Frank Herbert, Dune, and the posthumous series
I'm squeezing too much into this page for it to be as coherent as it should be, but what follows are thoughts about Frank Herbert, themes in his works, a synopsis of the Dune series, and thoughts on/reviews of the series continued by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson after the author's death.  If you want the bottom-line "recommended reading" list, skip to the bottom of the page.



Personal Impressions

Frank Herbert is probably still my favorite writer.  Most authors make me think about how I would have done things differently.  Herbert makes me think about how I never would have thought to do things like he did them.  Not everything he wrote was a masterpiece, but he usually did a great job and almost always left me with something I hadn't thought of before... or at least I hadn't thought of things that *way* before.

Dune was the first "grown-up" novel I ever read.  It wasn't really sci-fi in the usual ways that genre deals with its setting and plot elements.  By that, I mean that Herbert's work was rarely about amazing technology and extrapolating things to fantastic proportions.  Instead, he was more into using the future as a place where he could redefine societies in order to test out possible outcomes.  I guess that describes a lot of science fiction authors, but I really think he was unique among them for the way he approached things on so many levels.

For one thing, he viewed human potential as almost limitless.  In the distant future, to take the one described in the Dune series, for example, humanity sharpened its mental and physical prowess to develop talents such as the Voice or to become Mentats, human computers.  Characters could similarly focus their physical abilities to almost unimaginable ends to perform superhuman feats of strength, agility, and endurance as well as sexual skills to the extent that they could actually enslave partners or kill them at will.

On a more subtle level, most of his writing was focused inwardly.  Rather than a superficial account of dialogue between characters, Herbert tended to describe their inner thoughts and impressions in parallel.  Thus, the reader's experience existed simultaneously on multiple levels.  More than just a literary device, this was a running theme throughout all of his works.

Herbert was good with characters, but it never stopped there.  He saw societies and cultures as organisms more completely than anyone I've ever read anything by.  In his collection Eye was a story that captured this idea.  I think it was called "The Death of a City" in which he follows a social psychologist around a futuristic city as she diagnoses its problems from smaller signs (symptoms?) like graffiti.  She basically says that the condition is terminal.  The city is dismantled, its populace moved off-world, etc.  Interestingly, in The Tipping Point, Gladwell describes similar patterns in NYC and how the city was saved by addressing the superficial symptoms (again, graffiti was the stand-out example)... and the problems simply retreated.  This was a few years after Eye was published.  Clearly he was on the right track.

Perhaps my favorite story in Eye has aliens forcing humans to create a language in which they cannot lie.  It involves a lot of body language as well as a spoken component, but it conveys all meanings simultaneously.  I thought it was an interesting concept, and it was almost the opposite of so many of his other works which are about what's going on inside the characters and what they're going to reveal in order to keep their advantage. 


Frank Herbert's Dune trilogy

I started reading the Dune series when I was in 7th grade.  I had seen the movie when it came out, and I just didn't get it at all.  I mean, I followed the story, but it was a bleak and hostile future that contrasted sharply with the Star Wars universe I had grown up watching and had just concluded the year before David Lynch's Dune was released.  However, I knew there was more to it if I was willing to explore that universe, and my classroom library had a copy of each of the first three books just an arm's-length from me.

I re-read the first book several years or so ago, and I was surprised to find that I remembered nearly *everything* in it.  I was hoping there would be passages that I'd forgotten, but it was sucked up into my brain on the first reading.  Maybe it was due to how impressionable I was at that age, but I still describe the first book of the series as the greatest novel ever written.

I highly recommend the whole series all the way through, even though there are "low" points for most people.  No spoilers, but just so you adjust your expectations appropriately:

Dune - One of the greatest books ever written.  It operates on so many levels: adventure story, sweeping criticism of blind faith in religion, epic battles, a speculative take on a possible future without computers, etc.  The characters are amazing, and they are dealt with so completely that you get to know them deeply.

Dune Messiah - Kind of a let-down after the big lead-in.  The first book is about getting into power.  This one is about retaining it, so it lacks the thematic elements that made the first one great.  It's still brilliant, but not blindingly so.

Children of Dune - More adventure this go-round than last time.  When the Sci-Fi channel made a sequel to the mini-series of the first book, they just rolled some of the second book into a mini-series based primarily off of this one.


The Fourth Book

God Emperor of Dune either turns people off of the series or they really like it, but usually the former.  For one thing, whereas the original trilogy took place over a couple decades, this one jumps ahead several thousand years, which automatically means you're going to be leaving behind a lot of what you loved about the original trilogy.  Naturally this alienates a lot of readers and they never make it past this volume.  I wasn't crazy about it at the time, but I think it was a pretty daring novel: an anti-hero who reads as an antagonist as the protagonist.  Even Paul was likable when he was "playing god" with his followers, but this was wild.  However, there is a lot interesting in that book, and it sets things up for what follows in the later books (which are my favorites).

