Dune: House Atreides

The desert song continues

Themes Explored: progress, industrialization, trade, loyalty, politics, court intrigue, suspicion, betrayal, coming-of-age, fate, manipulation, family politics, relationships, friendship, gene manipulation, death, revenge, vengeance, slavery, self-preservation, religion, planetary gentrification, culture shock, addiction, drug trade, space travel, combat, eugenics, power

Synopsis: Working from his father’s files, Brian Herbert and bestselling novelist Kevin J. Anderson collaborate on a new novel, the prelude to Dune–where we step onto the planet Arrakis…decades before Dune‘s hero, Paul Muad’Dib Atreides, walks its sands. As Emperor Elrood’s son plots a subtle regicide, young Leto Atreides leaves for a year’s education on the mechanized world of Ix; a planetologist named Pardot Kynes seeks the secrets of Arrakis; and the eight-year-old slave Duncan Idaho is hunted by his cruel masters in a terrifying game from which he vows escape and vengeance. But none can envision the fate in store form them; one that will make them renegades–and shapers of history. (Adapted from Goodreads)

House Atreides, Bantam Spectra, 1999, ISBN 9780553580273

Review: Frank Herbert gained worldwide popularity in 1965 with the publication of his space opera book Dune. Set on a desert planet that holds the key to the destiny of humanity, Dune and the five sequels are widely considered one of the greatest pieces of informed information. Herbert had a talent for weaving philosophical lessons and ethical discussion into his writing. However, while the first novel was fantastic, the subsequent sequels fell into the philosophy over narrative trap. I loved reading Dune and devoured the sequels with decreasing enthusiasm. I only powered through because I had a strong desire to know the ending, even though it finished on a monumental and unfulfilling cliffhanger. So it was trepidation that I picked up the prequel trilogy written by Herbert’s son. House Atreides appealed to me because it was written in a less dry style. While I still enjoy reading the original series, I prefer rereading the prequel trilogy because I found the writing more engaging and less philosophical.

The Dune series was such a success, and still is, due to the complex world building. Herbert set his story tens of thousands of years in the future and explore the complex history that brought about the galactic empire. This interstellar empire is governed by a monarchal system that is similar to the ancient British monarchy. An Emperor rules over the Great Houses, who keep his power in check via a parliament type system. However, the Spacing Guild is a strong political force because they have completely monopolized interstellar travel. In the shadows lurks the secretive Bene Gesserit who carefully manipulate the politics and familial ties of the ruling elite in order to bring about their own ends. Nearly all of the Dune series, both the original and prequels, take place on the desert planet of Arrakis. And a lot of the series is dedicated to exploring the ecology of the planet, which sounds good when read but would probably fall apart under actual scientific scrutiny. And the local culture of the indigenous people of Arrakis is interesting as it is built entirely around the concept of lack of water. Unfortunately most the series suffers from a heavy overdose of mysticism and drug fueled mystical experiences. These mystical experiences generally involve “genetic memories” and race relations, but the scientific explanations is unbelievable. A few of the other scientific advances are rather blatant excuses to add in some narrative flair.

Chapterhouse: Dune, the last book written by Frank, ended on a cliffhanger. However, instead of continuing the story, Brian and Kevin decided to step back a generation and explore the events that took place prior to Dune. The narrative focuses on characters who are considered legendary or powerful political figures: Reverend Mother Helen Mohiam, Crown Prince Shaddam, Hasimir Fenring, Pardot Kynes, and Leto Atreides. Through these characters the book explores the competition and hatred that drive the relationship between the Atreides family, the Harkonnen family, the Bene Gesserit, Ix, and the Emperor.  Most of the action takes place several decades before the original Dune. In this far-future galactic empire, everything from politics to interstellar travel is dependent upon the drug mélange. Arrakis, also known as Dune, is the only known planetary source of this miraculous drug. Emperor Elrood IX of House Corrino sends planetary ecologist Pardot Kynes to Arrakis in order to study the unique ecology. Meanwhile, Crown Prince Shaddam puts into motion a plot to assassinate his father and to open negotiations with the Tleilaxu to create an artificial source of mélange. Paulus Atreides sends his fourteen year old son Leto to Ix in order to study the planet’s advanced technology.

The plot in House Atreides is slightly convoluted and there are a lot of subplots. However, you do need to have read the original books in order to make sense of it all. Most of the novel is centered on Leto Atreides, the only son of House Atreides and the future ruler of Arrakis. In some ways House Atreides and its sequels make the original series more understandable and fills in the background on many pivotal characters. The writing is strong and, while the plot is rather unoriginal, it is still a great read with some unpredictable twists. But the main drawback to the novel is the overabundance of strong characters. While all the characters are compelling for different reasons, they are all rather one-dimension due to a lack of development. The novel reads quickly because the authors focused on moving the plot along at the expense of character development. This resulted in characters being either good or evil without any nuance or depth. Given the lack of time spent on main characters, it is lucky the secondary characters are even given names. Most of the background characters are interchangeable due to none of them possessing any distinguishing traits besides gender. Any added development seemed contrived in order to progress the plot not to add any depth to the characters.

There are several elements to the novel that are wonderful. There are many factions and political houses that are vying for power. Each house has a unique home world, resources, religious beliefs, and distinguishing characteristics. Dune has many qualities that appeal to a lot of different types of people. Even though the story is set about 10,000 years in the future, there is a slightly medieval quality to the narrative. There are the Bene Gesserit, who are essentially militarized nuns who religiously follow a weird selective breeding program that is meant to bring about some kind of super messianic person. Then there are the Fremen, the native inhabitants of Arrakis and are modelled on nomadic Arab tribes. Other elements include the environmental consequences of destroying a planet. Economic problems are explored through the trafficking and regulation of the mélange spice. The authors also address the complicated relationships between politics, military strength, diplomacy, religion, and the role of a leader. Any fan of the series will not be disappointed in the writing style and substance contained in the narrative. However, the book leaves more questions than it answers.

Overall, the narrative is an entertaining read but I would not rank it amongst the greatest science fiction/fantasy novels ever published. This is a hardcore science fiction book that sacrifices authentic human characters in favor of moving along the plot. But it does answer and explore some of the mysteries found in the original Dune universe. House Atreides sets the stage for future books and illuminates some of the issued raised in earlier installments. However, I do not know if readers who are not familiar with the original series will enjoy House Atreides as it was definitely written for the dedicated fanbase.