Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Series: Schools of Dune (#2)
Genre: Space Opera
Publication Date: 2014
Torn between the technological advances of Venport Holdings and the fanaticism of the Butlerian movement, the Imperium stands on the brink of civil war. In the middle of the conflict, Gilbertus Albans and his Mentat school must pick their side . . .
Right from the start of my journey with Dune, the Mentats were one of those ideas that just clicked with me. Humans taught to think like computers. Not genetically modified, not cyborgs, just ordinary humans beings who have received specialised training. In the universe of Frank Herbert’s creation, their role is to replace the actual computers banned in the wake of the Butlerian Jihad, effectively allowing the complicated sums required for an interstellar empire to function to still exist. But beyond the narrative, they play into ideas that have always fascinated me, as well as many others. People governed by logic rather than emotion, who Barclays every encounter in the hope of an optimal outcome. In that they’re similar to to Star Trek‘s Vulcans, but the idea occurs elsewhere. Star Wars has the obvious parallel of Thrawn, and beyond the realm of science fiction we have characters like Sherlock Holmes. Mentats spring from a well that can be examined time and time again, bringing up new ideas each time.
It should come as no surprise then that Mentats of Dune is my favourite book of this reread to date. For the first time we delve into the origins of the Mentats. Not only are they taught to replace computers, but to prove that thinking machines are unnecessary. The irony is, of course, that Gilbertus Albans teaches methods derived from those machines, specifically the notorious Erasmus. It’s clear from early on that the Butlerians will kill him if they uncover this secret, but equally evident is the fact that Venport would only exploit Erasmus’ knowledge for his own gains. It’s the proverbial rock and a hard place, which goes some way to explaining the Mentats’ general neutrality in the original Dune. Yes, they will work for anyone, but they know that ultimately, they are just another resource. Better to be used than killed, but as they assert the primacy of humankind, they end up treated as less than human themselves.
Beyond the Mentats and their struggles, this book continues to develop the larger universe. There are a lot of PoVs here, but none feel underutilised, or worse, overexposed. Wisely, Herbert and Anderson fill their cast with unfamiliar names, so that when the deaths do come, they’re not just filling in the gaps in a known tale. That said, the once continuing thread from way back in The Butlerian Jihad is the ongoing tragedy of Vorian Atreides. This is a man who has outlived everyone he loves, and now wanders the Galaxy seeking purpose, providing a narrative core to a book that otherwise casts its storytelling seeds far and wide. There are elements here that will not bear fruit until much later on in the saga, while others will be wrapped up in the very next volume.
Put simply, Mentats of Dune is space opera of the finest quality. Expansive, rich in ideas, and rooted in a brilliant cast of characters.