Your basic Dwarf+Giant Overview is a comprehensive survey of an author or series. It is not an in-depth analysis, nor is it a summary. Think of it as a buying or reading guide, telling you what’s out there, what’s essential, what to avoid and so forth.
Perhaps the coolest trivia about Frank Herbert’s Dune is that after being rejected by many fancy-pants publishing houses, stalwart Chilton said yes. Chilton, if you didn’t know, is the publisher of automotive manuals. I have owned many. So yes, a buncha grease monkeys could see the genius in that first novel while all these hoity-toity publishing types were clueless AF. Huzzah to they who work with their hands, salt-of-the-earth, mighty are ye.
A World War II vet, Frank Herbert worked as a journalist, teacher, ecological consultant, and he published stories in the pulps. His wife supported him for a while so he could focus on writing. Herbert came to invent the Dune universe out of an ecological report he was doing in the Pacific Northwest. It was literally a study of dunes and their ecology. He got sidetracked by the research and wrote possibly the greatest science fiction novel ever instead. Oops. His Dune books are thick. Perhaps it’s the subject matter: a lot of internecine strife, politics, philosophy, psychology, ecology (many ~ologies) – almost like a textbook but with knife fights. That’s what makes it great science fiction: it’s about ideas. He wrote a lot of books and stories – a helluva writer – but this series was followed up by his son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J Anderson, after his death, so it is the most thoroughly explored of the worlds he created. Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival [hey, we have a post about Arrival right here], Blade Runner 2049) is slated to direct a new movie version for Legendary (Interstellar, Straight Outta Compton, The Expanse, and the Chris Nolan Batmans). This is probably good news. That’s a few years away, though, so plenty of time to get caught up on the reading.
First, the books Frank Herbert himself wrote:
The planet Arrakis (or Dune) is the only planet in the universe which produces something called spice. It is literally a spice, with an air of cinnamon, but is more or less a metaphor for oil. This spice is used by the folks (Navigators) who control all of space travel (it opens up their minds in a way that allows them to plot a safe course thru space), and without it, all commerce and communication between different parts of a vast galactic empire would be impossible. But Arrakis is a desert planet, with very little water, gigantic sandworms that will swallow you and the mountain you’re standing on, and an indigenous population (Fremen) very uninterested in being ruled. When the despotic Harkonnen clan is to be replaced as rulers by the noble Atreides family, galactic intrigue ensues: is it all a ploy by the Emperor to be rid of a rival? Have the Fremen found a messiah? Has the centuries-long plan of a secretive female society (Bene Gesserit) finally come to fruition? In Frank Herbert’s universe, ecology is power and technology has more to do with human potential than the potential of machines. This has everything from Imperial machination to drinking your own piss (filtered, of course).
The Road to Dune (the short story, not the book*)
This is not really part of the main series, but a sort of guidebook to the planet Dune during the time between the first two novels. It’s like, Lonely Planet Dune. For reals. It appears in the Herbert collection Eye.
There’s a new emperor on the throne, and a new religious/political force bringing the universe under his sway.
“I’ve killed sixty-one billion, sterilised ninety planets, completely demoralised five hundred others. I’ve wiped out the followers of forty religions…. We’ll be a hundred generations recovering from Muad’dib’s Jihad.”
The question: who is really in control? There is less action and more palace intrigue in this one, but there are plenty of new sci fi baubles to gawk at: dead folks re-birthed from a vat (ghoulas), shapeshifters (face dancers) and spice-awareness so deep it’s a literal sixth sense. This one starts a little slowly, but ends up being pretty emotional and intense.
The empire is showing signs of decay, mostly in the form of corruption: the Fremen are not what they once were. They’ve won all their battles, can’t they just chill for awhile? The grand plan to turn Arrakis green continues apace, but – wait – is it really such a great idea? Where Dune Messiah was mostly about palace intrigue, Children of Dune continues that but really explores the internal world of the spice-woke (my term). The royal twins Luke and Leia – urrf, I mean Leto and Ghanima – [George Lucas was heavily influenced by Herbert] have internal and external obstacles to overcome on their way to the throne. Here’s the question: if you could see all possible futures, and therefore the best possible future but it also came at the highest price, could you walk that path? This one alternates between really cool moments and slogging as if through – I dunno – sand, for instance. It all holds together and makes sense, but I really want to get off this planet.
Time has passed. We have reached the end of a long plan, set in motion by the Emperor (or maybe started by Muad’dib?) – the end goal of which… ah, ok, it’s complicated and hard to explain without spoiling things. Have you read Asimov’s Foundation series? It’s something with that scope but also completely different. Everything has changed in this book; the setting and situation is damn near unrecognizable from the previous stories. It’s monstrous and disgusting [hint, hint – just check out that cover], but in some unexpected way, probably relevant to your life. We’re suddenly dealing with “gods” and very long lifespans and an almost Groundhog Day situation for one character: how is a mere mortal supposed to make sense out of it? Let’s just say it’s full of surprises, and surprises are what being fully human is all about. And remember the Vietnam War axiom, “In order to save the village, it became necessary to destroy it”? 25,000 years in the future, it’s actually true.
