Dune, the Best Sci-Fi Book Ever Written

By now you must have heard the news (unless you’ve been living with the Fremen of Arrakis, that is). The new Dune movie premiers on December 18 this year. You know what that means, right? It’s time to read Dune!

Written by Frank Herbert in 1965, Dune took on a life of its own starting from its initial publishing. Rejected by 23 publishers, Dune became the most successful science fiction book ever. 

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Quick Summary (No Spoilers!)

For those of you in the minority of Sci Fi book readers who haven’t heard of Dune, it’s a space-based, messianic-themed epic saga. It takes place on Arrakis – the desert planet. Two families of a futuristic imperium – the Atreides and the Harkonnen – battle for control of the planet. 

Arrakis is the only planet in the galaxy that has melange, or “the spice”. Melange is a sort of drug that enhances people’s abilities. The entire population of the galaxy suffers from a melange addiction. Hence the drug is the basis for the economy.  

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 Author Biography

Photo of author Frank Herbert, taken later in his life.

Frank Herbert, born in 1920, created the world of Dune. Herbert started his career as a newspaper journalist. He was an avid photographer, having served with the U.S. Navy’s Seabees as a photographer during World War II. Herbert was an ecologist and lecturer. Herbert attributes his experience as a journalist to his method of preparing new writings. During one of his earliest interviews, he stated “I collect file folders of material. A character idea interests me, and I put that in a folder appropriately labeled.”

Hebert’s Inspiration for Writing Dune

In 1953, as a journalist, Herbert received an assignment that would change his life. He was to write an article on the U.S. Department of Agriculture tests to control “moving” sand dunes. He began accumulating plenty of research and materials for the article. So much so, that he realized he had enough information on the subject – enough to write a book.   

I had been nurturing the idea to write a treatment of the messianic impulse in human society for a long while.

– Frank Herbert

Herbert was a Sci Fi enthusiast. For this reason, he felt sand dunes made a great setting for a science fiction book. Thus, Dune was born. The author then added the religious theme to Dune, using the “messianic impulse in human society.” 
Herbert integrated Arabian, Navaho, and Calaharie cultures. Each are native to deserts throughout the planet. He pointedly observed how they “utilize every drop of water.”

We (Western culture) tend to think we can overcome nature by mathematical means. We accumulate enough data and subdue nature. This is a one-pointed vision of man.

-Frank Herbert

Herbert was critical of Western culture. He expressed his disdain of Westerners’ “single-minded attempt to control nature.” In fact, the author focused on this exact topic, making it the turning point of the entire book. According to Herbert, the character of Kynes (Dune’s version of the Western man) has “lived out of rhythm with nature, and he got in the trough of the wave and it tumbled on him.”

He read over 200 books as a background for Dune. One quote, in particular, was poignant: “Ecology is the science of understanding consequences.” With an ecologist perspective, Herbert wrote of the Western mindset, specifically of the effects of power on society. 

Western man has assumed that if you have, that all you need for any problem, is enough force, power. And that there is no problem which will not submit to this approach… It’s the basic fallacy to Western man’s approach to living. Herbert frequently critiqued Western man’s beliefs. He expressed it through the messianic character Paul Atreides. Paul’s internal conflicts, based on his belief in ethical norms of absolute rightness, oppose the law of moral necessity. This characterization offers depth to the character, however.

Herbert’s Writing Technique

Herbert wrote using rhythm to control the “beat of the story”. He compares this approach to that of poetry. He controlled the length of sentences and intentionally varied clause and sentence structures. 

I controlled the pace, so I have several rhythms built into the story deliberately: one is a long-term rhythm…the ending is camp, high camp. Deliberately. And a number of people, interestingly, have seen it.

-Frank Herbert

The author preferred using a typewriter, rather than pen and paper when writing. Neither computers nor electronic word processors were available for use at the time. Consider the tedious effort required and loud noise created when using a typewriter to create a book. Times were different in the 1960s.

Image of a Remington Streamliner typewriter from the 1960's.
A 1960s Remington Streamliner typewriter.

 I use a typewriter. I think that’s the newspaper training. I learned to type at about age fourteen and I touch-type.

