In 1965, a book was quietly released into the world and became an unlikely hit. Reportedly, it’s the science fiction novel that’s sold the most copies around the world. Frank Herbert’s Dune is complicated and dense; it was turned down by more than 20 publishers before a publisher known for its automobile manuals took on the book. It was the start to a major franchise of novels that has since become one of the best known sci-fi series of all time.
Frank Herbert was born on October 8th, 1920, in Tacoma, Washington. At the age of 8, he decided that he would like to be a writer, announcing the news to his family at his birthday party. Throughout his teens, Herbert worked at the Tacoma Ledger during the summer months as a replacement reporter, and shortly after graduating from high school in 1938, he moved to California and got a job with the Glendale Star as a reporter after lying about his age. Throughout this time, he found time to write constantly, and even published a Western story with Street & Smith under a pseudonym. He married Flora Parkinson in 1940, and the pair had a single child, Penny. With the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Herbert joined the U.S. Navy, but was medically discharged after six months. He returned to Seattle, Washington, where he attended the University of Washington and found work with the Post-Intelligencer. He dropped out of college after only a year, publishing the story “The Survival of the Cunning” in Esquire in March 1945. Flora pressed for divorce in 1945, retaining custody of their daughter. Herbert remarried in 1946, and he and Beverly Stuart went on to have two children, Brian and Bruce Herbert.
Herbert’s science fiction career began with the story “Looking for Something” in the April 1952 issue of Startling Stories. It was around this time that he met fellow sci-fi author Jack Vance, who lived nearby, and they became good friends. He continued to publish a handful of short stories throughout the rest of the 1950s, occasionally experimenting with hallucinatory drugs and reading up on psychology. Finding a job as a speech writer for a California senator, he worked in Washington, D.C., where he developed a wariness of politicians, but was introduced to a variety of issues, ranging from limited governmental spending to environmentalism. In 1955, Herbert completed his first novel, Under Pressure, and submitted it to John W. Campbell Jr.'s Astounding Science Fiction, who accepted it and serialized it in the November 1955, December 1955, and January 1956 issues of the magazine. Herbert's agent promptly sold the hardcover rights to Doubleday, allowing Herbert to get out from under several debts.
In 1956, a friend of Herbert's informed the author of a pilot project run by the United States Department of Agriculture. Sand dunes in Florence, Oregon, were a continual problem, drifting into roads, buildings and fields. USDA officials had begun to plant grasses on the dunes, which stabilized them, garnering much attention from other parts of the world where this was an issue. Herbert was interested, and chartered a plane to fly over the area, taking notes for a planned article titled “They Stopped the Moving Sands.” Around the same time, he began playing with some ideas for another major story: "[Dune] began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human society. I had this idea that superheroes were disastrous for humans," Herbert said.
Herbert's visit to the dune fields of Florence proved to be a helpful visit toward this idea for a novel. He began to play with the idea that ecological disaster might be an avenue through which demagogues could begin to take hold on a society. He envisioned a distant planet, covered in shifting sands, with a complicated set of characters, political structure and ecological makeup. At first, the story followed a desert ecologist, trying to return it to its original state, jumping off from the efforts of the USDA officials. Herbert began to research a range of topics to construct his world, from the geological nature of deserts to the environmental and social conditions found there. He was further inspired by a growing concern for the environment, observing polluted cities, and coming to realize the fragile nature of the planet. He examined the ways in which desert-dwelling societies come to life and thrive in the water-starved regions of the world, drawing inspiration from Middle East, African and southwestern United States natives, who would eventually become the Fremen of Herbert’s novels.
Soon, the material for this story became a massive, overwhelming collection of content, one that was almost too massive to envision finishing. He accumulated a massive set of files of notes from his research. By the end of the 1950s, Herbert was selling few stories, and was falling deeper into debt, owing back taxes and child support payments to his former wife, Flora. Herbert and his family relocated to San Francisco, where his connection to the sci-fi community grew: He met authors such as Frederik Pohl, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and others. His agent began pressing him for more material that could sell in the growing science fiction novel market. But Herbert’s book had long stalled, and he became more and more reluctant to send material to his agent, Lurton Blassingame in New York, whom he felt wasn't doing enough to help him sell his stories. Herbert was growing angrier over his problems with money, sales and the world around him and by 1961, he fired his agent and found himself slightly more at ease with his book.
