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August 29, 2005

Kevin J. Anderson: Hack

Warning: This entry contains spoilers about the Dune prequels. If you haven't read them yet and intend to, don't read the rest of this entry.

This weekend I finally had a chance to do some recreational reading. I chose to finish out the "Legends of Dune" trilogy that started with The Butlerian Jihad with the two I hadn't read, The Machine Crusade and The Battle of Corrin. The books are co-written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.

I'll admit, I already had a very low opinion of Anderson as a writer. While his output may be prodigious, the quality of that writing fails to meet even sci-fi's regrettably low standards. He seems to subsist entirely on his ability to quickly generate derivative, stop-gap books for popular SF series that have an unquenchable demand (particularly Star Wars). I know his books always consist of an audacious storyline, a handful of static, inexpertly developed characters, hordes of one-or-no-dimensional extras, and prose that reads like an autopsy. Yet I was enamored enough with the Dune universe that I decided to gloss over these deficiencies. After all, Brian Herbert had shown himself to be a welcome counterbalance to Anderson in the "Prelude to Dune" series. There had also been rumors of notes left behind from the original author, Frank Herbert, about how things were to play out. How would the famed Jihad begin? What was the desert planet Arrakis like in those days? Who would discover foldspace? And why did the Harkonnen betray the Atreides at the "bridge of Corrin"? These were mysteries hinted at but never answered in Dune, and I was hoping to learn the answers to those questions. Sadly, the trilogy largely disappoints.

The Butlerian Jihad, with its ultimate dictum "thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind," clearly had to have religious undercurrents. But Anderson (and B. Herbert has to take equal blame as co-author) portrays the jihadis as mindless, irrational followers of inept, equally irrational leaders, all of whom were unwitting tools for Machaivellian politicians and military men. The Jihad is a simplistic Luddite mob which should have burned out in a decade, yet its legend lives... because humans are too stupid to discard religious fervor. Is that really what the elder Herbert would have wanted? At its core, the mystique of Dune is Arrakis, a spartan place where no sane persion would be irreligious. Religion subsumed the science, with visions and prophecy guiding the actions and values of the main character, the Kwisatz Haderach. By the end of the book, those who had trusted to their own insights and mere technology were found wanting.

But in this series, religion serves no higher purpose than to insanely propel the plot to something approaching an origin. By the end we're left with the distinct notion that many aspects of the later Dune universe so esteemed by its characters (and the fans) is outright fiction, irrevocably distorted by the passage of time. Arrakis is an afterthought; the founder of the Fremen sacrificed himself for a monastic dream his own people didn't want and, in fact, seems to contradict the behavior of his descendants. The Bene Gesserit embark upon their massive breeding program for apparently no reason apart from arrogance. The beginnings of Mentats and Swordmasters, though rich in pages, are starved subplots, providing only enough to provide shallow "Aha" moments for readers looking for connections to the later books. Only the genesis of the Guild, a rare bright spot, is good storytelling.

Most damning of all is the coverage of the Battle of Corrin, consisting of some 60 pages. This is the title of the final book in the series, for crying out loud! Vorian Atreides, patriarch of the nascent Great House, is an absentee father whose own children ignore him. When he isn't off achieving great military feats all by his lonesome, he is sparring with his friend Xavier Harkonnen... and later, after a cowardly speed-up by Anderson et al kills off characters through the passage of time, Xavier's grandson Abulurd. Vorian is more interested in Abulurd than in his own children. The characters age, but do not develop at more than a glacial pace. And then suddenly, at the start of the Battle of Corrin, there's a moral dilemma: is the destruction of the machines worth the lives of millions of slaves? The Atreides says yes and the Harkonnen says no -- in fact, Abulurd disables the firing mechanism until the commander comes to his senses. Through writer's convenience, Vorien gets his way, the slaves inexplicably survive, and Abulurd is exiled, his family stained forever.

That was what I slogged through over 2,000 pages for? Anderson is infamous for writing static, all-good or all-bad characters; why did he have to get all subtle at the pivotal moment of conflict in the whole Dune universe? The epic conflict between the noble Atreides and the evil Harkonnen was not based on real treachery but on a difference of opinion?! I'm speechless. Somebody help me out here.

Posted by The Greatness at August 29, 2005 09:55 AM