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Why “Prelude to Dune” sucks

Originally published 2003-09-07



PRELUDE TO DUNE is a trilogy written as a prequel set one generation before the events in Frank Herbert’s classic sf opus DUNE, perpetrated by his son Brian Herbert and a co-writer. They’ve now written another trilogy set thousands of years earlier in the Duniverse at the time of the Butlerian Jihad (LEGENDS OF DUNE). These books were obviously always going to be a rather cynical ploy by the publishers to cash in on DUNE’s continuing popularity, but did they have to suck this bad??

Herbert fils and his ghost writer accomplice Kevin J. Anderson may have had access to Herbert pére’s notes on the Duniverse, but must have only read the actual novels in the most cursory fashion, and seem to have understood the themes and society not at all. I can think of no more damning indictment than to say Frank Herbert would have hated these books carrying the DUNE name.

There is no appreciation of the subtleties of semantics and politics that Herbert pére unfolded so elegantly: all the PRELUDE characters have the grossest motivations, dialogue and actions. The authorial voice lacks descriptive power, unable to evoke more than generalities of location. Because of the scope of the Duniverse, the PRELUDE TO DUNE books can appear as superficially impressive space opera, but compared to the original six DUNE books they can only be described as jejune.

Worst of all, if a reader were to come to these books before reading DUNE itself, that great book would be ruined for him by clumsy foreshadowing and unforgivable continuity bloopers.

SPOILERS ALERT: if you have not read DUNE plot spoilers are included in the following material. Do not scroll down further if you do not want important plot details revealed.


In the original DUNE, Paul M’uadib Atreides must penetrate millennia-old veils of secrecy regarding the properties of the spice melange, commonly viewed in the Imperium as a life-prolonging drug (thus priceless) with minor mind-enhancing side-effects of curiosity value only. The two groups most dependent on the hidden properties of spice, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood and the Spacing Guild, have kept the secret of how melange enables prescient visions entirely to themselves, using their knowledge of future events to manipulate Imperial politics. DUNE is clear that only someone trained as Paul was — a Mentat-Warrior, with the aid of his mother’s Bene Gesserit abilities, and brought to maturity in the crucible of Fremen culture — could piece the puzzle together and use a threat to the existence of spice itself to force the Guild and Sisterhood to catapult him to the Emperor’s throne.

But in PRELUDE TO DUNE, apparently everybody — the Emperor, the Landsraad, the Tleilaxu — already knows that melange brings prescience to the Guild and Sisters. So much for the central mystery of DUNE.

In the original DUNE, Paul’s mother Jessica was pregnant when she took the spice drug that changed her consciousness and transformed her to a Reverend Mother, with access to ancestral memories and the serially transmitted memories of a train of Reverend Mothers extending millennia. Her daughter Alia was born with all these memories also, and in CHILDREN OF DUNE tragically succumbed eventually to possession by an ancestral personality, losing herself in Abomination. The books make it very clear that the Sisterhood of this era was well aware becoming a Reverend Mother meant that further children would be ‘pre-born’ in this fashion, that this was so horrific that such children were routinely executed, and so were very careful to ensure that Reverend Mothers bore no children.

Yet in PRELUDE TO DUNE, Reverend Mothers are bearing children all over the place. Seems to make Leto II’s renouncing his humanity in GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE so he can guide his breeding program for a thousand years rather pointless, what? I can only assume that Herbert fils and friend failed to read deeply enough and thought that only actual pregnancy when taking the Water of Life resulted in a pre-born, or else looked at the last two novels, set thousands of years after Alia when the God Emperor’s breeding program had succeeded in eradicating the danger of Abomination, and thus Reverend Mothers were no longer restricted as breeders, and totally overlooked the earlier significance of the taboo. Either way is sloppy, very sloppy.

In DUNE, Thufir Hawat is unaware of the Bene Gesserit Voice until Jessica demonstrates that she can use it to control him. Paul only knows of it because Jessica, in defiance of Bene Gesserit guidelines, has told him. It is a big, big secret, hiding behind superstitious stories of witches’ spells that the Sisterhood encourages in order to keep others guessing and underestimating them. The Sisterhood can implant false memories and speech inhibitions in anyone to whom the Voice is revealed, therefore the secret is kept very effectively.

Yet, in PRELUDE TO DUNE, Piter de Vries not only knows that Voice exists, but knows how to block it using special earplugs that will enable normal speech to be heard but will not admit the controlling extra-perceptual overtones of Voice.

More blunders:

  • The Tleilaxu as overt religious fanatics rather than a people hiding their deep religious fanaticism from all the universe. How on earth are later characters in the Duniverse meant to not know what many characters in this prequel discuss as common knowledge?
  • Paulos bullfight but no Leto revenge on bull

It gets worse. I can’t go on. Prelude to Dune really sucks.

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writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Why “Prelude to Dune” sucks

  1. Some other reasons “Prelude to Dune” sucks:

    1) Leto’s father’s final bullfight completely destroys the myth that Frank Herbert had built up about the Atreides family. Frank Herbert has the bullfight as being a symbol of the Atreides’ ability to face danger to the point of self-destruction. The way it is told in “Prelude” upends this–it becomes another sleazy Harkonnen plot. Also, making the bull some kind of alien creature provides a cognitive disconnect, since we have been since the original “Dune” imagining it as a standard issue terran bull. Now we have to re-imagine the bull’s head in the Atreides castle as something else.

