Frank Herbert’s 1965 book Dune is one the most influential novels of the 20th century. It shaped the contemporary science-fiction genre and impacted various forms of art and entertainment. The story set in a futuristic interstellar society touches on many aspects of modern life including political maneuvering, the economy, technological progress, religion, and human emotions. Read on for a list of nine books that have the Dune flavor.
1. Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny
Published two years after Dune, Lord of Light was written by American author Roger Zelazny and deals with similar issues, especially when it comes to race and politics. The novel is a collision between the east and west, as it places typical western characters in a world heavily influenced by Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. Set on a planet colonized by previous Earth residents, the colonists encounter hostile indigenous races and must fight for their place in the new world. They use chemical treatments and electronics to strengthen their bodies, enhance their mental abilities, and even transfer their souls to new bodies.
Over time, the immortals establish themselves as gods and start destroying the native races. They keep the technological powers and access to eternal life away from ordinary people and sabotage any attempt of technological renaissance in fear of losing their might. The novel’s hero Sam takes the role of Buddha and sets out to overthrow the gods and make technology available to everyone.
2. Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
Red Rising will certainly be a compelling read for Dune fans. The story is set in the distant future on Mars in a society divided according to color, and Reds belong to the lowest caste. The novel’s protagonist Darrow is a member of Reds, and he has been working hard his entire life to make the surface of Mars inhabitable for future generations. In a twist of events, Darrow discovers that he was deceived and that mankind reached the surface of Mars a long time ago, building huge cities across the entire planet. Darrow realizes that he and his fellow Reds have been used as slaves for the ruling Gold caste, so he decides to infiltrate and take down the elite.
Compared to Dune, this novel features more battles and action sequences, but it also delves deep into political corruption, greed, hunger for power, humanity, and equality. Darrow goes to great lengths to fight his enemies, but can he really defeat them without becoming one of them?
3. Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald
British author Ian McDonald wrote Luna: New Moon in 2015, but before publication, the book was considered to become a television show described as “Game of Thrones in space.” The novel takes place in a feudal society on the Moon, which has gone through industrialization and is now ruled by five corporate families. The political and social rules are loose and open to interpretation, and people need to be ready to do anything if they wish to succeed and earn their place. The center of the novel is the conflict between the oldest ruling family, the Mackenzies, and the youngest ruling family, the Cortas, who battle for power over the Moon.
In addition to the concepts of future medicine and technology, the novel explores the issues of complicated family relations, surviving against all odds, and deception. Nothing is as it seems; people tend to see the Moon as a romantic symbol of scientific progress of mankind, but upon closer inspection, it is merely an uninhabitable rock in a vacuum.
4. The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Windup Girl is set in Thailand in the 23rd century in a world endangered by rising ocean levels where carbon fuel sources are diminished and calories are as valuable as money. Biotechnology rules the world, with large corporations controlling food production by creating engineered seeds. These modified crops disrupt nature’s balance and cause illnesses, plagues, and mutant pests to devastate the population.
Like in Dune, natural seeds are scarce and treasured, and the novel’s protagonist Anderson Lake sets out on a quest to locate the last supplies of natural food. During his journey, he meets Emiko, a “windup,” or engineered human programmed to meet the decadent needs of businessmen. Their paths intertwine while the world inevitably slides into disaster. Despite being a futuristic novel, The Windup Girl deals with current issues and makes a statement about the consequences of climate change denial and biotechnology for profit.
5. Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Justice is a space opera, a subgenre of science fiction that focuses on thrilling interstellar adventures with plenty of romantic and melodramatic elements. The novel is set in the distant future in a galaxy ruled by an empire of AIs, artificial intelligence that creates and controls human bodies called “ancillaries” and uses them as soldiers. Ancillaries act as vessels for artificial consciousness of AIs and are in charge of maintaining order across the empire. When one of the AIs is betrayed by her own kind and becomes the only survivor of a destroyed starship, she sets out on a journey for revenge.
Leckie makes interesting points on identity, gender, and humanity. AIs don’t distinguish people by gender and everyone is labeled female by default, yet this doesn’t affect the story, making gender irrelevant in the formation of the characters. Also, AIs are computers and ancillaries are their clones, but all of them begin to think and feel like humans, showing that one’s identity is built through experience, regardless of whether they are humans or machines.
6. Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan
Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel Altered Carbon is an example of a cyberpunk novel, a subgenre of science fiction that combines the decay of social values with advanced technological achievements. The novel centers on Takeshi Kovacs, a former U.N. elite soldier who became a private detective, while he investigates a rich man’s death.
In this version of the future, humans achieve immortality by downloading their consciousness into new bodies, or “sleeves”, after death. Only rich people can afford to be re-sleeved over and over again, so when a high-profile man named Laurens Bancroft dies under mysterious circumstances, he hires detective Kovacs to solve his own murder after taking on a new body. The novel, which was adapted as a Netflix series in 2018, is packed with action, high-tech gadgets, and vivid descriptions of the low-life culture.
7. Downbelow Station, by C. J. Cherryh
Downbelow Station is one of American writer C. J. Cherryh’s most famous works. Published in 1981, the novel is set in a fictional universe Alliance-Union in 2353 during a period known as Company Wars. The Earth Company is a private corporation that becomes the leader in space exploration and gains enormous wealth as a result. They explore star systems, colonize and build stations on planets, and build space stations in orbit when planets are deemed uninhabitable.
The Earth Company isn’t a fair ruler and when their actions cause rebellions in distant colonies, they deploy a military fleet to restore order. This turns into a war between the Company and its colonies, which causes great problems for stationers and interstellar traders who get caught in the middle. In this novel, Cherryh explores the issues of military honor and loyalty, and what happens when a particular mission opposes a soldier’s beliefs and principles.
8. Neverness, by David Zindell
American author David Zindell wrotel Neverness in 1988, which features similar story elements to Dune such as specific worldbuilding and a hero’s galactic journey that leads him to contemplate evolution and life. The novel is set in a world of the distant future where mathematicians become a religious order as they can calculate and navigate hyperspace travel. The main protagonist Mallory Ringess is a trainee mathematician and a pilot who sets out on a mission to unlock the mysteries of the universe, discovering all kinds of extraordinary beings along the way, some of whom may even hold the key to immortality.
Zindell’s book was praised by critics for presenting bold ideas and taking an unusual approach to an adventure into the unknown. He creates a world of wonder that will spark anyone’s imagination, while also featuring complex underlying themes of existence and an everlasting human drive to move forward.
9. Radix, by A. A. Attanasio
Radix is a science-fiction novel published in 1981 by American writer A. A. Attanasio, and it features many Dune-esque moments. The story takes place on Earth in a far-flung future, with the world looking radically different from the one we know. It follows an unlikely journey of a young man from being an adolescent rascal to becoming a warrior with god-like qualities.
The story deals with themes of self-discovery, spirituality, and philosophy. The language of the book is incredibly inventive, and the characters are tailored to express the author’s ideas about life and humanity. Much like Dune, Radix may feel like a dream sequence where everything is blurred, but the overall message is strikingly clear.