Time passes again. Imagine going from a Star Wars-style single Empire universe to a Star Trek-style multiple civilizations universe. That’s a bit like where we are now. The God Emperor’s plan worked, more or less, and the Bene Gesserit are the last women standing. It’s the wild west, and true to what I think is a law of physics, what expands must contract. They circle the wagons against brand new threats from the outer rim planets, and hey – guess what? We’re still stuck on this goddamn desert planet – BUT… maybe we can rid ourselves of it once and for all. It’s a new hope. narf narf.
Following Heretics of Dune immediately, the encroaching threat – a female group similar to the Bene Gesserit, but way less chill – puts the BGs on their mettle. Not only do they have to scramble to turn enemies into allies, but they have to confront some of their own ancient prejudices – like the one against emotion. BGs, gholas, mentats and Jews (which is nuts, because these stories take place 20,000+ years in the future, and very little from Earth has survived, but somehow you can still get a decent matzo ball soup recipe – there’s hope, guys) are all on the same team. It’s like getting the squad together for one last adventure. This would seem to be a concluding book of the series, as it is the last Herbert wrote, but it’s not. He died soon after, leaving the story arc unfinished. As such, it does not answer all our questions.
So, Frank is gone. No more OG Dune stories.
Luckily, his son Brian and Kevin J Anderson (who has written a bunch of really good Star Wars books) jumped in to continue fleshing out the Dune-iverse. Broadly speaking, if folks denigrate the Brian/Kevin books, it’s because either they think the writing is less “literary” or because they don’t like the narrative choices. There’s some legitimacy to the first one; you’ll walk away from Herbert’s Dune books with some unforgettable ideas (maybe scribbled onto post-its around your office- ahem). Not sure if the same can be said for the other books. On the other hand, apples and oranges. Different writers, different decisions – you either like it or you don’t. To me, it’s as if someone hands you a glass of soy milk for the first time, and says “This is soy milk”, you might spit it out and say “That’s not milk!” But if they say, “Here, try this drink made of protein-rich soy beans”, you might react “Hm… smooth, a little sweet. You say it has protein?” The difference is you weren’t expecting milk. Some folks might pick up the Bri/Kev books and spit them out, like “That’s not Frank!” No, it’s not, but is it tasty? So, you might give these a shot, rather than reject them outright.
To complete the story arc of Herbert’s original 6 books, here are the two sequels Bri and Kev wrote, based on Frank’s notes which they found…. somewhere. Probably a drawer or some kind of file.
You’ll either love these or hate them. The story has definitely gotten rangier, as in not so stuck on one planet. It’s veering into “road movie” territory. There’s maybe not a single thread from the entire series that’s left untied, going back to threads you thought had been flat-out cut. In a sense, this kinda reduces the pathos of some of the earlier character arcs. Ah, well. The “bad guys” keep shifting, and some very old enemies return. Ghoula technology gets put to a really bizarre use: think Boys From Brazil, if you know your old thrillers. You could say that though Frank spent most of his imagination on really tight explorations of human technology, ie ways a person’s own consciousness and talents could be developed, Bri and Kev are going to spend less time there and more time on external developments, various uses of technology and so forth.
Now, for the rest of the Dune-iverse, we’ll go way back to the chronological beginning. Bri and Kev have written several series, drilling down into the history of the universe and backstories of various Houses and Schools. (When we say “school”, you may as well think “secret society” – cuz it’s pretty damn close to that.)
The deep backstory of Dune is pretty close to the same backstory as The Terminator and The Matrix, and Battlestar Galactica: sentient machines take over; humans rebel to avoid extinction. Of course, it’s like, the oldest sci fi story. The Butlerian Jihad is the name of that rebellion; Serena Butler is its (initial) hero. This happens about 10,000 years before the events of Dune. In equally less imaginative fashion, you get to meet the early versions of all the famous Houses (Atreides, Harkonnen, etc.) and the origins of spice. (More later on how I feel about that.) There are some interesting themes, though. When some super-upper-crusty types find a way to avoid death by planting their brains in powerful machine bodies, they conquer the rest of humanity, which has been dumbed-down and weakened thru its reliance on machines. The machines pull a switcheroo, though, and learn how to control the controllers. Exterminate, exterminate…
The war against Skynet continues. If you want to know the origins of everything in the Dune-iverse, this series is the origin café. The robots have a little more going on than your average Terminator, and here we see the beginnings of the Mentats, as machines argue about whether or not humans are totally useless: look how computer-like they can become. That’s a big deal, if you’re a machine and/or you think machines are at the top of the food chain. Other origins: Fremen and the Spacing Guild.
