(Warning: contains minor spoilers for the “Dune” novels)
I will admit, I was very, very late to the “Dune” hype. I had never seen the 2021 movie until this Thanksgiving break, thinking that it was overhyped; way too complicated and incomprehensible for anyone except the most obsessive of sci-fi nerds. However, as soon as I saw it, I not only understood the plot, but I fell in love with it. Soon, I decided to experience “Dune” as its creator, Frank Herbert, originally intended: in book form. And reading through all of Frank Herbert’s novels and sequels to “Dune” was truly a wild experience. Sometimes, the books can get you thinking about the great issues of our time, such as ecology, politics and religion. Other times … well, it’s just plain weird.
So in anticipation of “Dune Part 2” coming out next month, here’s my thoughts on all of the six original Dune novels, and the order I would rank each of them in.
There are very few novels with the same impact as “Dune.” “Dune” was for science fiction what “Lord of the Rings” was to fantasy: one of the first, and greatest, examples of worldbuilding. You must admire the sheer balls that Frank Herbert had in 1965 to, in the words of one Twitter commentator, “get really fucking high and recreate the Holy Roman Empire in space.” On the surface, “Dune” is the story of one Paul Atreides, but it contains so much more: the detailed descriptions of the government and society of the Imperium, Bene Gesserit and the Fremen; the fully realized ecosystem of Arrakis, with its iconic spice melange and sandworms; the conflict between prophecy and fate … All of these factors create a multi-layered work with so many different themes to explore and aspects to uncover. Every time you read “Dune” you will find something new to think about. And “Dune” isn’t just some artifact of the ‘60’s, either: given the current issues with climate change, resource scarcity and extremism, the book’s themes only seem to get more relevant as the years go by.
I understand that Frank Herbert’s writing style isn’t for everyone; he throws an enormous amount of made-up vocabulary at the reader with little explanation, to the point where “Dune” has four appendices and a glossary included at the back just to help you figure out what the hell the characters are talking about. But if you want to be completely immersed in a mysterious and exotic universe that feels totally authentic and lived-in, a world completley foreign to our own yet deeply relevant to it, give “Dune” a read.
“Dune: Messiah” (1969)
“Dune: Messiah” is the shortest novel of the bunch, but it is so effective because it answers the simple question: just what were the implications of Paul’s rise in “Dune”? Herbert may have critiqued the white-savior complex and hero’s journey aspects in the original novel, but here he blows them wide open. We see Paul racked with guilt over the bloody consequences of his rise to power and over just how many power players in the universe want him gone. The plotting in this novel is thrilling—perhaps better than its predecessor, as we see new technology, new weapons and an entire new faction, all of which are unleashed against Paul in some thrilling and dramatic action sequences. “Dune: Messiah” may seem a bit disappointing against the sheer creativity and worldbuilding of its predecessor, but it is a page-turner, in every sense of the word. There could be no better follow-up to “Dune” than this book.
“Children of Dune” (1976)
“Children of Dune” is kind of a let down. Firstly, it doesn’t even focus on its titular subjects, the two Children of Dune. As the pre-born psychic heirs of Paul Atreides, there was a lot of potential to flesh out these children. And yet, they remain woefully underdeveloped. The book doesn’t bother to elaborate on their upbringing, relationships or any other interesting details of their lives, other than the fact that they’re both psychic and wise-beyond-their-years and what have you. And there’s filler, lots and lots of filler. There’s so many chapters where the characters muck about and don’t advance the plot, as if just waiting for stuff to happen. And there’s a “mystery” which the book spends a lot of time developing, but the answer is pretty obvious to anyone who’s been reading the past two books. However, if you read through all of that, you’ll be rewarded. The action and suspense build up in the final third of the book, and the final scene is brilliant. It’s just a shame that there’s so much useless stuff to get through before then.
