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Prequel Problems: Prelude to Dune

By Tom Anderson

In this article series, I put forward the thesis that writing a prequel to an established work of media is one of the most challenging feats for any writer, with many things that can go wrong. Following my introduction last time, I will now devote articles to examining specific examples of this. Let’s begin with the Prelude to Dune series, written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson and published 1999-2001, written as prequels to the six Dune novels of Herbert’s father Frank (published 1965-1985).

Later writers writing prequels to beloved works by deceased authors is never not going to be controversial. It’s a fairly common practice to try to pre-emptively deflect criticism by involving the children or other relatives of the original author (such as Eugene Roddenberry being brought on board for Star Trek: Discovery, while Christopher Tolkien always resolutely refused to have anything to do even with adaptations of his father’s work). In the case of the Dune series, original author Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, collaborated with established science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson (no relation!) to write more books set in the celebrated Dune universe (or ‘Duniverse’).

The Herbert-Anderson Dune books have attracted a negative reputation over the years. Critic John Michaud wrote, in 2013, “The conversion of Dune into a franchise, while pleasing readers and earning royalties for the Herbert estate, has gone a long way toward obscuring the power of the original novel.” As we shall see, in my opinion he is not incorrect. However, there has been a tendency to conflate the first three Herbert-Anderson books, collectively called Prelude to Dune, with the ones they wrote later, beginning with the Legends of Dune trilogy and then the books intended to continue the orphaned original series. Many of the criticisms of the Herbert-Anderson works refer to factors that only really began with Legends of Dune. Most importantly, the deep but vague backstory established by Frank Herbert explains the absence of advanced computers and artificial intelligence (‘thinking machines’) in the Dune setting by saying that ten thousand years ago, the ‘Butlerian Jihad’ led to the latter being banned. Most readers would take the description to imply a broad societal movement inspired by the idea that due to reliance on A.I., humans were becoming less than human. However, Herbert the younger and Anderson decided to instead portray it as a straight sci-fi robot uprising war, which many critics felt was unfitting of the metaphysical majesty of Dune.

Whereas the Legends of Dune series dares to visit what Tolkien called the distant mountains, and is found wanting, the Prelude to Dune series more modestly looks at the few decades leading up to the original novel. There are some connections between the two – Herbert and Anderson sensibly mention characters and ideas ‘of the distant past‘ in Prelude that weren’t previously mentioned (such as Raquella Berto-Anirul and Serena Butler) which they wanted to feature in Legends. But broadly speaking, to my mind it is unfair to lump Prelude in with the deeper and more fundamental problems of Legends (and the sequels then written in a failed attempt to replace Herbert the elder’s planned ‘Dune 7’ which he never completed due to his death). Prelude is much more of a curate’s egg, with a mix of good and bad practice that is worthy of further examination rather than dismissal.

In order to explain why writing in the Duniverse at all would be a challenge, I need to discuss the original Dune novel. A bare plot description of Dune sounds rather generic and uninteresting. Two houses, both alike in dignity (sort of) in dry Arrakis where we lay our scene. In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only feudalism. Alright, enough clichés: Dune is about the noble House of Atreides being given custodianship by the Emperor over the desert planet Arrakis, the only place in the universe where ‘the spice mélange’ comes from. The spice is a mind-expanding drug that is used by the Navigators of the Spacing Guild to navigate their faster-than-light ships, as well as by others in moderation to undergo religious experiences. This apparently prestigious position of authority over the planet, however, is a trap, and the Atreides’ rival house, the Harkonnens, strike with surreptitious Imperial support. Duke Leto is killed, and his son Paul, who is the Chosen One, the Kwisatz Haderach or ‘shortening of the way’ that the all-female religious order the Bene Gesserit have been searching for, must lead the native Fremen people in revolt to take revenge and overthrow the despotic Baron Harkonnen. In the end he not only achieves this but also captures the Emperor and, with the source of the spice in his hands, takes over the Imperium itself.

Yet that description no more sums up what Dune is really about than ‘ghost of murdered king tells son to avenge his murder by killing his uncle’ sums up Hamlet. Anyone who reads Dune expecting a straightforward adventure story in space is going to be disappointed. Dune is a work about metaphysics, religion and ecology among much more. The Bene Gesserit (inspired by the Jesuits, as one can tell from the similar name) can use the spice to access the memories of their female ancestors, and seek to control the prophesied Kwisatz Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit who could do the same to his male ancestors, before he is even born (a birth which they arranged). Paul knows from visions from the start that he is destined to lead a Jihad which will kill millions, and doesn’t want to. Dune is a work about predestination and free will, and Paul ultimately fails because he becomes the ruler of the universe (which we know he will because each chapter starts with a quote from his future loveless royal wife’s books about his victory).

