Dune: science fiction’s answer to Lord of the Rings

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<span>Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

If science fiction has an answer to fantasy’s The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien’s epic saga of the battle to defeat the Dark Lord, Sauron – then Frank Herbert’s Dune has to be a strong contender. Published in 1965, it is the story of the desert planet Arrakis, known as Dune; of the rare and priceless “spice” that can be found there; of the Atreides family, sent to Dune’s dangerous surface to rule; of its native Fremen people, who are capable of surviving in this inhospitable environment. Of the giant sandworms, hundreds of metres long, which hunt beneath the sands, and of Paul Atreides’ reluctant ascent to messianic status. And it is finally getting the mainstream attention it deserves, thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation, out in the UK on 21 October.

I first read Dune when I was 18. It left behind deep, haunting memories: Paul Atreides chanting the Litany against Fear as his humanity is tested by the Gom Jabbar; the first appearance of a sandworm, vast and magnificent; the complexity of Paul’s rise to become the Bene Gesserit’s Kwisatz Haderach, the Fremen’s Mahdi (like much of the Fremen’s culture, the word is lifted from the vocabulary of Islam). As one character puts it: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

Director Denis Villeneuve, whose adaptation hits cinemas later this month – is the fourth attempt, after Alejandro Jodorowsky’s plans came to nothing, David Lynch disowned his 1984 version starring Kyle MacLachlan and Sting, and a television miniseries. “There are deep pleasures when there are images that you’re able to achieve that are close to what you had in mind as a teenager,” Villeneuve has said. 

Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

“I read it the first time when I was 11 or so,” says Kevin Anderson, the bestselling author who, together with Herbert’s son Brian, has continued the Dune series after his father’s death. “I had read all of HG Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Andre Norton and Ray Bradbury and all these great classic science fiction books, but Dune is something above and beyond those. When I read it, I just felt so immersed in the world that everything felt real. He had come up with not just a desert planet with sandworms, he had the full ecology worked out, all of the culture, even the language and the religion of the people and the giant galactic politics and how there are wheels within wheels and everything fits together.”

Herbert’s first inspiration for Dune came in 1957, when he went to research a magazine article about a research project in Oregon to stabilise sand dunes. The article, They Stopped the Moving Sands, was never published, but a letter he sent to his agent, published in The Road to Dune, shows how fascinated he was: “Sand dunes pushed by steady winds build up in waves analogous to ocean waves except they may move 20 feet a year instead of 20 feet a second. These waves can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wive in property damage … and they’ve even caused deaths. They drown out forests, kill game cover, destroy lakes, fill harbours.”

Herbert would toy with the idea of a desert planet for the next five years, spending time in a desert as part of his research, plotting a short adventure novel, Spice Planet, but putting it aside for what would become Dune. He sent an early draft to his agent in 1963, and the story was published in serial form in John W Campbell’s Analog magazine that year. It was rejected by publishers more than 20 times in book form, one citing “bursts of melodrama”, another that “nobody can seem to get through the first 100 pages … without being confused and irritated”. A comment from one rejecting editor, that “it is just possible that we may be making the mistake of the decade in declining Dune by Frank Herbert”, would prove as prophetic as one of Paul’s own visions, as would another’s remark that he would turn it down despite the fact that “it is the sort of writing that might attract a cult and go on for ever”.

Watch: Dave Bautista almost cried when he was cast in Dune

“For good or ill, Frank wrote a book that was at the time unpublishable. If you’re a business person advising Frank, you would say don’t write Dune, nobody will publish this book this long, with this much culture and background,” says Anderson. “But we’re glad that he didn’t listen to anybody, he just wrote his own book and it’s certainly one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time.”

In the end, Chilton Books, better known for auto repair manuals, picked it up in 1965. It won a Nebula for the best science fiction novel of 1965, but sales weren’t stellar at first, despite the quote from Arthur C Clarke emblazoned on its cover: “I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings.”

Neil GaimanI’d say there’s Dune DNA in Game of Thrones, that feeling of the grand sweep of realpolitik and how it affects human beings

“It wasn’t perceived as an instant classic; publishers saw this big book on ecological themes as rather peculiar, a sort of Lawrence of Arabia in the stars,” says American Gods author Neil Gaiman. “It worked but it hit slowly – it wasn’t like [Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel] Stranger in a Strange Land, which came out and caught fire, was utterly of its zeitgeist. In a lot of ways the things that took Dune into the zeitgeist were 70s things, the understanding of and passion for ecology, the idea of people’s place in the world.”

By 1967, sales were picking up, and Herbert was working on a sequel by 1968. Dune Messiah would see Paul as emperor, presiding over a bloody jihad through the stars that eventually kills 60 billion people.

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Gaiman describes science fiction as “a conversation with the last round of what went before”. What Herbert brought to the conversation was ecology – as well as what Gaiman calls “giant multigenerational soap opera”.

“I’d say there’s Dune DNA in Game of Thrones, in the willingness to kill your characters, that feeling of the grand sweep of realpolitik and how it affects human beings”, says Gaiman.

