A few years ago, a madness came upon me and I wanted everything there was to be had about, and related to, Frank Herbert’s Dune and its sequels. The novel remains a favourite, although I don’t especially admire its prose (see here). Herbert’s other sf works have not entirely withstood the test of time, although I consider him the most thoughtful writer of his generation, and the most interesting in that regard. This peculiar madness struck me after Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson had begun hacking at the Dune corpus and, to be honest, having bought and waded through the House prequel trilogy I wasn’t much interested in their additions to the universe. Nonetheless, I did buy the Legends of Dune trilogy, and the two “sequels” to Chapterhouse Dune… But enough was enough. The books were getting worse and worse, and I had to give up in disgust.
I managed to find a whole bunch of stuff related to Frank Herbert and his Dune books – not to mention the merchandising associated with the David Lynch 1985 film adaptation.
The three attempts at adapting Dune have all been, for various reasons, near-misses. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never got beyond some concept art, and its story likely wouldn’t have been recognisable as Herbert’s novel, but it would have been a film worth seeing (some of Jodorowsky’s ideas were later used in his Incal comics series with Moebius). The “television version” of Lynch’s version gives some idea of what he was trying to do in his adaptation, but the studio butchered it and the end result was far from satisfactory. The Sci-Fi Channel (as was) mini-series was more faithful to the book, but the production design couldn’t compete with that of Lynch’s film. The sequel, Children Of Dune, was much better, however.
Anyway, below are the various bits and pieces I’ve managed to pick up for my collection of things Dune-related…
five editions of Dune – sadly, that middle one is not a true first edition, but a Book Club Edition
Frank Herbert’s Dune sequels
Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson’s two sequels, plus a collection of Dune-related, er, stuff
the House trilogy
the execrable Legends of Dune trilogy
three free chapbooks produced by Tor to publicise the BH & KJA Dune novels
The gauntlet has been laid down, and I’m up for the challenge.
What do I think are the best science fiction series?
For this list, I’ve defined a series as more than a trilogy, or a series of standalone novels set in the same universe and sharing a linked chronology. I actually put together a list of twenty series I like a great deal – not all of which I will happily admit are good – so choosing a top ten was harder than I’d expected. But after much soul-searching, I managed to pick ten I not only like a great deal, but also have a high regard for. And which, I believe, show a reasonable spread across the many different types and styles of heartland science fiction.
So, in time-honoured reverse order:-
10Dumarest Saga, EC Tubb
Over the course of thirty-three novels, Earl Dumarest travelled the galaxy, trying to find his home world, the mythical planet Earth. In each novel in this series, he landed on a new planet, had an adventure of some sort – which usually involved a) a beautiful woman, and b) a fight to the death – and discovered some clue which moved him one step closer to his home. He eventually reached it in book 32: The Return, which was originally published in French and later republished in English by a small press. The Dumarest saga was never intended as great literature – Tubb himself has said he was happy to churn them out as long as Donald Wollheim was happy to buy them for DAW – but that doesn’t mean they’re badly-written. There are no hamsters in wheels in this series. The Dumarest novels were formative books for me, and helped shape my view of science fiction. See here for the full list of books in the series.
9Alliance-Union, CJ Cherryh
These books aren’t so much a series as a tapestry. In around thirty books, Cherryh has created a huge future history, stretching across thousands of years. Not every book is especially good, and Cherryh’s brusque prose can be an acquired taste. But there’s no denying the achievement such a future history represents, nor the rigorous internal consistency Cherryh has maintained throughout the books. This is truly immersive stuff, peopled by characters who aren’t cardboard cut-outs, and comprising stories which are not afraid to explore a variety of weighty topics. See here for the full list of books in the series.
6Eight Worlds, John Varley
The Invaders came and destroyed human civilisation to save the whales. The only survivors were those living off-planet at the time – on the Moon, Mars, the Saturnian and Jovian systems… Over the course of a number of stories and three novels, Varley fleshed out a future history in which humanity struggles to survive – using gifted alien technology – on the various inhospitable worlds of the Solar system. Most of the novels and short stories set in the Eight Worlds were written during the 1970s and 1980s, but they’ve held up pretty well. They were always, first and foremost, about people – yet Varley still managed to build a mostly convincing universe in which to place his characters. Books in the series: The Ophiuchi Hotline (my review here), Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, plus many of the stories collected in The Persistence of Vision, The Barbie Murders and Blue Champagne.
5Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds
Last year, Gollancz paid Reynolds £1,000,000, and with good reason. Few writers have managed the consistently high level of invention Reynolds has so far in his nine novels (five in the Revelation Space universe) and many short stories. He is, perhaps, the poster boy for New Space Opera, although his works are actually not all that much like New Space Opera as it’s now commonly understood. But the mix of Big Ideas and hard sf – something Stephen Baxter also does very well – is certainly representative of twenty-first science fiction. It’s the sort of sf which shows what the genre is capable of. Books in the series: Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, The Prefect, plus the novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days, and the stories collected in Galactic North.
4Dune, Frank Herbert
Well, you knew it was going to appear on this list somewhere… Of the six books – we won’t mention the execrable seventh and eighth books by Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert – I actually think Dune contains the poorest writing. It has the most immediately-immersive story, but I consider the last two that Frank Herbert wrote the better books. God-Emperor of Dune is a bit of an obstacle, a massive tome plonked in the middle of the series, which seems to lecture more than it entertains, but it’s definitely worth reading. Herbert wasn’t the best sf writer of his generation, but he was certainly the most thoughtful. Books on the series: Dune (my review here), Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God-Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse Dune, and some of the stories collected in Eye and The Road to Dune.
3Hainish Cycle, Ursula K Le Guin
Some of the genre’s best novels belong to this informal series but, even so, together they form something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The early novels might be a little wobbly, but the later ones more than make up for it. Few sf writers can document cultures as convincingly as Le Guin, and she does it to great effect in each of these novels. These books, and those at #1 and #2 in this list, are very political books – and that’s proper politics: not good interstellar empire battling nasty evil aliens. Sf is as much about the real world as it is the invented world of the story. The best sf writers know this. Books in the series: Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness (my review here), The Dispossessed, The Word for World is Forest, Four Ways to Forgiveness, The Telling, plus a number of short stories.
2RGB Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
This one is only a little bit of a cheat. Yes, it’s a trilogy… but there’s also the coda volume, The Martians. Besides, it’s simply the best series of books ever written about colonising Mars. But it’s not all hardware and the Right Stuff – the story expands to include the early centuries of the colony, discusses politics, utopianism, history and the future, among many other topics. Few sf novels can make you feel like you’ve been to the real Red Planet – Red Mars does that, and then continues on from there. Books in the series: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, The Martians.
1The Culture, Iain M Banks
If Banks’ Culture novels occasionally disappoint, it’s only because he has set so high a standard he sometimes fails to meet it himself. But as a body of work the seven Culture novels know no equal. They are the space operas of space operas. They re-invigorated both space opera and sf, and they continue to show how it should be done. They have invention, wit, giant spaceships, shit that gets blown up, and excellent writing. Happily, Banks has not yet finished playing in his Culture universe – a new Culture novel will apparently be published next year. I can’t wait. Books in the series: Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter (my review here).
Some people have The Lord of the Rings, some people have Dune. They reread one of the two books on a regular basis. While I don’t read Dune every year, it’s the sf novel I’ve probably read the most times (and I haven’t reread The Lord of the Rings since I was about nineteen). This year I read Dune once again as it’s one of the titles on my list of favourite sf novels.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is generally considered a classic science fiction novel. It’s certainly a best-selling sf novel – and there aren’t that many of them. In fact, it’s still in print now, more than 40 years after its debut. Common wisdom has it that the Dune series falls in quality as it progresses, although there are those who consider the sequel to Dune, Dune Messiah, the best of the lot. Since Frank Herbert himself conceived of the original trilogy – Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune – as a whole, it’s unfair to consider them sequels. The trilogy is a thematic whole – as FH himself wrote: “I conceived of a long novel, the whole trilogy as one book about the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us … This grows from my theory that superheroes are disastrous for mankind, that even if we find a real hero (whatever that may be), eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that comes into being around such a leader.”
As for the later Dune books – yes, God Emperor of Dune is less a novel than it is a manifesto, but once you accept that the book becomes a more interesting read. Both Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune are, I think, technically better-written than the original three. Admittedly, Miles Teg’s development of superhuman speed always struck me as pushing plausibility just a little too far out of the suspension of disbelief envelope. And back-fitting an underground Judaic society into the universe felt a bit like pandering and unnecessary.
The less said about the Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson prequels and sequels, the better.
For those few who’ve not read the book, Dune is the story of Paul Atreides. It is set some twenty thousand years in the future, in a feudal interstellar empire in which computers , “thinking machines”, have been banned for millennia. Interstellar travel is controlled by the Spacing Guild, who use the spice melange to see into the near-future and so safely pilot their starships via foldspace. Melange is only found on a single world, Arrakis, AKA Dune. Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, is charged by the Emperor with taking over Arrakis from his mortal enemy, Baron Harkonnen. But this is just a ploy by Harkonnen, who intends to destroy House Atreides. He attacks, but Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica, escape into the vast deserts of Arrakis and join the native Fremen. These are a hard people, and superlative fighters. Paul proves to be prescient and the messiah their religion foretold, and he leads them in battle against the Harkonnens and the Emperor. And wins.
