After the unexpected surprise of enjoying the teen fluff romance of Twilight, I decided to dive into some serious science fiction just to prove to myself that I had not gone completely soft in the head. I hit Fictionwise.com and picked up a copy of Dune: Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. I love the Dune series, both the original books and the first trilogy of prequels written by Herbert and Anderson. Given that the events in Butlerian Jihad happen over 1000 years before the original Dune, I really expected something exciting in terms of getting into the back story of the Bene Gesserit, the Mentats, and the whole history of the House Atreides/House Harkonnen feud. Really, this sort of stuff is right up my alley.
At least it should have been up my alley. I cannot tell you how disappointed I’ve been with this book. The story is set during the age when Thinking Machines rule most of the galaxy. The Thinking Machines want to wipe out the remaining free human planets, but a sort of stalemate has been going on thanks to the development of planetary defensive shields, called Holtzman Shields, that fry the computerized brains of any machine that dares to breach it. However, not all the Thinking Machines are powered by computers. A select group, called the Cymeks, are actually human brains encased in machine bodies, and the Thinking Machines figure out they can drop those human brained Cymeks through a Holtzman Shield to lead an attack.
The Cymek led attack on a human free world is the plot for the first chapter of Butlerian Jihad, and it irritated the crud out of me to have to slog through this. The miltary strategy was so simplistic it was ridiculous. To make things worse, the hero of the story (who just happens to be a Harkonnen, a member of the house that will eventually evolve into some of the vilest villains of all sci-fi) can’t figure out what the goal is of the Cymek lead element when they land on the planet.
Now let’s think about this carefully. Your planet is defended by a shield that keeps out all computer-run ships and assault equipment, yet a vast armada of computer-run ships is sitting in orbit overhead. These computers drop a small group of giant mechs controlled by human brains onto the planet. The human brain-controlled mechs proceed to attack while the computer-run armada waits overhead. What do you think is the goal of this lead attacking element? Do you think maybe, just maybe, they might want to shut down the shields that are the only thing keeping out the armada overhead? The armada that’s just sitting there with enough firepower to wipe out the entire planet if only they could get through that stupid planetary shield?
I hate stupid main characters, and I’m afraid Dune: Butlerian Jihad presented me with a doozy of one. Xavier Harkonnen is about as thick as they come, a promising but love-sick military officer who obviously can’t grasp the most basic concepts of military strategy. Not only is he slow to figure out what the initial attack on his planet is about, but he makes further dumb mistakes later on, mistakes anyone who’s studied even a little bit of military history could figure out (I was a transporter in the Army Reserves — a transporter, not an infantry man, mind you — and I could see what the Thinking Machines were going to do next before the machines themselves even made the decisions in the book!). What’s worse, Xavier Harkonnen is in love with the fair but boring Serena Butler. Serena wants to do good in the universe and save lives, and she’ll willingly puts herself into danger to do so. Just as with the military tactics of the thinking machines, I could see what Serena was going to do long before she even did it.
It does not help that all the characters come across as cardboard cutouts, the dialogue is horribly stilted, and most of the book is just one massive info dump of back story. There’s a basic rule in writing that goes “Show, don’t tell.” Having your characters actually act out the plot rather than spoon feeding it to your readers via info dump solves so many of the problems that Butlerian Jihad suffers from. But somehow, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson forgot this rule when they wrote this book. I can’t understand it. They did a good job with their previous Dune books, bringing to life the histories of so many characters who played essential roles in the original series. I made it through seven, maybe eight chapters of this one before I gave up reading any further.
Not knowing what to read next after such a disappointment, I simply decided not to read anything at all. I had picked up a few art books back in February and I thought I’d amuse myself by looking at the pictures inside. One book was Frida Kahlo: Beneath The Mirror by Gerry Souter. I found this book in the bargains section at my local Barnes & Noble. The paintings in it are so beautiful. Since I had never read about Kahlo before, I decided to skim through the first chapter to see if I could get a summary of her life. Wouldn’t you guess, I ended up reading the whole book in just a few days? What the Dune book lacked in terms of exciting plot and fascinating characters, Frida Kahlo more than made up for. I don’t think I could have imagined a more bizarre life for an artist. Souter did an excellent job of presenting the basic facts in a clear, easy style, without leaching Kahlo’s life of all interest. My only complaint about the book is that Souter frequently discusses particular pictures that Kahlo painted at various points in her life, but the paintings don’t appear on the same page or the next page so you can look at them while you read what he says about them. In fact, the paintings are scattered through the book in no logical matter. Souter talks about a painting Kahlo did early on in her career right after she marries her husband, but the image doesn’t show up until the very last chapter, sandwiched between the pages of her funeral. Early on in the book, there were a few instances where Souter listed what page the painting was on when he described it, but that quickly stopped after the first two chapters. Another note, at one point in the book, there is a huge, blatant printing error where a paragraph cuts off in the middle and there is an inch or so of blank space, and then the paragraph starts again and the writing contiues on. I think it’s for these reasons that the book ended up in the bargain section as opposed to the art section of the store.
In any event, Dune: Butlerian Jihad turned out to be a big FAIL in my book, while Frida Kahlo: Beneath The Mirror was an unexpected win. I have no idea what I’ll read next. I’ll ponder that question this weekend and start a new book on Monday.