Frank Herbert, born today on October 8, knew a lot about a lot of things. He was interested in ecology, psychology, philosophy, sociobiology, politics, power, and the future of humankind. Given those many interests, and his varied writing on them, it’s no surprise that he attracted a devoted fan base. Some of them were so devoted that it led others to wonder whether Herbert was making his very own cult.
Which is supremely ironic, given that adoration of and fealty to sparkly leaders is something that Herbert was vehemently against. In fact, he used an entire book series to explore that theme to the fullest.
That book series was Dune.
Frank Herbert was born in 1920 and ran away from his home to finish high school in Salem, Oregon, where his aunt and uncle lived. (The fact that a backwards road sign for Salem, Oregon was the inspiration for Ursula K. Le Guin’s fictional city of Omelas cannot be ignored there.) He was a photographer during World War II, a lecturer, and briefly a television director. He was a husband and a father, and he was passionate about learning at every age, letting friends turn him onto a variety of subjects he would adopt as special interests. He converted from Catholicism to Zen Buddhism in his lifetime. All these things were integral, yet Frank Herbert was always a writer, first and foremost. When he wasn’t writing novels he was working for various newspapers, which he did until he became a full-time fiction writer in the 1970s.
Among the fiction that he wrote was a book called Dune, which was first published in Analog in segments from 1963-1965. He rewrote a good portion of the book when it was finally published in novel form, and shared the Hugo for Best Novel with Roger Zelazny in 1966.
Dune is Herbert’s great contribution to genre fiction and fiction at large, but there is no single, definitive reason for its popularity and longevity. Rather, Dune is so complex, so layered as a piece of literature that it is impossible to isolate one aspect that is responsible for its successes. That makes the series, particularly the premiere novel, a difficult one to discuss casually—everyone draws something from it that is unique to their own reading. Everyone has a specific draw, key-in character, academic interest that the story fulfills for them.
Here are only a few of them, several amongst the multitude of reasons why Dune is touchstone for science fiction readers everywhere:
The tale is gorgeous example of meticulous world-building, easily on par with Tolkien and other genre greats. For this reason, many consider Dune to be to science fiction what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy: an entirely new world submerge yourself in, complete with glossaries, histories, thoughts on language and cultures, quotes from reference books written by authorities in-universe. Dune is an immersive experience for any kind of reader, demanding full attention to detail and invoking an easy fascination.
Dune also was one of the first science fictional works to incorporate ecology in a serious manner. It is odd to think that Herbert’s focus on spice production very eerily mirrors the world’s current dependency on oil and the effect that is having on the planet, but it was undoubtedly his intention to draw those sorts of parallels. Herbert was a proponent for forethought in everything humanity did. He believed that it was important to consider the far-reaching consequences of how we interacted with our world, and how we could plan our collective future.
Though Herbert made the “hero” of his narrative Paul Atreides, the son of a duke who makes himself the leader of Arrakis’ native Fremen population, Herbert never viewed Paul and his crusade as heroic. He created an epic saga, the sort that easily lends itself to hyper-bolded versions of “good” and “evil,” yet there are very few people in his universe that fit those descriptors. He took a story of legends and deconstructed what had been built up around them, the whispers and rumors that make ordinary people into near-gods. Because of that, Dune is a very big story that offers no simple answers to the equally big questions it provokes.
In addition, Dune is one of the greatest works of what some term “soft science fiction.” (A wobbly phrase, but it serves its purpose in certain descriptive situations.) By refusing to lace his universe with lots of machinery and hard scientific exploration, Herbert was able to focus on people, on the paths that humanity might take. Dune’s reach as a novel likely led many others to embrace similar story-telling techniques. It’s probable that we wouldn’t have Star Wars—which takes a very similar approach by making machinery so commonplace that it’s secondary—without the popularity of Dune preceeding it. Probable that we would have missed out on many stories that would have been ignored without a set example.
So it is really no wonder that Frank Herbert and his work continue to fascinate us. No wonder that Dune continues to capture generations of new readers. It will always be on the hook as one of science fiction’s most engaging worlds, and we can only thank Frank Herbert for being interested in so many disciplines… and needing so desperately to write about them all.