Saturday, 10 February 2018

SF&F Question: are the non-Frank Herbert DUNE novels canon?

The Basics
Dune is a 1965 science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert (1920-86). It is the biggest-selling science fiction novel of all time, having sold over 20 million copies. Before his death in 1986, Frank Herbert wrote an additional five novels in the Dune saga: Dune Messiah (1969), Children of Dune (1976), God Emperor of the Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1984) and Chapterhouse: Dune (1986), as well as a number of essays and short stories in the same setting. In 1984 a feature film version of Dune directed by David Lynch, with Herbert serving as a creative consultant, was released.
After Herbert's death, the family estate spearheaded by his son Brian took over as literary executor. They authorised a series of video games based on the series (beginning with Dune in 1992) and two TV mini-series based on the first three books, which aired on SyFy in 2000 and 2003. Most significantly - and controversially - Brian Herbert co-wrote (with prolific tie-in author Kevin J. Anderson) a series of prequel and sequel novels to his father's series, beginning with House Atreides in 1999. To date they have released thirteen novels in the Dune universe and have frequently claimed to be expanding the "Dune canon." However, these books have met with both critical derision and criticism, particularly for the early claim that the books were based on Frank Herbert's notes and background material for the series, only to later confirm that these notes were very brief and marginal and did not contain in-depth outlines for the new books.

This leads to the question, then, if these latter Dune novels can be considered canon?

Definition of Canon
"Canon" is a debatable fan when applied to fictional universes, but generally it is accepted that the "canon" is the events that "happened" in the fictional universe which all other additions to that universe are expected to acknowledge or take into consideration when being written. Some fictional universes consist of multiverses with numerous different canons and continuities taking place within them, most famously the Marvel and DC comic universes but also the Transformers media franchise, which from day one separated the comic books and cartoon series into separate canons.

There is also a distinction involved when stories are adapted into new forms. For example, although the television series Game of Thrones is based on the George R.R. Martin novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, it forms a distinct and different canon by itself and nothing that happens in one medium is automatically assumed to happen in the other.

Canon should not be confused with "official," that is material released or authorised by the legally appropriate entity, or "fanon," (sometimes "head-canon") which is material deemed to be acceptable by individual fans and can incorporate any combination or mixture of canonical, official, non-canonical, outright apocryphal or fanfiction material.

Who determines what is canon?
It is generally accepted that one person or role - a "keeper of the mythos" or "gatekeeper" - is responsible for determining what is canonical or not. In most cases this is the creator of the original version of the story or the first instalment of a series. For material like TV shows, movie series or comic books this becomes more complicated, as these stories are often created and put together by teams of people rather than individual, and the individual creator does not own the properties and loses control of them if they chose to leave or move on to other projects. For example, the British science fiction TV series Doctor Who famously has no hard-and-fast canon because it was created by a committee of several different writers and producers over half a century ago (most of whom are no longer with us) and has evolved through dozens of writers, actors and showrunners since then. Fortunately, the premise (which allows the rewriting of time, the cancelling-out of events and constant retconning) means this is not a major problem.

In rare cases, control of canon is deliberately handed over from one individual to another. George Lucas, for example, was the primary arbiter of Star Wars canon from the release of the first movie in 1977 until 2012, when he chose to sell the Star Wars franchise in its entirety to Disney. Disney appointed, at George's urging, Kathleen Kennedy as the head of Lucasfilm and she is now the primary arbiter of what is Star Wars canon, working alongside a steering committee (known as the Star Wars Story Group) of long-established writers and fans.

In a similar vein, before his premature death in 2015, Terry Pratchett granted his daughter Rhianna permission to expand the Discworld universe after his death, although she later confirmed she has no plans to do so (beyond working on the adaptations that her father had authorised before his passing, such as the long-gestating City Watch television series). Robert Jordan also authorised his wife and editor Harriet to find another author to conclude his Wheel of Time novel series after he was diagnosed with a fatal blood condition and wrote copious notes to this end, which were subsequently used by Brandon Sanderson to complete the series in 2009-13.

