Book Report – Sisterhood of Dune

People who are familiar with Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction masterpiece Dune will undoubtedly know about a few organizations; The Bene Gesserit, the Swordmasters, the Mentats, the Spacing Guild – even anyone who’s seen any of the film versions should be able to recall their importance.

In the world of Dune, these societies act as a backdrop, an Establishment the book’s hero subverts.

However, in Sisterhood of Dune, Kevin J. Anderson, prolific author of spin-off and tie-in novelizations in many popular science fiction IPs, and Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert’s son and auteur of the Dune expanded universe, attempt to anchor the creation of these institutions some 10,000 years before the events of the original story.   Sisterhood is the first novel in the Schools of Dune trilogy.

At the center of the story is the Butlerian movement, a faith-based initiative intent on eradicating human dependence on “thinking machines” – essentially artificial intelligence, but the Butlerians also seem to include artificial data storage and calculation on their list of evil things.

Taking place just a few decades after the Battle of Corrin – the decisive victory of the human jihadi forces against Omnius, the computer overmind that led the thinking machines during the war – the Butlerian forces are occupied with the mop-up of dormant computer relics.  Led by Manford Torondo (the legless commander who gets humorously carried around on the shoulders of a female soldier), the Butlerians must be careful in their duties, as the decimated machines are still dangerous in their ability to corrupt otherwise virtuous humans with the promise of power.

Meanwhile, the Atreides hero Vorian gets lulled back into a life of politics and warfare, and a young Harkonnen girl shows promise under the tutelage of Raquella Berto-Anirul, the first Bene Gesserit matriarch.  Tossed in the midst of all this, Gilbertus Albans is attempting to teach the first generation of Mentats, creating biological computers out of willing humans.

Whew.  In case you aren’t a Mentat and are having a hard time keeping all of this straight, it might be a good idea to bookmark the Dune Wiki to answer all of the niggling details of the setting.

Both writers do a superb job of setting a tone that recalls the original while being much larger in sheer size and scope.  While Dune had the advantage of a singular setting explored in lush detail, Sisterhood tackles a sprawling universe that’s tied together by family, duty, and a nefarious-but-critical, early version of the Spacing Guild.

Anderson and Herbert’s prose avoids a focus on action, instead imbuing the characters with a (sometimes frighteningly) cold introspection.  This stately pace brings a wealth of detail to the characters, but sometimes makes the time between the action set-pieces drag on interminably.

Like many of the other expanded universe novels, Sisterhood also has the distinct flavor of seriously scientific science fiction.  Where the original is largely a fantasy novel with science-fiction trimmings, Sisterhood is a detailed look at how some of the institutions at play in the original came to be.

The characters themselves are surprisingly well written, and their introspective ponderings make up some of the best moments in the entire novel.  The action, when it arrives, is written with a flair that’ll make you want more.

All of the characters are defined and diverse, and though each one follows hard on the heels of the archetypes laid out in Dune, they’re all competently written and entertaining.  The fervor of Manford Torondo and Raquella Berto-Anirul is not the one-dimensional hatred of fanatics, but a flawed and troubling aspect of their respective personalities.  Both characters are driven toward goals they inherently believe in, and both display a cold-blooded intensity about their methods (particularly in Raquella’s case), but are likable in their own ways.  These two in particular are the stand-out characters of the novel and carry much of the thematic weight.

Unfortunately, despite the fact the characters are well crafted, there is a somewhat rusty flavor to their characterization.  These people are important because they have the well-known names of Harkonnen and Atreides or they represent the progenitors of the famous schools. Even 10,000 years before the events of the original novel, these two families have a bitter rivalry, which is characterized primarily by Atreides virtue and Harkonnen duplicity.

While it’s certainly not impossible, it seems to be the result of keeping an artificial status quo within the universe. Of course the Harkonnens and Atreides have always hated each other.  Their rivalry has the tang of inevitability – like it’s an immutable law of the universe rather than the result of organic interaction.  Most of the characters act in this pre-destined way, and it makes the novel flow like it’s only a few dozen years between the events that erect the pillars of the Dune universe and the events that pull them down.

There is also surprisingly little humor apparent in the entire novel.  The story always has a very serious attitude about it, as if the characters themselves know just how historic their actions are.  It goes to reinforce the notion that the book itself is too faithfully attached to the setting it’s exploring; faithfulness to the original comes at the price of the characters and the story itself.

The tie-in to the original and to the expanded universe, such as other preludes, prequels and preambles that Anderson and Herbert have worked on together, is something of a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, the setting is and always will be intriguing and evocative, and the writers are competent enough to be able to tell a story that seems to fit.

On the other hand, almost every element of this story is linked by a single degree to something that happens in the original.  To that end, it seems a little unrealistic.  The Dune universe by its very nature spans tens of thousands of years of human history, and trying to make the argument that the backbone of the entire universe is set on the shoulders of two families and a few important schools is more than a little disingenuous.

Since the version of the book I had was an audiobook, a word must be said about Scott Brick’s narration.  Brick has a deep, resonant voice and reads the novel as if he were one of the eradicated thinking machines.  It sounds almost modulated at times, which undoubtedly helps to set the tone and evoke a powerful mental state that becomes nearly hypnotic when listening to it for an extended period of time.

Sisterhood of Dune perhaps owes too much of itself on the original Dune, but aside from constantly looking up details on the Dune wiki, it’s an enjoyable and well-crafted book in its own right, and earns a respectable 4.0 out of 5.

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