Herbert began writing again, firming up details of his massive world thanks to his copious notes. By 1963, he had completed a novel of 85,000 words, titled Dune World, introducing the planet Arrakis and its part in a massive, galaxy-wide empire. Relieved, he rehired Blassingame, who was eager to represent the project, recognizing its potential to reach a wide range of readers. He began to shop it around and sold the story to Campbell's recently renamed magazine, Analog. The story ran in the December, 1963, January, 1964, and February, 1964, issues. Doubleday Books, which had published Under Pressure several years before, were barely interested in the manuscript: They said that cutting the book significantly and toning down some of the content would allow them to consider an offer, only to change their mind and decline the book later on.
In the summer and fall of 1964, Herbert continued to work on the second part of what was projected to be a trilogy of novels, and shared his outline and some notes with Campbell. The pair fought over the direction in which the story would take, but Herbert was able to keep his vision intact. The books continued the story of Paul Atreides, now known as Muad'Dib, but largely ejected the ecological themes which he had anticipated writing, instead picking up the political threads that had begun in Dune World. Finishing in November 1964, the two new books, Muad'Dib and The Prophet clocked in at 125,000 words, and Blassingame recommended that the three novels be published together in a single book. Publishers balked: the entire novel was 210,000 words in all, a massive book whose printing costs would push the price of the book to around $5.00, a high price for a novel at that time. The book was also complicated, detailed and slowly paced. In all, 23 publishers turned the book down. Campbell, however, bought the serial rights for Parts II and III, publishing the book in five parts from January to May 1965 under a new title, The Prophet of Dune. In July, Herbert was the Guest of Honor at Westercon 18, where he spoke about the books and their background.
An editor at the Chilton Book Company, Sterling E. Lanier, read the Analog serialization and enjoyed the story. He contacted Blassingame and read the three stories together, and bought the entire package, offering Herbert a $7,500 advance along with royalties. The three books would be published together as a hardcover. Together, Lanier and Herbert worked on the manuscript, finishing out some loose ends, and added some additional information in. Interestingly, Chilton wasn't known for their science fiction: they were a leading publisher of repair manuals. Fortunately, they were used to printing large books. In December 1965, the collected books were published under a single title, Dune.
Herbert enlisted the services of an advertising firm and set about providing prominent reviewers with copies, but the book received little attention. However, the science fiction community was enthusiastic about the book, with accolades coming from authors such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Ann McCaffrey. In 1966, Dune was nominated and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. In the same year, it became the first novel to win the inaugural Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America. In 1967, Ace Books published the novel in paperback at the substantially lower price of $0.95. The book began to sell better each year and was slowly becoming popular.
Dune, along with other major novels such as Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, marked a major turning point for science fiction literature: According to Adam Roberts in his History of Science Fiction, "the broad popularity ...of Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune is a phenomenon quite unlike the comparatively select popularity SF had enjoyed before. One reason for the commercial success of Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune, and incidentally, Lord of the Rings, is that these titles became campus books, bought and avidly read by hundreds of thousands of students as countercultural accoutrements, or even manifestos." In the counterculture of the 1960s, Dune's variety of messages resonated with college students across the country, turning the book first into a cult hit, and then a much larger one. Over the remainder of the 1960s, the book was widely read on college campuses, and was even being used as a textbook for college-level coursework. It was starting to become popular overseas, as well.
Even more importantly, this was science fiction in a wider sphere. According to Kim Stanley Robinson, "[Dune] was the SF book that everybody in the mainstream culture was reading, but it wasn't like Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, which was essentially a mainstream novel. Herbert was doing hard-core SF in the anthropological and world-building sense." Science fiction, so often confined to a small, core audience of dedicated SF readers, had begun to break into the popular consciousness of millions upon millions of readers. The genre, often characterized against its image of the 1930s and ’40s, now had a work which shattered those preconceptions.
