Herbert, Brian, and Kevin J. Anderson. 1999. Dune: House Atreides. New York: Bantam.
Reviewed 02 November 1999
First, a disclaimer. I've never been a fan of Dune. I found the serious logical flaws in the setting, in character actions, and in narrative structure left me out in the endless dunes of Dune. Then there were the problems with the content itself, of which more anon.
I'm afraid that my opinion of this prequel is even lower. Putting two authors together who have "earned acclaim" before is no assurance at all that the result will be the sum of the parts. House Atreides demonstrates that sometimes that second author is a negative influence. (The arrogant afterwords don't help.) The prose is so blandnot just plain, or unornamented, but devoid of any individuality at allthat one can only believe that the coauthors edited away each other's distinctive voice. The style is simply not consistent with Brian Herbert's previous work, Kevin J. Anderson's recent work, or the Dune series itself.
This last discontinuitywith Duneis the most serious, and demonstrates many of the dangers of playing in someone else's sandbox. The first question to ask is the one that Herbert and Anderson never got around to answering: what part of the story can bear extension at novel length? Very, very seldom will it be a prequel. One of the best examples of this problem is Tolkien. The four central books (The Hobbit and LOTR) are masterworks; the "prequels" that followed fail because they try to impose storytelling values on legendary materials.
That is one of the major problems with House Atreides, too. What story there is in Dune emerges through a slow unfurling of both the current story and the backstory. We don't see much of the consequences of the Butlerian Jihad until quite a ways into the saga. House Atreides backs into the Jihad with its tale of Ix, and thus exposes one of the major flaws of the Dune universe. The storyline and environment depend heavily upon individual characters and the society as a whole taking actions because they're possiblenot advisable. Yet this is precisely the lesson that should have been drawn from the Butlerian Jihad: that, in that universe, the possibility of creating true artificial intelligence does not mean it should be done. The same can be said about the ecological program to create a lush paradise on Arrakis.
I can't resist imposing some biochemical perspective on melange, the "spice" that runs the universe. Even in the 1960s, when Dune was originally conceived, biochemistry was advanced enough to at least analyze the structure of the most complex chemical compounds, given sufficient resources. The importance of melange would certainly ensure that sufficient resources were made available for analyzing the spice. Look at advances in sequencing DNA in the last ten years, and recall that the Imperium has had 10,000 years since the Butlerian Jihad, but still doesn't know what melange is. (Synthesis is, admittedly, a much more difficult proposition.) Even if melange is some "living" symbiote, the implied technology base virtually presupposes enough knowledge to go a long way toward discovering its nature, although (again) recreating it may be a more difficult task. The history of precious metals as a foundation of social economics should have been a warning not to establish a society based upon the scarcity of a single compound, and then expect that single compound to remain in control for such a long period of time. The "gold standard" really lasted about 600 years, and was destroyed by bookkeeping (not scarcity or politics). Believing otherwise about melange is not very historically astute.
The sophomoric plot of House Atreides cannot lift it out of this difficult mess. Neither the beginning nor the end of the book seems anchored in anything that really matters to Dune and its sequels. Sure, we see some Evil Harkonnen Plotting (which is at least as portentious, and pretentious, as capitalizing that phrase) which may, or may not, start to explain the personal animosities between the two Houses that drives the plot of Dune. But House Atreides doesn't add anything, and doesn't really tell us anything useful about what we do know.
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