Jeff VanderMeer agrees. “It definitely has been very influential, and I think there’s something very surreal about the navigators and the way the Dust is used, and then the absolute spectacle of the sandworms, whether it makes any ecological sense or not. That kind of thing really sticks with you on a wide canvas.”

Side note: according to Brian Herbert’s biography of his father, Dreamer of Dune, when Frank saw Star Wars he “picked out 16 points of what he called ‘absolute identity’ between his book and the movie, enough to make him livid”. Together with other science fiction writers who thought they saw their work in the film, Frank formed a “loose organisation” he called, “with his tongue firmly placed in his cheek, the We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society”.

Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in the upcoming film adaptation of Dune
Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in the forthcoming Dune film. Photograph: Chia Bella James/AP

The imminent release of Villeneuve’s adaption means Dune, and its story of a young white man leading a tribal people to victory, is being interrogated afresh. Is it a white saviour narrative? Why are no Middle Eastern or north African actors taking on the roles of the Fremen, given the clear influence of the Arab and Islamic world on Herbert’s creations, asked Syfy? Academic Jordan S Carroll describes Dune as “a key text for the ‘alt-right’” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, adding that “for the alt-right, Paul stands as the ideal of a sovereign ruler who violently overthrows a decadent regime to bring together ‘Europid’ peoples into a single imperium or ethnostate”.

But as Carroll goes on to point out, this is misreading the point of Herbert’s story. “Fascist commentators … overlook that their long-awaited sovereign Paul begins the series as a tragic character but ends it as a grotesque one,” he writes. Herbert himself said that Dune “began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human societies”. Far from revelling in Paul’s immense power, his idea was, he said, “that superheroes were disastrous for humans”.

For Hari Kunzru, writing in the Guardian six years ago, “what makes Dune more palatable than, say, the gruesome spectacle of a blonde-wigged Emilia Clarke carried aloft by ethnically indeterminate brown slaves in Game of Thrones, is the sincerity of Herbert’s identification with the Fremen”. Arrakis’s people, writes Kunzru, are “the moral centre of the book, not an ignorant mass to be civilised”, and Paul “does not transform them in his image, but participates in their culture and is himself transformed into the prophet Muad’Dib”.

On top of this, Paul’s rise, to put it mildly, is no positive thing, and Villeneuve, asked about the white saviour trope on his press tour for the film release, made this point. “It’s a critique of that. It’s not a celebration of a saviour,” he said. “It’s a criticism of the idea of a saviour, of someone that will come and tell another population how to be, what to believe. It’s not a condemnation, but a criticism.”

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Watch: 'Dune' - Official trailer

Herbert would follow Dune Messiah with Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. “It gets more and more abstract. I found the second and third to be deeply strange, stranger than the first one,” says VanderMeer. Herbert’s final Dune novel was published in 1985; he died of pancreatic cancer in 1986.

“The end of Chapterhouse: Dune is just this huge cliffhanger – clearly the story wasn’t over,” says Anderson. “In the back of my mind, I sort of always assumed that Brian Herbert would pick up the mantle and finish the last book, and after 10 years, I finally got impatient enough that I tracked down a contact for him and I wrote a letter and I said, so are you going to finish the story, because I want to read it?”

At this point, Anderson was winning awards for his own novels and penning bestselling titles set in the Star Wars and X-Files universes. He tentatively suggested to Brian that they might work together to continue the series.

“My greatest preference would have been for Frank Herbert to be alive and write it himself, obviously. I didn’t hear back from Brian for a few months – it was just a shot in the dark,” Anderson says. “It turned out he had been asking a bunch of other authors about me, and he called me up one afternoon out of the blue. It became clear to him that I wasn’t just some guy who read Dune once and wanted to make a buck off of it – that I was truly passionate about working in the Dune universe.”

The pair struck a $3m deal with Bantam for a new trilogy of prequels in 1997. “At the time it was the largest single science fiction book contract in publishing history,” says Anderson. “We’ve counted up something like 5m words we’ve written together, and he’s still my best friend.”

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While titles such as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories now feel passé, says author and critic Lisa Tuttle, the fact that Dune takes place on a “secondary world” prevents it from feeling outdated. “And since the 1980s, science fiction and fantasy has moved into the mainstream,” she says. “There’s a receptive audience willing to look at it – it’s not seen as a specialist, niche, nerdy kind of thing; even when Dune was popular in the 70s it was very much a kind of narrow band of people.”

Dune holds up today, says writer Alastair Reynolds, when many science fiction novels of its era don’t, in part because Herbert future-proofed it, by setting his story 20,000-odd years ahead, after the “Butlerian Jihad” has replaced intelligent machines with human minds.

“What Dune did that was huge and important, was give us a lovely, complicated thing that felt like a movie. It feels grand, it’s blood-stirring,” agrees Gaiman. “It doesn’t feel like it’s been swept away into history. It was absolutely an important book, and I think it’s remained an important book.”

• Dune is released in Australia and the UK on 21 October, and in the US on 22 October

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