Wednesday, December 29, 2021

A Conclusion of McDune: Sandworms of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson


While Sandworms of Dune is definitely a McDune book, I can say I enjoyed most of it and found some things to like. And you do get the second and final part of a conclusion to the Dune saga. I like to think of it as one possible way the Dune saga could end rather than the definitive end we would have gotten from Frank Herbert. (If you are going to read this, be sure to read Hunters of Dune first; Hunters and Sandworms are a two-part series finale.)

If you hate the McDune books, you'll probably hate this one, too. Whereas Frank Herbert's writing inspires deep thoughts on almost every page, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have a matter-of-fact plot-driven style that's mostly shallow-but-serviceable, but occasionally just-plain-bad. If Frank Herbert serves up a top-quality filet mignon at a nice steakhouse, BH and KJA take you to the McDonald's drive-through for a cheeseburger value meal.

As I've pointed out before, though, sometimes McDonald's hits the spot even if you know it's not good per se. Spending more time in the Dune universe and coming to some sort of one version of a conclusion of the saga may be worth it, as long as you know what you're getting yourself into. Your ability to navigate the McDunes may vary. But if like me you're a huge fan of Frank Herbert's original series and you have an open mind about what could have been, you might find this to be an enjoyable experience.

I think people are too hard on BH and KJA: whether this is exactly what Frank Herbert had in mind or not (and I kind of doubt it was; see below), they had an exceedingly difficult task. And as long as you know what you're getting into, I don't see the harm in these books. I don't think they deserve outright scorn, although I have to admit the way they keep pumping them out on a regular basis 14 years after this one was published makes me a little cynical about the whole exercise.

So, be sure to read Hunters first, know what you're getting into, and if you're still with me.... what about the book?

The writing is mostly fine once you get used to it, but the authors' fondness for bad similes started to get on my nerves a little bit. In a particularly clunky example a character's "large eyes fixed on him like a weapon's targeting system" (p. 97). Ugh. However, while there's nothing quite like Frank Herbert's frequently brilliant turns of phrase, most of the book is serviceable enough to carry the plot.

And here we come to ... THE SPOILERS! We are entering the part of this review that can only be seen by Kwisatz Haderachs ... and people who don't mind spoilers. (I guess Kwisatz Haderachs have much of the universe spoiled for them, anyway).


So ... spoilers ahead...

Okay, here we go...

The big reveal toward the end of Hunters was that the Enemy that had sent the Honored Matres back from the Scattering was none other than the artificial intelligences defeated in the Butlerian Jihad 15,000 years earlier. Surely not the same AIs? Alas, yes. Omnius and Erasmus, who turn out to be Marty and Daniel from the end of Chapterhouse: Dune. 

Could this really be what Frank Herbert had in mind? I seriously doubt it, as Omnius and Erasmus are really only developed in BH and KJA's Butlerian Jihad novels (I read one of them a long time ago, and it was okay). Also, it seems to me like the hints in Chapterhouse are that Marty and Daniel are independent Face Dancers, but whatever. It's just interesting to see one possible version of how it could play out.

At the end of Hunters I lamented the fact that this turned Dune, one of the most original and groundbreaking series in science fiction, into the boring old SF trope of "the computers want to kill us." Not that you can't do interesting things with this trope (the Matrix sequels did in my opinion), but in a McDune book it all became rather shallow.

And that continues for most of Sandworms. On the no-ship, a Duncan, some Bene Gesserits, a Tleilaxu, and the space Jews continue to make new gholas of just about every famous person from Dune history. I can't remember exactly why they do this (for funzies?), but I guess they're trying to create a Kwisatz Haderach to help them defeat the Enemy (who they don't know are the AIs, so we get that reveal later). 

While the chapters about the gholas and their reawakening (or not) got tedious and could have been drastically streamlined (like most of the novel, to be honest), I would have liked to see more attention on the gholas of Leto II, Alia, and Jessica, who are my favorite characters of the series, but oh well. We do get a lot of Duncan, the "original" ghola (if "original" is the right word for a ghola who remembers 5,000 years of ghola lifetimes).