The process which birthed Dune had worn out Herbert, and he took a short break from writing anything. “I’d been very deep into a book that really drained me. And I knew that to make others fit, I was going to have to do it again. I had to take some time off.” He had begun to do some preliminary work on Dune Messiah, but focused instead on a couple of other novels: The Green Brain (1966); The Eyes of Heisenberg (1966); Destination: Void (1966); The Heaven Makers (1967); Saratoga Barrier (1968). By 1968, he had begun work on Dune’s sequel, focusing on the consequences of Paul Atreides’ ascension to the Imperial Throne. A galactic-wide jihad has taken place over 12 years, and Paul has essentially become a god in the eyes of trillions, his words taken as gospel. The book took on one of Herbert’s long-running themes: that superheroes in a society are dangerous. Campbell had argued with Herbert about the powerful nature of Paul, and in this new volume, that theme was explored, along with another: leaders of movements as dangerous people.
The novel was completed in 1968, and Campbell rejected it outright: He had no desire to publish a story about an antihero who essentially falls. Instead, the novel was acquired and published by Ejler Jakobsson of Galaxy Magazine. The five-part serialization ran from July through November 1969, and was formally released as a paperback by Berkley Medallion. The book widely panned, but Dune was continuing to accelerate, sales-wise, and Herbert’s popularity was growing as well, and he wrote a number of solicited stories. Apollo 15 astronauts even named a crater on the moon after his novel.
In 1971, Herbert was hard at work on a third Dune novel, tentatively titled Arrakis, but progress was slow. Fans were disappointed by Dune Messiah, and he struggled to find his voice for the third novel. Further complicating matters was his wife’s health: she had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and his attention went to her care. She survived chemotherapy, and Herbert soon started on a newly renamed draft of the book: Children of Dune. In 1974, the experimental Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky purchased the rights to Dune. He hadn’t read the book, but loved the idea of the story, and planned for a grand adaptation with a stellar cast of actors: Orson Welles would play Baron Harkonnen; Salvador Dali would be the Shaddam IV; David Carradine would play Dr. Kynes; while Mick Jagger, Magma and Pink Floyd would put together the soundtrack. On the artistic front, H. R. Giger, Jean Giraud (Mœbius) and Chris Foss would develop the design of the movie. Special effects designer Dan O'Bannon was brought on to work on the film’s visuals, which would surpass anything seen on film at that time. Gathered in France, they put together their vision for the movie in a massive bible, and were visited by the Herberts in 1976. The news wasn’t good: Jodorowsky had gone far over his budget, having already spent over $2 million in preproduction, and no one was going to produce a planned 14-hour science fiction epic. The film had stalled, and the crew dispersed to other productions. While Jodorwsky’s Dune was a failure, it had an immeasurable impact on the direction of science fiction cinema in the following years, as elements of its production turned up in films such as Star Wars, Alien and other major classics. Herbert was disappointed, but the film rights would be bought once again.
In the meantime, Herbert completed his work on Children of Dune and sold the serialization rights to Ben Bova, who had taken over for Campbell after his death in 1971. The novel was published between January and April 1976 to immediate success. The magazine frequently sold out from newsstands. Herbert had recaptured the magic of Dune. Berkley/Putnam had acquired the rights to sell the book in hardcover, and editor David Hartwell pushed the company for a major release: He and Herbert felt that the book would become a major seller, but the publisher was reluctant, since Dune Messiah had fizzled with fans and a hardcover release was risky. However, as Children of Dune sold well in Analog, Berkley/Putnam acquiesced, and the book was released in April 1976. It became a major seller, becoming the best-selling science fiction novel to date, and one of the first (if not the first) SF novels to reach mainstream bestseller status. In 1977, it was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, but lost out to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. A year later, Children of Dune appeared in paperback, and demand continued to outstrip available copies. Herbert’s trilogy was now selling millions.
Science fiction had attained mainstream respectability, and according to Brian Herbert, “Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and other science fiction writers had national best sellers.” Whether or not Dune was the catalyst for their success in mainstream markets (they were already incredibly popular authors both inside and outside of the genre), the popularity of science fiction was certainly on the rise. Herbert’s next novel, The Dosadi Experiment, likewise landed on the best-seller lists.
