Dune may be one of the best-known, most-read science fiction novels of all time, but it was hardly an overnight success. Publishers rejected it, critics misunderstood it, and fans question it even to this day. In the spirit of “Dune is awesome” (and in honor of the new Dune movie trailer), here are a few things you might not know about Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, and its long journey to the sci-fi hall of fame.
Two Separate Ideas Merged to Create It
Frank Herbert had assembled a moderately impressive publishing resumé by the time he started working on Dune. His debut novel, Under Pressure, was serialized in 1955, and later released as the standalone title The Dragon in the Sea. Working on that book kindled an interest in religion, the psychology of leadership, and how each affected the minds of followers. Herbert researched, collected notes, and read nearly 200 books as he dove into the topic, building a database of story ideas as he went.
Herbert’s 1957 trip to the dunes of Oregon turned out to be a moment of inspiration. Seeing how the piles of sand held such sway over the life and landscape around them sparked an interest in ecology. He imagined a world overtaken by desert, and a lone planetologist obsessed with reclaiming it. This seed found fertile ground, growing into early outlines of what would become the setting of Dune—but the true soul of the book wasn’t born until the environment was fused with his research into the psychology of a messiah and his followers.
A Car Repair Manual Printing Company Published It
Dune was first published by Analog magazine as two serialized stories, Dune World and Prophet of Dune. Soon after, Herbert pushed to get it released as a standalone book, but it was rejected by 20 publishers, most of whom said it was slow-paced and overly confusing—though eventual Tor Books founder Tom Doherty was an early champion, he couldn’t convince his bosses at Simon & Schuster to acquire it (he did eventually work as Herbert’s publisher at Ace Books). Herbert persisted, and was finally contacted by Sterling Lanier, editor at Chilton Books, a well-established publisher known for its business-to-business magazines and automotive manuals. Lanier wanted to take a chance with a fiction release, and Dune looked like a great book to start with. Herbert joked that they might rename the book How to Repair Your Ornithopter to better fit with their catalogue. (Seriously though, I’d read that.)
The Chilton Editor Was Fired for Publishing It
Well, that’s not a happy endling, is it? Dune didn’t exactly fly off shelves after its initial release. Several factors contributed to this, two of which were the book’s intimidating length, and its hefty $5.95 price tag—roughly $45 adjusted for inflation. It wasn’t what science fiction fans expected, and thus didn’t garner much in the way of sales. Lanier was soon after fired, and Dune written off as a failure. Of course, the book would eventually go on to become the bestselling science fiction novel of all time…in paperback. Still, hopefully Lanier’s bosses are super embarrassed by their rash decision.
Critics Didn’t Like or Understand It
It seemed everyone who read Dune loved it—except for the critics. Science fiction in the mid-20th century was dominated by Buck Rogers-style tales of adventure and laser battles in space. Then Dune comes along, with its distinct lack of action and an embedded phobia of all things technology. Who wants to read something like that? Early critics scolded Herbert for pushing the action scenes into subtext and focusing on cause and consequence instead of pew-pew aliens and UFOs. Even today, readers and critics alike misread and misrepresent parts of Dune.
Analog Refused to Publish Its Sequel
Dune slowly started to gain popularity after its launch, but that didn’t mean the battle was over: the magazine that published the serialized version turned down the sequel. Legendary editor John W. Campbell said readers wanted heroes, but Dune: Messiah turned the hero of Dune into a withered, worthless husk of a man. This was by design, of course; one of the themes of Dune is how leaders are still people, flawed and vulnerable like the rest of us. Fortunately, Galaxy magazine picked up Messiah, publishing it in 1969.
Parts of the Sequels Were Written Alongside It
As Dune’s outline and ideas took form, Herbert realized his story was too big for a single book. He set markers for what would appear in the first installment, cutting pieces of content that didn’t fit the initial narrative. Parts of these texts would end up in Dune: Messiah and Children of Dune.
It Intentionally Asked More Questions Than It Answered
Frank Herbert left out details underlying Dune’s factions and histories. The idea behind this decision was twofold. First, and most fitting, was his refusal to take a leadership role over his created universe. In a story about the dangers of looking to one person for answers, why would he want people looking to him for answers? Second, and closely related, he wanted people to think about the book from the inside out, and create their own meaning. Why does the Guild hold so tightly on its monopoly over space travel? Don’t ask the author, ask yourself.
It used to Have a Different Protagonist
The desert planet idea that formed the backbone of the novel originally placed ecologist Liet Kynes at the center of the action. As the story gained layers of meaning and complexity, Kynes’ role took a backseat to the epic rise and fall of Paul Atreides, Muad’dib and Kwisatz Haderach. Liet’s ideals lived on as part of Paul’s long reaching goals, however, and his bloodline continued to be part of the story through his daughter Chani, the mother of Paul’s children.
It Substitutes Sandworms and Spice for Dragons and Gold
A lot of familiar genre elements are baked into the Dune universe, both as a tool to show the unchanging core of humanity, and to provide narrative footholds for anyone not reading the book 10,000 years in the future. Probably the best-known icon from the series is the much-desired drug spice, followed by the giant sandworms that produce it. Herbert developed these elements as a black beast archetype—a stand-in for old tales of mystical creatures guarding mountains of treasure from greedy humans (think dragons and their hoards of gold). You might be familiar with that concept from, oh, every fantasy book ever written.
Its Ending Was Supposed to Be Action-Packed, Abrupt, and Campy
The pacing of the first Dune novel is deliberate and slow. There aren’t a lot of action scenes, and if you had a dime for every time someone’s thoughts are printed in paragraphs of italics, the book would pay for itself a few times over. But the finale turns everything on its head. Instead of a breathtaking, cerebral ending, we get fights, murders, and dramatic encounters, all of which are over before you can catch your breath. Even the last line was characterized by Herbert himself “high camp”. What gives, Frank?
It turns out this was a deliberate decision: Herbert wanted the ending to contrast sharply with the preceding narrative in order to give people the feeling there was more to be said—and not necessarily in a “buy my sequel” sort of way. Readers would be sent skidding from the story, trailing bits of it behind them. What’s the first thing you do in a situation like that? Turn the book around and start reading it again, looking for answers. Certainly its a choice that has keep us busy for the last, oh, 50-odd years.