Azimov’s Three Laws? Not rocket science, you just make sure you tell the machines they can’t turn on their handlers. Simple! God, two crappy points and its still just the preamble! Moving on…
Next, the main character of Vorian Atreides breaks from his father and the Cymecks in the course of the book, which was a big turning point in the plot. But the reasons are just so… flaccid! After being a loyal and doting son for many decades, he decides to betray his father and his heritage in order to aid free humanity. Why? Because of one conversation with Serena Butler in which she suggests that he check out what his father’s done in his lifetime. Vorian explains that he’s read Agamemnon’s memoirs several times, but Serena recommends he check out Omnius’ own records, the ones which are not subject to distortion and personal bias. So he does, sees the undistorted truth, experiences a crisis for about five seconds, and then makes the decision to defect. Yes, this life-shattering experience, finding out his father is a mass murderer, is not followed by any denial, anger, or shooting of the messenger. He just accepts what he sees and turns his back on everything he’s believed in up until this point because of one conversation. Weak…
Also, the slave rebellion on Earth, the thing that touches off the whole Jihad, had some rather dubious inspiration. For starters, the humans knew of no organized resistance until Erasmus decided to make a bet with Omnius. He believed that humans could be inspired to revolt against their miserable lives if they were just given a glimmer of hope. So he began circulating letters claiming to be from “the resistance” to key people. When Iblis Ginjo got one, he decides to join and starts stockpiling weapons. Oh, and he manages to do this without the machines noticing. So, when the revolt begins, they have his weapons to fight with.
Where to start? For starters, are we really to believe that a coldly rational, superior AI would risk an open rebellion simply because of a BET? How stupid are they? Also, how was Ginjo able to acquire all these weapons without them ever noticing? Erasmus knew who he sent the letters to, did he not think it would be wise to monitor what they did afterwards? Sure, they claim that Ginjo explained his curious imports by saying that he had to requisition added materials to meet his construction quotas and managed to hide the weapons amongst them. Again I’d have to ask, how stupid are these machine masters of theirs?
Ah, but there’s more. Iblis gets further inspiration when he consults a Cogitor (see below) and asks it if a human resistance really exists. It replies that “anything is possible.” Of course, that’s how it answered all his questions, in keeping with the idea that Cogitors are somehow vague, ethereal beings. And yet, Ginjo gets the feeling that this answer was somehow loaded with subtext and implication. Yes, that’s how this part of the story was written. He gets a totally vague answer and assumes it means something truly meaningful, and thats all the inspiration he needs to start running guns and risking his life!
The rebellion is then fully incited when Erasmus – as mentioned earlier – kills Serena’s baby out of jealousy. This is especially hard to believe, and KJA and Brian even tacitly admitted as much in book two. Throughout the book, we are told that Earth is a slave planet where unspeakable horrors take place and the people are too miserable and beaten down to do anything about it. And yet, the death of one child causes billions of people to rise up and risk total obliteration. And they are able to do it because one slave master, motivated by a phony message – which was itself the result of a wager – was able to smuggle tons of weapons past the robot masters. Somehow, this just doesn’t seem like a likely explanation for a game-changing, cataclysmic event!
Finally, the climax of the story comes when the good guys decide that the best way to strike at Omnius is to nuke Earth. Yes, they’ve been debating for generations how to beat the machines… and apparently this is what they’ve come up with. “Really?” I wanted to say. This is how humanity triumphed over the evil machine menace, go nuclear? No startling new technology, no brilliant new strategy? If that’s all it would take, why didn’t they do it before? Well, according to the book, its because the idea seemed immoral to them. One dissenting character even asks, “Are you suggesting we become as bad as Omnius?” “No,” replies Xavier. “I’m suggesting we become WORSE than Omnius!” Wow. That… was… AWFUL!
Oh, it also at this point that they explain the origins of the name Butlerian “jihad”. On the Senate floor, once they have decided to nuke Earth, they openly say that in order to be effective, this must be more than a war. It must be a HOLY WAR. And that’s how the Butlerian Jihad got started! It was NOT the result of long term developments, changes, and forced adaptations. It was a decision made suddenly and deliberately. They just said in the thick of the moment, “Hey, lets call this a jihad! That sounds cool! Okay, jihad it is!” Not to nitpick, but as a historian I can tell you, this shit don’t happen! People don’t suddenly look around and say, “Hey, its the Enlightenment! Hey, its the Renaissance! Hey, its World War One!” These names are applied posthumously, usually by historians who are looking for labels to describe general phenomena.
I know, who the hell cares right? Point is, this more than anything is a clear demonstration of how contrived these stories are. Its as if the authors set out not to tell a story but to explain how everything happened and felt horribly compelled to do so. Remember point #2 of why prequels suck, aka. Sense of Duty? This is what inspired it, people!
