Dune prequels

When I was a teenager, I early on read Frank Herbert’s Dune books and found them compelling. Around that same time his son, Brian Herbert, began to write (or ghostwrite?) and publish books and books in the Dune universe of his departed father.

I remember they seemed to be quite a success. You would see them in the small book section found in a random aisle of grocery stores. My dad and I liked the Dune universe and we bought and read several of Brian Herbert’s books.

Just this past year I’ve rediscovered those books and reread several of them. They’re fun to read, and they strike me as an impressive achievement, in one way.

It’s been some time since I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune books or watched any of the movies (I haven’t seen these latest Dune films, though at some point I would like to). Still, I remember enough to know which characters will be alive and which deceased by the time those books begin. I know many of the families that will be in power by that moment in the history of that universe, and which planets they are associated with.

Of course knowledge of that sort takes a great deal of the dramatic tension away. Paul Atreides, for instance, might as well be immortal; I know that no matter how dangerous a situation he might seem to be in, it is impossible for him to die, is certain that he will escape.

And yet Brian Herbert (or his co-author) has written an entire series of prequels that hold the attention, that keep the reader in suspense, even under that severe sort of authorial restriction. The characters that we know from the later books see their fortunes rise and fall and the reader doesn’t know exactly how a particular situation will turn out. Other characters are introduced that play a large role, and the reader cares about them, but their fate is entirely unknown.

Orson Scott Card works under a similar set of constraints in some of the offshoots of his Ender series, where a story is being told in one book that is contemporaneous with the storyline from an earlier book and changes the meaning of some of the events and conversations in that earlier book. Card does this with mixed results, sometimes working too hard to fit a round peg in a square hole, or seeming to forget some incompatible detail from an earlier book that ruins his attempted reinterpretation, but it is still quite pleasing and impressive overall to experience.

It’s a cool thing to see authors producing such enjoyable books even while facing restrictions that do not hinder other authors. The things people are capable of! I think it highlights a set of skills and competencies that are not always visible in other kinds of writing. I’d love to be able to do this thing that they do. It unfailingly reminds me of the incredible possibilities of the human mind.

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