Friday, February 06, 2009

The Legends of Dune Trilogy

A few months ago I decided it was time to read Dune again, probably because the final book in the series (book 8) was finally released and I wanted to read it, but I'd have to start at least with book 6 to have any idea what was going on. So I decided to read the entire series of 14 books instead, in chronological order, because publishing order wouldn't have helped. For those who don't know, the Dune series originally consisted of 6 books by Frank Herbert. The protagonist of the first book was Paul Atreides, and the story followed his rise as the leader of the Freemen of Arrakis, the planet also known as Dune, and his conflict with the eternal enemies of the Atreides, the Harkonnens. It's a very popular book series, with one motion picture adaptation, and two (or possibly three) television mini-series.

So. The Legends of Dune Trilogy consists of the books The Butlerian Jihad, The Machine Crusade, and The Battle of Corrin. I've read this set only once before, I think it was shortly after the third book came out. The whole idea is similar to the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy: A few references in the Original Series sparked the imaginations of readers with images of humans battling evil machines (ala The Matrix or Terminator movies) and eventually Frank Herbert's son decided to cash in (probably after the huge success of the previously mentioned movies). Actually, Brian Herbert decided to cash in on his father's legacy long before the Legends Trilogy, by co-writing a Prequel Trilogy of books with Kevin J Anderson, who's a well known Sci-Fi/Fantasy author. The Prequel Trilogy details key events in the life Duke Leto Atreides, Paul's father.

The Legends of Dune Trilogy was also written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson, and takes place something like 5000 years before the events of Dune. The citizens of the worlds belonging to the League of Nobles are at war with the Synchronized Worlds, the machine worlds under the rule of Omnius the Evermind, and have been at war for around a thousand years. We are introduced to four humans, key throughout the series: Xavier Harkonnen, a courageous officer in the Army of Humanity; Serena Butler, a young but courageous and determined member of the ruling council of the League of Nobles; Iblis Ginjo, a low ranking but respected foreman on the Synchronized Worlds (on Earth, to be exact), in charge of a construction crew; and Vorian Atreides, a high ranking human trustee on the Synchronized Worlds (also Earth), son of the Titan Agammemnon, the cyborg general of Omnius' machine forces. Through an interesting series of events Serena is captured by the thinking machines, taken to Earth and introduced to Vorian. She shows him what it means to be an independent free-thinking human, despite her current situation as a servant of the machines. When her child is murdered (by the independent machine Erasmus), it sparks a rebellion among the human slaves, led by Iblis Ginjo, and Vorian uses his high rank to flee Earth with Serena and Iblis. They return to the free human worlds and convince them to step up the war, and it becomes a Jihad, a Holy War in memory of Serena and her murdered child, hence the Butlerian Jihad.

Of course, in the end humans utterly defeat the machines (and the cyborg Titans), but first they struggle through deadly plagues, machine incursions , the complacency and indifference of human leaders, and the treachery of other humans. In general, it's quite an entertaining set of books. There's a big war between logical, intelligent machines, they have a plethora of information, but little wisdom and little insight into human behavior, and the creativity and ingeniousness of humans, shackled by morals and indecision, and short memories. But it's mostly a story of characters, such as the aforementioned four humans, but also Erasmus, the most interesting of machines, he is one of the few thinking machines on the Synchronized Worlds that isn't tied in to Omnius, he has his own independent personality. We see how they live and die, how they feel and grow and respond to the various circumstances. Most of the characters are easy to sympathize with, even some of the machines are, and it's easy to get drawn into the conflict and be caught up with how it will end.

However, part of that sympathy is in conflict with a common flaw of the series. It's always been a flaw of the series (in my mind) that the time isn't constant. I don't know, it does help with the storytelling, but at the same time it breaks flow between the books. Subsequent books do not usually pick up where the previous book left off, so you loose your frame of reference, because the status is not quo (to quote Dr Horrible). It was a particular difficulty for me in the original Dune series. It wasn't too bad between books 2 and 3, only around 10 years had passed, so not a whole lot had changed, we were following characters who had been infants at the end of book 2 so we hadn't really developed a relation to them anyway. But five thousand years pass between 3 and 4, so EVERYTHING has changed, except for the once constant character throughout the original Dune books. Back to the Legends books, The Butlerian Jihad ends after humans nuke Earth into oblivious, and the Jihad is in full swing. But The Machine Crusade picks up 25 years later, and the characters we knew and loved from TBJ are not the same. Especially Iblis Ginjo. He was a very sympathetic character in TBJ. A foreman on a work crew on Earth, his job was to manage a construction crew whose purpose was to build monuments to the greatness of the Titans (the cyborg generals). He had a little authority which he used to improve the lives of his workers, to inspire them to hard work for their machine overlords.

