Frank Herbert’s Dune novels are the gold standard in epic science fiction – going on to inspire Star Wars (desert planet, galactic empire – anyone?). Featuring a startling blend of environmentalism, feudalism, religious mythos, references to the medieval Islamic empires, and the all-encompassing metaphor for oil (the spice melange) – the Dune novels changed the way science fiction was written – moving from the technical and dry hard-science fiction afforded by Asimov and Clarke and more into the realm of the fantastic in-world universe, a la Lord of the Rings.
But how do the Dune novels stack up against one another? (No – we’re not including the knockoff prequels and sequels – just the ones written by Frank Herbert).
Read on to see which Dune novels are most worthy of praise – and which ones aren’t. (And I’ll notify spoilers if necessary.)
6. God Emperor of Dune (1981)
God Emperor of Dune is weird. Really weird. Set 3,500 years after the events of the first trilogy (Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune), God Emperor was intended to bridge the gap between the first set of books and the last two. It’s interesting (at points) but the book suffers from a lack of tension and instead comes off as Herbert preaching political thought without a motivating device. The perpetual cloning of a certain breakout character from the first novel is most grating in this one. The apparent protagonist (Siona) is not developed enough for us to feel sympathy with her cause. Overall God Emperor isn’t the worst thing ever written, but it’s pretty disappointing compared to the rest of the series.
5. Heretics of Dune (1984)
Heretics of Dune is quite refreshing compared to its predecessor, God Emperor. Fast forward 1,500 years after the last one, and suddenly we get a new cast that evokes the original trilogy. So it’s sort of like Dune: The Next Generation. The Jedi-esque Bene Gesserit women are once again our protagonists, marshaled against the threat of a new cohort of female superbeings that have returned from deep space. (SPOILER ALERT) Joining them is yet another clone of Duncan Idaho – (this time he’s a kid!) (END OF SPOILERS) and Miles Teg, the noble and fascinating general who is descended from the original series’ heroes. There’s a lot to like in Heretics of Dune, but a lot of it plays like we’ve been there, done that in better ways previously.
4. Chapterhouse: Dune (1985)
Chapterhouse: Dune is kind of confounding. The second part in a planned second trilogy, it functions as the final Dune book since Frank Herbert died before he could write more. It continues the great strides that Heretics of Dune made in rebooting the series, and in some places surpasses them. Ultimately, it seems to provide the drumbeat to something greater, something we’ll never get to see. Well, Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin Anderson wrote a couple of wrap-up sequels based on Herbert’s notes but they are best to be avoided. The book ends with a perplexing cliffhanger, a scene with two characters that is so absurd that it undermines the validity of the entire series. The ending left me with more questions than answers. While it did not end conclusively, I’d rather try to interpret for myself what would happen next. I think that is better than having it spelled out for you.
3. Dune Messiah (1969)
Dune Messiah, as the initial sequel to Dune, functions kind of like Part 4 in the original novel (which is subdivided in three sections). Once again, there are those who seek the imperial throne, this time occupied by our protagonists. Much discussion of the challenges in maintaining empire (and kind of inventing your own religion/cult) is discussed, with sobering implications. The book, at its slim length (256 pages) functions as the perfect bridge between Dune and Children of Dune.
2. Children of Dune (1976)
Children of Dune is really good. Yes, the children don’t act like children (they are precocious – live with it!) but the imperial intrigue and machinations are the highlight of this one, and Leto II’s divine aspirations make for a shocking conclusion. As far as the Dune novels go, Children of Dune is the closest in quality to the original.
1. Dune (1965)
No surprises here: the original is the best. Besides the obvious trend of books and sequels, this novel has it all – playing like a science fiction Hamlet, except this time, Hamlet wins. Like the epic Hollywood movies of yore, Paul Atreides’ family is betrayed, losing everything, and young Paul must go out into the wilderness to achieve enlightenment and then return to avenge his noble family. Featuring the sublime supporting cast of warrior Duncan Idaho, bard and smuggler Gurney Halleck, the wise adviser Thufir Hawat, the noble Leto Atreides, the ecologist Liet-Kynes, the powerful Lady Jessica, the nefarious Baron von Harkonnen and the inept Emperor Shaddam IV, this novel is one for the ages. And don’t forget the spice, the sandworms, and the planet Arrakis, nicknamed Dune, the dramatic stage for this story of Biblical proportions.