It was obvious from the original Dune book that a whole lot of stuff happened long before Paul Atreides came upon the scene. A whole lot of time passed between what we refer to as the present and the days of the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit, and CHOAM. One of the most fascinating aspects of Frank Herbert’s universe was the aversion to computers. If memory serves, one of the primary commandments of the Orange-Catholic Bible was “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind”. It hinted at a Great Revolt against computers, conscious robots, and other thinking machines. It quite literally shaped the universe that would be chronicled in all the Dune books. Now, we get to have a look at just how it happened.
Thus, The Butlerian Jihad. Taking place so long ago (yet definitely far ahead of where we’re at now), all of the institutions we are familiar with in previous Dune books do not exist yet. In the days of the Old Empire, a group of human beings decided to overthrow their rulers, and take their place. They upgraded a number of machines and their AI brains, and conquered most of the known galaxy. As time went on, resistance formed; these humans had their brains removed and put into machine bodies, effectively giving them immortality; they took the name of Titans. Then one of them screwed up; and just like that, the computers took over, spreading like a virus, and eventually the intelligence called itself Omnius, and the worlds it controlled were known as the Synchronized Worlds.
Humanity wasn’t dead yet, though. And that’s where this story begins.
In spite of the title, we are not reading about the Jihad itself; what we actually get is the spark that lights the fuse, and it reaches the end near the book’s finish. Since this is the beginning of a trilogy, that shouldn’t be surprising. So, just what do we get?
Well, first, we get to see the heroism of Xavier Harkonnen. Yeah, that’s right; the ancestor of the most contemptible characters in the series is about as good a guy as you could ask for. We meet Serena Butler, a young politician in the League of Nobles who passionately believes that something must be done before the forces of Omnius overwhelms humanity. We meet Tio Holtzman, the man who would become known for some amazing inventions that exist even in Dune’s time (and incidentally, we find that his reputation is overrated, and certain attitudes of his are somewhat reprehensible). We meet Vorian Atreides, a trustee and genetic son of the Titan Agamemnon, who serves Omnius by transporting “updates” of Omnius throughout the Synchronized Worlds.
But there’s a lot more to it than just these characters. We get an organization of women who may or may not be the precursors to the Bene Gesserit-the Sorceresses of Rossak, led by Zufa Cenva; these woman have managed to develop significant telepathic powers. The Zensunni are prominent in this book as well, both as slaves and as the precursors to the Fremen of Arrakis; one of them, Selim, discovers how to perform one of the stunts that all Fremen will one day do. Most importantly (a fellow who will be a major character in these books, I expect), is Erasmus, a robot who is more-or-less independent of Omnius, and who believes that there is something yet to learn about humanity. Don’t think he’s a good fellow, though; his methods are something less than humane, and his schemes don’t always end as he expects.
There are a whole lot of other characters rolling around in this book, some of whom have greater importance than others. Herbert and Anderson seem to be making sure they hit all the background to fit in with the original novels. Part of the fun in this book is seeing places in their “original” incarnations; Salusa Secundus, famed for being a hell-planet in Dune, is a paradise here. Giedi Prime hasn’t become a bleak planet yet. Arrakis…well, it’s still Arrakis. And, for the first time in the Dune Chronicles…the planet Earth, as seen under Omnius’s rule.
From attacks on Salusa Secundus and Giedi Prime, to machines experimenting on humans, to the spark that starts off a jihad that will reverberate throughout the known galaxy, The Butlerian Jihad has done an excellent job in setting the stage for the next books; it is a very different kind of book than the original Dune books, where politics and intrigues were the rule of the day; this is about the survival of the human race, and Herbert & Anderson do an excellent job on demonstrating that. I don’t just recommend this to Dune fans; I’d recommend it to folks who have no familiarity with Dune (while some things won’t obviously tie in to the series, I expect, I feel that the majority of the book will be dealt with in-series).