You can’t have noble Houses without noble feuds between them, and here you learn the (surprising) roots of the Atreides/Harkonnen feud. Not to be left out, it happens that the Bene Gesserits and the Suk doctors also got their starts in the Butlerian Jihad. Ok – all interesting stories and all things we want to know (if we like Dune, which we do, very much), but here’s my issue: 10,000 years is a long, long time. That’s 100 centuries. Consider that it’s only about 4500 years since the pyramids in Egypt were built – that’s not even halfway to 10,000, right? I feel like the scale of time/change is off here. No matter how it’s explained, I feel like nothing human lasts 10,000 years, unless it’s made of stone – and even then, it would need to be dug out of the sand every 50 years. My opinion – though it’s no knock on the stories themselves.
Great Schools of Dune:
The seeds of the Bene Gesserit were planted during the Butlerian Jihad, and this is their germination. In the chaotic milieu of the rebellion’s aftermath, Raquella Berto-Anirul, who survived an assassination attempt by poisoning, develops her poison-survival technique, which gave her an internal connection to her female ancestors. This ability plus the breeding program she and her gang begin to codify, are the quintessential Bene Gesserit characteristics. All the gom jabbar and voice abilities are party tricks in comparison. Here are the roots.
If you’ll remember, mentats were a sort of proof-of-concept for machines arguing that humans were not useless (i.e. Can a human brain be trained to think with computer-like efficiency?) Once the robots were overthrown, the association became a liability for mentats. The Bene Gesserit story continues here as well. As is often the case with these novels, the thematic conflicts are relevant to us. In Mentats, the extremes pulling the high wire tight are inflexible religious ideology and blindly ambitious technology. Gotta find balance in there somewhere, young padawan.
And on to the Navigators, those weird, fishy spice-junkies who can make the calculations for the jump to lightspeed real quick. Except… this book is more of a continuation of the previous two, less focused on the Navigators themselves. The rebellion against computers during the Butlerian Jihad was dangerous enough, but we always find a way to turn a good revolution sour, don’t we? This is the story here, as in real life. [Read your Zizek.] This is a counterpoint to what Leto II did in shattering the empire, because the “heroes” of this trilogy make the empire possible, through the development of the Navigators abilities.
Prelude to Dune:
With this trilogy, we’re getting back to the time period just before the original novel. This is to Dune what the Star Wars prequels were to Star Wars. What was the young, pre-Duke Leto like? What kind of nasty machinations was Crown Prince Shaddam up to when his dad was still Emperor? How did the particularly distasteful Bene Gesserit plan to produce a Harkonnen child work out? How did Duncan Idaho get to be so bad-ass?
As you might expect, the Harkonnen entry in this series is filled with tragedy. What horrors motivated Gurney Halleck’s loyalty to the Atreides and hatred of the Harkonnens? How did the Baron’s nephew earn the nickname “Beast”? Even the budding Leto/Jessica romance has a tragic component. Anything the Harkonnens touch bleeds.
This one brings us closer to Emperor Shaddam and his buddy Count Fenring, who are more behind-the-scenes in the original book. In that sense, it’s unexplored territory, but being a bit closer to the events in Dune, it’s also more familiar. There’s a running plot about Shaddam’s efforts to make a synthetic spice substitute and the death throes of House Vernius – but it’s really the beginning of the end of House Corrino, who have ruled the known universe for millennia. Good riddance, jerks.
Heroes of Dune:
If you were frustrated by the original books’ jump from Paul as Precocious Throne-Usurper to Paul as Jaded Universe-Conqueror, then this is the book for you. Alternating between his childhood and his jihadic rule, this book fills in a lot of gaps. There is new material, like the War of Assassins and its characters, and some old familiars, like Stilgar leading the Fedaykin. Man, the Fremen seemed so cool, until they started slaughtering everyone. Paul himself alternates between brutality and compassion. This realpolitik is one of the characteristics of Dune that didn’t make the cut when Lucas was mining the material for Star Wars.
Lady Jessica. The cool concubine who defied the Bene Gesserit and birthed an Emperor – straight-up for Love. This is her story as she fills the empire-sized gap left by Paul, who has disappeared into the desert. All the fun early characters are here, from hardcore Gurney Halleck to batshit-crazy Alia.
The Road to Dune (*the book, not the short story)
This is a funky collection that you don’t need to read unless you’ve read everything else – not meaning that there are spoilers, just that… why would you? It’s for completists and the curious. It’s the bonus materials disc in your deluxe edition. There is an alternate version of Dune, based on an early outline of Frank’s. There are his letters back and forth with publishers, his unfinished article about sand dunes that catalyzed the original novel and a handful of short stories by Bri and Kev. The paperback version has one extra story. There are also extra chapters from Dune Messiah and Children of Dune.
So you have two choices, and they’re both good. If you love Dune, then you can either keep reading in this series, and explore its universe with the Bri/Kev books, OR read Frank Herbert’s other works – he has a ton: the WorShip novels, The God Makers, The White Plague, The Dosadi Experiment, etc. – or maybe get a broad taste from his short works, like The Collected Short Works of Frank Herbert. [Check out our review here.] And keep an eye out for the new Dune movie(s?). Lucky, lucky you – to discover it all for the first time.