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The Dune Encyclopedia

“>I am unabashedly a fan of the Dune novels by Frank Herbert, in particular the first Dune book which I read for the first time when I was a freshman in high school.  Since then, I have read Dune at least once a year.  I have also enjoyed the largely panned 1984 David Lynch movie and the SciFi Channel miniseries.

A wonderful less known work, however, is The Dune Encyclopedia compiled by Dr. Willis E. McNelly.  The book is no longer in print and no longer (and arguably never) considered canon by the Herbert Estate.  The book holds a unique position, however, since it was authorized by Frank Herbert and he wrote a forward in which he stated:

I must confess that I found it fascinating to re-enter here some of the sources on which the Chronicles are built.  As the first “Dune fan,” I give this encyclopedia my delighted approval, although I hold my own counsel on some of the issues still to be explored as the Chronicles unfold.

The Encyclopedia was published in 1984 between God Emperor of Dune (book 4) and Heretics of Dune (book 5) and thus Herbert’s forward was prophetic:  the later books do not completely mesh with the information in the Encyclopedia.  (And the expanded universe novels by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert explicitly contradict it.)  Some who have enjoyed the depth in the Encyclopedia retcon this by stating that since the Encyclopedia was written in-universe in 15540 AG and many of its sources were from facts colored by propaganda, the encyclopedia was accurate as known by people of the time.

The Encyclopedia is exactly that:  an alphabetical listing of people, events, organizations, and unique items in the Dune universe.  What makes the book so charming is that McNelly gathered more than 30 contributors to write the entries, each with a differing style and depth.  Clearly, he found botanists, political scientists, historians, economists, scientists, linguists, and other creative writers to expand upon the material found within Herbert’s books.  What this does is create a depth and a witty, clever collaborative effect to the entries.

To give an example of some of the entries:

  • There are multiple entries on one of the key characters in the book, Paul Atreides.  One is almost a fairy tale or a mythological story about how he got his name, complete with genies which clearly shows how historical personages can be mythologized over time and distance.  A second entry is a research report written that disputes that Paul ever existed as purported (complete with research footnotes).  A final entry attempts to rationalize his prescient ability using a philosophical bent and the scientific method.
  • Entries on the political entities (Landsraad, Sardaukar, Great Houses, Great Convention) invent a back history to describe how the tenuous arrangement came to be over thousands of years. Invented emperors, battles, Great Houses, and events are sprinkled throughout the entries to create an aura of authenticity.
  • The entry on the face dancers is extremely creative.  Evidently a biologist or a physician was involved as it explains physiologically how (with some advanced scientific knowledge) face dancers could be created from standard humans.

For me, this book is a never-ending fun read and I often pick it up and browse a few pages.  I always find something new.

5 out of 5 stars

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  1. Jessie
    October 29, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    You are really a great writer, Mike. If you don’t already do some sort of professional writing, you may want to look into it. Seriously. I think you could get a penny (or many more) for your thoughts.

    • michaelldennis
      October 29, 2010 at 11:06 pm

      I appreciate that, Jessie, it’s very kind. I certainly would do additional edits and probably organize my thoughts a bit better! I kinda use this blog to get some thoughts down “on paper” right after reading a book because my memory isn’t what it used to be. It’s basically an open reading journal. I do hope that someone might be tempted to pick up one of these books based on my comments — my interests are so broad that at some point I’ll likely intersect with someone else’s.

      I have done some technical / training documentation for work over the years, which I surprisingly found very rewarding. Those documents definitely require reworking and delicate crafting.

      Thanks again!

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