Frank Herbert Explains the Origins of Dune (1969)

Dune: Part Two has been play­ing in the­aters for less than a week, but that’s more than enough time for its view­ers to joke about the apt­ness of its title. For while it comes, of course, as the sec­ond half of Denis Vil­leneu­ve’s adap­ta­tion of Frank Her­bert’s influ­en­tial sci-fi nov­el, it also con­tains a great many heaps of sand. Such visu­als hon­or not just the sto­ry’s set­ting, but also the form of Her­bert’s inspi­ra­tion to write Dune and its sequels in the first place. The idea for the whole saga came about, he says in the 1969 inter­view above, because he’d want­ed to write an arti­cle “about the con­trol of sand dunes.”

“I’m always fas­ci­nat­ed by the idea of some­thing that is either seen in minia­ture and that can be expand­ed to the macro­cosm or which, but for the dif­fer­ence in time, in the flow rate, and the entropy rate, is sim­i­lar to oth­er fea­tures which we wouldn’t think were sim­i­lar,” he goes on to explain. When viewed the right way, sand dunes turn out to behave “like waves in a large body of water; they just are slow­er. And the peo­ple treat­ing them as flu­id learn to con­trol them.” After enough research on this sub­ject, “I had some­thing enor­mous­ly inter­est­ing going for me about the ecol­o­gy of deserts, and it was — for a sci­ence fic­tion writer, any­way — it was an easy step from that to think: What if I had an entire plan­et that was a desert?”

That may have turned out to be one of the defin­ing ideas of Dune, but there are plen­ty of oth­ers in there with it. “We all know that many reli­gions began in a desert atmos­phere,” Her­bert says, “so I decid­ed to put the two togeth­er because I don’t think that any one sto­ry should have any one thread. I build on a lay­er tech­nique, and of course putting in reli­gion and reli­gious ideas you can play one against the oth­er.” And “of course, in study­ing sand dunes, you imme­di­ate­ly get into not just the Ara­bi­an mys­tique but the Nava­jo mys­tique and the mys­tique of the Kala­hari prim­i­tives and all.” From his tech­ni­cal curios­i­ty about sand, the sto­ry’s host of eco­log­i­cal, reli­gious, lin­guis­tic, polit­i­cal, and indeed civ­i­liza­tion­al themes emerged.

Con­duct­ed in Her­bert’s Fair­fax, Cal­i­for­nia home in 1969 by lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor and sci­ence-fic­tion enthu­si­ast Willis E. McNel­ly (who would lat­er com­pile The Dune Ency­clo­pe­dia), the inter­view goes down a num­ber of intel­lec­tu­al byways that will be fas­ci­nat­ing to curi­ous fans. In its eighty min­utes, Her­bert reflects on every­thing from cor­po­ra­tions to hip­pies, the tarot to Zen, and Lawrence of Ara­bia to John F. Kennedy. The late pres­i­den­t’s then-just-begin­ning sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion in Amer­i­ca gets him talk­ing about one of Dune’s threads in par­tic­u­lar, about the “way a mes­si­ah is cre­at­ed in our soci­ety.” The ele­va­tion of a mes­si­ah is an act of myth-mak­ing, after all, and “man must rec­og­nize the myth he is liv­ing in.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Dune Ency­clo­pe­dia: The Con­tro­ver­sial, Defin­i­tive Guide to the World of Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi Mas­ter­piece (1984)

The 14-Hour Epic Film, Dune, That Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky, Pink Floyd, Sal­vador Dalí, Moe­bius, Orson Welles & Mick Jag­ger Nev­er Made

The Dune Fran­chise Tries Again — Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast #110

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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  • Hi Po says:

    Why don’t more movies or cheap tv series dune books 6 books from Frank
    Herbert.some peo­ple say Mes­si­ah & chil­dren of dune not impor­tant enough sto­ry but emper­or god of is a
    good sto­ry? what about those oth­er books by his son Bri­an Her­bert?$

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