Frank Herbert's Dune saga — a six book series that many consider to be one of the greatest ever written — has completely overshadowed many of his other works. But by the time he died in 1986, Herbert had penned over 26 novels — and not surprisingly, that includes a host of hidden treasures. Here are five novels by Frank Herbert — aside from the Dune saga — that you absolutely have to read.
Top illustration by John Berkey, who produced cover art for Frank Herbert's novels.
Written in 1966 and revised by Herbert in 1978, Destination: Void kicked off a four book series that included The Jesus Incident (1979), The Lazarus Effect (1983), and The Ascension Factor (1988) (the latter books written with Bill Ransom).
This highly underrated series — his most significant outside of the Dune saga — is definitely worth the read, especially the second book, the imaginative and Darwinian-infused Jesus Incident — a novel that features a population of speciated humans who live alongside sentient kelp on a predominantly aquatic world (I guess Herbert grew weary of writing about deserts all the time).
But the book that launched the series, Destination: Void, is a remarkably prescient work — an early attempt to address the containment problem as it applies to greater-than-human artificial intelligence. Set in the near future, it chronicles the travails of a society that recently experienced a catastrophe while working to develop an AI — an effort that resulted in the cataclysmic destruction of the Puget Sound region.
Determined to learn from their mistake — and to keep the development of an AI as far away from Earth as possible — a group of scientists clone themselves and relocate their doppelgangers to an isolated colony on the moon. The clones are misled that they're going to be sent on a mission to Tau Ceti where they are to set up a colony. But in reality, the crew is there to serve the needs of the ship — a spacecraft that's controlled by an uploaded human brain called the Organic Mental Core (OMC). Unexpectedly, the OMC fails, along with its backups, leaving the clones with only one option: They have to develop an AI that will enable the ship to continue, or perish.
A precursor to Gattaca, Herbert's The Eyes of Heisenberg explores the struggles of a society that has become deeply stratified along genetic and biotechnological lines. The story takes place 80,000 years from now, and addresses a number of themes familiar to many of today's transhumanists and futurists.
Herbert combines both Orwellian and Huxleyian elements to create a dystopian vision in which humanity finds itself divided into two genetic reproductive classes: the dictatorial and radically enhanced "Optimen," and the subservient "Folk." In this world, all humans must undergo genetic analysis and modification prior to birth. At the same time, the sterile Optimen have attained immortality through the use of special enzymes. Social control is maintained through propaganda, the promise of longer life, and the quasi-religious myth of Optimen superiority. Further, the populace is controlled by a hormone addiction that affects both the Folk and the Optimen.
But things are not as they seem, and the story culminates in the rise of an underground cyborg revolt — the result of an earlier attempt to improve humanity by merging flesh with machines.
In what is probably his most conceptual work, Herbert's Whipping Star takes place in the far future after humanity has made contact with several other extraterrestrial civilizations. Together, they form the ConSentiency — a kind of intergalactic government akin to Star Trek's United Federation of Planets. But this system proves to be too efficient for its own good, enacting knee-jerk laws that disregard their own downstream consequences. In turn, a shadow organization is created to disrupt the system and slow it down. The protagonist, Jorj X. McKie, is a Saboteur Extraordinary, an agent of the Bureau of Sabotage who excels at his work — but he eventually becomes involved with the Calebans, a strange and mysterious species.
But as the story develops, the Calebans start to disappear one by one — and each disappearance coincides with the deaths of millions of other sentient beings and the onset of incurable insanity.
A sequel to Whipping Star was released in 1977 called The Dosadi Experiment.
A cross between Dune and the ConSentiency series, The God Makers is a novel that Herbert pieced together from four short stories he wrote between 1958 and 1960. And indeed, the story contains several elements near and dear to Dune fans, including the practice of "religious engineering" and the conversion of a character into a god-like being. It's not his best work, but it's a must-read for any fan curious to see Herbert's ideas evolve as he progressed towards his ultimate masterpiece, Dune.
Similar to how Bene Gesserits proactively embed religious beliefs within a society they're seeking to control, The God Makers involves a government agency that troubleshoots and rehabilitates "lost planets," namely potentially threatening civilizations that are unenlightened and warlike. The main character, Lewis Orne, travels to these planets and "fixes" them so that order can be maintained throughout the galaxy — a galaxy that is still reeling from a devastating war. But as Orne's assignments get increasingly complex, he soon learns that he has extrasensory capacities and is asked to join the company of "gods" — which would require life-threatening rites of passage.
Aside from Dune, this is probably Frank Herbert's most accessible novel. Scifi fans who enjoy dystopian stories about hive minds and totalitarian collectives (like the Borg) will bask in what this novel has to offer.
Set in the Pacific Northwest, a government agency is investigating a curious filmmaker named Nils Hellstrom. Suspecting that he's either a communist or a cult leader, and alarmed that he might be developing a super weapon under the name Project 40, the investigators descend upon his hidden farm. But what they find is beyond horror; Hellstrom has created an underground collective of insectoid-humans. The ant-like colony consists of hundreds of miles of underground tunnels and thousands of workers, each one the product of genetic breeding and modification, chemical injections, and mental conditioning. But the colony runs (disturbingly) smoothly; everyone works for the benefit of the larger group, and there is no social strife or inequity. But as the investigators soon learn, there is indeed a larger plan at work — one that extends beyond the hive.
Herbert was inspired to write the novel after watching David L. Wolper's film, The Hellstrom Chronicle (now available on DVD and Blueray), which features a character of the same name. That said, the story is quite a bit different, one in which human evolution is pitted against the potential for insect domination.