Dune, for all its popularity and success, is not a very well-written novel. Here’s a sample passage:
His mother had undergone this test. There must be terrible purpose in it… the pain and fear had been terrible. He understood terrible purposes. They drove against all odds. They were their own necessity. Paul felt he had been infected with terrible purpose. He did not know yet what the terrible purpose was.
FH’s prose rarely rises above serviceable. It often drops below it. His poetry – presented as the lyrics of Gurney Halleck’s ballads – is bad. It’s no better in his collection of poetry, Songs of Muad’Dib. But then he did write a lot of haiku, and I hate haiku. Further, the continuous “head-hopping” is often confusing. That’s not to say FH was a bad writer, just that Dune doesn’t showcase his best. His writing in The Green Brain is, I feel, much, much sharper; and he draws his setting and characters much more effectively and skilfully in The Santaroga Barrier.
What FH was, however, was perhaps the deepest-thinking sf writer of his generation. Even if his prose often got in the way of the story, his fiction always left the impression it was never based on, or built around, trivia. He didn’t write escapist adventure-stories. Even a fix-up such as The Godmakers, in which the joins are painfully obvious, had something intelligent to say about government and religion.
FH spent a lot of time on the background of Dune, and it shows a depth and richness matched by few novels in the genre. Its feudal, somewhat old-fashioned, nature has also meant it has stood the test of time well. Dune reads pretty much the same now as it did when I first read it thirty years ago. The protagonist, Paul, is a young man whose words and actions continually seem to chime with prophecy, suggesting he is heir to greatness. And so it proves. There’s plenty there for young male adolescents to identify with, especially those who read science fiction. I no longer identify with Paul to the extent I did as a callow youth. And Baron Harkonnen now seems more of a pantomime villain than a real antagonist. All he lacks is a moustache to twirl. However, the setting remains as fascinating as ever – it’s easy to feel that the background is the real achievement of Dune. Both it and The Lord of the Rings were notable first and foremost for their deep and detailed settings, and both of them perhaps led to the current privileging of immersion over everything else in genre novels and novel series.
Each time I reread Dune, I find its narrative message harder to swallow – i.e., the human race is slowly stagnating, and a jihad is needed to mix up the genes and inject some vitality back into it. Paul tries to prevent this – or rather, he tries to find a less violent solution. But he fails. For me, jihad is the wrong word. It means “struggle” – and what exactly is the jihad in Dune struggling against? Second, Herbert equates a stagnating civilisation with genetic stagnation, which is not necessarily true. And, finally, going out and killing lots of humans is a pretty peculiar way of injecting some vitality back into the gene pool.
Speaking of killing, Dune is full of it. I hadn’t realised until this reading quite how many people are slaughtered throughout the story. And often for the most trivial of reasons. In one scene, two guards are a little quick to obey Feyd-Rautha in the presence of Baron Harkonnen. Since those guards are clearly more loyal to Feyd-Rautha than the baron, Harkonnen has them killed. Feyd-Rautha’s harem is also murdered as punishment for something he did wrong. It’s not just the villains of the piece. Perhaps it’s not unexpected that the Harkonnens would place little value on life, but the Fremen view it equally as cheap. Duke Leto is the only character who values the lives of his men. On joining the Fremen, Paul adopts their view. It all makes for a somewhat callous read. And, of course, it’s stated that the jihad will slaughter billions more after Dune‘s story has finished…
Unfortunately, David Lynch’s 1985 film of Dune has also slightly spoiled the book for me. For much of the novel, Stilgar remains as described in the novel. But when Paul and Jessica join the Fremen and Paul chooses his Fremen name… I kept on hearing Stilgar’s dialogue in Everett McGill’s voice. After seeing the movie, it’s almost impossible to hear, “We call that one muad’dib,” any other way.
Even though I’ve read Dune at least half a dozen times in the last 30 years, I don’t doubt I’ll read it again. For years I’ve been promising myself I’ll read all six of the FH-penned Dune books in succession. Maybe I’ll set myself that as a challenge one year, and blog the results. If I can bring myself to do so, I might even continue onto the two “Dune 7” novels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson… Which would sort of be the opposite of going from dreadful sf B-movies to Ingmar Bergman… but with just as explosive results (see below).
Yes, Dune remains a favourite – although for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand. It’s not FH’s best-written novel. It’s not even the best-written of the Dune series. It is also a somewhat heartless novel – its core ideas have never really convinced me. But its setting remains a work of genius, and – let’s be honest – every male sf reader secretly wants to be Paul Atreides…