“God Emperor of Dune” (1981)
Yeah, this is when the books start to get weird. This is the one you might have heard of in online memes, where the titular “God Emperor” is a dude who merges with a sandworm. It’s a genuinely fascinating new direction for the series. Not only is there a time-skip of nearly 4,000 years, but it also incorporates writing styles such as transcripts of dialogue and reports, rather than only relying on the standard third-person omniscient narrator. It’s also fascinating seeing Frank Herbert’s worldbuilding in action again; seeing a universe which has mutated so much since the start of “Dune” that many aspects of that first book are only distorted memories, and where the social structures and religion are more exotic and unfamiliar than ever before, thanks to the God Emperor’s interference. And if you’re into philosophy, there’s a lot of that in this book as well.
There’s no getting around the fact, however, that this is a weird, weird book. And for all of its strengths, there are a lot of shortcomings. There’s paragraphs of Herbert’s nonsense gender ideology that comes out of nowhere and basically sums up to “gays bad lesbians good.” There’s whole chapters where the giant worm guy gets down bad for a woman and bitches about how he lost his genitals thousands of years ago. There’s a scene where a girl watches a guy climb up a rock wall and—well, you’ll just have to read that for yourself. But if you can get past all of this wackiness you will find a genuinely well-crafted book, with well written characters, dramatic moments, and thought-provoking implications. Just ignore the homophobia.
“Heretics of Dune” (1984)
Once again, this book has a time skip—this time, 15,000 years since “God Emperor”. One would expect the state of the universe to have changed even more drastically than in “God Emperor,” but “Heretics” offers little in the way of new worldbuilding. However, with what it lacks in worldbuilding, it more than makes up for with an interesting new generation of characters. Frank Herbert fleshes out detailed backstories and motivations for these characters, in more detail than any previous book. We see glimpses of their childhoods, events that formed their individual worldviews and shape how they react to the story’s events. Where “Dune” and subsequent novels could feel dry and impersonal, in “Heretics of Dune” you find yourself getting attached to some of the characters.
“Heretics of Dune” contains some of the most action-packed battles in the series, with plenty of dramatic escapes and rescues. But there’s one 400-meter sandworm in the room: the sex. Without spoiling too much, it’s easy to tell that Frank Herbert was extremely down bad for some reason while writing “Heretics of Dune.” The emphasis on sex makes no sense and might weird some readers out, but thankfully it’s the book’s only real shortcoming. As someone who felt the lack of action in the previous two novels was a setback, “Heretics of Dune” was a welcome return to form.
“Chapterhouse: Dune” (1985)
Ok, so as of writing this I haven’t actually finished “Chapterhouse: Dune.” It’s more boring than “Heretics” and the characters talk a lot about nothing. However, there are two INSANE worldbuilding concepts that have been introduced so far that should tell you everything you need to know about this book. The first one is the Futars, human-feline hybrids artificially created and kept as domesticated pets by the villains. Yes, that’s right. Frank Herbert invented genetically engineered catgirls. I can’t believe I just typed that sentence. The second one is Judaism. No, this isn’t a metaphor. Judaism. Because, apparently, Frank Herbert gave up on worldbuilding and slapped actual Jews onto his fictional, fantastic universe. It’s not a particularily flattering portrayal, by the way. Unless you have some sort of morbid curiosity about those two aspects, or you really, really want to know what happened to the characters from “Heretics of Dune”, stay away from this one. Frank Herbert may have come up with his best ideas while on psilocybin, but he went too far. Go home, Frank, you’re high.
Update: Yeah I finished this book and I can’t take this anymore. Don’t read this. Please. This is your final warning.
So in the end, here’s my final ranking of the six books:
- “Dune: Messiah”
- “God Emperor of Dune”
- “Heretics of Dune”
- “Children of Dune”
- “Chapterhouse: Dune”
Reading through the entirety of the original “Dune” books has been an experience both thrilling and utterly incomprehensible. Am I hyped for “Dune Part 2”? Yes. Do I think movies should be made of the entire series? Absolutely not. But none of this will change the fact that “Dune” stands in a class by itself, in a universe that has influenced so many other universes. And yes, I know there’s ton of sequels and prequels made by Herbert’s son, but I am NOT reading all that.