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It's not "Dune" - but it's entertaining in its own right
on 27 December 2013
I would imagine that the vast majority of people who come to read the Prelude to Dune trilogy have already read at least "Dune" if not all 6 of Frank Herbert's Dune novels. To say that Prelude to Dune has got a hard act to follow - er - precede is something of an understatement. In all honesty I think you'd be lying if you said that this trilogy is as good as Frank Herbert's original novel, but then none of his own sequels were either.
So let's discuss Prelude, then. I originally read Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson's "Hunters of Dune" and "Sandworms of Dune", the two novels which are meant to come after Frank Herbert's last Dune - "Chapterhouse: Dune". Let's be honest, the huge majority of the most vocal fans absolutely hate these books. Which I think is rather unfair. Taken on their own merits they are decent, readable and intelligent attempts to bring the series to a conclusion, based on Frank Herbert's own notes for his unwritten Dune 7. I enjoyed these enough to decide to give "House Atreides" a try. I liked it enough that I wanted to read the whole trilogy, and here I am, having just read all three.
So what can I say? If anything I thought that these three were better than Hunters and Sandworms. While I enjoyed these two, I did think they suffered from having a little bit of padding, a criticism that I wouldn't make about Prelude to Dune. The characters in Prelude are more confidently drawn as well. Yes, there are times when you're a little surprised at what one of the characters in the original novel does or says in these, but for me it didn't happen all that often. It didn't really detract from my enjoyment knowing that whatever happened certain characters such as Duke Leto - Baron Harkonnen - Thufir Hawat - Gurney Halleck - Duncan Idaho etc. etc. they can't die because they have to feature in "Dune". I enjoyed learning more about some of these characters' backgrounds too, albeit that I read The Dune Encyclopedia some time ago, and these books present things very differently from that particular magnificent work of fan fiction.
As with Hunters and Sandworms it seems to me that the writers are far more interested in technology than Frank Herbert ever was, and not so interested in the psychological and philosophical themes which are so important to his works. Frank Herbert's novels are introspective. Every major character has depth and complexity, which is explored in some detail, and at the risk of alienating Frank Herbert's fedaykin, to me this gets in the way of the narrative thrust in the last three books. Nothing and nobody in Prelude is quite as deep or complex, and at times the novels do veer towards space opera. I'm irresistibly reminded of the idea that George Lucas plundered settings and ideas from "Dune" and the Duniverse when he was making the original Star Wars trilogy, and I dare say that Prelude is a lot closer in tone and subject matter to Star Wars than anything that Frank Herbert ever wrote was.
I suppose that those are the negatives. What you get for your money, though, is a good adventure yarn which rattles along well and doesn't let up from the start of "House Atreides" to the conclusion of "House Corrino". The three books read as if they were planned and written as one consistent whole, and this is another point in their favour. There are some interesting new characters, and some of the old ones who were very much supporting characters, for example Shaddam IV, Count Hasimir Fenring, even Glossu `Beast' Rabban take a far more prominent role in the trilogy than the original novel. A large amount of the action takes place on other worlds than Arrakis, indeed Kaitain, Ix and Caladan are every bit as important to the trilogy as Arrakis itself.
Without wishing to give away too much of the developing narrative of Prelude, it centres on the events in the old Empire leading up to and including the birth of Paul Atreides, the main protagonist of "Dune". This involves the Tleilaxu invasion of Ix, Emperor Shaddam IV's coming to ppwer, and his intrigues to extend it, and the developing feud between the new Duke Leto Atreides, and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Diverse stuff, I think you'll agree, and it's a testament to Brian Herbert's and Kevin J. Anderson's storytelling power that the disparate strands never unravel or fragment from the consistent whole they have been woven into.
Did I enjoy Prelude as much as I enjoyed "Dune"? No, of course not. There are very, very few books I ever enjoyed quite as much as I enjoyed "Dune" the first time that I read it, and even fewer in this genre. But enjoy Prelude I did, and I know this will be viewed as heresy by some, on a level of pure enjoyment I enjoyed Prelude quite a lot more than I enjoyed some of Frank Herbert's own sequels, even though I concede Prelude lacks the depth of these. Does that mean I'm shallow? I'll get over it.
My gut feeling is that you could quite comfortably read this trilogy before you read "Dune". Having read a number of comments about Prelude, it's interesting to note that people who read Prelude before their first ever reading of "Dune" are a lot more positive about Prelude than others. To an extent I feel that it has to contend with the obstacle that any sequel to a beloved work such as "Dune" faces. A very significant proportion of the readership approach the books with the perspective that sequels tend to be inferior to the original - an understandable attitude - and sequels/prequels that are not by the original author tend to be inferior to those that were by the original author. "Dune" has such a fanatical following, and a significant section of its readership are so fanatical about it that nothing, and I repeat nothing set in the Duniverse written by anybody other than Frank Herbert could possibly find acceptance. Their attitude is one of almost religious fervor, and when you view it in this light then you can understand the viewpoint that works like Prelude are somehow heretical or sacrilegious. You can understand this point of view, although this doesn't mean that you sympathise with it.
To conclude, then, Prelude won't change your view of life, the universe and everything, and it won't force you to answer deep and meaningful questions. It will however provide you with an interesting and entertaining tale, set in a universe clearly recognizable as that created by Frank Herbert in the original book, a universe that I for one find very interesting. I have to be honest, I wasn't really looking for anything more than that.