What I especially loved about this book (dripping sarcasm implied) was the evil cyborg robots, named Cymecks. There’s an especially Herbertian plot device, a pulp sci-fi concept with a name that combines Cyborg and Mechanized (in case it wasn’t obvious enough already!) Even more fun was the Cogitors (play on the word Cognition), the disembodied brains of acetic thinkers who decided to achieve some measure of immortality by placing their brains in talks so they could live out their days just thinking. Hmmm, evil cyborgs and disembodied brains, where have I heard about these before? Every crappy bit of pulp sci-fi there is, that’s where!
Ah yes, and Serena Butler, the Virgin Mary meet Joan of Arc. As I said, she’s a war leader on the one hand and a holy icon on the other. This might have been a good angle, how she must maintain the illusion of purity (hence, no lovers), but it was squandered by the fact that in the story, she really IS a pure character! Selfless, dedicated and infinitely compassionate, she leads humanity and dies for them without a though for herself. Gag! As for the men who love her – Xavier and Vorian – they are perfect cliches as well. The one is the stalwart, perfect hero who never shies away from self-sacrifice, the other a Han Solo rip-off who’s bad boy charm barely conceals the fact that he too is excessively noble.
Then there’s the slavish robots! We are told well in advance that the whole Jihad was between free humans and thinking machines. And yet, aside from Erasmus, not a single robot thinks for themselves. They are all slaved to Omnius, the big, evil hive mind with a name that seems stolen out of the pages of a sci-fi comic or an episode of Buck Rogers. And if his name is not enough, the concept of a hive-mind who hates mankind and wants to conquer the universe is a similarly bland, overdone cliche that no respectable sci-fi author would touch with a hundred foot pole!
Which brings me to one group of characters I haven’t even mentioned yet – the Sorceresses of Rossak! These women, who boast the ability to conduct electricity, levitate, and have various other “magic” powers, are supposed to be the precursors of the Bene Gesserit. Wow… Okay, first of all, this is a perfect example of shit sci-fi; the kind of stuff you’d expect from Star Wars or an X-Men movie, but not DUNE! Second, last I checked, the Bene Gesserit were never able to shoot electricity from their fingertips or magically levitate! All their powers had to do with mental abilities like prescience and truthsense, which came from the spice. So really, where did these women get all these freakish abilities? In the course of reading this, I seriously expected someone to say “Feel the Force!” Of course, none of this is explained and no attempts are made to ground these characters in any sense of realism. It’s just another bad cliche in a book chock full of them!
Brian and KJA admitted that to create the Legends series, they had to rely on their own imaginations because Frank had not left detailed notes. However, it did not seem like they were relying on their own imaginations nearly as much as a conglomeration of bad ideas taken from B movies, TV shows and comics. Seriously, all these ideas have been done to death! This is not in keeping with Herbert at all, who not only created something original but highly plausible.
All throughout this book and the others in the series, one can’t help but feel that the authors are deliberately and shamelessly exploiting Herbert’s legacy. Its no secret that Frank was a hugely influential author who left behind an enduring legacy and millions of fans. Each and every one of them was eager to see how the Dune saga wrapped up, and couldn’t help but wonder what the events in the story’s deep background were all about. It’s little wonder then why these two paired up and decided to pick up the mantle.
On the surface, that might have seemed like a noble and brave thing to do. However, the calculated way in which they went about it clearly demonstrated there were ulterior motives at work. To begin, they didn’t tackle the Dune 7 project first, the one that they claimed Herbert had left “copious notes” for. Instead, they returned us to the universe and the characters we were already familiar with with some teaser prequels. They then moved on to the earlier prequels, books that did not wrap up the series but covered the deep background instead. Here again, it seemed like we were being toyed with! Only then, after all those prequels, did they finally decided to tackle the conclusion, and they even managed to draw THAT one out by putting it into two volumes instead of one. As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s those terrible interquels that have “cash-in again” written all over them. I tell ya, it never ends!
In short, it was obvious what they were doing. Getting audiences hooked with some quick and easy books that took place right before events in the main novel, then pulling them in deeper with some stories that went further back, and only then doing what they promised which was finishing the damn saga off! And when that finally came, it was a horribly transparent ending that had nothing in common with Herbert’s work but tied shamelessly back to their own so-called contributions. As much as I disliked these books, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these men, especially Brian. He above all set out to take on his father’s legacy, but somewhere along the line he took a wrong turn and ended up in cash-in junction where legions of his fathers loyal fans were waiting and demanding their money back!