A quick side note: Erasmus spends is life examining and learning about humans. He feels his independence is a benefit to Omnius, as he has a different perspective on humans and their behavior. In an effort to prove to Omnius that he understands humans better, Erasmus bets that he can turn a trusted human against Omnius, and he succeeds. He unexpectedly starts the rebellion on Earth by trying his bet out on Iblis Ginjo (among others). Iblis is convinced that there is a secret underground movement brewing, and he takes steps to be ready: recruiting his workers, preparing defenses and offenses (hiding rocket launchers in the statues his crew builds), and getting ready for when the time is right and the sign is given. When Serena's baby interferes with her willingness to obey Erasmus, he decides to remove the distraction, and he kills the baby (drops him off a ledge to the ground below), in full view of Iblis and his work crew. Serena flips out (understandably) and attacks Erasmus, but his bodyguard robots intervene. She manages to knock one of the bodyguards off the ledge, and it smashes to pieces on the pavement below. This shocks all the humans present, and Iblis realizes there is no better time, and launches his work crews into action, setting off the rebellion that eventually becomes the Holy Jihad in memory of Serena and her murdered baby.

So that's Iblis at the end of The Butlerian Jihad, fervently leading a holy war against the demonic thinking machines. But at the start of The Machine Crusade he's a fat, power-drunk, bureaucrat, living high on the authority granted him due to the war. He's very much taken advantage of the fervor of the people, and gotten himself appointed Grand Patriarch of the Jihad, and has set up a very Nazi-esque secret police, the Jihad Police who root out machine sympathizers and spies and it all sounds very much like witch hunts to keep the populous afraid of the machines and keep Iblis and his Jihad Council in control of the League of Nobles. We eventually find out that some of the so-called spies actually were spies, but low ranking, unimportant spies, "found out" by the true spy for Omnius, the head of the Jihad Police, whose name I don't recall at the moment. It doesn't take long for us to completely dislike Iblis, because we're supposed to, but those feelings are in stark contrast to how we were supposed to feel about him in the first book. It's all very confusing and makes it more difficult to get into the subsequent books.

Another thing I remember not liking from my first read through was the fact that EVERYTHING of importance from the original Dune books finds its beginnings in this trilogy. The Spacing Guild and space folding? Books 2 and 3, check. The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood? Book 3, check. Mentats? Books 2 and 3, check? The Atreides/Harkonnen fued? Well, that was actually one of the main purposes of this trilogy (or at least, that's how I remember them being advertised back when I first bought them), so of course, check, though it just barely sneaks in at the end of the third book, almost like they had forgotten they were supposed to setup the feud, because Vorian Atreides and Xavier Harkonnen become very good friends in the first book, and remain so until Xavier's death in the second, and Vorian transfers his friendship to Xavier's grandson in the third book. The feud does feel kinda thrown together at the last minute. Anyway, the phrase "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of the human mind" book 3, check. The Corrino line of Emperors? Again, book 3, check. Oh, and how can we forget the founding of the Freemen of Dune, books 1-3, check! Glowbulbs, shields, suspensors, they're all to be found here for the first time.

I tried to pay more attention to all these beginnings and the time frames this read through, and it's not quite as bad as I remembered. The books span something like 150 years, so it's not quite so forced as it felt before, but still, every important socio-political relationship is setup in these book. Sure, the Mentats and Sisterhood aren't very far developed, and neither is the Spacing Guild really, but the obvious beginnings of the three come to pass in the same 50 years of the last book. Same with the Freemen, although a lot of their beliefs and practices are acquired throughout the books. It just feels a little too rigged.

Now, lest you think I didn't enjoy the books, let me set your mind at rest. I did like the Legends of Dune trilogy. Quite a lot. most of the beginnings are very interesting, there are a lot of sympathetic characters for us to like, and lots of very not sympathetic characters for us to dislike. The stories surrounding the formations of the various entities are very interesting. For example, the first Mentat, the humans that can think in fast and logically like computers, is trained by Erasmus. And it makes perfect sense of course, what better way to learn to think like a computer than to be trained to do so by a computer? And it sets up an interesting father/son relationship for Erasmus. The Freemen have interesting stories, we learn more about the slavery they suffered that we heard about in the later books, and we see them learn to ride the Sandworms for the first time.

There are a lot of interesting, engaging stories in these books, and they're definitely worth reading. They're also a lot easier to get into than the original Dune, it's lighter writing than Frank Herbert used, so I recommend these books to sci-fi fans, or those who don't mind sci-fi for a good story. Oh yeah, and there's a giant war with robots and cyborgs, so what more could you want?


Marissa said...

You know, that review almost makes me want to read the trilogy. It sounds very interesting.

thepavl said...

I was thinking of reading them but as you say they are not heavy reading as Frank Herbert used to do. Since that is one of the main reasons i find Dune unique i think i'm gonna pass... Nice review thoug, cheers