The Novels

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ever since the publication of God Emperor of Dune in 1981, it has been inaccurate, strictly speaking, to refer to the “Dune Trilogy,” and subsequent books in the series have given the term even less validity. Nevertheless, there is one sense in which these first three works may be thought of as a unit. Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune show a unity of time and characters that makes it appropriate to group them as a single story; it is a story which is continued, to be sure, but one whose next installment takes place thousands of years after all but one of the characters of these three works have become dust. In that sense, then, a “Dune trilogy” still exists. Although a changed Leto II appears in God Emperor of Dune, that book has new characters, new concerns, and new themes.

It is difficult to summarize the intricate plot of the first three books, for if science fiction has an epic, this is it. The story moves with the grandeur of history and paints large pictures on a canvas crowded with characters and incidents. Yet all of those incidents revolve around a single commodity and its possession—the spice melange. Millennia from now, an empire of thousands of worlds is held together only by a network of spaceships that fly faster than the speed of light. For navigation at those tremendous velocities, human reactions are too plodding and, because of a religious war thousands of years in the past, computers are forbidden.

In order to navigate their ships, the members of the Spacing Guild, which has a monopoly on the piloting of interplanetary craft, ingest melange in order to extend their senses and, in a way, read the future. Yet of all the worlds of the Imperium, only the planet Arrakis, which is also called Dune, produces the spice, as the by-product of giant creatures known as the sandworms. Whoever controls Dune, then, will eventually control the empire.

As the story opens, Duke Leto Atreides, hereditary ruler of the planet Caladan, has recently gained a signal victory in his family’s carefully regulated feud with another noble house, the Harkonnens: The Atreides have gained possession of Dune. The Emperor, however, aware of Leto’s popularity, judges him too dangerous a figure to control the spice planet; consequently the Emperor arranges with the Harkonnens to have Leto betrayed and murdered soon after Leto’s family arrives on the planet.

Leto’s son Paul and Paul’s mother Jessica escape to the vast...

(The entire section is 1028 words.)