Series: Legends of Dune (#1)
Genre: Space Opera
Publication Date: 2002
Ten thousand years before the Atriedes come to Arrakis, the Galaxy is controlled by thinking machines. Ruling from Earth, the evermind Omnius sees all. But humans are not without guile, and rebellion is growing . . .
The Butlerian Jihad is not so much a prequel to Frank Herbert’s Dune as it is an expansion of the Dune universe. If you took the two books and put them side by side, you’d see a lot of familiar names and common themes, but they would work just as well as completely separate works of fiction. I know that for a lot of people, particularly vocal parts of the internet, this is a major drawback. Why use the name Dune if you’re going to tell a different story? But I see the massive gap between the two books as a strength. It allows Herbert and Anderson to carve out their own niche, respecting the original while not treading on its feet. The epic war between man and machine might seem very far removed from the rise of Muad’Dib, but it shows the early foundations of that universe.
Admittedly, I was fairly busy when I started reading this book, and so made slower progress than I would have liked, but I did find The Butlerian Jihad quite difficult to get into. Even though it takes place right at the start of the expanded Dune canon, it throws the reader right into the middle of an incredibly messy and complex cold war. There’s no build-up, no gentle introduction, no unnecesary hand-holding, but that does mean you’re left in a sea of names for quite some while. Some of those names will be familiar, Atriedes, Harkonnen and Holtzman, but others are wholly new. This is a chunky book, especially in mass-market form, and there are dozens of PoVs, and an equal number of abrupt shifts. Anderson’s influence can be found in the incredibly short chapters, which really does keep the pages flying by once you’re into the meat of the book, but with so many characters it can be jarring to be constantly flung to another planet and perspective. It doesn’t help that the numerous plotlines rarely cross over in any meaningful way. The main weakness of this book is that it tries to tell the origins of everything in Dune, rather than focusing on a few of Frank Herbert’s mysteries.
Once you do get into it, however, this is a rollicking space opera adventure. Herbert and Anderson have a much better feel for action than Frank Herbert, and the writing is incredibly clear. Though they never quite reach the philosophical depth of the original books – and I dare say they never intended too – there is more here than just adventure. In the thinking machine Erasmus, we find a worthy adversary whose study of humanity is just as insightful as any of Leto Atreides II’s musings. The clarity of the prequel’s presentation strips away a lot of the pretentiousness that Dune has garnered over the decades, offering little nuggets of philosophy rather than entire essays. Despite its length, The Butlerian Jihad is incredibly digestible.
It doesn’t rank in my favourite Dune novels, and it does have a problem with its goals outstripping the end result, but The Butlerian Jihad is still a decent beginning to one of science fictions most famous sagas.