Friday, January 24, 2020

The Dune Encyclopedia, compiled by Dr. Willis E. McNelly

Obsessive authorized fan fiction
The Dune Encyclopedia was published in 1984, following the publication of God Emperor of Dune, the fourth novel in Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Herbert did not write the Encyclopedia, but he did give the project his blessing. He stopped short of recognizing the Encyclopedia as canon, however, and subsequent Dune novels do not intentionally adhere to the book’s contents.

The Encyclopedia was compiled by Dr. Willis E. McNelly, a close friend of Herbert’s. The entries, however, are the work of 43 different authors, McNelly included. Thus the book is like a glorified compendium of fan fiction, but as if all the fans held PhDs. The entries on the Fremen and Galach languages, for example, were obviously written by a linguist. The sections on imperial law are likely to have been penned by a legal scholar, and there must have been at least a few religious studies professors on hand to elaborate on the Orange Catholic Bible. The Dune Encyclopedia purports to have been written by historians and archaeologists in the year 15540 AG (after Guild), following the discovery of a huge hoard of diaries and documents hidden by Emperor Leto II roughly 2,000 years earlier. The text reads like a collection of essays from an academic journal, complete with citations to an entire library full of imaginary books. For the most part the Encyclopedia evokes the lofty intellectualism that one associates with Herbert’s novels. This is by no means light reading. It sometimes gets bogged down in ponderous prose, but its ingenuity and clever tie-ins to the official narrative make it a fun read for avid Dune fans.

The first three Dune novels are set roughly 25,000 years in the future, and the events of God Emperor of Dune take place about 3,500 years after that. That is a lot of history to uncover, and the authors of the Encyclopedia leave few stones unturned. Extensive biographies flesh out the lives of the characters before, after, and in between the events of Herbert’s novels. Readers learn about the invention of faster-than-light space travel, the causes of the Butlerian Jihad, and the formation of the Empire. The origins of the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit, the Bene Tleilax, the Sardaukar, and the CHOAM corporation are all explored in depth, as well as the Zensunni migrations that brought the Fremen from Earth to Arrakis. The richness of Herbert’s invented universe is unparalleled in fiction, and this is a fitting celebration of his visionary creativity.

Unfortunately, not every entry is a winner. Some of the writers seem to have watched a few too many Joseph Campbell specials on PBS before crafting their new agey mythologies. The entry for Gamont, a planet devoted to the sex trade, is a silly slapstick story that sticks out like a sore thumb amid all the faux scholarly seriousness. Many of the entries are just way longer than they need to be, wallowing in detail that supports the feigned authenticity but challenges attention spans. Through all the character biographies, you sometimes feel like you are reading Herbert’s narrative over and over again, just told from different perspectives. Still, for all its faults, this is a remarkably thorough and imaginative sci-fi companion volume, and Dune fans have to admire the daring ambitiousness of McNelly and his coterie of writers.

The Dune Encyclopedia has long been out of print because the Herbert heirs refuse to rerelease it, but someone has posted a “bootleg” pdf copy online for those willing to search for it. This pdf was made by scanning the original book, and the resulting text is riddled with typographical errors. Considering this is probably the only way most readers will ever be able to access the book, however, it is an acceptable substitute.
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