Honestly, I think the feeling is something like the "Empire Strikes Back" phenomenon.  People hated that movie when it came out because it was such a departure from their expectations.  They wanted another award ceremony where everyone turns to the camera and smiles to triumphant music before the credits roll.  Instead they got an ambiguous fate for Han Solo while Luke ended up injured, a Jedi school drop-out, and the bastard son of the biggest bastard of all.

"God Emperor" isn't part of the timeline everyone comes to love and want more of, even after three books.  There's no Paul and Jessica and the rest of the gang.  The planet has changed, and it's a set of all new characters save the title one (and something else, but no spoilers from me).  It's dark and oppressive a lot of the time.  But it establishes themes and movements in this fictional history that provide a setting for the series of novels that follow.  It's a single transitional novel (albeit a long one) between what likely would have been two trilogies.


The Second Trilogy That Never Was

It is generally agreed that the last two books of the series were intended to be a trilogy.  Unfortunately, Frank Herbert succumbed to complications from surgery for cancer, and the last novel was thought to be little more than an outline (More about that in the next section).  Even with the ambiguous ending to the series, these two books were my favorites of the series (short of the first novel, of course).

Heretics of Dune - I think these are brilliant at rebooting the series.  They pick up thousands of years after the fourth book and introduce completely new sets of characters, settings, and institutions as rich as those of the original trilogy.

Chapterhouse Dune - I can't even tell you where the previous one ended and this one begins.  They're part of the same story with only a few years in between, if that.  You should simply set aside time to read both of these back-to-back as though they're one novel.

I read the 5th and 6th novels when I was fairly young (perhaps 8th grade?), so I may have an inflated opinion of them, but I recall being very taken with them at the time, more so than any since the first novel, which is saying quite a lot.  However, if you haven't made it past the first novel, you might have a bit of work to get to the last couple.  I found the middle of the series to be a bit slow.  After re-reading the first Dune novel a few years ago, I recently re-visited Heretics of Dune (the fifth novel) and found that I still enjoyed it and Chapterhouse: Dune (the sixth novel).  I re-read those in anticipation of what came next.


The Brian Herbert prequels

As I said above, Frank Herbert died before continuing the series.  Supposedly nothing more than general outlines were written for anything beyond that point.  However, his son claimed that many years later he found a safe deposit box containing extensive notes on how the series was to have ended.  Personally, I just don't believe this, but some of the books he (and writing partner Kevin J. Anderson) penned are worth reading anyway.  He is nowhere near the writer his father was with the depth of character or ideas, but the books are fan-pleasing brain candy anyway, even when they go out of their way to just please fans rather than telling a challenging and compelling story the way most of the elder Herbert's works did.

By the time anyone reads this page, who knows how many novels Herbert and Anderson will have cranked out, but what follows is a brief summary of my impressions of what I have read about each.

Prelude to Dune trilogy - I started the first of these, but never got into it.  I don't remember why exactly, but it was likely that I was simply reading other things at the time.  The Star Wars prequels had just begun around this time, and it just seemed like an attempt to cash in.  These books were set a few years before the events of the original trilogy, and I just didn't feel like they held enough revelations to make them worth my time.  It was immediately apparent that it lacked the depth of the source novels.  Also, it wasn't just Brian writing them.  He teamed up with a hack named Kevin J. Anderson who used to write Star Wars novels.  A friend of mine was into those but quit reading them when he came across an interview in which KJA basically said he just cobbled these things together, something to the effect of "Write an adventure story, throw some familiar characters in, and you've got a Star Wars novel."  This trilogy seemed to be more of the same, just a different franchise this time.
Dune: House Atreides (1999)
Dune: House Harkonnen (2000)
Dune: House Corrino (2001)

Legends of Dune trilogy - On the other hand, these books are set a full millennium before the first novel, and they reveal how the Dune universe came to be established in the form we know from the original trilogy.  It is interesting reading and I think is successful on most levels.  It is also essential reading for the "Dune 7" novels that followed for reasons I can't go into with divulging spoilers.
Dune: The Butlerian Jihad (2002)
Dune: The Machine Crusade (2003)
Dune: The Battle of Corrin (2004)

Dune 7 - This was the code name for the final novel(s) of the Dune series based on Frank Herbert's notes.  The project grew into two novels.  I will discuss these more in the next section.
Hunters of Dune (2006)
Sandworms of Dune (2007)

Heroes of Dune - Whereas the other books up to this point were true prequels (i.e., taking place before the entire Dune series), these novels fall chronologically between the events of the original series.
Paul of Dune (2008)
The Winds of Dune (2009)
The Throne of Dune (TBD) (Originally titled Irulan of Dune)
Leto of Dune (TBD) (Title may have changed to Golden Path of Dune)

Some of these are interesting, some aren't unless you're a die-hard fan with time to spare instead of reading something more worthwhile.  At this point, I'd recommend reading the "Legends of Dune" trilogy before you move on to "Hunters of Dune" and "Sandworms of Dune" (which are the close of the series).  They're entertaining in their own right as well.


