Dune: The Butlerian Jihad
Tor / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First
Publication Date: 09-21-2002
621 Pages; $27.95
Date Reviewed: 09-23-02
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002
Some writing opportunities seem simultaneously enviable and terrifying. Frank Herbert's universe, as created in the classic novel 'Dune' is ripe with opportunity for the writer. Readers might well be terrified, lest their favorite work be devalued by inept execution. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson are clearly up to the challenge. 'Dune: The Butlerian Jihad' offers a curiously pleasing combination of soap opera in space, retro science fiction and cleverly plotted revelatory satisfaction. Herbert and Anderson manage to whip up a very quick, clear and complex universe even for readers who haven't touched a 'Dune' novel in 20 years. They also discard about that much of the history of science fiction as well. It's a great choice. 'The Butlerian Jihad' is a pleasure to read. Guilt feelings are left as an exercise for the reader.
The novel wastes no time whatsoever setting things up, and does so in a brusque manner reminiscent of the screen crawl that tends to open space opera movies. The info-dump itself is pretty basic; having spread across the stars, humanity became complacent, and then it became enslaved by the artificial intelligences it had created. Some humans have escaped and created the pre-Dune version of the Federation of Planets, which exists in an uneasy Cold War with the Synchronized Worlds, each ruled by a constantly updated version of the Omnius AI. The Synchronized Worlds are saved from staleness by the cymeks, human brains-in-a-bell-jar connected to robotic bodies; they keep alive the savage hatred required to keep billions of humans in slavery. As the novel opens, the Cold War ends and open warfare begins.
'The Butlerian Jihad' is written in the style of a best selling thriller, with alternate chapters telling the tales of numerous characters, most of whom come to meet in the narrative of the novel. Herbert and Anderson pile on the charm best when they create the legends behind such familiar names as melange, the Bene Gesserit, the Fremen and the Holtzman shield. Each of the seeds behind these familiar terms from the original novel is an enjoyable return to a wonderfully familiar universe. We're not talking about startling innovations in this novel. But the familiarity register rings dutifully off the scale. The writers handle their material in a thoroughly professional, old-style science fiction manner. It's really satisfying to this long-time 'Dune' fan.
When Anderson and Herbert get to the Harkonnens and the Atreides, they tread on more sensitive ground. In these characters lie much of the heart of Herbert's novels. Here they tend to mix things up a little, and the main characters they create are the better for it. Xavier Harkonnen is a priggish hero, full of classic bravado and a bit deliberately stuffy. His counterpart, Vorian Atreides is the smug son of an infamous cymek, blissfully unaware that he's been working for the bad guys. The characters both set up some interesting resonances with the readers' memories of other Harkonnens and Atreides. They also work well into Herbert and Anderson's fairly complex mosaic.
The other big piece of the puzzle is Serena Butler, the charismatic woman who becomes the crux of a love triangle right out of 'Days of Our Lives'. But these 'Days' are passing in the 'Dune' universe, giving them a lot more heft and the upshot of the triangle a lot more punch. Herbert and Anderson architect this whole structure quite well, setting into motion wheels within wheels that never actually even get on the ground in this first installment. Though the pacing is torrid, and at time approaching hurried, not all plot threads are resolved.
It's surprising then how satisfying the novel is in spite of some lack of resolution. Herbert and Anderson have an absolutely unified voice that never wavers. The plot is comfortably satisfying and exciting in its introduction of several characters who will clearly prove to be pivotal in 'Dune' future history. It's also an interesting exercise in deliberately retro science fiction. Particularly in their concept of AI's, the authors ignore a lot of the recent and messier thoughts about AI in favor of a very clear-cut Aggressive Menace axiom. They also have a fascinating throwback to actual human slavery spread wide across the galaxy. This isn't the usual science-fictional form of covert (via manipulated reality/media) or innate (via genetic engineering) slavery. This is whips and chains of the American South slavery, performed not only by the cruel AI's and their cymek minions, but by the humans of the League worlds as well.
The slavery is accepted on the League world due to another major Dune component that's handled rather well in this novel, and that's religion. The authors get the religion going on two fronts --it's enjoyable because the forerunners of the Fremen beliefs are all too apparent, and because it plays well into the political bickering and manipulation that is also one of the enjoyable hallmarks of the 'Dune' novels.
To this reader there was a lot to like in 'Dune: The Butlerian Jihad'. Sure, it's a bit on the old fashioned side, but it's well executed, filled with lots of events and characters that readers of the original novels will find endearing and entertaining, and moves fairly fast for a rather large novel. It's an enjoyable slab of space opera that keeps the pages turning and the lights burning. It manages to be readable in and of itself, and leaves the reader wanting the next installment sooner than it is likely to come out. In all the important ways, 'The Butlerian Jihad' a smashing success.