I got an interesting e-mail last night, which summed up to ‘Could Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein’s focus on computers and technology explain why Herbert's creations have fared better over time?’
It’s an interesting question, one that’s worth picking apart a bit. Certainly, Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein are still pretty popular. If you go to a bookstore, you’ll likely see their works on the shelves, alongside the newer bestsellers. But I kind of agree: while they’re popular, they’re static, and I don’t think that they’re entirely as relevant as they were when they were first published.
Certainly, the technology that they envisioned and championed in their works is a far cry from what’s available today. Asimov famously didn’t use a computer until the 1980s, but he also put together his “Three Laws of Robotics” that still gets airplay whenever we talk about AI and robotics today. Clarke and Heinlein also had their own impacts on how we conceptualize space travel and life elsewhere.
But my guess is that their (relative) decline from their heydays has less to do with the technology getting dated, and more about what those stories were actually about. The formative years of the modern genre are deeply rooted in conceptual electronics and technologies: Hugo Gernsback's earlier magazine efforts were electronics magazines, with science fiction coming in as a happy side effect that later came out in Amazing Stories. Later, John W. Campbell Jr. also started out by writing stories that focused heavily on technology, and brought that sensibility over to Astounding Science Fiction when he began editing it. Reading those stories today, and one thing is really glaring: they really didn’t put a lot of thought into how society and culture worked, and that extends into their characters.
That’s something that’s really changed for the genre as a whole. There were certainly authors who focused more heavily on characters and society and culture, but that just doesn’t seem like it was part of the marketplace, and I think that’s sort of why Dune has endured. Herbert’s book really isn't a technological science fiction novel; t's far more interested in court intrigue, dynastic politics, and society at large — all things that are still deeply interesting today. I can’t really speak to Herbert’s other works, but Dune always felt different in ways that the works of Clarke and Heinlein did. Dune concerns the rise and fall of dynasties across vast parts of space.
I’m making some very broad generalizations, and I’ll throw Asimov a bone: Foundation covers some of the same ground, and that book is still pretty popular. But compared to Dune, it never really felt as interesting. Larry Niven’s Ringworld saga also covers the vast rise and fall of civilizations, although he doesn’t exactly handle some of the cultural stuff all that well, particularly with the character Teela Brown.
But I think that there’s a bigger reason for why Dune feels like it’s sticking around: Frank Herbert might be dead, but his son Brian has been actively actively championing his works, and keeping the franchise around. I spoke with him and Kevin Anderson back in 2016, who have added books to the franchise over the years, and are now actively working to put together a new film adaptation, to be helmed by Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve. Their efforts are huge when it comes to Herbert’s work, because for better or for worse, they’re keeping the Dune franchise in the limelight. Dune is a good foundation for a bigger shared universe to begin with, but while Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke are still popular with readers, they really don't have a single person championing their respective visions, either an obsessed offspring, or devoted fan-author. Their estates are really just making sure that their works remain in print, and haven’t been adding to their respective bodies. You see the same thing with the world of J.R.R. Tolkien: his son Christopher has devoted his life to expanding his father's legacy, and has brought out a number of new books in the last couple of decades, and as recently as this year.
The publishing and entertainment industry as a whole is extremely focused not just on individual works, but on the intellectual property that an author generates. This isn’t anything new: Asimov, Heinlein, Ursula Le Guin, Niven, and others all wrote in massive “future histories” in which they wrote stories that shared a common story. While they were writing stories that earned them money per word, having a common universe to return to made generating new stories far easier than generating something from scratch each and every time. Authors are doing it today as well: Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence comes to mind, as does James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Martha Wells’ Murderbot novellas, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut stories, or Carrie Vaughn’s Harry and Marlowe stories. They’re telling a larger story spread out across varying mediums.
A good example of this is also the much larger franchise, like Star Trek or Star Wars. Back in 2015, I took a deep dive into the history of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and came away with an interesting revelation: the books were a key reason for why George Lucas rebooted Star Wars with the prequels: the continual release of new content from the series kept fans engaged. Otherwise, the Star Wars trilogy would likely have remained back in the 1970s and 1980s: favored classics that wouldn’t have as rich a world as it now has. It’s also why the franchise caught Disney’s attention, and why it’s arguably one of the biggest entertainment franchises in the world: it’s something fans can continually engage with, and it’s something that’s continually updated not only with new content, but with content that’s relevant to a far more diverse and global audience.
Dune, I think is in a similar boat, and has a leg up on Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein: the fans have remained engaged with the huge number of new books that have come out over the years, keeping interest alive in the franchise as whole. The same could likely be done with the works of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, provided the right person was at the helm, with the willingness to not merely re-release their books, but reinterpret and build on their worlds and IP for new audiences. Given the keen amount of attention that major studies and streaming platforms have placed on original content and new IP to develop, I’m a little surprised that the names of the “Big Three” don’t come up more often. But, there’s plenty of authors and properties that will take their place.