The status of a series when the author dies unexpectedly is more debatable: J.R.R. Tolkien had given his son Christopher permission to edit and release The Silmarillion if he passed away before finishing it, which proved to be the case. However, Roger Zelazny's death with several Chronicles of Amber books planned but unwritten was relatively unexpected, and a later series of tie-in prequels written by John Gregory Betancourt was, although "official" (authorised by Zelazny's estate), deemed non-canonical because it was not based on any Zelazny-originated material.

Creators versus popularisers of canon

This is not immediately relevant to the Dune saga, but a relatively new phenomenon that has emerged is when an originating author creates a story but it falls to someone else (sometimes working in a different medium) to take the story to a new level of popularity and success.

One example of this is the 1994 SF movie Stargate, written and directed by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. The movie was a modest success and inspired a spin-off television series, which Devlin and Emmerich declined to be involved in. The TV show, Stargate SG-1, was a worldwide smash hit and spawned three spin-off shows (Stargate Atlantis, Stargate Infinity and Stargate Universe). In total, more than 382 TV episodes were released over 18 television seasons across 14 years, with a worldwide audience of tens of millions and an estimated profit of $1-$2 billion for the franchise owners, MGM. Despite this enormous success, Devlin and Emmerich have consistently said they do not consider the TV shows to be canon and will ignore them if they ever make a sequel or reboot movie. This led to a substantial fan backlash and widespread anger; MGM's latest Stargate project, the web series Stargate Origins, is a prequel deliberately designed to avoid the issue by being set prior to both the film and the TV series.

In another example, the Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski has created and written eight novels in the Witcher world, which he originated in short stories in the late 1980s. The Witcher novels have been successful, selling just over 5 million copies worldwide. This success led the company CD Projekt Red to option the books for a video game, released in 2007. Sapkowski declined to be involved in the making of the games (although he did advise on the creation of a map). Subsequently, CD Projekt Red have released three games set in the Witcher universe. These games have been hugely critically acclaimed, have sold almost 30 million copies, outselling the novels 6-to-1, and are much better-known than the books, particularly in the West. This has led to controversy over the upcoming Netflix TV version of the story, with many fans expecting a faithful adaptation of the books that ignores the video games and many more expecting a show that has demanded an adherence to the visual style of the games whilst being free to adapt the books or not as they choose. It may be in this case that the TV series instigates a third version or canon of the story which borrows elements from both prior versions (as far as their licences and copyrights allows) but forges its own path.

So, are the Dune prequel and sequel novels canon?

Based on existing definitions, it is clear that the final arbiter of the Dune book canon is Frank Herbert, who is no longer in a position to confirm or deny canonicity to new works by virtue of Author Existence Failure. Indeed, during his lifetime Herbert exercised his right to be the final determiner of Dune canon, allowing Willis E. McNelly to write The Dune Encyclopedia on the understanding that it would not be canon and Herbert reserved the right to contradict it at will.
At the same time, Frank Herbert was also open to alternative interpretations of his work in other mediums, authorising two Dune board games and of course David Lynch's movie version (even creating the "weirding modules" when Lynch requested a new weapon for the story). Herbert seemed to enjoy letting others play with his creation, but only with his direct involvement and consultation, and with him setting the rules.

Frank Herbert did leave behind some notes for "Dune 7", but these notes were limited in scope and detail and did not provide enough information to act as a basis for thirteen additional novels in the universe. For example, they did not even disclose the identity of the "Great Enemy" the Honoured Matres were fleeing in Chapterhouse: Dune, and Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson's determination that this enemy was the return of the thinking machines is only a theory, one widely derided in the fanbase (who cite numerous examples from Herbert's books setting up the Tleilaxu as the primary enemy instead).

On this basis:
Answer: The Dune sequel and prequel novels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson are not part of the primary Dune canon, as that canon can only be determined by Frank Herbert who is no longer with us. However, the prequel and spin-off novels are certainly "official" (being authorised publications of the Herbert Estate) and can be considered to be part of a Marvel-style "Ultimate Universe," a parallel and alternative universe not related to the primary canon.

