Brian Herbert &
Kevin J. Anderson,
Dune: House Atreides
(Bantam, 1999)

Dune is a planet named for its global terrain of scorching hot desert, and it is but one planet of the thousands (perhaps millions) under the rule of Padishah Emperor Elrood IX, Emperor of the Known Universe. This great Empire emerged after humankind's recovery from the self-inflicted wound of a centuries-long enslavement to machines.

That war of liberation, although long in the past, has left in its wake deep cultural taboos against the building or use of machines that can think. In Dune: House Atreides, this constraint is coupled with the existence of a scarce compound, Melange (the key to interstellar travel, among other things), so that a dynamic universe emerges, one in which human social and technological evolution takes some exotic, but entirely consistent, paths.

Each planet of the Imperium is controlled by a House (an aristocratic family), in such a manner that the masses take no active part in history, being either suboid worker-drones or simple peasants in awe of their betters. The enormous power centered on the person of the Emperor ensures that intrigue, suspicion and paranoia swirl about the throne itself, those close to it, and each of the Houses. We follow the adventures of the young Prince Leto of the House Atreides on the planet Caladan as he prematurely inherits his father's Dukedom along with all of its history and responsibilities stretching back twenty-six generations.

"Dune" also refers to the novel of the same name written by the father of one of the present co-authors. In an afterward to Dune: House Atreides, Brian Herbert says his father's novel was "one of the greatest creative achievements of all time, and arguably the greatest example of science-fiction world-building in the history of literature." Without wishing to dispute this assessment (Dune won both a Nebula and Hugo Award), I nevertheless wonder if such praise is perhaps made in a bid to pre-empt the inevitable comparisons that this new addition to the Dune canon will evoke. Thus the son concedes immediately that this prequel to the original novel can only fare badly in any comparison because, well, so would just about every other work of fiction.

The second member of the writing team, Kevin J. Anderson, certainly employs to good purpose his skills and experience in creating stories and characters based in previously established universes (for example his Star Wars and X-Files novels). But there is a problem and it has nothing to do with the manner in which this novel is executed. At the center of the Dune universe is the eponymous planet itself -- it lies shrouded in mystery, full of potential to upset the status quo. Much of its mystery is conveyed to the reader by Pardot Kynes who, as in the original novel, is a planetologist by profession. In 1965, when Frank Herbert wrote Dune, that profession embodied the mind-expanding concept of treating a planet as a single enormous interdependent ecosystem, a pivotal idea of that novel which had more than a whiff of the future about it. But this is no longer so. The publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, along with the Apollo astronauts' pictures of Earth hanging delicately in the lifeless void of space are among the events of the intervening years that have made planetologists of us all. For the reader of this novel, time has pulled the teeth of the message Kynes preaches to the endogenous Fremen inhabitants of Dune, and the authors fail to replace it with anything nearly as exciting, being content that the character in their story simply repeat the original, by now tired, concept.

All this is by way of saying that the original novel is a hard act to follow. However, Herbert and Anderson's attempt has delivered a story heavy with machiavellian plots and counterplots which result in action and the testing of loyalties across the vast reaches of the Known Universe, a universe inhabited by among others: the all-female order of the Bene Gesserit, the melange-besotted Space Guild Navigators, the fanatical, creepy Bene Tleilax for whom the DNA code is the Language of God, the hateful, sadistic House Harkonnen, and of course the loyal, honorable House Atreides. Their stories are well told, with enough loose ends left at the end to whet the appetite for the promised two further volumes. In short, Dune: House Atreides, in revisiting the arid wastes of the planet Dune, does nothing to dishonor the vision and genius of Frank Herbert.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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