In 1956, Doubleday published The Dragon in the Sea, the first novel by a California newspaperman named Frank Herbert. Even now, the book seems a little hard to pin down. It was, for the most part, a Cold War thriller about the race to harvest offshore oil—except crammed inside the thriller was a near-future science-fiction tale of fantastic technology. And crammed inside the science fiction was a psychological study of naval officers crammed inside submarines.
The Dragon in the Sea received some nice reviews. Anthony Boucher praised it in Fantasy & Science Fiction, and the New York Times compared it to sea-going works by C.S. Forester and Herman Wouk. But readers found the novel confusing, and it didn’t sell particularly well, leaving the 36-year-old Herbert uncertain where to turn next. So he accepted a commission to write something called “They Stopped the Moving Sands.”
However much that sounds like a 1950s sci-fi title, the commission was actually for a non-fiction magazine article about Oregon’s sand dunes and the Department of Agriculture’s attempt to halt their drift by planting them with poverty grasses. The dunes were amazing, Herbert explained in a 1957 letter to his agent: In their undulations, they could “swallow whole cities, lakes, rivers, highways.” He was piling up notes for the article at a furious pace. So many notes, in fact, that he never finished “They Stopped the Moving Sands.”
Instead, he emerged five years later with a 500-page story called Dune, serialized in 1963 by Analog magazine and published in 1965 as a book by Chilton—best known for its car-repair manuals—after more than 20 other publishers had refused it.
What’s left to say now about Dune, exactly 50 years later? It was a monstrous doorstopper of a book, in the days when sci-fi novels were often short enough that Ace could publish two of them, upside-down to each other, in a single thin volume. With Dune, Frank Herbert (1920-1986) made the breakthrough in science fiction that J. R. R. Tolkien had achieved in fantasy—both of them showing all subsequent writers in their fields how to build what we might call Massively Coherent Universes: with clashes of culture, technology, history, language, politics, and religion all worked out in the story’s background.
At the same time, Dune is an occasionally sloppy book and oddly paced. It sprawls when it might be compact and shrinks when it might be discursive. How could an author extend his plot maneuvering through hundreds of pages—and then be satisfied with an ending so rushed that even the death of the hero’s infant child in the final apocalyptic battle is only a side note?
Meanwhile, the prose is sometimes weak, striving for the memorable epigrams it can’t always form. The psychology of the minor characters is ignored at some points and deeply observed at others, which makes those characters flicker in a peculiar way between the two-dimensional walk-ons of myth and the three-dimensional figures of novelistic realism. And the third-person narrator keeps his distance from them by printing what they’re thinking in italics, just so we understand that this is, like, you know, mental speech.
In fact, the book contains so much italics—with the many poems, song lyrics, and extended quotations from fictional sources printed the same way—that the reader wants to bang it against the nightstand once or twice a chapter. Add up all the problems, and you can see why those publishers rejected Herbert’s manuscript. It had a thousand chances to fail and only one chance of succeeding—which it grasped by being so relentlessly, impossibly, irresistibly interesting.
Dune won both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award for the year’s best science fiction, produced multiple attempts at film versions, spawned five sequels from Herbert (plus another dozen by his son), and became perhaps the most-purchased science fiction book of all time, selling at least 12 million copies.
As far as plot goes, the story is, at its root, a straightforward, old-fashioned tale of a hero. A young man suffers the loss of his rightful inheritance and is forced to hide among a backward people—who, he discovers, are actually brilliant warriors. So he convinces them that he had been chosen by destiny to lead them, a messiah come to claim them. He forms his new people into an army, and together, they reclaim his lost inheritance.