The primary Dune canon consists solely of the novels Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune, as well as Frank Herbert's short stories in the same universe, and due to his passing this can never now be changed.

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Anonymous said...

I think your conclusion is philosophically difficult. If canon is what later works 'ought' to take into consideration and is defined by the creator, then it's not that posthumous Dune works are non-canon, but that the concept of canon is meaningless in this case. Unless they open Dune out into a massive shared universe (when they might create rules of canon), the question of whether a work conflicts with another and what that means for other works can simply never arise.

Or put another way: the concept of canon requires a potential conflict between two sources of authority: the later writer, who says "this happened", and the master of the universe who has the option of saying "no it didn't, you can all forget about that". If Herbert had expressed a clear opinion relevent to future Dune novels, that would create the possibility for conflict. But as he didn't, and isn't around to disagree with his estate in future, there can't be any conflict - there's just what the estate decide now. So it's neither canon (imprimatured by Herbert) nor non-canon (denied canonicity by Herbert).

I'm not sure you can create clear rules on who is and isn't the master of the universe, btw. [Who determines the canonicity of cthulhu mythos works?] I don't think it's a moral thing, exactly, but a question of who you care about. The idea of canon is ultimately fans choosing to pay most attention to a particular creator and "their" version of creation - and that creator (or group of creators) don't have to be the original devisor of an idea, or to be legal owners of the ideas.

Also worth noting that "being canon" is TWO things, not one. Something can RESPECT canon - be recognised as not violating any established facts within the story - or something can ESTABLISH canon - be decreed as establishing new facts that future works ought to respect. Most things, of course, are both - but not everything. For instance, spin-off stories by the author, or licensed franchises (particularly if posthumous), often require that works respect established continuity (possess retrospective canonicity), but aren't treated as themselves establishing a binding precedent (do not possess prospective continuity). And the canonicity can change over time: a short story, for instance, may be written with retrospective canonicity, but without any commitment on its prospective canonicity - and then the author may, in writing the next 'main' work decide to treat that story as canon or not (grant it, or deny it, prospective canonicity).
In more extreme cases, a new work can lack retrospective canonicity (fail to adhere to established rules) but be given prospective canonicity (establishes new rules) - here we have a major rewriting of canon (eg Star Wars).

But of course it's a bit more complicated than that. Essentially each connected work has its own continuity-relationship with every other work. So, for example, Blomkampf's Alien 5 would have respected the canon of Alien and Aliens, but not the canon of any of the other Alien films.

And there can also be distinctions regarding what TYPE of facts are canonical. Stories with repeating characters like superheroes, for example, may operate with a common canon of characters (with some core biographical facts), settings, rules on what is or isn't possible, while having incommensurable canons when it comes to the specific things that happen to each character in each story; this is probably the point where we go from a 'canon' to a full-fledged 'mythos'...

Adam Whitehead said...

With the CTHULHU MYTHOS, Lovecraft himself opened the universe up as an open-source setting in his own lifetime, encouraging writers like Howard to do what they wanted without getting too bothered about consistency. So in that sense there's a simple answer: Lovecraft opened the setting to other writers and allowed them to do what they wanted.

In the case of DUNE we know that Frank Herbert had definite plans for "Dune 7" and these did not include the return of the thinking machines as the primary villains (and close reading of all six books supports the idea of the Tlailaxu being a far more likely threat). Herbert also did not want to write prequel trilogies until their poured out of his nose (he had 21 years to do that and never did). He did discuss the possibility of a Butlerian Jihad book with Brian Herbert, and he also discussed the war with McNelly, which led to the account of the Jihad in the companion book (which is at extreme variance with the godawful Anderson/Herbert Jnr. trilogy). Herbert didn't want to codify this in canon until he wrote it himself, but it's a clear sign that Herbert's intentions for the books were at odds with those Anderson and Herbert Jnr. later developed.

Anonymous said...

But there I think you're straying into other questions. If canon is defined as the established context that later works must respect, then that's a very different thing from what the original creator approves of. The creator may approve of a derivative work but not consider it canonical; and a creator may also disapprove of a work, but accept it as canonical (eg for commercial reasons).