    2) The first meeting between Leto and Jessica should be a magical moment, but instead she is desposited on Caladan as if she were a UPS package.

    3) Baron H’s girth in “Dune” was a symbol of his insatiable greed. In “Prelude”, it is the result of a cheesey Bene Gesserit trick in revenge for the Baron having his way with a Reverend Mother.

    4) Leto is an ineffective character. Nothing is done to show him as a de facto leader of the Landsraad. Instead, the Atreides family endures one Harkonnen plot after another, seemingly without a clue, until the final trial in front of the Emperor.

    5) The No Ship. This is an anachronistic element, since this technology really does not come in until later in the series. What bugs me is not so much the anachronism, but that the authors could think of nothing better than to have Rabban zipping around like Spiff the Spaceman in his flying saucer, shooting up things.

    6) Baron H dumping one of his aides into a sewage vat. Wrong! This is comic opera stuff, designed for shock effect, completely the contrary of Frank Herbert’s much more complex character. At several points in “Dune” the Baron states that he does not waste human material. Despite Feyd trying to assassinate him, the Baron is able to win him over to their mutual interests. Similarly, the baron goes to great pains to bring Thufir Hawat into his fold. The authors of “Prelude to Dune” instead have the Baron twirling his spice mustachios and tossing widows and orphans out into the cold.

    7) The Atreides rescue of Gurney Halleck. In the original “Dune”, his rescue is clearly implied as being the result of an Atreides military raid on Geidi Prime. In “Prelude” it is totally inadvertent, the result of Gurney hitching a ride on a shipment of quartz to Caladan. What the …? What was the intent here, other than to trash one of the great legends of the original “Dune”?

    The point is, the authors of “Prelude to Dune” did everything in their power to trash the “Dune” mythology.

    Posted by Bashar101 | August 1, 2008, 5:13 am
  2. About the secret of the true use of spice and how failing to understand how important it is to the plot of original Dune results in complete mess.

    This argument actually applies to the Lynch movie as well: it states right at the beginning that Spacing Guild navigators use the melange to find ways in space as if it were common knowledge to everybody in known space…
    Wow, so what use was it for the Spacing Guild to preserve this piece of information as a secret for so many millenia while pretending space navigation was merely a very involved math problem?

    Makes me think that if Lynch had directed the Usual Suspects, he would probably have put the last 5 minutes as introduction…

    Also, I heard that the prequel stuff has the Spacing guild founded by a woman.
    In which case you now wonder why Bene Gesserit sisterhood had been spending so much effort creating a male BG… Because if there had been a female navigator, they would not have needed to break the mental wall inaccessible to female behind which the Spacing Guild navigators and their precious secret were hiding.

    The plot in original Dune was so elegant and cleverly thought of that obviously the author’s son himself seems to have missed the point completely…

    Posted by Tarou | October 17, 2008, 4:33 pm
  3. It has only gotten worse.

    In Paul of Dune they finally make clear their plan to redefine all of Frank Herbert’s Dune books as in-universe texts.

    I suppose they think this will silence the criticisms of inconsistency.

    Unfortunately there’s still the matter of the execrable writing style….

    Posted by SandChigger | January 26, 2009, 11:49 am
  4. The books did suck. I suffered through both prequel trilogies and intend to suffer through the sequel duology.

    Bashar101 – Actually, the Guild being founded by a woman was established in the original series…. it was pretty much mentioned in passing by Leto II through internal dialog, complete with the names of Norma Cenva and Aurelius Venport.

    What scares the spice out of me is what heresy Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson is committing in this midqual quadrology… “Heroes of Dune.”

    Frankly. I would not blame most hardcore Dune fans to refuse to accept the BH/KJA books as canon, since they can’t even seem to compare to Frank Herbert’s original works, crimes against continuity notwithstanding.

    I’m not surprised they changed th Salusan bull into some alien creature: Kevin J. Anderson is a notoriously horrible Sci-Fi author who coudl never find success in his original works, so he got foisted into writing Star Wars Novels. I am willing to bet huge money that ruining the mythos and grandeur of the Atreides through the bull alone was his bleeping idea.

    I also question the existence of these so-called “notes” written by Brian Herbert’s father. Do we have any proof beyong his and KJA’s word that they exist? Did BH or KJA even READ the books or are they going off the 1984 movie which couldn’t keep even the primary themes of the novel correct.

    Personally: I’m one of the people who reads the blasphemous BH/KJA novels as a curiosity, most definitely NOT acknowledge them as canon, even if they’re officially canon. If they weren’t trying to pass themselves off as Dune novels, not even in the same universe, I could almost say that they’d hold more weight and be better books. I found the Prelude to Dune novels interesting… I actually liked reading them as science fiction/adventure. I did NOT enjoy them in the context of the Dune universe, though, as it just seems like BH/KJA definitely UNDERSTOOD NOTHING about his father’s books.

    If those notes exist and I were Brian Herbert, I would either find an author who understood the original series who could more or less write like Frank Herbert, or I’d just publish the notes for the world to see and get a real career.

    Posted by Yaro | February 22, 2009, 11:59 am

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