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50 Years of Frank Herbert’s Dune

(Image: Universal Pictures)

In 1959, struggling writer Frank Herbert journeyed to the sand dunes of Oregon to research a story about a government plan to stabilize those ever-shifting sands. The experience dug into him and grew. It became the groundbreaking 1965 science fiction novel Dune. That novel almost didn’t make it to print. Herbert submitted it to more than 20 publishing houses before Chilton, the car repair manual publisher, agreed to print it.

Dune won the Nebula and Hugo Awards, but its popularity grew only slowly over the following decade. It influenced Star Wars and led to the development its own movie in 1984 and miniseries in 2000. In The Guardian, Hari Kunzru argues that it’s one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time and an essential story:

Though in his later years he enjoyed huge success, Herbert, the man who dreamed of greening the desert, had mixed feelings about the future. In Dune, he has Kynes, the “First Planetologist of Arrakis” (and hero of the novel’s first draft) muse that “beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase. This is as true of humans in the finite space of a planetary ecosystem as it is of gas molecules in a sealed flask. The human question is not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of existence is possible for those who do survive.” Gloomy Malthusianism was much in vogue in the 1960s and 70s. In 1968 Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb became a runaway bestseller, predicting mass starvation unless population growth was restricted. The flip side of the green movement’s valorisation of small scale and self-reliance is an uneasy relationship with the masses, and with the idea of economic growth more generally. Herbert’s libertarian politics reinforced this worry. In Dune, Paul knows that if the desert planet is made to bloom, it will support a larger population, and the ethic of individualism will be eroded. He himself, as he is transformed from aristocrat to messiah, loses his individuality and begins to dissolve into myth, becoming part of a Jungian collective unconscious. But perhaps Herbert would take heart from the thought that history does not appear to be teleological and some long-term plans do not take on the character of destiny. Fifty years after Dune’s publication, the US Department of Agriculture is still at work on the Oregon Dunes, rooting out European beach grass, an “invasive non‑native species”. They want to return the dune processes to their natural state.

Have you read Dune? What do you think of it?

-via Marginal Revolution

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