By KARL R. De MESA
Stills from the upcoming movie adaptation of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve (same guy who directed Blade Runner 2049) are so far being leaked at a steady clip and fans of the Frank Herbert books, the 1984 movie, and the 2000’s mini-series are rightly stoked.
With a stellar cast led by Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) in the lead role of the embattled Paul Atreides, the movie is shaping up to look aptly grim and desolate and epic in sci-fi scope.
Before that new movie gets released in November later this year, with theaters already open, with hope, and functioning at a new normal capacity, we recommend you read the books to appreciate the full impact of how such grandiose, emotive, and complex source material can be translated on to the big screen.
Here’s a glimpse of why the Dune series of books is one of the most beloved by almost all science fiction fans all over the world and why it’s one of the most deeply influential—without Dune, there wouldn’t be a Star Wars, a Warhammer 40K, or even Ron Underwood’s Tremors.
Our quick brief guide on how to tackle each book in the main canon should help you out if you’re a relative noob.
FIRST, A NOTE ON THE EXPANDED SERIES
All of the original Frank Herbert books (of which there are six, thus a hexalogy canon) are arguably difficult yet extremely rewarding reads.
Folks usually come out of them simply wanting more, but it would be a big disservice to the pace, narrative magic, and revelations of the six main books if you were to read the expanded series in chronological order along with the six main books.
If you look online it’s easy to find out that there are at least nine other novels in the expanded series authored by Kevin Anderson and Brian Herbert (that’s Frank’s son) under the umbrellas of Legends of Dune, Heroes of Dune, and the Great Schools of Dune prequels. Then there’s Hunters of Dune, which is an attempt by Anderson and the young Herbert to finish the canon’s hexalogy—since Frank died after writing Chapterhouse: Dune.
Simply put, you’ll be spoiled. But the good news is that the prequels and expansions can be read together without spoiling anything. So if you’re into the sort of nerdy kicks just for fun, you can then re-read the main canon along with them, as the timeline of the Dune universe dictates.
So, read the six main books first by Frank Herbert before you dive into the expanded books, which may surprise you as having a very different flavor and level of narrative competency. Hey, no spoilers here!
BOOK 1: DUNE
If you’re a modern science fiction fan who thinks he’s read most of what’s out there, thinks he’s ready for a literate challenge, but has yet to dive into this classic of the genre, then get ready for a treat.
By no means is this first novel in the series an easy monster to digest. Its heft and size alone would make for a good doorstop even on the paperback version and the hardcover is certainly fit to be wielded as a weapon by John Wick.
Here starts the Dune saga, set around 20,000 years into our future, with the story of the boy Paul Atreides, the son of a major royal house in a world where humanity has spread out to conquer the stars, settling on more than 10,000 worlds.
Against the petty politics and praxis seizures of feuding noble houses armed with laser guns and possessing spacefaring ships is the ultimate galactic resource they’d all commit genocide for: mélange, better known by its street name “spice.” Spice enables the means of interstellar transport and travel, without which the economy and trade of the galactic Imperium would collapse.
Paul’s Atreides family accepts the stewardship of the barren planet Arrakis (or Dune, the desert planet), the only place where you spice can be sourced. The making of which involves giant worms native to the planet. Something that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.
As forces against the Atreides conspire their downfall, setting Paul and his mother Jessica on the run across Arrakis, Paul vows to avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family. As he enacts his revenge Paul meets unlikely allies and makes more enemies, meets the love of his life, raises an army, and becomes the leader of a revolution, eventually becoming the mysterious man of prophesy known as Muad’Dib—the product of a multi-generation breeding program orchestrated by the mysterious and powerful order of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.
Unknown to the sisterhood Paul isn’t what they planned him to be, but so much more. Because Paul has gone fully native with the locals of Dune, he would eventually bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.
Flavored with Islamic and Middle Eastern concepts and terms fused into futuristic tech, I suggest you come at this book in doses. Read one or two chapters a day, three at most maybe. Best if you see this as a marathon of a book and not a sprint. This world of Arrakis and its concepts are a heady tangle, deep and imbued with profound meaning. Yet Frank Herbert is never simply a showoff and you can trust him to reveal evocative story twists at a good pace.