The theme is continued in Frank Herbert’s later books; Paul’s tyrannical son Leto II devotes his life to trying to find ways to prevent spice prescience from destroying human free will. This comes through both selective breeding that produces humans invisible to the prescient sight of spice, and also through the technological invention of a ‘no-field’, everything within which is hidden to both conventional sensors and spice prescience visions. All throughout this, the Fremen of Arrakis, whose harsh homeworld has rendered them equal to the feared Imperial Sardaukar as fighters, end up being exploited and manipulated (Paul at one point despairs that his onetime Fremen friend Stilgar now looks on him as a god-king, and muses ‘When did I lose a friend and gain a creature?’) As I addressed in my earlier article ‘The Impact of Red Alert’, Dune is clearly inspired by the events of the mid-twentieth century and the exploitation of Arab peoples (which the Fremen culturally resemble) for their lands’ oil reserves, the spice serving as a metaphor.

Dune also comes with extensive appendices and ancillary materials to flesh out the unique setting of a feudal far future, hierarchies driven by the ban on ‘thinking machines’, with slave labour replacing much mechanisation and trained ‘Mentat’ human logicians who behave like living computers. Arthur C. Clarke said that he had found nothing comparable to Dune other than The Lord of the Rings. As a setting, it had huge influences on many later works, most obviously Star Wars (which wholesale lifts the idea of Dune spice to give Han Solo some dialogue in the original film) and the setting of Warhammer 40,000. Yet it should also be obvious that it also represents an exceptionally challenging work to either adapt for other media (hence David Lynch’s brave but seriously flawed attempt) or to be joined by works written by other authors lacking Herbert’s style.

I should also mention another issue with the books which poses a problem for prequel (or sequel) writers: inconsistencies. There are a lot of them. Some are minor examples of spelling or capitalisation variance (which might be as much the fault of the typesetter as Frank Herbert): is the name of the desert mouse Paul is named after by the Fremen ‘Muad’Dib’ or ‘Muad’dib’? Is ‘Mentat/mentat’ capitalised or not? Is it ‘Holtzman’ or ‘Holtzmann’, is it Count ‘Hasimir’ or ‘Hassimar’ Fenring?Piter ‘de Vried’ or ‘de Vries’? ‘Kaitan’ and ‘Selusa Secundus’ or ‘Kaitain’ and ‘Salusa Secundus’? It is worth noting that the original Dune books are set over thousands of years and Frank Herbert tries to show time passing by variations on planet and personal names, yet this is largely lost in the mix of existing inconsistencies.

Some are more serious than this; is Scytale a Face Dancer or a Tleilaxu Master? And then there are the actual plot-breaking ones, of which I’ll mention two. As said above, in the first novel we’re told that the Kwisatz Haderach is a male Bene Gesserit who can access the memories of his male ancestors (‘Other Memory’), which are closed to the female Bene Gesserit, and this is the main reason why they want to control him – to gain that knowledge of the other half of humanity. At the end of the second book, Paul confirms his son Leto II will have the same ability and that this is something special. Then, in the third book, a plot point is that Paul’s sister Alia (‘St Alia of the Knife’), who killed the Baron Harkonnen when she was a child in the first book, is taken over by her own ancestral memory of him as she is also descended from him. This completely flies in the face of the assertion that female prescients can’t access male ancestral memories and renders the entire background Bene Gesserit plot pointless, and is clearly described in such a way that it is not treated as something unusual or unexpected.

A second, and more relevant plot hole comes in Heretics of Dune, which is set thousands of years after the original. Bashar Miles Teg and his party take refuge from their enemies in a forgotten ‘Harkonnen no-globe’, a spherical underground fortress on the old Harkonnen homeworld protected by a no-field. Except, if you were paying attention, you’ll have seen I said that no-fields were only invented after Paul’s son was running the Imperium, long after the Harkonnens were defeated and wiped out. To their credit, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson use Prelude to Dune to attempt to close this plot hole. They portray the Harkonnens having developed no-fields earlier (but, being Not Nice People, none of the original designers survived) for other purposes and show the no-globe being built. While this makes the overall Leto II arc plot feel less special, it at least shows that these authors were making an effort to fix a problem with the original books, and deserve something more than undiluted castigation for their work.