– Frank Herbert

Publishers Didn’t See Dune’s Potential

Herbert received rejection letters from 23 different book publishers. Finally, the automotive manual publisher Chilton decided to publish Herbert’s book. This marked the first occasion Chilton published a book of fiction.   

Many best-selling authors experienced the frequent rejection of their first books. Herbert is not alone in this class. 

  • Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, rejected 27 times
  • William Golding, Lord of the Flies, 21 rejections
  • Stephen King, Carrie, rejected 30 times
  • Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife, rejected 25 times
  • Joseph Heller, Catch 22, rejected 22 times (believed to be the inspiration for the title)
  • Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, rejected 26 times
  • and many more!

To get Dune published, Herbert split his original story into three parts. Additionally, he removed more than a third of it for the first version. According to the author, “I sat down and took about a year and a half putting it together, writing it. My reports from the New York market were very poor and my treatment by some of the publishers back there was just outrageous.”

Herbert’s Prediction for the Future

In his 1973 interview with Vertex magazine, Herbert spoke of population dieback. He states, “if they (the people of the island Java) double their population before the year 2000, that land will not be able to support them with present energy sources.”

Java’s population at the time was around 80 million. He predicted, “except with some breakthrough in energy and food sources, that population dieback will occur.” He blamed this on Java’s lack of population control.   

A food-production (processed foods) and energy (solar and other alternative energy sources) breakthrough occurred. As a result, Java’s population grew by 76% between 1973 and 2020.  

Java has experienced a terrible lack of water since 2019. Drought, pollution, and poor resource management caused the issue. According to an article by Australian magazine The Interpreter, “Indonesia’s Ministry of Public Works and Housing has predicted that Java’s water levels will drop to 476m3 per person per year by 2040.”

Consider how ironic that is. Java’s destiny is to become a real-world Arrakis. Herbert’s understanding of ecology and humanity’s impact is quite prescient.   

Herbert made another prediction. He said, “‘the change in morality, that is, sex as recreation rather than procreation, is a social effort to cope with the necessity to limit the population and still deal with sexual drives.” Of course, at the time of the interview (1973), the cultural revolution of the 1960s was well underway.   

Herbert’s Take on the Role of Science Fiction

Hebert was a staunch prognosticator of corruptible power. His belief in the role of Sci Fi aligns with those of Orson Wells (1984) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World). 

We are required, in these generations, to have a longer range view of what we inflict on the world around us. This is where, I think, science fiction is helping. I don’t think that the mere writing of such a book as Brave New World or 1984 prevents those things which are portrayed in those books from happening. But I do think they alert us to that possibility and make that possibility less likely. They make us aware that we may be going in that direction.  

– Frank Herbert

The author believed science fiction points out the possibilities society may face. These possibilities may arise given certain circumstances. Herbert’s greatest concern was the possible “police culture” then advocated by psychologist B.F. Skinner.   

Skinner’s approach was to control people. He believed society was heading towards that result, regardless. For the best example of Skinner’s view on how the world should be, consider reading his novel Walden Two.   

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Far more dangerous to world society, in terms of springing upon us from an unknown corner, is the ability of a chemist and a pharmacist working in a basement, say, in South Africa to produce a mutated disease that would spread lik e wildfire throughout the world.  

– Frank Herbert

Herbert’s Prestigious Awards

Dune was so overwhelmingly successful, Herbert received two major Sci Fi awards for it. He won the 1965 first inaugural Nebula Award for best novel. He also received the 1966 Hugo Award for Best Book (tied). That’s equal to a musician winning both the American Music Awards and the Grammy Awards for best album.  

Screenshot of the Nebula Awards 1965 awards archive page.

They are the top prizes in science fiction writing. Think about how amazing that is. The toastmaster of the Hugo Awards ceremony was none other than Isaac Asimov himself.

Screenshot of the Hugo Awards 1966 awards archive.

Conclusion

Dune went on to become the best-selling Science Fiction book of all-time. This in-depth view of author Frank Herbert’s perspective allows you, the readers, further insight into Dune. 

With a journalistic background, Herbert was meticulous with his research for writing Dune. His predilection towards ecology and disdain for Western culture shaped Dune into the book we love. 

What are your thoughts on Dune and author Frank Herbert?  

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