Herbert had considered Children of Dune to be the end of his Dune cycle, and focused his efforts on other novels. However, demand for more Dune stories continued to grow, and he began to review his stories to find any threads that could be picked up and worked with. He determined that he had some more stories in him, but they would be set further in the future, apart from the events of the first books. Leto II, the mutated offspring of Paul, would be the central focus. Herbert titled the project Sandworm of Dune, and set about writing. In the meantime, the movie rights to Dune had been bought again, and a new production was starting with Ridley Scott attached to direct, although he would soon move to another project: Blade Runner, an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel.
Herbert completed Sandworm of Dune in 1980, retitling it God Emperor of Dune, right as he inked a deal for a fifth Dune novel, Heretics of Dune. God Emperor of Dune was released in 1981 as a hardcover, and once again became a best-seller, topping the list and outselling its predecessor. Herbert struck out across the United States on a signing tour. The movie was looking up as well: a young director, David Lynch, was now attached to the project, promising to hold the movie to the book as closely as possible.
Herbert’s advance for Heretics of Dune was one of the highest in the business. Dune books had become sure sellers and demand for the four books continued to rise, unabated. Progress on the fifth Dune novel was being made despite setbacks, as Herbert’s wife’s health began to fail, and his brother was diagnosed with HIV. The book was completed in 1983, nonetheless, and he began work on a sixth Dune novel, for which he received another major advance from Putnam. Progress on the film was also going well: Herbert was pleased with the script and direction of the film, which was set to be released the following year. He quickly began work on the sixth novel, which was titled Chapterhouse: Dune. By early 1984, Beverly’s health was declining rapidly, and Herbert cancelled a book tour. In January, she passed away, telling her husband to complete his book, something he found difficult to do without her. But by summer 1984, he had completed the novel, and promotion for the Dune film was ramping up quickly.
The film was releaseds on December 14th, 1984, to fairly negative reviews, and the film ultimately didn’t do well in theaters, although it would eventually pick up a cult following later on. Despite the film’s failure, Chapterhouse: Dune was released in 1985 and, like its predecessors, sold extremely well. Herbert then married Theresa Shackleford that same year, and with the success of the sixth Dune novel, he continued writing, picking up after the cliffhanger at the end of Chapterhouse. Around this time, Herbert began feeling ill and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He tried to remain positive, and confided in Frederik Pohl that he was optimistic that he would beat it: “I know that’s got a bad prognosis,” he said, “but the University of Wisconsin medical school has some new ideas about treatment, and that’s where I’ve been.”
On February 11th, 1986, Herbert suffered from a pulmonary embolism and passed away at the age of 65, leaving behind a plethora of notes and an unfinished Dune novel. Tributes poured in from across the world, honoring one of the world’s best known science fiction authors. The world of Dune, however, lived on. Throughout Herbert’s copious notes, numerous stories lingered, and in 1999, Herbert’s son Brian teamed up with fellow science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson for a new trilogy of Dune stories: Dune: House Atreides (1999); Dune: House Harkonnen (2000); and Dune: House Corrino (2001). A new prequel trilogy appeared a year later: Dune: The Butlerian Jihad was published in 2002, followed by Dune: The Machine Crusade in 2003, and Dune: The Battle of Corrin in 2004. From Herbert’s notes, the pair also put together the unfinished sequels to Chapterhouse: Hunters of Dune was published in 2006 and Sandworms of Dune followed a year later.
Yet another series began in 2008 with Paul of Dune and was followed by Winds of Dune in 2009, with two additional books planned: The Throne of Dune and Leto of Dune. These books were held off, though, as the pair assembled a new prequel series titled Great Schools of Dune. The first novel in that series, The Sisterhood of Dune, was published in 2012, while the second, Mentats of Dune, was released in March 2014. The final book in this series, Swordmasters of Dune, is yet to be published.
Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi series has since become one of the greatest of all time, frequently ranked at the top of popularity lists throughout the genre. Its detailed and complicated story defied expectations and influenced millions of readers throughout its half-century life. The series continues forward with new sequels, adaptations and documentaries, and it’s unlikely to slow down at any point in the near future. Dune novels written by his son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson appear through today.