Where do the ideas behind the strange universe of Dune come from?


Where does the novel come from? Dune sit like a moment in science fiction?

It’s his time. But it also transcends that time, in a way. I think back in the 1960s it was one of what they called “campus novels” because all the trippy college students read them. Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Stranger in a strange land… All immersive worlds, often with messianic heroes and an expanded consciousness. This will be its axis in time. But also, I think he relied on a lot of what had happened in science fiction earlier, and he anticipated what happened later.

Frank Herbert wrote Dune at the right time – public interest in space exploration and other planets was just starting to grow © Getty Images

What were the influences of Frank Herbert?

Herbert was born in 1920, and the Dune saga began with soap operas published in science fiction magazines, around 1963. So he was already 43 years old and he had clearly grown up on the diet of magazines and pulp literature that predated what one might call science -modern fiction. And among the tropes he took over was the idea of ​​galactic empires. At one end you have Isaac Asimov and his Foundation series, but there were also some more fantastic sagas from the Galactic Empire, like that of EE ‘Doc’ Smith Lensman saga.

There had also been world-building exercises before Dune, trying to move beyond the cartoonish world-building genre of previous generations. Hal Clement Near criticism in 1964 is an example, concerning a planet with very strong gravity.

Today we're used to high-quality images of Mars like this one, but around the time Dune was written probes were just starting to visit other planets © NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

Today we are used to high quality images of Mars, like this one, but back then Dune was written, the probes were just starting to visit other planets © NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

Was he inspired by science?

At the time Dune was under development, you also had the first space probes to neighboring planets. Today we are used to the visions of Mars and Venus that we have now, but I think back then it was quite shocking to find out that Mars was an arid desert and Venus was that hell. Previous generations had extrapolated from Earth, so Venus was hot and humid Earth and Mars was cold and dry Earth – but now they looked completely different. Also the famous environmental book Silent spring by Rachel Carson was published in 1962, and I think it opened my eyes.

But there is one specific incident in Herbert’s life that seems to have pushed him in that direction. He was making a living as a journalist before his fiction writing took off. In 1957, when he was in his thirties, he was sent to write about an Oregon dune system that was migrating and therefore endangering cities.

The United States Department of Agriculture used herbs to try to stabilize the dunes. And Herbert had been really struck by it – changing an ecology to achieve a goal, as opposed to using technology, like big fences. He became fascinated with deserts and developed theories on how major religions often emerged from deserts, which I guess is true – Islam, for example. And it is believed that TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – was a role model for Dunethe hero of Paul Atréides.

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Dune is often hailed as a pioneering work of “ecological science fiction” …

You can see that Arrakis – the planet in Dune – is an ecology. It has some pretty simple elements in it, but it actually fits in as a living entity in an authentic way. And where Herbert has perhaps really been a pioneer is in showing this world of work complete with reasonably plausible ecology as a single vision. You could say it’s like a precursor to astronaut photographs of the Earth and the Moon – seeing the entire Earth as a system. Dune was released in 1965, a few years before these photos appeared in 1968 with Apollo 8. I think the world was ready for it. We were going to the Moon, we were ready to look back at Earth, and Herbert got hold of the times.

Dune was released just a few years before Apollo 8. People were excited about the possibilities of space exploration and life elsewhere in the Universe © Getty Images

Dune was released just a few years before Apollo 8. People were excited about the possibilities of space exploration and life elsewhere in the Universe © Getty Images

What notable works of science fiction have Dune since inspired?

Certainly Star wars. I think with George Lucas it wasn’t just the Galactic Empire stuff, but he seemed to like the desert visuals. Tatooine in Star wars is sort of a version of Arrakis. But there is also the other side of Dune – telepathy and the messianic, superhuman side. Again, there were these in Star wars, humans with superhuman powers that they must discover and master.

Also, the work of Ursula Le Guin perhaps. His novel The word for the world is forest, published in 1972, is Dune with trees. Later it’s Kim Stanley Robinson March trilogy – all about the ecologies and ecologies of the building. And space opera has definitely continued to thrive since Dune. Today he is stronger than ever.

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