Man of the Dunes: Frank Patrick Herbert Jr.

3 Conversations

One of the most famous of the "Old Guard' of science fiction authors, Herbert is regularly mentioned in the same breath as the 'Grandmasters' of the genre - Issac Asimov, Artur C.Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein


Heinlein himself, paying tribute to Herbert's magnum opus, the Dune saga, called it "powerful, convincing and most ingenious.", while the Library Journal said "'Dune' is to science fiction what 'The Lord of the Rings' is to fantasy."

Herbert began his writing career in 1939 by lying about his age to land a position at a Washington newspaper, making a wartime sideline as a photographer for the U.S. Navy's Seabees (Construction Battalion).

He began studies at University of Washington at war's end but failed to graduate as, according to son, Brian, he studied nothing that didn't interest him. By that time (1947), he'd been twice married, had three children and had already sold his first science fiction story, 'Looking For Something', to Startling Stories magazine.

Starting Off

Herbert made his first foray into book-length narrative with 1955's 'Dragon In the Sea', exploring issues of sanity and madness in a submarine setting and predicating a global conflicts over oil resources. Whilst meeting with critical warmth, it didn't fare particularly well with the book-buying public.

Hebert started collating material for 'Dune' in 1959, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the project following his wife's return to full employment- she was the primary earner in the family over the following decade.

At one point, in fact, when he was researching sand dune control in Florence, Oregon for an article for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he collected far too much material for one article. The article which was eventually shelved) but served as basis for his masterpiece.

Sands Of Time

At the time of writing of'"Dune', science fiction was almost invariably predicated and focussed on scientific and technological advancement - Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers', for example, published in 1959, with its powered armour and faster-than-light interstellar travel (although it's deeply involved with philosophical discussions about citizenship, government and sociology).

Heinlein 'knocked off' 'Troopers' in a few short weeks as a response to a proposed moratorium on nuclear testing, among other issues. Herbert's 'Dune' worlds, in comparison, were over six years in the making!

Published in Analog magazine over two parts (titled "Dune World and "Prophet of Dune"), it then received the treatment accorded to most, if not all, visionary works - a score of rejection letters from publishing houses!(One clairvoyant editor preceded his with "I might be making the mistake of the decade, but...").

A small Philadelphia firm, Chilton, eventually granted Herbert an advance of $7500 and the rest, as they say is history. The novel garnered immediate critical plaudits. It won the Best Novel Nebula by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1965 and the Hugo - named after iconic Amazing Stories founder, Hugo Gernshack - the following year,

While not being a runaway bestseller, Herbert earned a healthy income from brainchild - $20, 000 in 1968, well above average for a debut work of science fiction. Turning again to Heinlein as an example, he was reputedly selling stories at a penny a word. In 1939 terms, this works out to be about 15c. The $70 he got for his first story (the 7000-word 'Life Line'), and for which he took up writing professionally, translates to a modern equivalent of $1,034.8!

Going Pro

By the early Seventies, Herbert was able to ditch the newspaper jobs and take up his pen full time. Over the following decade, the works compromising the Dune saga were published: 'Dune Messiah' (1969), 'Children of Dune' (1976) and 'God Emperor of Dune' (1981)

Other novels were completed over this fertile same period. 'The Godmakers'(1972), 'The Dosadi Experiment' (1977), "The White Plague' (1982)and projects co-written with Bill Ransom, 'The Jesus Incident', 'The Lazarus Effect' and 'The Ascension Factor' (along with 'Chapterhouse Dune', the last work he ever completed.

During 1984, when 'Heretics of Dun'e was published, Herbert' second wife, Beverly, died after a decade of worsening post-surgical effects. The Afterword to 'Chapterhouse Dune' the next year incorporated an emotional and moving tribute.

In 1984, too, British filmmaker David Lynch brought his vision of Herbert's millieu to the big screen. Boasting typical a Hollywood budget, lavish production values and top-of-the line, it scored huge successes in Europe and Japan with both critics and consumers (the U.S. response was merely lukewarm, however).

It was suggested that one reason for its reception in America was that it tried to do much with too little time at the time, rumors were rife that before editing, the movie had an spanned something of the order of nine hours!

In 1986, Herbert suffered a massive embolitic complication while recovering from pancreatic cancer surgery. He died unexpectedly in Wisconsin on February 11 aged 65.A t his death, he left behind an embarrassment of riches, including further notes, plots and storylines.

These were used by his son, Brian, and Kevin J. Anderson to contune the epic tale with Hunters of Dune' and 'Sandworms of Dune' They also endeavoured to 'reverse engineer' the Dune stories; the stories in'The Butlerian Jihad', 'The Machine Crusade', 'The Battle of Corrin', 'House Atreides', 'House Harkonnen' and 'House Corrino all take place at times preceding Hebert's 1965 original.

"Dune Genesis"

Prior to Herbert, the success of science fiction novel often seemed to bear something of a direct relationship to the magnitude of the technology within it, the "Gee, Whizz" factor.

Dune and its offspring was 'soft science'; there is precious little "Gee, whizz" in it - galactic travel and atmospheric flying machines were, by no means deemed outlandish ideas in 1969,

Herbert presented, instead, far-too-familiar worlds ("The scarce water of Dune is an exact analog of oil scarcity. CHOAM is OPEC.") of econmics - politics, greed, corruption and, overarching all, human frailty and mortality.

He was also deeply (and, possibly, anachronistically) concerned with ecology. In an Omni essay of 1980, he worried over the human influence in the chain of cause-and-effect:

"Ecology encompasses a real concern, however, and the Florence project [for the U.S.D.A.] fed my interest in how we inflict ourselves upon our planet. I could begin to see the shape of a global problem, no part of it separated from any other - social ecology, political ecology, economic ecology. It's an open-ended list."

The New York Times book reviewer, Gerald Jonas, observed "So completely did Mr. Herbert work out the interactions of man and beast and geography and climate that Dune became the standard for a new sub-genre of 'ecological' science fiction."

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