BOOK 2: DUNE MESSIAH
Did you come out of Dune saying “I want some more!”?
Dive right back into the sand and spice as the second novel features Paul a few years after the events of Dune. He is now both Emperor Atreides and Muad’dib, the undisputed ruler of the Imperium. His fierce Fedaykin warriors, once elite revolutionaries turned establishment soldiers, are now quelling rebellion and dissent across the planets.
Paul’s rule is at best problematic and divisive, and his vaunted divination sight has shown him multiple bad endings. After all, at the start of the novel, over 61 billion people have died so far because of his jihad.
As Paul is brought low by the very forces that created him, the folklore and fringe science of the Bene Gessert and the mythmaking and tribal bonds of the Fremen, he finds his allegiances are double-edged swords that cannot be grasped safely. It’s in this book that Paul’s prescient visions lead him to create the Golden Path, a complex to set humanity on a course of sure survival and progress. It’s a Path that he suspects he will not see to fruition.
The intimacy and smaller scale of Dune Messiah can be a real shock, especially after the grand scope and tone of huge events coming off Dune. But bear with it because your second reading (yeah, round two!) will make you appreciate it more.
BOOK 3: CHILDREN OF DUNE
Nine years after Dune Messiah, we find that Paul has essentially abdicated his throne and gone out to disappear into the wilderness of the Arrakis sand.
Now his sister, Alia, is in charge. She’s playing regent until her brother’s twins, Ghanima and Leto II, by his consort Chani come of age to take the reins of power. Ah, but these kids aren’t ordinary royal brats. With the blood of an almighty prescient emperor like Muad’dib in their veins they’re much closer to millions of years old instead of pre-teens. Their mother’s heavy consumption of spice has warped these two into what’s called “preborn,” possessing the consciousness and memories of all their ancestors in their heads, accessible at will.
Personally, I don’t think I could stand to have the memory of my mom or dad at the moment of my conception, but I suppose it’s useful for intergalactic politics. Nevertheless, CoD is way more action-packed and with much better pacing than the meditative and moody Dune Messiah. Events transpire faster, characters are more proactive and motivated in their convictions, and the staggering events that happen are also almost on par with the galaxy-shattering moves that happened in the first novel.
Case in point: the once sand-blasted Arrakis is now green, water-rich, and pretty fertile. Drowning and rain—once foreign concepts to the Fremen—are now common and are a bitch to folk who’ve only ever experienced abundance of water in cups and pitchers.
BOOK 4: GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE
Did you cheer on Leto II when he triumphed over his formidable challenges in Children of Dune?
Get ready for an even bigger shock as we fly through centuries (around 3,500 years, to be exact) after Muad’dib’s fave kid attained power and now the planet of Dune is entirely green with thriving life. But how can Leto II still be alive after all those centuries? Good question. Because of the events in the previous novel he isn’t human at all now, instead he’s an amalgam of sandworm and prescient preborn. Literally he’s a face on one end of a giant sandworm’s body. He’s either carted around on a huge throne or he travels on or under the ground in true Shai-Hulud style.
Leto II is still the keeper of his father’s Golden Path, still trying to ensure the survival of thousands of planets under his now sandy, quite metaphoric boot. GEoD is even more rambly, brooding, and meditative than Dune Messiah and I suggest you tackle this novel as a speedy pace, not minding the contradictory and very grandiose pronouncements of the madman within the wormsuit. After all, he’s often lost in his own memories or the memories of his ancestors.
BOOK 5: HERETICS OF DUNE
Both Heretics and Chapterhouse
This fifth book at least is a return to the old ways as it’s set 1,500 years after God Emperor, and it illustrates the products of Leto II’s master plan on the ground and in action.
As The Lost Ones return home from the far reaches of the Imperium, the last of the great sandworms are also near extinction, making spice monopolies, class struggles, ecology once again at the forefront of issues on the planet Dune. Trust me, the end of this novel has true world-shaking implications that will reward all your patience.