Take Lovecraft: Lovecraft even during his lifetime encouraged references in the work of other writers, but that doesn't mean he wanted those works considered "canon". And what's the status of something like Call of Cthulhu? HPL's desire for his work to be open-source means that CoC is not contrary to his intentions. But at the same time, the same desire for an open-source mythos precludes CoC's materials being canonical - if I want to write a mythos work, I don't have to make sure it fits the facts established by CoC. My story is just as canonical or non-canonical as theirs is. [likewise and even more fundamentally the vast part of the mythos created by CAS - HPL approved of his doing that, but wouldn't have seen it as 'canonical', and indeed the two versions of the mythos seem to conflict at times.] So "authorial approval" and "canonicity" seem very different.

More generally: I think you're slipping from one sphere to another: what is "canon" is a narrative question - which facts are assumed by which later works. You seem to have crept into talking about the moral question of respecting the author's intentions. At the very least I think you need to reconsider how you define 'canon', if you want to deal with both questions at once somehow!

[there's a third question that often underlies these discussions: which works are 'part of the story'?]

But more generally than that: I think my issue is that you seem to treat canonicity as something monadic and objective: "X is canon (it is decreed by the heavens!)". This seems strange for something with no basis in testable scientific fact.

Whereas so far as I can see, canonicity is triadic and subjective: "[Person A] considers [prior work X] canon for [current or future work Y]". Different people may consider different things canon (your Stargate example, for instance), and different things may be considered canon to different works (I could write a Cthulhu story that treated CAS's work as canon, and then tomorrow write another story that treats CAS as non-canon; that doesnt' mean I've changed my mind about some objective canonicity of CAS!).

In the case of Herbert: obviously Herbert's estate consider the new works canon, in so far as each is (I assume?) treated as binding upon the next. And since Herbert's estate are the only people legally allowed to comission sequels, there's not really anyone else around to disagree with them. Fanfiction writers, of course, will determine their own canons for their own purposes. But until Herbert himself pops back from the dead and writes a 'real' Dune 7 that ignores all of the posthumous sequels, we can't say that Herbert considers those works non-canonical.

If the question is just: would Frank Herbert have written the post-Herbert Dune novels if he'd lived longer? Well sure, the answer there is "almost certainly not". But if that were all there were to "canonicity", then there wouldn't need to be any discussion, would there? Because I think everyone can agree on that!

Ghost said...

I think the answer to what's canon is pretty simple; whoever creates the thing has the right to say what's canon and what's not. I loved the 3 video games of The Witcher but if Andrzej Sapkowski say they are not canon, then it's not. It doesn't mean that we can't enjoy it, it's basically Elseworld for The Witcher. In the case of Herbert; he is dead so his heirs has to the right to say what's canon and what's not. If the estate say it is, then it is.
I do disagree on writers letting their works be open-source though. Lovecraft may allow it but I think in general that will just mess canon up even more. Take what happen to Alan Moore and his work on The Watchmen. He was screwed over well by DC and DC has the right to release the presequels and sequels (the current ongoing Doomsday Clock) of The Watchmen. DC say they are canon and they have a right to say so. However if The Watchmen was open-source and Alan Moore one day release a sequel that contradicts The Doomsday Clock, what then? Do readers go with Moore or DC? That'll jut mess things up even more.

Anonymous said...

"Frank Herbert did leave behind some notes for "Dune 7", but these notes were limited in scope and detail and did not provide enough information to act as a basis for thirteen additional novels in the universe. For example, they did not even disclose the identity of the "Great Enemy" the Honoured Matres were fleeing in Chapterhouse: Dune, and Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson's determination that this enemy was the return of the thinking machines is only a theory"
This is very interesting. I have long wondered about this question. What is the source of this info about the contents of the notes?

Adam Whitehead said...

In this interview they confirm that Erasmus was created solely by them for their books, so logically he could not be the primary enemy Frank Herbert was going to bring in in his original Dune 7 as his son didn't co-invent him for another fifteen years.