On Chapterhouse, Murbella is trying to rally the Bene Gesserits and the rest of humanity to fight the machines, which to BH and KJAs credit, goes about as well as you'd expect in this universe: a lot of foot dragging and war profiteering ensues.

There's a kind of cool story line about the Oracle of Time, who turns out to be Norma Cenva, who founded the Guild way back when, but that's not developed much until she's needed at the last minute.

We also return to Rakis, which was not destroyed entirely, but was made uninhabitable (you get some more explanation of the process described very briefly back in Heretics and Chapterhouse). But could sandworms return? There's also a bizarre subplot about a Tleilaxu experiment to make, ugh, sea worms on a watery planet, that produce... double ugh... ultraspice.... which does play a part in the plot later, but seemed unnecessary.

And of course Omnius and Erasmus reprise their roles 15,000 years after the Butlerian Jihad, having been waiting this long to take their revenge. I remember enough about the Butlerian Jihad book to have found Omnius just as annoying as he is there, but Erasmus is weirdly endearing even as he helps Omnius to destroy humanity. I never really got a sense of their motivation, other than revenge for the Butlerian Jihad, but revenge always feels like a flimsy motivation to me. There was a huge missed opportunity to really get into the heads (or circuits?) of the AIs.

After a loooooot of build-up (honestly a lot more than necessary and more plot threads than I have even mentioned here, although it was rarely boring), we come to a really long conclusion and denouement. There are two Paul Muad'Dib gholas hoping to become Kwisatz Haderachs, one for each side. They have (obviously) a knife fight, and it looks like the AI's Paul wins, although he can't handle awakening with the, ugh, ultraspice. The humans' Paul handles it better and recovers from a seemingly mortal wound. But it turns out the Super Mega Kwisatz Haderach (or whatever) is none other than, you guessed it: Duncan motherfucking Idaho! Duncan and Erasmus merge minds, and become the bridge between the humans and the machines.

I actually really like that there's a sort of truce between the machines and humans (at least once the Oracle of Time dispenses with the rascally Omnius, but only after he kills millions or billions of humans). This reminded me of the Matrix franchise, and plenty of people hated that, too, but a total genocide of one side or the other wouldn't work. Even worse: it would be boring.

The whole point of the Butlerian Jihad was that humans were not reaching their full potential due to machines, but maybe they've grown beyond that, or maybe the lessons of the last 15,000 years, including Muad'Dib, the Tyrant, the Honored Matres, etc., have taught humanity how to coexist with machines while living up to their own potential. I don't know. We don't get a whole lot of reflection on this in the novel, but it's there as an exercise for the reader, I suppose.

This is related to another tantalizing plot thread that gets swallowed up by a worm (no, literally). What about Leto II's Golden Path? Did he know the machines were out there the whole time? Did he know about the Honored Matres? The independent face dancers? The chair dogs and futars? Just as we start to find out after the Leto II ghola is finally awakened, he dives into a sandworm that carries part of his original consciousness. Poetic, maybe? But not so good for answers. Oh well. Maybe the Golden Path demands that we keep guessing. Maybe there's something profound in that, too.

If I can get a bit meta- as I wrap up, in a novel that's literally about trying to bring the past back to life, you might think about what this novel itself is trying to do in resurrecting a series written by a man who died in 1986. Sure, it's cool to see the Yueh ghola kill the Baron Harkonnen ghola. It's really nice that Duncan and Murbella get back together after a few decades apart. And Paul and Chani even have a second chance and will be celebrating their 5,000th anniversary soon.

... end of major spoilers...

But is all this nostalgia good for us? Again, I have no idea if Hunters and Sandworms really follow Frank Herbert's secret outline or not, although BH and KJA certainly had to add a lot to fill in the gaps and a lot of what they did is honestly pretty cool.

Perhaps the deepest philosophical lesson of this attempt to complete the Dune series is one that I have no way of knowing if the authors intended: Just as there are deep questions about whether a ghola can ever be the same as the original, can these books really be the book or books that Frank Herbert would have written, or is there something unholy or distasteful in the very attempt to create a literary ghola from the cells of Frank Herbert's notes? As with the ghola question, the deepest--and perhaps most unsettling--answer is: we can never really know.

See also my Goodreads review.

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