Dune Encyclopedia, The by McNelly, Willis, 1984

Dune Encyclopedia, The by McNelly, Willis

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Before his death from cancer in 1986 Herbert wrote six Dune novels and one short story, and although he was the the real brains behind the Dune universe, he was not the only published author who wrote in it. In 1984 Willis McNelly - a notable educator as well as Herbert's patron - published the Dune Encyclopedia, a compilation of Dune-inspired stories and articles by some 40-odd SF genre authors, critics, scholars, teachers and students. The book itself resembles a true encyclopedia with entries presented in alphabetical order and thus has no independent narrative structure. But McNelly took on the guise of a minor character from the Dune chronicles named Hadi Benotto, a future archaeologist from well beyond the time of the Leto II who found the former's no chamber (see the encyclopedia for a description of what that is), then cataloged all of the God Emperor's secret papers and documents. This book was sold as the fictional result of that work.

Although the book bears the title of Encyclopedia it is differs widely in content and scope then most fiction-inspired encyclopedic works. To start off, the Dune Encyclopedia, ("DE") is not really a scholarly catalog of people, places, technology, themes, etc. from Dune. It does have a lot of that kind of stuff in it, but more than that it contains in-universe articles that expand on the ideas from Herbert's books up to and including God Emperor of Dune, and possibly a little from an early draft of Heretics of Dune, the fifth book in the series. Thus, for example, the DE has articles on Leto II and Ghanima Atriedes as well as Farad'n Corrino/Harq al-Ada, all of whom are players in the Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, but it also contains long lists of their descendants, none of whom were named by Herbert.

The authors also drew on other real-world topics of interest to Dune readers. Thus there are conceptually - and perhaps scientifically - valid articles on ecology, linguistics, culture, geography, and more. Consider the article on the subject of heraldry.

Heraldry, the system of describing coats of arms, has a unique syntax, quicker illustrated than explained. Here, for example, is the blazon, or verbal description, of the arms of House Corrino: "White a lion sejant guardant erect or." That is, on a while field, a yellow or gold lion, seated facing the viewer.

The author continues to describe some key terms in heraldry, then provides illustrations of various Dune coats-of-arms along with the verbal description of that coat of arms in heraldric terms.

Unfortunately not all articles are to the same high standards. They are all on-topic of course, but a few odd-balls slipped through McNelly's fingers in the final editing stages. Consider the article on ornithopter:

One of the group's (the team that worked out the engineering problems) most fruitful rediscoveries was the "Heart Scallop: (Perpetuus opercularis) of the Forannis Triad. The Heart Scallop, so named because of its continual, regular, and powerful muscular contraction-expansion cycle, was a land mollusk, a soft-shelled bivalve which grew to a weight upwards of three hundred pounds, noted for the astounding strength of its single muscle. The Heart Scallop begins its life cycle as an airborne polyp, anchoring itself to a likely cliff-face or large tree after a short adolescence in the planet's jet stream. After anchoring, the animal survives by pumping vast amounts of air through its alimentary canal, straining microorganisms from the air for sustenance. Aside from its size, the Heart Scallop had been seen as nothing extraordinary, except by some of the slaves on the Forannis Triad. Golitle (the head scientist) discovered that the slaves used the scallops to aid in their work; they would carefully trim the shell of a large scallop, and, by connecting it to a series of levers and rods, transform the Heart Scallop's continual bellows action into usable power.

After concluding the article the author went on in fashion typical for this volume and cited to a few fake in-universe documents as authority, thus emulating one of the structural elements of Herbert's chronicles, which often contained similar citations in chapter headings. In this case the author ("W.D.I." or Wesley D. Ives) cited as such: "Further references: Beekster Barty, The History of the Ornithopter in Sport and Commerce (Caladan: Apex); Ruuverad Zhaunz, Cost Effective Procedures in Ornithopter Veterinary Medicine (Richese: U. of Bailey Press)."

Giant clam-engines for the ornithopters? One wonders what Herbert was thinking when he wrote in the introduction to this volume, "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." Maybe he should have done a bit more then reserve the right to contradict, at least as far as the giant-clam ornithopter-engines were concerned. Although, if I am going to be perfectly honest here, this is also the man who gave Lynch hearty kudos in public over the 1984 Dune film; maybe he was just being politically correct and honoring the work of his friend and archivist.

There is also some controversy over the canonicity of this work. After Herbert's son and Kevin J. Anderson began producing new Dune novels the Herbert Limited Partnership ("HLP") website produced with a letter from McNelly. In it he explains that the new authors based their continuing Dune books on notes and documents left by Frank Herbert, and not the material that can be found in the DE.

Informed readers of all relevant texts know better then to believe any of this.

The ironic thing about the controversy is that it seems that the HLP has misplaced the focus of it all. No Dune reader who ever perused the DE mistook it for canon. It was never anything more than some educated navel-gazing into the Dune universe by some motivated and informed people, and in that regard, it was a RESOUNDING success, and in short order became a beloved tome. So when the HLP produced that letter they did not diffuse any potential claims of plagiarism. Instead all that they did was ostracize Dune fans who respected McNelly for the hard work and careful time and attention he had put in to help make Dune the cultural juggernaut that it truly is.

Twenty-five years later I still find myself turning through the pages of this book frequently. Well, that's not exactly true. I bought the thing in the late-nineties, not when it came out. Back then I paid an arm and a leg for it. I cannot recall if I bought it on Amazon or eBay, but the asking prices for it on line were astronomical; copies were scarce, and everyone knew that because of the large number of authors it was unlikely that another edition would ever be printed. For some reason the price on the resale market has come down significantly in the last few years, which is a great thing. For those of you who already own this book, I have a feeling that it is a treasured possession. There is very little out there - save for an actual Frank Herbert book - that captures the attention as well as or stimulates thoughts of Dune more that McNelly's DE. If you do not have it, and have the means to do so, there is no better non-FH work about Dune. I LOVE my copy, and you will too.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)


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