Dune won the Hugo and the Nebula, and is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time. The book earns these accolades through sheer immersion into a deeply human story, weaving family, love, politics, economics, ecology, and destiny together. And yes, it’s got ray guns, spaceships, and alien creatures. But you almost wouldn’t know it. Author Frank Herbert wrote five additional books in the series, ending with a cliffhanger, before his untimely death. Which makes the author himself the perfect example of the thing that sets me on edge about this series, the killing off of interesting characters. But in true ghola fashion, the Herbert line didn’t end there. His son Brian found his father’s notes on filling out the story, and together with SF author Kevin J. Anderson, they’ve been diligently expanding the Dune universe with annual installments. And they’re still killing off interesting characters. Spoilers below.
Now then, before you jump to any conclusions about my artistic sensibilities, let me first state that I do enjoy stories in which the hero dies. After all, every man dies, not every man truly lives. I don’t need my summer blockbuster fairy tale ending. But in Dune, nearly all the good guys die. Most in the first quarter of the book. Not just that, but several of the gray area characters die. I grew up with Dune, so it’s not too surprising to me. In some ways, it’s predictable to newcomers, who have the tolerance to sit through the David Lynch version with me. I don’t bring this up to complain about it, just to accept that this is normal in the harsh world of Dune.
Still, it hits me like an icepick to the head when Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson do it. They’ve done several sets of books around the central Dune storyline. They started with a trilogy a few decades before the events of Dune, then went back millennia to write a trilogy that covered the events of the fabled Butlerian Jihad against the thinking machines, wrote two books to address the cliffhanger from the original series, and are now writing one-off connection stories in the gaps between the story arcs. The interesting character death that most bothered me was their killing of the Titan Hecate in the Butlerian Jihad series.
The Titans are cyborgs, twenty ancient human minds in the bodies of Cymek walkers and ships. They were the former conquerors of the galaxy until one Titan gave too much control to their thinking machine battle network. The Evermind Omnius took over most of the galaxy, except for the worlds held by the League of Nobles. In the second book of the series, The Machine Crusade, the war has three fronts: Omnius, the Titans, and the League. The Titans are all aligned with each other, but are relatively weak compared to Omnius, and are resorting to creating more Cymeks from oppressed humans. Similarly, the humans are desperately outgunned by Omnius, and are being forced through necessity into new scientific and metaphysical breakthroughs, like shields, space folding, and prescience.
Into this mix, the long-lost Titan Hecate returns to the galaxy, after a tour beyond the known universe. She was among the conquering group, so she has blood on her hands, but she’s not aligned with the Titans. She’s more motivated by what amuses her, and she chooses to support a scheming human. And she has the ability to change the war. Unlike the other Titans, she has been building her capabilities for a millennium. She enters one battle, and utterly decimates the machine forces single-handedly. She meets with the Titan General, Agamemnon, and threatens him to his brain canister face. And before we know it, she’s killed in a misunderstanding with a sorceress.
I’m not upset about the character getting her comeuppance, that’s not it. My objection is that she barely got to do anything. She was an extraordinary wild card character, and she was killed off before we got some kind of major payoff from her. I didn’t think it was fair at all the first time I read the book, and having just re-listened to the audiobook, I literally cringed through the sequence.
I mentioned my frustration to the authors. I got it all out, and to my surprise they were both grinning like Cheshire cats. Kevin replied that this is exactly what they intended. They want their readers to develop emotional connections not only to the good guys, but to the warped personalities of the story. Brian said that his dad did this repeatedly. It had as much to do with mirroring the real world, in that people with potential don’t always demonstrate it in full, as it does with making the plot itself an emotional touchpoint. Since we already know how the war ends, this is a prequel series after all, they have to make the how of the war resonant and meaningful.
I understand it, but I still don’t like it. I wanted more from Hecate.
SF: Wow, I didn’t even know about this prequel series. I’ve read the main story arc only. Definitely going to check out. This post describes a lot of my feelings about Game of Thrones, though I’ll admit to a certain amount of guilty pleasure in seeing the mayhem. However, I would say that a few of the characters were entirely too valuable to be killed off in the fashion they were. Of course, if you don’t kill off characters in a long epic, you end up with things like the Wheel of Time, with its ~100 main characters. Pretty fail.