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Crouching editor, hidden writer

Interpreting Dune is also notoriously difficult. We had to wait till 2021 for a credible film version, and it’s incomplete

Pratik Kanjilal Published 04.11.22, 03:48 AM

Books: Sands Of Dune: Novellas From The World Of Dune

Author: Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson


Publisher: Orion

Price: ₹799

This review could have been written in one sentence: crouching editor, hidden writer. But due diligence must be done.

After Frank Herbert died in 1986, his son, Brian, found his extensive notes for stories set in the world of Dune which remained unwritten. He teamed up with the bestselling science fiction and superhero writer, Kevin J. Anderson, to fill the void. In 1997, they struck a $3 million deal with Bantam for a prequel trilogy. But later, as they write in the introduction to Sands of Dune, they were “intrigued by smaller ideas, interesting spotlights on tangential events, or vignettes that did not find a place inside the core novels”. Four such “grains of sand, rather than towering dunes” make up this slim volume. Characters and events that vanished too soon in the original story are given new life. Springing from the mainspring of Dune, they cannot but invite comparison with Frank Herbert’s work. That’s the trouble.

Building worlds is punishingly hard, as RPG designers will attest, but inheriting a world as complex as Dune is much more daunting, writers of historical fiction would agree. Consider the range of Frank Herbert’s inspirations. The landscape is inspired by his trip to the Oregon Dunes in 1957, and the title probably owes to a native American who told Herbert that capitalist exploitation would turn the world into a ‘big dune’. The author got interested in desert environments and their civilisations, like the Bedouin in the Sahara and the San people in the Kalahari. He believed that harsh landscapes naturally give birth to messiahs, like Lawrence of Arabia and Paul Atreides. Many of his coinages, and the sharp contrast he draws between town and country, between cruel and illegitimate urban power and the honest vitality of autochthonous people in the wild, derive from readings on conflicts between the Russian empire and Muslim communities in the 19th century. On top of that, the space-bending ‘spice’, the economic basis of Herbert’s world, is based on his experiences with magic mushrooms.

One can’t fault Brian Herbert and Anderson for their failure to inherit and inhabit so much — it’s simply overpowering. But just professionally, why have they allowed publication of what reads like a prolix first draft, when Frank Herbert was economical with words and precise with structure? The original author has been erased. And why was the editor at Gollancz crouching someplace safe, out of the way? Never mind a literary editor, a hack on a South Asian newspaper desk would take the mickey — or at least a third — out of this book. It’s extraordinary that this passed muster: “They would murder the hated soldiers while they slept, enthralled with their evil dreams.” If the authors hadn’t been punching the clock for over two decades, this would be dismissed as juvenalia.

Dune was a difficult book. The epic was refused by every publisher except one, which actually did brochures and such, and then the commissioning editor was fired for risk-taking. Interpreting Dune is also notoriously difficult. We had to wait till 2021 for a credible film version, and it’s incomplete. David Lynch’s 1984 production — with the infamous ‘floating fat man’ and featuring Sting just for vile, crazed laughter — was so incredibly awful that the director refused to be credited for some versions. But not being able to carry Frank Herbert’s story sideways or backwards in text mode is perplexing. Stylistically, he’s easy to emulate.

So the $3 million question: do we need to read the novellas and short fiction spun out of Dune? No, unless you are one of those Dune hobbyists who never want to come up for air.

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