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Dune: The Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

After being severely disappointed by the Dune prequel trilogy, I was somewhat ambivalent to hear that the duo of Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson would undertake as their next project a trilogy set during the Butlerian Jihad, the upheaval that had created so many of the cultural features distinctive to the Dune universe, particularly the rejection of advanced computational technology in favor of the development of human capacities. On one hand, I had some hope that by getting away from characters whom we had come to know intimately in the original series, they would be able to avoid the constant failures of characterization that had marred the first prequel trilogy. On the other hand, I had been so disappointed by the shallowness of their characterization and worldbuilding that I had serious reservations about their ability rise to the task.

Unfortunately, my reservations proved to be all too well founded. There is a certain cartoonishness to the world they have created, a shallowness and flimsiness that simply does not live up to the impressions we get from the few references in the original Dune to the Great Revolt. The figures of Omnius and his independent robotic goon Erasmus are at best a limited menace that seem to belong more to an anime series or perhaps a Saturday morning cartoon, not a universe with as grand a vision as Dune.

Part of the problem may be that technology has changed greatly in the time since the original novel was written. In 1965, computers were still giant machines that were understood only by a specialized priesthood of operators and were generally owned by government agencies or large corporations. Ordinary people generally had to deal with them only when something had gone awry with data, generally related to such thing as one's taxes or bills paid. As a result, there was a definite sense of the computer as a menacing force that was attempting to run our lives, and a very real fear that computerization would lead to increasing regimentation and dehumanization of our lives.

But with the development of the microprocessor in the early 1970's and the resultant development of the personal computer, people became accustomed to dealing with computers in their daily lives. Ordinary people soon owned multiple computers, all with engaging user interfaces that worked upon various graphical metaphors. Such ordinary devices as telephones became increasingly computerized, as did music players and other appliances. Instead of being a vast, monolithic Menace, computers shrank to a quirky source of exasperation. It's annoying when your computer eats a vital file the night before an important presentation and you have to spend several hours reconstructing it, but you don't feel as though your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is in immediate danger of being usurped.

As a result, the authors probably felt that regular computers would be insufficient to carry the story, and instead created self-willed mechanical beings who had usurped humanity's self-government and reduced them to slaves. No longer tools, but active competitors for the niche of intelligent tool-user, they are clearly the enemies of free humans everywhere. And when Erasmus casually murders human beings as part of his experiments, culminating in the elimination of little Manion Butler for the sole reason that he is annoyed that the child takes Serena's attention away from himself, it is most definitely infuriating. Perhaps even more so than the same murder of an innocent child committed by a jealous human lover because of a certain internalization of the Three Laws of Robotics which was originally propounded by Isaac Asimov in the 1930's. For a robot to kill a human being is not just a violation of that individual's life, but of the literary convention by which robots ceased to be symbols of human hubris and become instead very advanced tools, whose problems became technical rather than moral in nature.

Yet even armed with all this literary background, I still find that the world they have created just does not compare in depth to that of the original Dune. However well the various threads of story are woven together, including those that look to be hinting at the founding of the Bene Gesserit and of the Spacing Guild, they still seem rather shallow and insipid. There's really not much here that inspires re-reading, let alone multiple careful re-readings to capture additional elements that previous readings overlooked.

Were it a novel in a universe original to the authors, without all the Dune-universe names, I would say that it's a fairly decent page-turner. But once one puts the Dune name on it and seeks to have it included in the Dune canon, the bar of expectation is raised, and this effort simply does not meet it.

Review posted January 15, 2009

Buy The Butlerian Jihad (Legends of Dune, Book 1) from Amazon.com.