Navigators of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. (SF Novel, 2016).
The latest in the seemingly endless series of sequels, prequels and spin-offs from the magnificent SF creation of Frank Herbert, Navigators of Dune is set some 10,000 years prior to the groundbreaking classic original. It’s also the concluding volume in a series-within-the-series about the Great Schools of the Dune universe. As with all the many Dune works since Herbert’s death, this one is co-written by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Both are capable writers, and multiple award nominees and best selling authors in their own right. So it’s no surprise that this is a crisply written adventure piece that will please many of their fans.
And yet, I found myself vaguely unsatisfied.
Like pretty much everyone, I was wildly impressed by Herbert’s original novel; the desert marvelous world and the society he populated it with were extraordinary. Also, the bitter rivalry between that the Harkonnen and the Atreides families brought to Arrakis (the planet’s official name, lest we forget) supplied intrigue and additional action, which took an unexpected turn when a fugitive Paul Atriedes morphed into a figure comparable to Lawrence of Arabia (the foreigner who becomes leader of the oppressed and less technologically advanced desert natives) before going one better and becoming their literal Messiah (as one of Herbert’s solid sequels proclaimed him in its title).
After his death, Herbert’s son and Anderson have carried one in book after book. However, while I devoured all of Frank’s efforts, this latest is only the second or third of their posthumous Dune books I’ve read. And it’s the first in several years. I hoped the authors had come up with some fresh takes on the whole thing.
It seems that even 10,000 years before Paul, his ancestors and the dreaded Harkonnens were already locked into a generations-old and brutal blood feud. Valya Harkonnen has seized control of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood and is turning that mystical religious order into a private army that seeks behind the scenes control of the interstellar empire (as well as to exterminate the Atriedes. While some sensible members of the two families (including the younger sister she mostly dominates and the conflicted/ancient Vorian Astriedes) want the bloodletting to halt, other hot-heads (like young Willem Astriedes) are bent on continuing the useless (and frankly dishonorable) battle in the name of family honor. Very frankly, I got tired of the whole long before the frustrating will-they-never-learn ending that insures more of the same in books to come.
But their feud is really no more than a major subplot in this book–just a single element in a sprawling power struggle for control of the galaxy-wide Imperium. A weak and corrupt Emperor has been murdered, his brother Roderick Corrino has replaced him and is bent on destroying Josef Venport (the shipping tycoon who arranged the killing). Venport’s company controls the mutated Navigators (led by his great-grandmother) who are the only ones capable of safely guiding the fastest ships between worlds.
Meanwhile, a third force–the anti-tech Butlerians–also vies for power under a physically handicapped but spellbindingly charismatic fanatic named Manford Torondo.
Who you gonna root for? My vote, alas, is none of the above. All three groups and their leaders spout high-minded talk about making things better for all of humanity. Yet all three parties are willing to use any method to get what they want. Betrayals (and misunderstandings that seem betrayals to those on the receiving end) abound.
And most infuriating to me is the way everything is focused on the Leader Class. For all their pontificating about humankind’s destiny, etc. all the key characters are perfectly ready to sacrifice untold numbers of the faceless multitudes in pursuit of their own agenda. And they do, each side slaughtering on a grand scale with but the faintest (and largely hypocritical) bit of remorse.
Of course this isn’t the only book where the focus is entirely on the Rulers, while the peasants are being ground into a bloody pulp due to the higher-ups’ decisions. Far from it!
Perhaps I’ve just been seeing it too often of late, and that’s why I feel so discontented here.
A final note: while the Navigators (and their leader Norma Cenva) are important parts of the story, the book overall doesn’t really focus on them. You do learn how the Spacing Guild became an independent force, though.