Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Series: Prelude to Dune (#2)
Genre: Space Opera
Publication Date: 2000
Leto Atreides has become Duke of Caladan, and has already fought off one conspiracy against his rule. But House Harkonnen is not done with him yet, and it is not only the Baron that Leto must worry about . . .
For a genre in which familial relations play such a pivotal role, space opera doesn’t have a great history when it comes to depicting realistic family dynamics. Take a look at Star Wars, where every male member of the Skywalker bloodline faces the same battle with the temptations of the dark side. Anakin, Ben and Jacen all succumb, while Luke fights the battle every day. Even young Anakin Solo only avoids the fate by suffering a much worse one. This all makes for dramatic storytelling, but it doesn’t feel very real. Dune is of course no stranger to this, being the baseline from which so much of the genre is derived. Every Atreides does what is best, with a long and storied history of great family members. Sure, Paul and Leto II diverge a little, but their remarkableness is the point. On the other side of Dune‘s famous dynastic conflict we have the Harkonnens, who are vile, perverted and generally evil in every way. great villains, but when every branch of the family tree is so rotten, there’s a certain predictability about affairs. Legends of Dune went some way to addressing this stereotype, but Frank Herbert’s original is impossible to get away from. Harkonnens are bad. Atreides are good. And that’s the end of that.
Until House Harkonnen. Here, we get the story of the one Harkonnen who did good without it being a scheme. Abulurd Harkonnen is a fascinating and tragic figure. A good man trapped in an immoral system, surrounded by a family that want only to consume. In start contrast to Beast Rabban, Baron Vladimir, and the others, he feels like a real person rather than a lazy caricature. In many ways, he’s the real hero of House Harkonnen. While the other protagonists are trying to live up to expectations and family ideals, Abulurd is rebelling against them. Not a teenager rebelling against his parents, but a tired old man rejecting his own legacy. Passively at first, then actively. Knowing the inevitable tragedy of his story’s conclusion makes it all the more powerful, even making the Baron a more interesting character by his involvement. After all, Baron Harkonnen consumes all. Why not his own family?
There are times when this novel feels overstuffed. Frank Herbert’s world is rich enough to provide plenty of threads to pull on, and House Harkonnen pulls on a lot. there are dozens of characters introduced, not all of whom will be relevant later on, as well as thematic seeds being sown. Hints of what has gone before, and what is still to come. The story of Leto is somewhat drowned in all of this, and in telling every part of the story, Anderson and Herbert risk not telling any story at all. But that’s a line they don’t quite cross. House Harkonnen serves its purpose just fine, making me look forward to (re)reading the original Dune next month. But it’s also the middle volume of a prequel, so you can’t really expect it to stand on its own merits. Abulurd’s story is the centrepiece, but it’s only a part in the whole, and the tangle of that whole brings down the rest of the book under the weight of references and stage setting.
House Harkonnen is a worthy part of the Dune saga, and perhaps the closest Anderson and Herbert ever come to the feel of the original. It’s not my favourite book in the saga, but it’s up there.