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.
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
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
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
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
Dune: House Harkonnen
Dune: House Corrino
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
Dune: The Machine
Dune: The Battle of
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
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
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
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
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
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 Messiah (1969)
Children of Dune
God Emperor of Dune
Heretics of Dune
The Legends of Dune trilogy -
Though prequels, they are essential reading for what follows.
Dune: The Butlerian Jihad (2002)
Dune: The Machine
Dune: The Battle of
"Dune 7" - Wraps up the
Hunters of Dune (2006)
Sandworms of Dune
Eye - Can be read at any time.
Road to Dune -
Anytime after the original trilogy.
Dreamer of Dune -
After Chapterhouse: Dune.
Ale[x]trasensor. Revised 2013.