Let’s now talk about Prelude more generally. It follows the original Leto Atreides from a similar starting age to where his son Paul started in the original book (14 vs 15) together with the Baron Harkonnen and other characters featured in the original, such as Duncan Idaho, Gurney Halleck and the future Emperor Shaddam IV. The writers play on the relatively few things about this period that were hinted at in the original work. For example, we know that Leto’s father ‘the Old Duke’ (we hear learn his true name is Paulus, inspiring Paul’s name later) died in a bullfight. There is a textbook example of playing with prequel reader expectations; early on, Leto is about to be sent away to Ix for a visit, and they celebrate his departure by his father having a bullfight…which he wins, and we end on his son’s pride as they stand raising the bull’s head before the cheering people of their planet Caladan. Who said it had to be that bullfight in which the Old Duke died? This is really well executed and makes the reader take a more reflective note on how the prequel is written; it’s not just going to hit the known notes predictably.

Another example of good practice comes with Piter de Vries (Herbert and Anderson picked a set of standardised spellings, usually but not always the earliest ones established, and stuck to them!) De Vries is a Harkonnen Mentat and assassin who was a fearsome figure in the original book, but we didn’t see much of. Here we get to see him at his craft, yet doubt leaks in in the final book when he seems to find out about all sorts of plot points he really shouldn’t know about in the original book. Have the prequel writers slipped up? No, in a plot twist de Vries is killed and we remember that he’s a Tleilaxu creation, and the Baron can just order another one lacking his most recent memories. It could easily feel like a cop-out but I feel it works well, and again plays with the expectation that any character who features in the original work must survive the prequel.

Between these oases of good ideas, there are of course deserts (see what I did there) of lack and flaw. As I said in my last article, a prequel does need some plot meat to justify its existence, and Prelude is more than just background—it features a whizzo scheme by Shaddam and the Tleilaxu to try to create a synthetic substitute for spice that will free them on dependence on control of Arrakis, then destroy other Houses’ stockpiles of spice. We know in advance this isn’t going to work so it feels a little bit time-wasting. It also involves the invasion and occupation of the factory world of Ix for years on end by the Tleilaxu, and leads to Leto taking on a concubine who’s the daughter of the former Earl Vernius of Ix and having a son by her named Victor—who dies in an accident. None of this is even hinted at in any of the original novels, and it really doesn’t feel like the sort of thing that would never be brought up. By contrast, the chapters which cover the backstory of Planetologist Pardot Kynes on Arrakis and his half-Fremen son Liet (already summarised in a memorable appendix to the original novel) feel much more fitting.

There are also some attempts to link with the original novels that go off-kilter. The appendix to the original Dune mentions House Ginaz as a defeated former ally of Atreides, but Prelude has Ginaz as a neutral planet on which Swordmasters are trained. While Duncan Idaho is there undergoing said training, we get another inconsistency in discussions he has. The original novels heavily hint that little knowledge of ancient Earth history is remembered. Backstory implies that contemporary people view human history as always being one unitary Empire, with its capital just shifting from Rome to London to Washington and so on as though they were feuding houses, ‘the House of Washington was the first to use atomics’. This is a neat example of future imperfect historiography, with the contemporary people viewing it all through the lens of their current society. Heretics of Dune specifically highlights the fact that some Jews have come through more than fifteen thousand years of history with their faith unchanged as something of note, whereas most religions have merged and split and merged again repeatedly. Paul Atreides, reading a ‘shigawire spool’ (an interesting futuristic use of 1950s wire recording technology!) wonders why ‘Emperor Hitler’ was considered so bad when he ‘only’ killed six million people, clearly lacking any context for humanity being restricted to one planet with a comparatively small population. But in Prelude this historiographic vagueness is forgotten, with contemporary people not only being able to discuss the Butlerian Jihad in detail, but also the end of the samurai period in Japan and knowing that ‘the British’ existed as a distinct nation.

Predictably, however, the main flaw with the Prelude novels is the same as with the other Anderson-Herbert books; they are straightforward adventures in a familiar setting, with none of the metaphysical depth of the originals. Some nifty ideas in closing plot holes, fixing inconsistencies and playing with reader expectations cannot fill that gap, and the later books like Legends do not even have those. The Prelude series feels very similar in writing style to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which itself takes obvious inspiration from Dune; the Harkonnens are the more straightforwardly ‘evil’ house but the Atreides are not wholly ‘good’, the Atreides leader is suckered into taking an apparently prestigious position at the centre of power but is abruptly killed in a shocking sequence, etc. Borgia-style intrigue, and the crass glee that both Anderson and Martin take in writing about sickening torture or misery, are not adequate substitutes for the Litany Against Fear or ‘Paradise on my right, Hell on my left and the Angel of Death behind’.

As Michaud wrote, the Dune continuations have done much to earn money for the Herbert estates. Yet this brings to mind my single favourite quote from the original, which inspired a similar quote in my own Look to the West: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”



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