5. Prequel Complex:
To finish, I’d like to refer back to rule one in why prequels suck. In short, these books really didn’t contain anything new. Just about every reference to places was meant to refer back to something in the original story, every characters was meant to tie to someone in the original text, and every development was meant to forecast how the universe we were familiar with came to be. It all felt forced, contrived, and quite unnatural. For one, things don’t get created all in one lifetime, as all the inventions and schools which exist in the original Dune universe were in this series.
Literally everything, from the Mentats, Guild, Foldspace technology, spice harvesting, the Fremen, the Ginaz swordmasters, the Tleilaxu, the Bene Gesserit, etc, were created within the pages of this series and then went on to exist (virtually unchanged) for ten thousand years! All I wanted to say in the course of reading this was, “that’s not how things happen!” Things are not created in one instant and then endure for ten thousand years, they develop gradually and change over time. Forecasting how things came to be is one thing, but completely explaining them just deepens the sense of duty and contrivance from which prequels suffer. Again, rule two man! RULE TWO!
6. Wrongness of the Whole Thing!:
Added to this was the undeniable feeling that they got it all wrong. In Herbert’s original stories, references to the Butlerian Jihad were few and far between. But when it did come up, Herbert clearly indicated that the rebellion was driven by people who’s lives were becoming dominated by machines and a machine mentality. By that, one gets the impression that the jihad was not a war in the literal sense but a moral crusade to rid the universe of something that was increasingly seen as immoral. In accordance, the “enslavement” of humanity seemed metaphorical, that it was really just a sense of dependency that the jihadis were fighting.
At no point was it even hinted at that the jihad was a war between evil machines and free humans, or that humans won it by nuking every thinking machine out of existence. But that was clearly Brian and KJA’s interpretation – that the “enslavement” of humans by machines was meant literally and the war was some super-righteous titanic struggle. Clearly, subtlety means nothing to these two, either that or they just didn’t see the cash value in telling a story that boasted a little irony and nuance. Instead, they opted for a cliched story of good vs. evil with a rah rah ending that would make even Michael Bay’s eyes roll.
Such an ending did not seem at all in keeping with Herbert’s legacy, that of realistic and hard sci-fi. It was much more in keeping with the work of KJA, a man who is famous for writing fan-fiction and pulp sci-fi, a man whose won only one award for his writing and it was for kid lit (A Golden Duck!). So really, putting the name Dune on this book was more of a legality or formality than anything else. In the end, its not a Herbert tale, its a KJA tale with the name Herbert attached. And as I’ve said many times before in reference to Dune, raping the legacy of a great and venerated man for the sake of your own fame or financial gain isn’t cool!
Okay, think I definitely said enough about that book. I mean, how many ways can you possibly say a story is crap? I found six but I can still think of material that’s just looking for a proper category to plug it into. Suffice it to say, the story was bad and I strongly recommend that fans of Herbert stay away from it at all costs. Those who haven’t need to be warned, and those who have already, let me just say that I feel your pain! And speaking of pain, I shall be back with volume two in this terrible saga, The Machine Crusade. Wish me luck…
4 thoughts on “Legends of Dune Prequels”
This is really late considering the date of your entry, but I was looking for something like this. I’m starting Dune after recommendation from a friend, I just finished the Butlerian Jihad; for God’s sake, what a waste of time.
The book is so predictable in so many ways I can not stand it, now I’m clinging to the hope classic Dune is every bit as promised because so far it has been a disappointment.
To your list I could add the defeat of Ajax, “the most brutal of the titans”, and immediately after people not knowing how to the kill the remaining cymeks, what is that?! I hate the main and secondary characters (except Selim, the only kind of interesting story for me). For example Serena at the end being a spoiled, self centered brat telling his two “love interests” to set her aside; yeah kid, the world moves around you. Zufa, an insufferable, over the top b*tch archetype who can’t see everyone’s value for the war, because I suppose that a couple hundred/thousand suicide bombers are enough to kill trillions of machines. I could go on with the list but not necessary.
I don’t know, I haven’t even started Frank’s work and this already feel more like a copyright sue material than a tribute to a classic.
I must admit my share of guilty pleasures regarding reading (I read the Inheritance cycle for a reference), but Dune prequels (I already started the Machine Crusade) are far beyond bad writing.
Right now I regret not starting with the old ones.
So if I understand you, you started reading the Dune series and started with the prequels? Oh dear, that’s not good! But yes, the original Dune novels are far, far, far superior, though opinion differs on which of the original six are best (or even truly good reads). I personally have read all six a few times, and I can attest to them all being good. Some are better than others, and the first is really the only one you NEED to read to get a feel for Herbert’s writing. But the choice is yours…
As for your timing, don’t worry about it. The quality of Dune, and the lack of quality of its prequels, are a timeless issue 😉