New Dune: "Dune 7"

A while back I ran across some big news: There would be a legitimate 7th Dune novel.  The series had ended abruptly with Frank Herbert's death in 1986, but (like I say repeatedly above) the last two books were excellent.  Unfortunately, the existing works closed with something of a cliffhanger along with more than a few unanswered questions.

At the time Herbert died, it was reported that he was working with his son on the next novel in the series (they had collaborated with one another once before on the novel "Man of Two Worlds").  I had wondered for the next twenty years what was supposed to have come next ever since his death.  I skimmed all the interesting bits of Brian Herbert's biography on his father ("Dreamer of Dune") searching for information about the series and other novels by the elder Herbert I enjoyed (as of this writing, I have read roughly 85% of the fiction he published).

At the end of the biography Brian reveals why the 7th Dune novel had never been published until now: For years he had no answer to the mysteries left in the series, but just recently he came across a bank box containing the full outline and text written for the novel (my impression was that, up till now, all that was available was a brief outline, probably one short on details).  This sounds like something of a far-fetched story, but the last years of Frank's life were detailed in "Dreamer" and tell the story of a man who was somewhat disheveled in his business dealings.  For 30+ years his wife had handled all his professional affairs outside of the writing itself, but she had died two years before her husband.  All kinds of things managed to get misplaced, so who knows?  Dune was worth a huge chunk of cash, so it would make sense to store it "off-site."

I'm not sure exactly when this trove was supposedly discovered, but Brian Herbert spent years collaborating with Kevin J. Anderson on prequel novels before they ever got around to fleshing out Dune 7.  Anderson is viewed as something of a franchise hack.  He has cranked out dozens of novels based on multiple properties: everything from Star Wars to tv shows and video games.  The fact that they seemed to drag out the build-up to completing the Dune series (even splitting it into two books) reads like marketing strategies rather than literary talent.

At least the "Legends of Dune" trilogy had a little more legitimacy for me given that it was intended to be a project between Brian and Frank (albeit never begun nor even outlined).  I am (maybe) a little cynical, but I decided to withhold judgment.

Turns out they were interesting reading.  Yes, they suffer from a lack of depth.  They are clearly less intellectual than Frank Herbert's works, but that is perhaps an impossible standard.  In place of introspection and scheming by these characters, there is instead more action.  There are also several fan-pleasing elements that a more rigorous author would have avoided.  We are used to more challenging material from Frank Herbert than we got from his son's camp.  But maybe we need that so things can end on a high note.

I remember coming off reading these books (the second/last one in particular) in a happy place.  They weren't deep, sure, but they gave us a nice, satisfying bookends on the series and even drew in elements from the prequel novels.  I feel guilty for liking them, but I do.  You probably will as well.


Additional Dune Readings

Eye - A short story collection and not directly a Dune novel.  However, one story is set on Dune.

Road to Dune - A collection of short stories in the Dune universe including some missing chapters from the Dune series as well as a draft of the novel "Spice Planet" based on Frank Herbert's basis for what ultimately became the first Dune novel.

Dreamer of Dune - A fair and thorough treatment of Frank Herbert written by his son.  It was largely about the author's works and career rather than his family (because, honestly, who cares unless that was a major issue in the public eye?).  Considering his son was the one writing it, I was pleased that it didn't detour into emotional territory.  Brian Herbert was also bluntly honest about where his father was hypocritical (e.g., he said he liked Lynch's adaptation of Dune, then later said he thought it was terrible).  It didn't seem to come either from mindless adoration or a grudge and it didn't seem like an attempt to cash-in on fans' interest... unlike some of the the fiction that has followed.


The short version

If you don't want to plow through all the above, here's the short-form that simply says what you should read and in which order.

The original series - Maybe take a short break before and after the fourth one.
Dune (1965)
Dune Messiah (1969)
Children of Dune (1976)
God Emperor of Dune (1981)
Heretics of Dune (1984)
Chapterhouse: Dune (1985)

The Legends of Dune trilogy - Though prequels, they are essential reading for what follows.
Dune: The Butlerian Jihad (2002)
Dune: The Machine Crusade (2003)
Dune: The Battle of Corrin (2004)

"Dune 7" - Wraps up the original series.
Hunters of Dune (2006)
Sandworms of Dune (2007)

Companion books
Eye - Can be read at any time.
Road to Dune - Anytime after the original trilogy.
Dreamer of Dune - After Chapterhouse: Dune.




Copyright Ale[x]trasensor.  Revised 2013.

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