Before Frank Herbert unleashed the first entry in his magnificent Dune series—a saga many now call sci-fi’s answer to The Lord of the Rings—almost nobody thought it had a prayer as a single book.
Publishers rejected the massive 215,000-word novel 23 times, and even Herbert's own agents had their doubts. Yet, if anything, Dune’s humble beginnings bolster its appeal. To date, that first book alone has sold upwards of 20 million copies and been printed in over a dozen languages. Here’s some amazing stuff you may not know about this truly epic franchise.
1. Frank Herbert was inspired by the “Moving Sands” of Oregon.
It all started with a scrapped magazine article. By the 1950s, coastal Oregon had gotten fed up with a serious ecological menace: sand dunes. As Herbert noted in a 1957 letter:
"Sand dunes pushed by steady winds build up in waves analogous to ocean waves except that they may move twenty feet a year instead of twenty feet a second. These waves can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave in property damage… and they’ve even caused deaths. They drown out forests, kill game cover, destroy lakes, [and] fill harbors."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture had begun experimenting with beach grasses near the seaside city of Florence, Oregon. A certain species with unusually long roots was liberally planted in an attempt to stop the sands from excessively shifting. Fascinated, Herbert flew in and started gathering notes for a piece entitled “They Stopped the Moving Sands.” But his agent refused to send it to publishers unless it was rewritten, which Herbert never did. Still, Herbert remained intrigued and—after boning up on deserts and religious figures—outlined the story that eventually became Dune.
2. Dune Was Also Influenced by Psychedelic Mushrooms.
“The spice must flow!” In Herbert’s Dune universe, the single most valuable commodity is—by far—an edible substance called “melange.” Also known as “spice,” this highly-addictive material is found only on the desert planet of Arrakis, where much of the action unfolds. Among its many properties are increased longevity and, in some cases, the ability to see the future itself.
Sound trippy? There’s a reason. While conversing with fungi expert Paul Stamets, Herbert revealed that the world of Dune was influenced by the lifecycle of mushrooms, with his imagination being helped along by a more “magic” variety.
3. Frank Herbert had previously experimented with Dune-esque plot elements in an uncompleted story called “Spice Planet.”
The tale’s protagonist is Jesse Linkam, who must endure a hostile, otherworldly desert with his 8-year-old son, Barri. “Spice Planet” touches on several topics that Dune would later explore, including drug addiction. Eventually, however, Herbert went back to the drawing board, shelving this primordial narrative en route (until his son released a new story based on Frank’s original outline).
4. Dune was originally released as a serial.
Before getting published as the novel adored today, Dune started out in segments. Two main parts—Dune World and Prophet of Dune—were divided into a total of eight sections which appeared in Analog magazine from 1963 to 1965.
5. Dune was picked up by a publishing company best known for its automobile manuals.
Chilton Publishing—a small, Philadelphia-based organization—agreed to put out Herbert’s masterpiece in 1965.
6. Frank Herbert deliberately kept Dune's techno-jargon to a minimum.
By making its futuristic technology secondary to the plot, themes, and characters, Dune breaks from more traditional sci-fi. Despite being a huge novel (for its time), Herbert barely spills any ink covering his world’s machinery, feeling that going into too much detail about nuts and bolts would have made his story inaccessible to average readers.
7. Dune features several nods to Zen Buddhism.
As Herbert’s son, Brian, wrote in Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, his father “was attracted to Zen Buddhism,” a fact reflected in Dune by the presence of fictitious religious traditions with names like “Zensunni” and “Zensufi,” which supposedly evolved from the union of Zen Buddhism and Sufism (Islamic mysticism). Herbert was also acquainted with the writings of Zen master Alan Watts, whom he met during the '60s.
8. Before Dune came along, Frank Herbert worked as a political speechwriter.
Between 1950 and 1960, he climbed aboard four political campaigns—every single one of which fell short.
9. Dune won the very first Nebula Award in 1966.
10. Children of Dune was the first science fiction novel to become a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback.
Sales for the original Dune stagnated at first, but by the time Herbert finished the third installment, 1976’s Children of Dune, a rabid fan base had been built which couldn’t wait to devour it in breathtaking numbers.
11. A Dune board game was released in 1979.
For those interested, a digital version is now available online.
12. An abandoned Dune film adaptation was supposed to be scored by Pink Floyd and star Salvador Dalí.
“I wanted to do a movie that would give people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating,” says would-be director Alexandro Jodorowski. It sounds like he’d have been well on his way, having approached Pink Floyd to do the soundtrack and surrealist painter Salvador Dalí to portray Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV. Also, it would’ve been a butt-numbing 14 hours long.
13. Theaters distributed a glossary of terms when David Lynch’s dune Came Out.
Lynch’s notorious box office bomb is 110 percent incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read the book. Realizing this, cinemas began giving their theatergoers page-long appendices to help explain Dune’s intricate backstory. Apparently, these didn’t help Roger Ebert, who called the film an “ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” Ouch!
14. George Lucas’s Star Wars once bore a much closer resemblance to Dune.
Early drafts of the original Star Wars involved conflicts between Dune-like feudal houses and, although these were omitted, characters in Lucas’s breakout movie do mention “spice mines” and the movie takes place on the desert planet of Tatooine. Coincidence? Herbert didn’t think so; he soon joked of banding together with several other ripped-off sci-fi authors to form a “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas” society.
15. All the low plains on one of Saturn’s Moons are named after planets in the Dune canon.
Saturn’s largest moon—a body named Titan—contains some shady-looking terrain called planitia (low plains) that are all named after Dune planets. The first one discovered is now known as “Chusuk Planitia” in honor of the fictitious (and musically-oriented) planet Chusuk.
Additional Sources: Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert and The Road to Dune.
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