Review

Dune: The Butlerian Jihad

by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson



To say anything sensible at all about THE BUTLERIAN JIHAD, the long
awaited beginning-before-the-beginning of Frank Herbert's
perennially successful "Dune Chronicles," some background is
essential. Not that this worthy addition to a major science-fiction
(SF) dynasty by son Brian Herbert and co-author Kevin J. Anderson
can't stand on its own --- but more of that later.

When Frank Herbert gave us DUNE back in 1965, the desert planet of
Arrakis and its mysterious tribal culture seemed exotic indeed. It
wasn't only far removed in time and space, but well beyond most SF
readers' imaginative experience. At the time (bear with me, all you
Boomer Echo folks) we Earthlings were caught up in the Cold War,
the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev's
shoe-banging antics in the UN, the amorphous threat of China under
Mao Tse-tung, and of course the televised horrors of Vietnam.

It would be another two years before the infamous Six-Day War
pitted Israel against a largely unknown (and so far ignored)
Islamic-Arab world. So who would even consider the dry and
disunited Middle East in terms of literary world-building? Who
would dare build an alien planetary culture based loosely on
half-a-dozen mainstream Earth religions, but bearing more imitative
resemblance to Islam than anything else? Well, we know the answer
to that one --- DUNE soared to the top of the bestseller lists for
both SF and general fiction and stayed there.

For another two decades, until Frank Herbert's untimely death in
1986, DUNE sequels hit the bookshelves at regular intervals. Soon
there was a DUNE trilogy, then a second trilogy, and so on. But it
was inevitable that growing pre-DUNE curiosity --- based no doubt
on the exhaustive endnotes, historical lists, glossaries and maps
appended to the inaugural volume --- would force Herbert's literary
descendants in the opposite direction. Several more books appeared,
broadening the galactic stage and filling in more and more
characters.

And that's essentially what the hugely ambitious prequel, DUNE: THE
BUTLERIAN JIHAD, tries to be all about. It pushes further back than
ever before into the convoluted history of Dune's scattered
planetary societies, back to a time when humans rose in an arduous,
chaotic and culturally devastating revolt against the "thinking
machines" that enslaved them. Originally invented by humans, these
super-robots, who combined mechanical superiority with relentless
"fuzzy logic" reasoning, soon outmaneuvered their creators.

From the existing series and the late author's notes, Anderson and
Herbert have painstakingly pieced together an enormous, vibrant
fabric from a mind-boggling array of tantalizing parenthetical
references, subtle asides, detailed fictional genealogies and the
like. Over scores of brief, unnumbered chapters that keep the book
firmly glued to one's eyeballs (in defiance of real-life
necessities like having to get off the bus, get up in the morning,
or give in to the lineup at the bathroom door), THE BUTLERIAN JIHAD
whirls from one character and subplot to another, allowing some to
dramatically intersect, while others are left precariously
suspended until later story threads retrieve them. Many of the
major family names, notably Atreides, chronologically emerge here
for the first time. As well, formative events, like the discovery
of riding massive worm-beasts across the sand seas of Arrakis, are
introduced.

But like so many enormous projects --- especially inherited ones
--- THE BUTLERIAN JIHAD falls into some common traps. It tries to
navigate too much territory between only two covers; one often
craves more sustained focus and less repetitive clutter.
Additionally, it lapses far too frequently into extreme
blood-and-guts violence that rapidly loses its power to shock, but
not to disgust.

And the title begs to be questioned. It's unfortunate that these
skilled wordsmiths didn't choose a more appropriate keyword than a
militaristic distortion of "jihad," which mainstream Islam reserves
for discussing the discipline of pilgrimage and/or personal
spiritual discernment. Ironically, a thinly disguised oppressed
religious group modeled on Muslim culture is thoughtfully and
respectfully portrayed.

Despite its shortcomings, there are vast stretches of strikingly
lyrical and cogent writing here. THE BUTLERIAN JIHAD worthily
continues DUNE's original power to draw even the least empathic
reader into fascinating realms of morality, philosophy and sheer
rampant surprise.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on January 21, 2011

Dune: The Butlerian Jihad
by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

  • Publication Date: October 3, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction
  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Books
  • ISBN-10: 0765301571
  • ISBN-13: 9780765301574